Abingdon: Meet the Locals [Tom & Deni Peterson]

We all have dreams. At least, we’ve all had them before. I’ve been working on letting myself dream again, like I did when I was a kid. What I want to see, what I want to become, what I want to leave behind. I truly believe that by dreaming something, you begin to set it into motion. I’m inspired to do this constantly by the people around me who dreamt up a life for themselves and then followed the path to get there, whether they were fully conscious of it or not at the time.

Meet Tom and Deni Peterson of Blue Door Garden. If you’ve ever been to the Abingdon Farmer’s Market, you’ll know them as the flower folks. With the most gorgeous bouquets I’ve ever seen, they manage to bring light into any room with the breathtaking plants they nurture and arrange. I wasn’t someone who bought flowers for myself until I met them. Maybe it’s the way you feel like you’ve known them for years when you meet them? Maybe it’s the way that each bouquet is unique, with detailed touches unseen at commercial stores or vendors. Every piece of art tells a story and gives off a vibe to its audience, floral arrangements included. And I know this sounds a little crazy, but these flowers actually change my mood when they’re in my room. For real. It’s wild.

From New England to Chicago to Virginia, these two have created a life of purpose, growing their own vegetables and bringing up two children with a connection to hard work and Mother Nature. Walking around their property, we stumbled upon apple trees surrounding a bonfire circle for celebrating summer nights and the beginning of seasons. I was immediately taken back to my childhood where my Dad would build bonfires and read poetry every summer and fall solstice. A place of peace is what they’ve created.

Through experimentation, patience, and positivity, Deni and Tom now offer a vast array of flowers and foliage for weddings, dinner events, bouquets, and everything in between! You can find them at the Abingdon Farmer’s Market every Tuesday and Saturday or find them on Facebook. Enjoy my Monday afternoon stroll and conversation below!

 


Sarah: So, how long have you guys lived here?

Deni: We moved to Abingdon in ’01, and then we moved in here (farmhouse) in ’03.

S: Where did you live before?

D: We were outside of Chicago.

S: Oh, nice! Did you both grow up there?

D: No, we’re from New England. I’m from Connecticut, Tom’s from Pittsburgh.

S: Oh, my gosh! I went to college there.

D: Nice. Yeah, we met in Rhode Island and then we moved to Vermont. That’s where our first kind of farming opportunity started, in Vermont. And then we just couldn’t make ends meet and we found a farming job outside of Chicago in an intentional community that was just being established. So, we took the farming position and created a farm. We had a hundred-member CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), we did three farmer’s markets and five restaurants inside of Chicago. We had fifteen acres of organic production going on.

S: Oh, my gosh. That’s amazing.

D: And that’s how I got into flower production, because I inherited a flower farm. It wasn’t all flowers—a small piece was the CSA, with flowers. But, I started doing designs for all the model homes that they were selling in this community. Floral design. So, I got to go in and do all the spec houses.

S: That’s not just arrangements, but flower art.

D: We used to sell at the Evanston Farmer’s Market, which is a huge market in Chicago, and right across from our booth was the flower lady. So, you know, as I’m selling vegetables all day I was just watching her. I thought, someday, I want to be you. When I came to Abingdon, that was kind of the goal.

S: And now you are!

D: Really, we weren’t intending to continue farming when we came here. We came here with the intention of downscaling, because farming is exhausting, and we had these two babies who were born in Chicago. We weren’t able to give them all our time, so we came here with the intention of downscaling, which we did—it’s only two acres now instead of fifteen. But then, through our work with ASD (Appalachian Sustainable Development), Virginia State University was looking for a flower trial when hoop houses were just starting to be built and it came with a grant. We had built our hoop house when we first came here…we took a loan out and built our first hoop. Then flower houses came as part of a grant, and so it was all flowers in those two hoops. We had to do that for a year and then we could do whatever we wanted with the hoops, but we decided to continue with flowers because they were more profitable than vegetables.

S: How did you learn about all the different kinds of flowers? Just experimentation?

