Her flower studio looks more like a temporary movie or stage set than a place of business. Filled with silver vases, vintage glass bottles, ribbons and buckets of fall blooms — among them stunning red, magenta and saffron-colored dahlias — this is the front office for Krishana Collins, flower farmer. The building is an old farm structure that looks like a miniature house, with aging shingles, weathered white trim and casement windows, and one long side wall completely chopped off. Krishana explains that this allows for ease of loading and unloading large and heavy plant materials. “I put the building up on blocks to the exact height of my truck’s bed. I wanted to be able to slide buckets of flowers from my truck to the space rather than lift them,” she says.
This kind of adaptive use of old materials and creative thinking may be part of why Krishana, at 38, recently landed the much sought-after 75-year lease for Tea Lane Farm in Chilmark. In May, the town selected her from a pool of applicants to take over the three-acre farm, restore the fields and make a 250-year-old house habitable. She admits later that it’s all a little overwhelming.
But today there are flowers to arrange.
“Do you see any holes?” Krishana asks Alisa Javits, one of two young women who help with her farming and flower business (the other, Elizabeth Daucher, harvested flowers early in the morning and headed off-Island for the day). Alisa, a sculptor by training, is fashioning a floral garland out of lisianthus, grasses and other flowers from Krishana’s fields. Alisa finds a hole. Krishana refines her arrangement. The floor is littered with rejected flowers, trimmed stems and leaves.
Krishana picks up a piece of paper with a printout of a painting of Sengekontacket by Paul Beebe. “Today is an unusual day. I’m making these pieces for Martha’s Vineyard Magazine’s bridal issue,” she says. “One of their writers, Lisa Pyden, had this idea to have a painting and a piece of jewelry inspire the flowers and theme of a wedding.” Krishana points to a picture of jeweler Ronni Simon’s work, a shaped gold cuff that looks a bit like honeycomb. “Do you see how delicate this is?” She compares it with Paul Beebe’s work. “See the fine brushwork? That’s what I’m trying to capture.”
Speaking softly, she continues: “I had no formal training. Working with flowers just feels natural to me. To tell you the truth, the reason I started growing and then eventually arranging flowers is because of my mom. She passed away in 2003. And when I came back here, all I wanted to do was look at a field of flowers. So I talked to Andrew [Woodruff] about growing flowers for his CSA at Whippoorwill [Farm] and that’s how it began.”
She finishes the bridal bouquet for the magazine and declares: “I’m hungry. Let’s eat.” We head to her house, about 100 yards from the studio. Krishana reheats chicken, crumbles Mermaid Farm feta onto salad greens and tells the story of how she became a farmer.
“I grew up in Pensacola, Florida, which is about 20 minutes from Ala bama. Really southern. I knew early on that I had to do really well in school to get out. I got into Antioch in Ohio. Antioch had this cool program where you did six months of study and six months of work. In my first year, I chose to do my six months of work on an organic farm in Vermont. And that was it. At 19, I knew I wanted to be a farmer. I worked on The Walker Farm in Dummerston. They were completely ahead of the game. Nineteen years ago, they had already figured out how to be financially successful and organic. At the time, organic farming was so unusual and out there that I thought I’d live in poverty for the rest of my life. So it is amazing to see how organic farming has been embraced — how far we’ve come as a society and as a community supporting it.”
Just as she sits down to eat there is a knock on the door. Lisa Pyden and photographer David Welch have arrived to shoot the bridal bouquet. Krishana leads them to the studio. David takes a few shots and they decide to take the arrangements to one of the nearby flower fields. Krishana, a slip of a woman with a tousle of unruly brown hair, sees that her tractor is in the way. She hops up, starts the Kubota (the bucket is filled with dead flowers), puts it in reverse and moves it. A few minutes later she and Alisa drag her kitchen table out of the house and slide it into her truck. “I was thinking the flowers would look good on this table in the field,” she says.
On this late October day, the two-acre field is mostly head-high grasses with a few flowers poking through, the bright fall sun illuminating it all like a painting. Everyone pauses to take it in. “This is the only place where I wanted to be,” Krishana says.
On the way home she and Alisa stop to look at a flock of Allen Healy’s sheep grazing on one of Andrew Woodruff’s fields. “I can’t wait to have sheep,” Krishana says. “But it’s going to be awhile. There’s so much to do. It’s overwhelming. The fields need amendments, cover crops, fencing, irrigation. I hope to get the flower studio and a greenhouse done this year. I feel like I ask for advice all the time. Everyone has been so great.”
Back home, she makes short work of the lunch she began two hours earlier and then it’s back to work. She has some 40 arrangements to make for a rehearsal dinner in Edgartown the next day. “They’re due tomorrow at 3 o’clock. It’s going to be a late night.” She asks Alisa how long she can stay. “Ten?” her co-worker offers.
As Krishana works, the bits and pieces of her life tumble out like so many flowers waiting to be arranged: her early experience putting an organic garden in for a yoga retreat center in Spain; her decision in the middle of a thriving flower business to pursue a nursing degree. She said the Spanish garden gave her the confidence to believe that she can succeed with Tea Lane. “I speak Spanish, but my vocabulary did not include words for irrigation fittings,” she recalls. “It was a lot of gestures. Anyway, they had no organic fertilizer — I used manure. I couldn’t find seeds for things like arugula. I asked around and found some. I had to observe, assess, be inventive, creative and very resourceful. It challenged me.”
And of the nursing degree she says: “There are many parallels between nursing and farming. You are nurturing. You are making observations, assessing signs and symptoms, monitoring the disease or health of something. And then you make the call of what to do.”
As if on cue, she makes a new call. “I’m going to Tea Lane for more andromeda before it gets dark.”
As she pulls up to her future home, the Tea Lane fields are bathed in pink sunset light. “Come see where I’m going to have my flower studio.” Krishana walks over to a small rectangular building, slides open an old barn door to reveal a 600 square foot room with giant stone walls. “I would like to pour a cement floor and maybe add skylights. It needs more light. But isn’t it magical?
“I look around this place and I can’t help but think of my parents [who have both died]. There’s something out there looking out for me.”
She heads over to a giant andromeda bush, squats down and begins cutting.
Flower Farmer By the Numbers
From: Pensacola, Fla. “Until the BP disaster, it had the most beautiful beaches. The sand was so fine it would squeak when you walked on it.”
Moved to Martha’s Vineyard: “About 10 years ago. But I’ve been working here for 19 years.”
Profession: Farmer, new tenant of Chilmark’s Tea Lane Farm.
Pets: One cat named Fou Fou. “I’m getting two more. Three feels like the magic number for catching vermin at Tea Lane. Fou Fou has done such a good job around here.”
Family: Brother Richard, niece Hadley and sister in law Candace, who live in Naples, Fla.
Number of dahlias she has planted on Peaked Hill: 3,000.
Number of lilies she grows: 10,000.
Favorite flower: “Whatever is going crazy at the time.”
Flower she won’t grow again: “Cleome. They are prickly, smell, and don’t last. But they do look good from the road.”
Longest stretch arranging flowers for a wedding: “All day and night.”
Number of weddings she arranged flowers for this year: “At least 30.”
Music that is banned from her flower studio: The Grateful Dead