In Full Bloom

For a Winterset couple, flower gardening has grown into a meaningful, sustainable lifestyle that connects them with their community as well as their passions.

Above: Jenn O’Neal and her husband, Adam, grow annuals and perennials at their Winterset flower farm, PepperHarrow. Here, Jenn shows off a bouquet of fresh-cut lisianthus amid a field of red zinnias, which are planted in succession for several months of blooms.

Writer: Samantha S. Thorpe

Madison County’s Covered Bridge Festival is a seasonal highlight for many. For one couple, it was life-changing. Adam and Jenn O’Neal started their flower farm, PepperHarrow, in the covered-bridge countryside following a fateful visit to the festival.

“Iowa’s fall captured Adam,” says Jenn, who grew up in Winterset. The couple had met in Colorado and later moved to Tennessee, where Adam worked as a gardener with a prominent landscaping firm. A native of southern Louisiana, he had only experienced Iowa during bone-chilling winters, until the year they visited Jenn’s family in October.

“We were originally going to buy a farm in Tennessee,” Adam says, “but in the fall of 2010 we came back for the Covered Bridge Festival and the weather was absolutely perfect. It was 60 degrees, the trees’ leaves were turning and raining down on the street with the sunlight shining through them. It was like a movie set.”

Sold on the autumn weather, Adam dug his hand into the rich soil and was hooked. He knew they could grow anything here: Water was plentiful and land was available. They could also live the sustainable life they wanted, while tapping Jenn’s flower background.

“I grew up gardening with my grandmother and my mom,” Jenn explains. “My grandparents had a farm just a little north of Winterset. My parents would send us out to the farm all of the time, and I would help my grandmother. She would send me with clippers out to the garden to collect a bouquet and would always talk about the flowers’ names.

“And she always entered her floral designs in the county fair,” Jenn adds. “She got me interested in that. One year I won a junior-achievement prize and she won the grand prize.”

Flowers and Fruit

The O’Neals bought 20 acres with a 1920s farmhouse and barn. They turned five of the acres into a cut-flower farm and tucked in a small orchard to grow fruit for their family, which includes Griffin, 16, Lochlann, 12, and Quinlan, 9. Adam came across PepperHarrow as the name of an English farming village in a book. “We had been dreaming of a farm name for a decade before we owned a farm,” Adam says. The first home the couple owned together in Nashville was on Harrow Drive, and Adam also likes to grow peppers. PepperHarrow felt like it was meant to be the farm’s name.

Originally the couple specialized in old-fashioned, heirloom blooms such as cockscomb, zinnias and peonies, but they branched out to incorporate beautiful new options. “There are just too many new varieties we were interested in that perform well,” Jenn says.

Today the family grows flowers perfect for tantalizing bouquets from spring through fall. Tulips and ranunculus start in the spring, zinnias and sunflowers come on strong in the summer, and dahlias complete the season in autumn. They work in herbs such as cinnamon basil and apple mint for fresh fragrance. The O’Neals succession plant so there’s always something in bloom. “The entire season is an evolution of flowers,” Adam says.

Wedding Bouquets

PepperHarrow’s bouquets and displays also catch the eye of couples planning their weddings. Hannah and Bryan Hangesteg from Clear Lake spotted PepperHarrow online. Hannah Hangesteg had grown flowers with 4-H and knew she wanted something special for her wedding.

“I am really into florals and wanted to incorporate into my wedding natural-looking flower arrangements grown locally,” Hangesteg says. “I Googled ‘Midwestern Flower Farms,’ and their website was stunning.” She visited the farm several times and selected the blooms to create the perfect floral effect. “It was a one-on-one experience working with them.”

Another one of the O’Neals’ favorite ways to share the farm is through partnerships with other area artisans and farmers. To host farm-to-table dinners, they paired up with Central Iowa chefs Steve and Deanne Bryce of Brightside Kitchen in Clive, Brandy Leuders from the Grateful Chef in Des Moines, and organic growers Jordan and Whitney Clausen from Grade A Gardens in Johnston. Winterset artist Christine Hilbert likes to bring her watercolor classes to PepperHarrow to paint in its bucolic surroundings.

What started out as a dream sprouting from a handful of Iowa’s black gold has bloomed into much more than a floral farm. PepperHarrow is now a destination, a place to learn, a community partnership, and a way for the O’Neals to share their passions with others. It’s the sustainable lifestyle they were seeking. As Adam puts it: “What we grow and do is very purposeful.”

The textural old-fashioned blooms of celosia are a favorite flower for both young and old. “We like things that invoke a lot of memories for people,” Adam O’Neal says. “We like the myriad of vibrant colors you can grow.” Photographer: Dani Miller, Sugar Hill Photography.

The O’Neals host special events such as this flower-filled farm-to-table dinner in partnership with Grateful Chef of Des Moines. They also host weddings at their Madison County venue. Photograph courtesy of PepperHarrow

PepperHarrow customers are drawn to the garden-style bouquets, which combine annual and perennial favorites such as roses. The couple offers classes on flower arranging and sells plants in spring so customers can grow their own cutting gardens. Photographer: Dani Miller, Sugar Hill Photography

Quinlan O’Neal, the couple’s 9-year-old daughter, loves dressing up and wearing her mom’s flower crowns around the farm. Jenn notes many brides are asking for the decorative headpieces for their flower girls. Photographer: Dani Miller, Sugar Hill Photography.

Adam O’Neal walks through a field of hypericum berry and Veronica Speedwell, a purple perennial flower. Typically the O’Neals have 40 to 50 varieties blooming at a time. Dani Miller, Sugar Hill Photography.

Where to Find the Flowers

Fans of fresh blooms can access the PepperHarrow flowers through several sources. This year, Adam and Jenn O’Neal are selling bouquets, including a weekly community-supported agrictulture program (CSA), through their website, Gateway Market in Des Moines also offers their readymade arrangements.

The O’Neals also share their experiences on the farm by teaching classes, including virtual classes on growing lavender, starting seeds and creating a flower crown. On-site classes this year include flower design workshops, a dahlia retreat and a day on the farm. The couple also offers private consultation services.

“Working on a floral farm is hard work. Your back aches, you get dirty and sweaty. It’s tough,” Jenn says. “But teaching a floral designing class, that’s fun. We get to express our artistic side and visit with people who are as passionate about flowers as we are. We get to have a good time and enjoy all of the beauty of our flowers, too.”

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