D: That and—when I first started we didn’t have internet, you know, so everything was done through books. So, a lot of books and then trial and error, definitely. I mean moving to a totally new region, we had all new bugs, we had a new season cycle, we had different soils. You learn from other flower farmers who are around you. I met up with Linda Doan, who’s the owner of Aunt Willie’s Wildflowers, and she’s in Blountville. We met probably about ten years ago, and we’ve been sharing information and camaraderie of flower farming forever. She’s the person who really pushed me to “quit your day job”, you know, become a flower farmer and do weddings.

S: Hey Tom! How you doing?

Tom: Good!

S: Depending on the year, do you plant different flowers depending on what the weather is like that year? Or do you usually try to make the same ones work every year?

D: I mean, every year I try new flowers. I’m constantly trialing. This year we’re members of the Specialty Cut Flower Growing Association. So, I’m part of their trial team. I’m trialing a bunch of things for them, which is new. I think I have thirteen different varieties that I’m trialing. They give you the seeds and it’s like, see how they do! Take pictures of them, and tell us how they are. And some things worked great, yes, I’d plant them again, but some things failed miserably. But that’s what they want to know. So, our season starts in the hoop houses and outside with the spring bulbs. We plant lots of daffodils and tulips in the hoop houses, and it kind of just rolls through the seasons. The hoop houses kind of slow down and now we’re mostly out in the field. But planting’s already happening in the hoops again so that in the fall, when the frost comes, we’re still in production.

S: Of course, because flowers are wanted all year round.

D: But flowers have different seasons too. Daffodils and tulips are spring flowers, and your ranunculus. You know, the lisianthus starts coming in and it kind of goes out and then it comes back in. Sunflowers, we plant them every ten days on a cycle all summer long. I just seeded the last cycle! Some things take all season long to bloom. For instance, the flowers that you see out here. The purple leaves, that’s hibiscus, and that’s one of my trial flowers. Not really harvesting the flowers, I’m harvesting the leaves for foliage, but it takes until now even though I planted it back in May to be able to use it. Everything has its own kind of timing. There are also perennials and there are annuals. Then there are bi-annuals, so it takes two years before you get something from ‘em. But we try to trick things. So, we plant them now in order to get a flower next season. So, we try to trick them into thinking, oh I’ve been growing for two years, but not really. They’ve been growing for, what, six months.

S: How do you do that?

D: You start growing them now, so they’ve been seeded and we put them into the hoop houses and then they grow up until that frost period. So, they think they’re big guys, but really they’re little guys. Then they go through their winter period, fertilization and the light, and they come back…

T: A lot of guys before us have figured this out.

S: But it’s funny because I didn’t think you could trick a plant!

D: Yes, you can! For instance, the ranunculus and the anemones that we grow in here, we trick them into thinking they’re in Holland. Just because we put them in the hoop house and we coerce them to come in February and March. So, they’re like, oh yeah we’re in Holland, we’re gonna bloom. Our ranunculus and anemones, that season is done by May. It’s just way too hot. We went to Scotland in June and theirs were just starting because Scotland is so cold and cloudy.

S: How did you guys meet up in New England?

D: We met on a staircase.

S: Oh! Is this, like, at a museum?

D: It was an environmental education center.

S: That’s perfect.

T: We were teaching kids and I was hired on as a tour guide, leading kids on adventure trips. “Adventure” in Rhode Island.

D: The wilds of Rhode Island!

T: Deni was my boss, actually. We met the first, second night we were there.

D: Oh, definitely the first night.

T: Had a pretty quick connection.

S: That’s awesome. How old were you guys, if you don’t mind me asking?

T: Twenty five-ish.

D: Twenty-four, I guess I was twenty-four.

S: This is the question I always ask people, but is there something about the Abingdon community, specifically, that is different from other communities you’ve been in or that you really enjoy?

