Last summer, I got to speak with two of my heroes, Miriam Goldberger and Paul Jenkins, the owners of Wildflower Farm because the couple were passing through Montreal and stopped to visit Grand Potager. We taped it for the Unapologetically Canadian podcast.
Also, Miriam brought me a copy of her extraordinary book, “taming wildflowers,” which I’m now using to figure out what to plant this summer with the coop.
Here’s a transcript of our conversation
Miriam and Paul are the innovators behind Eco-Lawn, a five-fescue lawn seed product that produces the greenest lawn that needs little mowing and even less water. It grows in sun and shade and pretty much every where that I’ve placed it.
So of course, we began our conversation with a discussion about how they came up with that product.
Paul [00:00:02] And at that time we knew nothing about long grass but somewhat arrogantly we went and collected the seed and tried growing it at our farm. And what we got as a result was exactly what you see in a bush. A little clump here and a little clump there a little come there. They didn’t knit to become a real lawn but with more research we found that number one these are fine fescues and fine fescues are actually native to everywhere in the northern hemisphere of the planet. And yet traditional lines Kentucky blue and all this other stuff, they’re not. They’re all from Europe. So. What we did is at that time as we ended up working with one of the world’s top seed breeders and all of that. Weirdly enough the entire line industry is really based in Oregon.
Working with Researcher to Perfect the Product
[00:00:54] Oh really. Or in Oregon. It’s cool and wet there all the time all the Kentucky blue all the perennial rye all the grasses, all the lawn grass seed is there.
[00:01:03] It’s all coming from there. So that’s where the top breeders are. So we’ve worked with Leah Broman.
[00:01:09] And she came up with a few different ideas and we tested them and this formula worked. We trialed it for three years at our farm and at other people’s places. I would call up friends and say “can I rip part of your backyard and try this, because you have shady sandy soil or you have these kind of conditions. And after three years we this works. So reintroduced it to the market at Canada Blooms in 1998 and this has gone ever since. And it’s all over North America now. Everywhere we go in North America, it doesn’t matter where, there are people—homeowners, businesses, municipalities—with Eco-Lawn because it works.
Miriam: What’s fascinating is that agronomists, the people who study growing and grains and the farming industry they know that fine fescues are really the best kept secret in the entire lawn industry because they perform so well and in sun and in shade and in deep shade and they don’t really need to be fertilized. They germinate fast but they grow slowly, all these different factors that if more people knew about it, the traditional shallow-rooted sod lawns would be basically out of business because they are basically chemical companies that are selling all the different chemicals that you need to support a high maintenance shallow rooted sod style lawn.
Paul: Which is where initially in Canada, and still somewhat in the United States, we get resistance from garden centers. They say they look at it and they think it’s cool but then, and we’ve been told this many times “it doesn’t support the chemical fertilizer product program.”
[00:02:58] Oh my God.
Paul: That’s where they make their money. They don’t make money selling grass seed. They make money selling you spring fertilizers, summer lawn care treatments for fertilizers, all that sort of stuff. And then the other factor from the production point of view is where the big companies Scotts and all that sort of stuff is. For the farmers who produce it, fine fescues produce less seed per acre than the other ones do. So therefore it’s more expensive because they’ve got to get the same money as if they were growing Kentucky blue or whatever they’re growing. That’s just the way the plant works. It makes less seeds.
Tracey [00:03:41] Yeah. 1998 was your first year of distributing and how has the business evolved since then? Can you just describe a little bit about the evolution of the business.
Paul [00:04:03] Well it just kept growing and growing. I mean initially, it was not a lot. We were selling a few pallots a year and then it’s grown and grown and grown every year. So it’s many many tractor trailers now. Now it’s nationwide in Canada. We are at our weakest in Quebec. Other than that we are in Home Hardware which operates under different names in Quebec but they are still part of the same group. People can buy it from Home Hardware throughout the country and here in Quebec.
Miriam[00:04:38] It’s been a really interesting process over the many years trying different venues and different approaches and different populations.
[00:04:47] The thing is, in North America people are strangely passionate about lawns.
Tracey: They are really passionate.
Miriam: We really came into the entire lawn industry in a very backward manner. We’re wildflower growers.
[00:05:06] And when we we’re doing a lot of wildflower landscaping for many years.
[00:05:13] We’d have customers that we had installed these beautiful meadows or wildflower gardens for, and that were of course exceptionally low maintenance and attracted butterflies and songbirds and all those those great benefits, but then they would still be faced with these high maintenance lawns.
And the contrast made it even more clear to them that lawns were really a lot to deal with. And so they started asking us “well, can’t you do something about it?”
Impetus of EcoLawn
Paul: [00:05:44] Also when we first started introducing EcoLawn to the market, not being lawn people and coming from that part of the industry, I looked at it really not as a lawn for somebody’s front lawn. It was more to be a fire barrier for your wildflower meadow. If you have a one acre meadow, the best way to have periodic maintenance on it is a controlled burn.
