The stand on Ashuelot Street, converted from the bed of a 1956 Ford pickup truck, isn’t large. Nor is it particularly grand, having rusted over the years.
Yet the structure — which sells flower bouquets and other botanical arrangements, asking only that customers leave cash in a small metal collection box — illuminates the side street near downtown Keene.
Now a mainstay in the front yard of 87 Ashuelot St., the Catbird Flower Farm stand opened two years ago when owner Kristina Wentzell decided to realize her lifelong dream of starting a cut-flower business.
A painter by trade, Wentzell, 53, has kept a garden in her Keene backyard there since moving from western New York in 2009 with her husband, Chris Brehme, and two kids. That practice is hereditary, she said, recalling the luscious peony patch at her grandparents’ home in Rangeley, Maine, and the flowers her mom kept when Wentzell was growing up in Milford.
“It just naturally kind of trickled down to me,” she said. “I like having my hands in the dirt. Being able to work outside a lot is amazing.”
Wentzell took her garden to another level in 2019, though, planting more flowers than usual and opening the commercial venture — its name an homage to a pair of catbirds that nest in the family’s yard.
Though she still paints, typically using her own flowers as subjects, Wentzell said Catbird Flower Farm has drawn more and more of her attention. This past year, the business sold 700 bouquets between the Ashuelot Street stand and a subscription service it offers — more than twice as many as she said it sold just two years ago.
The subject matter doesn’t get old, Wentzell said, putting her own twist on a line from the actor Will Rogers: “I never met a flower I didn’t like.”
She has more time for the farm now, too, after a business she previously owned, which put on interactive art workshops in the area, closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Keene-based outfit, Monadnock Art Parties, held events, such as paint-and-sip nights, at local homes, restaurants and business functions, Wentzell said. But with many venues closed and people typically unwilling to gather in groups, she lost that work.
That has meant adjusting to an entirely new financial model with Catbird Flower Farm.
The business, which shifts from flowers to ornamental wreaths and other evergreen arrangements in late fall, relies largely on word of mouth to attract new clientele, according to Wentzell, who also runs its Facebook and Instagram pages.
“It really has just grown organically,” she said. “I have such wonderful customers. I get a lot of repeat customers, and they tell their friends.”
As part of a subscription with the business, Wentzell said customers can choose from a range of options, including weekly bouquet deliveries throughout the summer or a three-week tulip array. She was also invited to have a stand at the annual “Farm Fare” hosted by Stonewall Farm in Keene on Friday and Saturday.
Still, Wentzell said her sales remain primarily out of the old pickup bed, which a friend gifted to her when she opened the farm.
“It was in really rough shape and not road-worthy,” she said. “We had to rent a trailer, and it was a huge operation. It had been sitting for like 25 years.”
Brehme, a geography professor at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine, built a roof over the stand. And string lights now adorn it, providing even more charm.
As for her experience relying on the honor system, Wentzell said she’s had only one incident of someone taking flowers without paying. That behavior ceased, she said, once she added a security camera to the stand.
“People really love that they’re grown right here,” she said of her bouquets.
Indeed, almost every inch of Wentzell’s backyard, which measures three-tenths of an acre, is used for her gardening pursuits.
Most of that space was lawn when her family moved in, she said, but it’s been repurposed over the years, including some of it for a patio she and Brehme built by hand. Wentzell grows approximately 50 different flower varieties using organic methods, including tulips, sunflowers, ageratum, lisianthus and snapdragons.
All of them, except the tulips, are incorporated into her bouquets, creating a diverse array of shapes and colors. Wentzell, who still sells her paintings at Hannah Grimes Marketplace in downtown Keene, said putting together the flower arrangements — her favorite part of the job — is a similarly creative process.
And the flower business continues to grow: This year, Wentzell and Brehme added an air-conditioned storage shed in the backyard, which she said eases some of the pressure to sell her bouquets immediately.
“That was a game-changer for me because that will preserve the flowers so I can harvest them and then I can hold them in there for up to a week or so,” she said.
Even the materials Wentzell doesn’t grow herself, namely for the evergreen arrangements, are sourced locally: pinecones from a provider in Troy, balsam from a nearby Christmas tree farm and metal pails — authentic sap buckets — found on Facebook marketplace and in thrift stores.
Wentzell put together the wintry displays Thursday while wearing waterproof boots, having earlier that day trekked into a marshy area off Route 12 with her son, Zeb, 19, to forage for winterberries.
“Last year there were none to be found at all,” she said of the bright red orbs. “But this year, it’s a banner year.”
Despite occasional help from her family at particularly busy times, Wentzell said Catbird Flower Farm is largely a solo act.
She typically sells the flower bouquets from May through October and then the wreaths and evergreen arrangements until early December. The winter months, Wentzell said, are mostly quiet, though she starts to grow some seeds indoors in February and March.
Next spring promises to be a bumper crop at the Ashuelot Street stand: Wentzell has planted 5,000 tulips in her backyard beds and hopes the 200 or so peonies she planted in 2019 will be fully mature. (Peonies often take at least three years to become a fully blooming plant.)
Wentzell has her sights set even higher, though.
With the backyard garden now “maxed out,” she said that within the next few years, she’d like to buy 2 or 3 acres where she could grow peonies, cut flowers and possibly Christmas trees. Wentzell hasn’t yet found a location for that venture, but said she hopes to stay in the Monadnock Region.
“It’s just a really gratifying business to be in, bringing happiness to people,” she said.
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