D: I mean, there’s a feel to Abingdon. When we first came here, we were interviewing for ASD and we walked down Main Street and we went to the Creeper Trail and it just had a really cool feel. You could feel the history there, the cobblestone streets. I felt like I was back in New England. I felt like I was, you know, on the coast of Massachusetts. It just felt very homey and very welcoming. I was like, I could definitely live here. And then the trees and the rivers. If you want to get away from it all, it’s a twenty-minute drive and you’re in the middle of nowhere. And the climate here is fantastic for a farmer. Nice short winters, but you still get the snow. You get all four seasons, but the spring is really long. The fall is really long. Summer’s aren’t too bad. It’s just a perfect little place for me.

T: It’s a laid back community. It’s very easy to do things here. Our kids grew up here, it was fun, they were able to walk all over the place. It felt safe.

S: Where are they now?

D: One’s at Tech and one’s at Radford.

S: Nice. So, is this the busiest time of year?

T: It’s a busy time. All times are busy. You’d think that it slows down in the winter time but there always seems to be something to do. Just less pressure then. Less you do in the winter, the more you have to do in the spring.

S: What do you think is most important when you’re building a piece?

D: It’s definitely color, shape, texture, size, the smell of things, how long things last. I love going to market and people come by and are like, hey build me something pretty! And I can kind of look at them and go, okay, this is what I think you’ll like.

T: She’s usually right.

D: It’s really fun when someone will look at their bouquet and be like, wow, that’s exactly what I wanted!

S: What’s your favorite part of doing this?

D: This is the first season that I’ve been a full-time flower farmer. I quit ASD at the end of October last year, so I’m still going through the first year of, gee, this is my job now! And I love not having to get in a car and drive to work. I walk outside and I’m here, I’m at work. Or I’m in my house and I’m at work. I like that. I’ve never been a big, hey, let’s drive around kind of person. I’ve always been like, let’s walk somewhere! So, I love that part. Keeps me at home and that’s what I wanted.

T: Being our own bosses, that’s nice. There’s a lot of stuff to get done and we know what needs to get done and we do it on our own schedule. Nobody to answer to. But with that comes the pressure to make sure that you’re doing enough to bring in enough income to keep the bills being paid. It’s a balance for sure, but the freedom of being able to be your own boss is really nice and we’ve always enjoyed that when we farmed other places. We like sharing, we like teaching too, and we get little bits of that in. I just love being outside. When our kids come home we talk about them having this running regiment and they go to the gym. I’m like, I don’t need any of that! I do that out here! It’s healthy, we’re outside.

D: We’re growing our own food, so we know what’s going into our bodies.

T: We’ve been here awhile. We’ve got customers who are really loyal, we get a lot of positive feedback from them. It’s nice to feel like you’re an appreciated part of the community. If we were to go someplace else, it’d be like starting all over. Which we’ve done plenty of times, but it’s nice to be some place where people know who you are and they appreciate that, too, that you’re there and that you’re doing stuff and creating things that impact their lives. Food, flowers, the connection is great.

Abingdon: Meet the Locals [Catherine Walden]

I have a line in the play I’m currently in that says, “Bob and I like to think we know people when we meet them”. The moment I met Catherine Walden of The Secret Garden Gallery, I had that same sensation. I knew she was a kind and gentle soul. An observer, detail-oriented, and sensitive to the stimulus life offers on the daily. Lucky for us, she’s worked her entire life to hone the skills that bring those visions to life through her art.

Her landscape paintings captivate what nature makes you feel, not just what you see. The way the light hit the trees that morning you walked the trail, or the funny and almost human-like expression on a bird’s face as it sat on a tree branch singing its morning song. Calligraphy, pressed flowers, prints, oils, watercolors, custom framing. She keeps her eyes open and her hands busy.

She found her home in this little southern town, finding common ground in the admiration of nature and how that connects every one of us. After all, isn’t that the point of art? Enjoy the interview below and a small glimpse into her collection of pieces, then go visit her at the Abingdon Farmer’s Market every Saturday from 8-1pm at the Abingdon Farmer’s Market Pavilion off of Main Street or at her shop at 416 W. Main Street in Abingdon! You can also visit her online Etsy shops for artwork and prints & calligraphy.

 


Sarah: First off, how did you get started?

Catherine: Well, I went to art school when I was in college. I got a degree in Fine Arts.

S: Where did you go?

