NORTH LIBERTY- A quiet, floral oasis lies undiscovered in the heart of North Liberty but flower enthusiast Jennifer Hobbs hopes to change that.
Disturbed only by the occasional hum of a lawnmower or barking dog, Five Petal Farm is in its first official year selling fresh cut flowers, dried bouquets and more- all grown on less than an acre of urban dirt.
"There's so much you can do with your yard instead of going out and mowing grass," said Hobbs, who has very little lawn of her own to cut.
Establishing the flower and herb beds has been a process, she admitted, since moving to her home, appropriately located on Bayberry Lane, four years ago.
"I just gradually started building up everything around the house," she said. "I just said this year, you know I'm not getting any younger, let's go for it and see what happens."
In February, she launched Five Petal Farm, whose mission, according to its website, is "to provide locally grown, in-season flowers and herbs without utilizing pesticides, herbicides or other harmful chemicals and to promote environmental stewardship." In addition to buckets and bouquets, Hobbs sells dried and pressed flowers and herbs, as well as hand-embroidered items, like lavender eye pillows. Her mother "Fancy Nancy" does all the embroidering.
Five Petal also offers a community supported agriculture (CSA) program, which gives customers the option of receiving a biweekly, weekly or monthly helping of flowers and herbs.
While she'd been interested in organic and sustainable farming for many years, it was learning about the reality of the cut flower industry that pushed Hobbs to join the "slow flower" movement.
"It amazes me that flowers are flown on a plane," she said. "It boggles my mind sometimes."
According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, 80 percent of U.S. floral sales come from imported products- mostly from Colombia (78 percent) and Ecuador (15 percent). Of the 20 percent of homegrown flowers, California accounts for 76 percent, with Washington next at a very distant 6 percent.
However, Hobbs is proud to be part of what she called a "resurgence of the flower farmer" in the United States. She mentioned a few area growers she has drawn inspiration from which included Bark and Bloom located in Mount Vernon.
From 2014 to 2015, the number of producers of floriculture crops increased five percent, from 5,606 to 5,913, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Statistics Service- and that's just growers with sales greater than $100,000.
It's hard to tell how many floral cottage industries like Five Petal are popping up across the country, but a trip to the local farmers market proves their presence.
For now, that's where Hobbs interacts most with customers but she hopes to expand the wedding side of the business. Actually, it was doing the flowers for her own wedding last year that really got the ball rolling, she said.
"A family friend said, 'Jennifer you really missed your calling,' and that just clicked and lit the fire for me," Hobbs said. "I told myself, 'Ok, you know what you're doing; you just need to get this going.'"
With a degree in botany from the Unviersity of Iowa, Hobbs does indeed know what she's doing.
After beginning her career at an herb research farm in Eastern Iowa, familiarizing herself with the smells and cellular structures of aromatic plants like basil and lemon balm, Hobbs knew she belonged with the plants and with her hands in the dirt. When the research farm closed down, she moved back home to Burlington, where she lived in a cabin, built by her father, in the woods. She spent several years growing produce and herbs, selling to local restaurants like the Ivy Bake Shoppe & Caf?, before moving to North Liberty.
Ivy owner Martha Wolf patiently awaits Hobbs' basil arrivals in the summer, which supply the restaurant's pesto for the entire year.
"My goal is always to continually be counting how many (jars) we have left in the freezer," said Wolf. "By June I am just frantic. Once it's gone, it's gone."
"I'm real stingy with it," she added.
Hobbs' basil can also be found in Ivy's tomato basil pie, a seasonal favorite customers begin asking for in June, said Wolf.
"They know they just have to wait," explained Wolf. "My theory is if we did that to all our food, it'd taste so much better."
She noted Five Petal Farm basil is a quality product.
"When you get someone who raises it and knows what they're doing, the leaves are so big," she said. "It smells so wonderful."
Wolf is also passionate about organic and local products and tries to source most of her produce from farmers markets and area growers. She said one could easily be swayed to the local movement by Hobbs, whom she's known for over a decade.
"When you're around her, you become passionate about flowers," Wolf said. "You have to."
"She's very inspiring," she added. "She's forged her own trail with what she wants to do, and not a lot of people do that."
In addition to basil, Hobbs grows over 100 types of flowers and herbs including lavender, snapdragons, chives, sorghum and catnip.
"I like to grow things that have a lot of different uses," she said, such as fresh, dried, culinary, pressed, confetti and medicinal.
It's all about recycling and reusing, she said. Instead of buying traditional flower foam, Hobbs makes chicken wire balls to transport cut flowers and wraps bouquets in craft paper instead of hard-to-recycle cellophane.
In fact, she is so passionate about recycling you can sometimes find her at the Iowa City Eastside Recycling Center where she lets even more of her creativity flow by teaching rug weaving classes. She is also interested in vintage goods, painting and photography, the latter of which came in handy when building her website, as she loves taking photos of- and inside of- her flowers.
"I can look at a plant, look at a leaf and know exactly what that looks like on the inside, the cell structure," she said. "It's absolutely fascinating."
She said she would eventually like to add those microscopic photos to the blog on the Five Petal website and have groups visit her urban farm to help educate people, especially kids.
"It's good to learn more about the outside world," she said. "So many people are caught up in looking at their phone and computer."
For Hobbs, flower farming is an escape from the real world and actually a form of therapy.
"I love to weed," she said. "You're just out there by yourself in this wonderful space. Yeah it's hot and you're sweating, but it's a good workout. And when you're done with it, it looks so clean. For me it just feels like I've really accomplished something."
Learn more about Five Petal Farm at fivepetalfarm.com.