Summer House family farm supplies fresh-cut flowers
With a PhD in political science, Mary Beth McConahey never thought she’d end up as a commercial flower grower.
And when she did become a flower grower, she thought the growing itself would be the hardest thing.
It turns out that she was wrong on both counts, but that hasn’t necessarily been a bad thing.
The Greensburg resident and her husband Steve McConahey are owners of The Summer House Flower Co., a small farm from which they’ve been selling fresh-cut, specialty flowers for a couple of years.
They’re also busy professionals with two young children — Amos, 8, and Matilda, 3. Mary Beth is assistant director of the Center for Political and Economic Thought and a lecturer in politics at Saint Vincent College. Steve sells insurance and provides accounting services from his office in Murrysville.
Mary Beth grew up on the 10-acre Summer House property, and her widowed father still lives there. She says she always had a love of gardening and flowers, but never thought it would be more than a hobby.
Then she and Steve had a kind of joint epiphany about 2½ years ago.
“We had jobs, kids, a house, a nice life, but we just looked at each other and said, ‘Is this it?’” she says.
In a blog on the Summer House website, she explains, “Starting a successful business, being our own bosses, and controlling our own destiny has always been our dream (duh, isn’t it everyone’s?)” — but she was surprised when Steve took to the flower farm idea so quickly.
Gardening, she says, has always helped her deal with anxiety, especially through her pregnancies, and she also wanted to teach her children the joys of digging in the dirt, breathing fresh air and — perhaps most importantly — experiencing life firsthand instead of through the screen of an electronic device.
So, they tilled a 60-by-60-foot plot and started planting. Gradually, Mary Beth says, “we’ve added auxiliary plots all over the place.”
Starting with tulips and daffodils, they cultivate flowers that bloom from spring to fall — and not just the run-of-the-mill varieties you see in front yards or big box stores. Think everything from anemones to peonies to zinnias in heirloom and other unusual varieties.
Thousands of plants are started in the McConahey’s spacious basement, to be transplanted when the danger of frost is past.
Planted with care
Via the website, they offer jars of seasonal flowers (from $20), subscriptions for weekly, biweekly or monthly delivery (from $115) and specialty arrangements and buckets of blooms for weddings, funerals and other special events.
Last year, they sold 20 subscriptions, and Mary Beth says they have the capacity for about 50. They deliver in an area stretching from Plum and Murrysville to Ligonier.
“Each bloom has been planted, tended, and harvested with meticulous care — and by our own hands,” the website says, using organic growing methods.
“I won’t use anything on the flowers that I won’t stick my hands in,” Mary Beth says.
The result, she says, is a product far superior to the commercially farmed bouquet people are used to grabbing last-minute at the grocery store.
Most large-scale flower farms are in South American and Africa and use horticultural chemicals that allow blooms to withstand travel but often strip them of fragrance, she says. They may have been out of water for a week before they make it from airport to store and back into a vase.
“The flower trade is a dirty business,” she says.
So that means selling Summer House flowers is easy, right? Mary Beth says she thought that at the beginning.
“I was prepared that the farming part of it was going to be hard,” she says. “Once I grew them, I thought they would just sell themselves — but that wasn’t the case. The failure was mine — in business, there are no shortcuts to success.”
She‘d like to change the view of cut flowers as an occasional extravagance, to one of an “everyday luxury” that adds necesssary joy to life.
“I want people to think of flowers as something that makes a difference in your home and makes your day better,” she says.
One day, she says, she would like the farm itself to be “a full-blown, old-fashioned, immersive flower market,” but it could take a while to get there.
She says she’s gleaning tips for selling from the online flower growing community and relying on social media and friends to spread the word.
She and Steve had a booth last summer at the Ligonier Country Market. This year, they’ll be selling at the Greensburg Night Market on May 30.
“It should be peak peony season,” she says. “We’ll have blush, cream, peach, all the romantic colors.” Not to mention the heavenly scent.
One friend who has become a customer is Julie Ankrum of Greensburg, who receives a weekly jar of seasonal flowers from spring to fall, and recently bought a subscription for a 95-year-old friend who lives at Redstone Highlands in Greensburg.
“It’s hard to find really nice, fresh-cut flowers in Greensburg,” Ankrum says. “I love the surprise of what’s coming next, because it’s whatever is in bloom that week.
“It’s crazy how it puts me in a good mood when I walk in the house and see them,” she says. “I have a daughter in college. I think when she gets out of school, I might treat myself to another subscription, so I have two coming every week.”
Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Shirley at 724-836-5750, [email protected] or via Twitter .