C: University of Arizona. Then I left Arizona and I became a studio potter and I had my own little pottery studio and I sold pottery and I did art shows. I never really stopped drawing or painting but I’ve had periods where I’ve done other jobs, focused on other things because, you know, it can be challenging to make a living as an artist.

S: Absolutely.

C: Any kind of art, right?

S: Yeah, yeah.

C: But when I moved here…I moved here from…well I’d been living in Staunton (Virginia) for a long time and I had a shop there very similar to this and I was doing more of the art that’s like pressed flower art, I was doing that mostly. And then when I moved here I started painting again, I started painting because I got kind of bored with what I was doing and I wanted to start doing fine art again. So, I’ve really been focusing on that and really enjoying that. I moved here because I used to do art shows all over the state when I lived in Staunton and we used to come here for the Highlands Festival, used to come here with my kids. The whole family came and we’d do art shows and we’d travel.

 

S: That’s so much fun!

C: That’s what we did. My kids have really good memories of growing up and always being at a festival on the weekends. The playing…

S: Meeting so many people, too.

C: Yeah, yeah. It becomes kind of like a tribe of people that you keep meeting everywhere you go. But then I kind of got to a place where it was hard to do it alone with my kids, so I decided to settle into a shop. My kids are grown now. But I really didn’t want to have that lifestyle forever. A gypsy lifestyle…even though it’s fun. Shows got to be less profitable, so many of them. And I don’t know what it was, the economy…

S: I’m sure traveling to them, too.

C: …Is very expensive, and the fees are really high and they’d just keep going up every year. So, I find that I do just as well or better at the farmer’s market because I don’t have travel expenses or any of that, hotels, and food. But it’s very up and down. I could go there and sell ten dollars or I could sell seven hundred, you know? I never know.

S: I was wondering about that, what the market was like here?

C:  Well, it’s better in the summer. Really, my business picks up in May. I’ve got about four months where it’s almost completely dead. That’s the time where I do the paintings. I have some business in the shop, but not a lot. So, from May until December, that’s pretty much my business. So, it is kind of seasonal. This time right now is really pretty busy, and it’s really good at the market usually. I always like to say that it’s kind of like going fishing. It just depends on who’s there, it depends on the weather, on what else is going on around town or if it’s graduation week or Mother’s Day. All those things affect whether people are coming. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with how many people are there. But I really enjoy doing it. I work pretty much alone here, you know, painting is a solitary thing. So, it’s really nice to have the market, and I also get a lot of business there through people who see me there and then they find out I have a shop here. I also do custom framing, so a lot of my business comes from the market.

 

S: And you do custom framing for pretty much anything?

C: I do all my framing for my work and I have a whole board of samples and stuff. I can do any kind of custom framing. And I do a little bit of online framing. I have two online shops on Etsy. Abingdon’s a small town and there’s very little foot traffic here. I think there’s even very little foot traffic in the middle of town, ‘cause other businesses have told me that they can go all day without getting a customer. I thought it was just ‘cause I’m down on this end. But, it’s just, you know, we’re small. But I get tourists and people who are going to the theatre. They say, oh, we’re just in town and we’re going to see a show and we’re just wandering around.

S: I know that whenever I travel I want to bring a piece of art home and that’s kind of a big thing for me. Whatever country I go to, I always bring back paintings. Where did you grow up? And how did you get to Arizona to go to school?

C: I grew up in New York and I wanted to go to art school and I wanted to go as far away as I could go.

S: Fair enough.

C: So, I picked the University of Arizona. I don’t know why or how I ended up doing that. I wanted to study representational art and they were still teaching that. Figurative and representational art. So, I went to Arizona and lived there for about four or five years and I graduated. I went from Arizona to Colorado and lived in Colorado for a while. I’ve moved around a lot…then I moved to Atlanta, Georgia and lived there. I didn’t do art there. I became a massage therapist there. I moved from there and lived in California for a little while, lived in New Mexico. I always liked the west but I think because I grew up in the East, it always feels more like home to me.

S: Me too.