[00:06:13] Well you would want to be able to stop the burn, so something that’s low and green is going to do it. And it was I was doing an installation for a fellow of wildflower meadow at his home. And I said “I want to put a fire barrier around the meadow and pathways through it” because you want to be able to walk through it. It’s really difficult to walk through a four foot tall meadow. I said so I want to use this grass for that. It was a new home that he was building and he said
“well, if you’re going to put that grass over there, why don’t you just put it everywhere.”
And it was like “really?”.
And so that’s where that all sort of began. And then it became lawns everywhere. It’s still used with wildflower meadows. But that’s where it all began. We came into it backwards. I wasn’t thinking this is a great lawn solution I was just looking at the meadow itself.
Tracey [00:07:04] Right. Right. And so you’re starting with what. Well when did you start doing the wildflower part of the business?
Paul: In the late 80s. So, we’ve been doing that for a long time. And that was just another…Miriam is obsessed with flowers. It’s her addiction and it’s a good thing.
[00:07:24] And we quickly learned at our first farm, which was in Schomburg Ontario, the horrible clay soil. We learned that a lot of traditional flowers just don’t work in that horrible clay. And between the two of us, we sort of came into a realization that if you plant native plants the odds are you’re going to be successful.
If you grow something that’s been growing in Canada for a quarter million years or longer, that’s probably going to work for you.
And then you know at that time I was working full time in Toronto while doing this and raising kids and and Miriam was running the garden center and store and she was looking for more low maintenance landscaping solutions to her gardens as well. So we just sort of evolved into native plants and then when we were doing that almost nobody was doing native plants in the late 80s early 90s.
Most people just thought we were, well the term was given to us “citiots.”
[00:08:27] Because you had lived in Toronto before that and because we were doing something that wasn’t normal. With to do with agriculture and with our own land they were just they just scratch their heads.
[00:08:39] Like you guys are just so out of your minds.
[00:08:43] That combined with at the same time the Internet came around in the 90s and we started selling online in 2000. January 2000. And it’s just grown and grown and grown ever since.
Tracey [00:08:55] So basically you found your niche, thanks to having the internet being able to find the people who are interested in each location. OK. And you made it sort of clear that your life partners as well as business partners.
[00:09:10] How long have you been together?
Miriam: like since eighty-three or four.
Paul: We met in eighty three.
Tracey And you were both in Toronto at that time. Yes.
Miriam and Paul:We met in daycare
Tracey What do you mean you met in daycare?
Paul: [00:09:27] At the daycare. We were not in daycare but our kids were OK.
[00:09:33] So we met at the daycare and we’ve been together ever since and now the kids are grown and have their own. We’re grandparents now.
Tracey[00:09:42] Is there anything that you would recommend to other people trying to establish a life together and a business together that would help with all that? What’s helped you motivate that because it’s not that easy to be together in all of your relationships.
Miriam[00:10:04] Well I think when we get asked that question we usually talk about how we had different areas of expertise and different things that aspect of the business that we were each in charge of. There was definitely some overlap. Most of the most of the years we we’ve done quite well.
Paul:[00:10:30] I would say patience and perseverance. And that applies I think to everything in life relationship business. Anything you’re trying to do. It takes time. I don’t believe in overnight success and overnight miracles. But if you really believe in what you’re doing and you just stick to it keep working at it. It often works out.
Miriam Yeah. I mean with what.
Miriam[00:10:55] With the wildflower business. It’s as somebody involved with horticulture you know there’s a huge amount of hard work hard physical work. And you really do have to be passionate about. I mean I used to wake him up in the middle of the night to talk about flowers.
Paul:[00:11:14] Honestly at 2 in the morning sometimes. I used to think, can’t this wait?
Miriam[00:11:21] Yeah. And before he started working with a farm full time he was in an advertising and that’s that’s been a real benefit too. So he understands marketing and graphics and design and we both have an appreciation for aesthetics and environmental issues. So we really do share a lot of interests though our backgrounds initially are very different.
Tracey You were talking about getting into your passion about dance. Yeah. You’re next. Yes. So what do you do in the area of dance.
Using Movement to Heal
Miriam[00:11:59] Well I I run a lot of programs that work with a variety of populations particularly people who have Parkinson’s or movement disorders or chronic pain or acquired brain injury.
[00:12:17] A really broad spectrum—basically anybody who has trouble moving and I work closely with a lot of research scientists that they talk about and research the neurological benefits of movement, the cognitive benefits of movement, the physical, the emotional benefits of movement and. Really since my 20s. All right. I. And then I got this huge beautiful distraction of 30 some years of falling in love with horticulture, I believe that there should be expressive therapies centers for different populations on site and off site. Because the arts really make a huge difference.
[00:13:05] And when I was in graduate school one of the things that I was really working on putting forward was to include horticultural therapy in with the expressive therapy academic training.
Tracey [00:13:18] It combines your two.
Miriam Exactly. Exactly. Because because horticulture is an art and it is an expressive art as well as having physical and emotional and spiritual benefits. So it really checks all the boxes that all the other expressive arts center piece do as well.