 

C: So, I always have to come back because of the four seasons. Just the landscape and all that. I went out to New Mexico because I was going to get a Master’s Degree in Art Therapy and as it turned out I realized I didn’t want to not do art. I just like to do art. So, I came back and since I knew about Abingdon, I decided to come back here. I knew it was an arts place.

S: So, where do you get your inspiration for a lot of pieces? I know that’s such a general artist question.

C: That’s okay. I just really like anything that has to do with nature. I know that’s a big topic but I love landscape. I love still life and flowers and animals. I used to do portraits but I have to kind of focus on what people will buy. People do really like landscape and animals. I love doing the still life but it’s only occasionally that I’ll sell one of those. But that is something that I really love to do, a lot. The still life.

S: Why?

C: Because I really like building a space, a real space. Creating a little piece…I don’t know how to describe it…it’s like a naturalistic space, it’s real, but it also has it’s own…there’s something magical about making something look like it’s real in the space. And it takes a lot of observation. You begin to see so much color in variation, you know, in an object. That’s one of the things about art that’s really exciting, I think. When I started doing art, all of a sudden everything took on a different look. A different life. You begin to see color like you never could before. Things just got more alive. I mean, you look at somebody’s face and you see beauty in someone’s face that doesn’t have to be conventional or a classical kind of thing. You start to see beauty in everyday objects. Incredible beauty in the landscape and I guess that’s one of the reasons I like being here, is because in just a few moments…I can drive out on Valley Street and if I keep going out there, there’s all these rolling farms and hay fields and there’s cows and streams and trees and it’s just beautiful.

 

 

S: That’s something that keeps me calm. Every time I drive out of my house I get to see the Blue Ridge Mountains right in front of me and how many people get to see that every day?

C: But you’re an artist and so, that affects you that way and I think a lot of people are not affected by that and they don’t crave that. Because, you know, my kids say why are you living here? There’s nothing here. And I say, well there is. Look around you. Look what’s here.

S: Especially in the past couple of years, a lot of the young people who have been coming up. You’re getting a new generation of folks, too.

C: I really love the south because people are very civil. And they’re very sweet. Even if you’re not from here and you’re a Yankee. There’s things I’ve learned about just the way people interact with each other, it’s a little more gracious, a little slower…even if that can be hard for somebody who’s from New York.

S: It’s a good lesson in patience.

C: That’s right. And you know, I remember when I first moved to this town I was amazed because everybody kept saying hello to me like they knew me and I didn’t know anybody. Like, I only know one person here, but they all greeted me as if they knew me and people even wave to you in your cars. And that’s really nice. As a community, people are more community-minded. And that’s just a really nice thing.

S: What’s your favorite thing to create right now?

C: Oh, did you see the paintings when you came in? I started this series because, you know, I walk on the Creeper Trail just about every day, and I’ve taken hundreds of pictures and I just love the trail. So, I’ve started painting the trail…You know, the light’s different every day. One day it kind of had this blue/purple light on the water, must have been from the sky. And so, I did that one looking down over the bridge. I’m just fascinated with that stream and I want to do maybe some oils.

A closer glimpse of a morning on the trail.

S: Do you take pictures and then come back and paint them?

C: Yeah, yeah, but some of them are composites. So, people ask me where it is and I go, well…

S: A couple different places!

C: Yeah, and photographs are pretty limited as far as color and all that goes, so you have to make up the color a lot of the time.

S: It gives you more creative freedom.

C: I always do sunflowers because people love them and I like to paint them. And I always do nests, too, because people love those.

S: Crab! Maryland girl!

C: Oh yeah, that’s a very popular print.

 

S: Is framing something you learned in college?

C: No, I just kind of learned it with the years because, you know, you have a piece of artwork and you want to be in a show. You have to go get it framed and it’s super expensive. So, I started doing that myself. And I actually like doing it. It’s kind of a creative thing in itself. You know, setting something up in the right way. I like doing it for other people too because choosing the right framing can really set it off or not, if you don’t do it right. And it’s physical. I don’t like to sit forever. I stand up a lot when I paint but I get to do a lot of different things in my shop. I can frame, I can paint.

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