Tracey[00:13:38] OK. A fascinating endeavor. So what are you doing in that area now.
Miriam[00:13:43] What’s your. I it. I teach a number of programs. I’ve been training other teachers as well.
[00:13:52] And we do programming in a number of cities in central Ontario. And we also do programming in retirement homes and acquired brain injury organizations or many many different applications of this kind of work. And now I’m at the very beginning phase of developing a community-based arts programming in central Ontario and setting up a headquarters for that and working with different stakeholders and creating a hopefully a board and all of these things.
Tracey So you’re in a startup.
Miriam I’m in startup mode at the same time I’m also retired and in a lot of ways in wanting to spend time doing things that I’m happy healthy retired people do.
Paul[00:14:47] Well you’re you’re more or less retired from Wildflower Farm. Yeah you’re really busy with all the other stuff. Yeah it’s not like you’re sitting around.
Miriam [00:14:55] No I don’t. I don’t do this sitting around. Right. Right.
Tracey And so you’re really taking care of the flower farm Wildflower Firm.
Paul [00:15:03] I mean for many many years we operated a native plant nursery. We had a landscaping crew. So there was a lot of staff and we did that for many many 25 years and then seven years ago I just closed I looked at our numbers and said you know 90 percent of our income is online or business to business and 90 percent of our headache is being open seven days a week. Our kids grew up with older friends had summer holidays. They didn’t have a summer holiday. You have a garden centre, you can’t have a summer holiday.
[00:15:37] You take a winter holiday off. I closed down the retail thing seven years ago and made it strictly seeds online and business to business.
[00:15:48] And it made my life a lot calmer and easier. I’m still working but I work 3 or 4 hours a day. So I’m sort of semi retired with full income.
Tracey [00:15:59] So you’re not quite it. Tim Ferriss is four hour workweek but close. No.
Paul [00:16:09] Most time consuming part of what I do is answering people’s questions whether by phone or by email. Right. As we all know different things and some people are just getting into horticulture for the very first time. And as Miriam was saying earlier about lawns, it is an obsession in North America. I mean we sell lawns and I still don’t. To be honest really understand the obsession that I think it’s OK to have a small bed. You know like everyone needs a little bit somewhere.
[00:16:39] But I. And I’m happy to sell it. But I never understand when somebody buys 10 acres of lawn. I just what know it’s a waste of land.
Tracey Yeah. Yeah it’s fascinating.
[00:16:49] So and then as you know my Oh well I should mention you’re on this wonderful trip where you’re going to small towns in between your home and my home and then beyond.
Paul We’re driving through Ontario and through Quebec and then down through Vermont and Massachusetts and then back up and trying to do most of it not on major highways right.
Tracey [00:17:10] Yeah. So very pleasant. This is the kind of trip trip you were saying that retired people do. Yeah. I mean it’s a great trip. What a wonderful idea. But my last question as you know is do you can consider yourself Canadian and if so what does that mean to you and what each one of you that answer it separately. So which one wants to go first.
Paul’s Roots in Canada
Paul [00:17:30] Well I Well I’m definitely Canadian. I was born in Canada. My ancestors go back more than 400 years here and go about it. So I’m definitely Canadian. I think Canada is the best place in the world to live. It is cold but everyone else in the world wants to live here. You know it’s it’s a fabulous place. And we’re politically probably the only country left that’s sort of center center liberal. You know we’re not all right wing like the rest of the planet. So.
Tracey[00:18:01] And can you talk a little bit about your. The best place to live. What that means.
Paul [00:18:15] I think in all aspects you know I think we in Canada live a better life and lifestyle than anyone in the history of humanity ever has. I mean we have everything you know so I think this is the best place in the world to be.
Miriam[00:18:32] So we have everything like what’s everything.
[00:18:43] We have everything literally nothing.
[00:18:46] I don’t think of that does not work somewhere else other than look. I’m not a fan of winter.
Tracey[00:18:54] Sort of huddle in winter. Yeah. So how about you Miriam? How do you do you consider yourself a Canadian. Absolutely. And what does that mean to you?
Miriam Chose Canada
Miriam[00:19:06] It’s become a critical part of my identity and I think about being Canadian quite often when we talk about it a lot.
[00:19:16] True. Guy. Yeah I.
[00:19:18] I became a Canadian citizen I guess about I’m thinking 14 years ago. And I was originally an American and I just feel like I’m so lucky. I ended up here.
[00:19:37] I I I feel that being in Canada is very much reflects the values that I grew up in in the communities I grew up in and the way I was raised as basically a liberal east coaster. And it’s it’s. I like the intelligence of Canada. I like the compassion of Canada. I like the open mindedness of Canada. I like the beauty of Canada. There’s there’s so much here. Is it perfect? Absolutely not. No one’s saying it is but it continues to be a light, a beacon for a lot of people and an inspiration. And I love living here.
Tracey [00:20:30] Well thank you very much. I really appreciate you coming to visit Grand Potager today and I really appreciate you taking time to talk to me for unapologetically Canadian too. Thank you very much.