"Mimo" Davis walks an armload of freshly cut snapdragons
to her car, which was left running to shield the delicate flowers
from the winter cold. Davis raises cut flowers at her WildThang
Farms near Ashland and sells to florists in St. Louis and mid-Missouri.
has barely topped freezing in three weeks. The sky is a dull grey. Ice
covers the drive and more snow is predicted overnight. It’s the
depths of winter in mid-Missouri but Karen “Mimo” Davis’
world is ablaze in color as life springs forth inside heated greenhouses
on her WildThang Farms near Ashland.
Davis works quickly
cutting snapdragon flowers, which stand chin high in neat rows topped
in red and yellow blooms. She gathers several armloads and walks them
out to her waiting car, its engine running to ward off the cold.
Davis is a specialty
cut flower grower. While florists buy roses, carnations and other popular
flowers by the box load from other states and even overseas, she fills
a niche growing anemones, lupines, delphiniums, ranuculus and other
really appreciate the freshness of these flowers,” Davis says.
“What I cut will be in the florist shop this afternoon.”
Indeed, Alice Spencer
of River City Florist and Greenhouse in Jefferson City is clearly impressed
with Davis’ fresh-cut flowers. “You
can see the difference,” she says as she compares Davis’
snapdragons to one shipped from California. “The colors are more
vibrant, the foliage is fuller — the size of the blossoms, the
height, the straightness. They’re just beautiful.”
Since 1999 Davis
has supplied flowers to florists in St. Louis, Columbia and Jefferson
City. While that might not seem unusual, commercial flower growers are
actually rare in Missouri. The Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers
lists just nine members in the state, including Davis, who represents
the Midwest on the group’s board of directors.
shares a laugh with Alice Spencer of River City Florists in Jefferson
City. Davis' outgoing personality make her a welcome visitor to
the shops she supplies in St. Louis and mid-Missouri.
The Boone Electric
Cooperative member’s career is especially remarkable considering
her background. In 1989, Davis worked for a New York City charity helping
street kids. She literally had to get out a map to find Missouri when
her mother moved to Jefferson City to marry a Lincoln University professor.
to flowers was equally unlikely. It began when her new stepfather bought
his bride a house with an attached greenhouse and 132 rose bushes in
the back yard. When Davis traveled to Missouri to attend the wedding
she found herself placed in charge of the enormous garden while the
couple went on honeymoon. “I had not a clue about what I was doing,”
Davis spent her
visit tending the plants and scouring garden centers for advice. By
the time the newlyweds returned Davis had made a decision.
fell in love with growing,” she says. “I went back to New
York, packed up everything I had and said, ‘I’m going to
Missouri. I have no idea what I’m going to do when I get there
but I’m going.’”
Davis enrolled in
the soils science program at Lincoln University and took horticulture
classes at the University of Missouri in Columbia. She also landed a
part-time job at a wildflower nursery.
Merv Wallace of Missouri Wildflowers Nursery in Brazito encouraged Davis,
sending her home with flowers to plant. Five years ago Wallace suggested
she sell flowers at local farmers’ markets.
in New York City, Davis first learned about flowers after moving
to mid-Missouri, where she studied soil sciences at Lincoln University
in Jefferson City and worked at a nearby wildflowers nursery. Today
Davis is a popular presenter at agricultural conferences.
Davis took his advice
and did well until it rained three Saturdays in a row. With no customers
and flowers quickly turning to compost Davis took a different tack.
She loaded up a bucket of her best flowers, mustered her courage and
walked into a Columbia florist. The shop owner was ecstatic.
flowers were just outstanding,” says Jessica LaHue, manager of
My Secret Garden. “We could tell that she spent a lot of time
researching what she’s growing and making sure that everything
is done at the right time.”
With that initial
sale WildThang Farms was born. The name dates to Davis’ experience
working for the wildflower nursery.
to drive down to the business and say ‘What’s that wild
thang growing on the side of road?’ We got that so much that I
said if I ever had my own business I was going to name it wild thang,”
has done a lot for the business,” she adds. “When you put
a smile on people’s face — be it at the farmers market or
the florist shop — you’re already in their pocketbook.”
Although Davis still
sells at farmers’ markets, today most of her business comes from
a route she drives to as many as 22 flower shops in mid-Missouri and
kind of sell themselves,” she says. “I call it the ‘oooh-aaah’
factor. When I pull up to a florist and open up the door they go ‘oooh-aaah.’”
flower cutting to Stacey Smith, a Columbia-area landscape designer
who took a temporary job at Davis’ WildThang Farms over
From the beginning
Davis made a decision to avoid the popular varieties that are often
shipped from far off places, like Ecuador, with low labor costs. Instead
she specializes in flowers that are difficult for florists to obtain
“We grow about
300 different types of flowers here but not roses and not mums,”
says Davis, who employs five workers each summer. “I grow all
specialty cut flowers, basically flowers that for some reason are difficult
to ship, lose their fragrance or don’t hold up well in a box.
things that I grow that no florist has ever seen in the state of Missouri,
like the Texas bluebonnets. They’re just not grown in Missouri.”
These unusual offerings
make her a valuable resource for florists seeking something special
to offer their customers.
always looking for something new, something different. And that’s
where Mimo fits in so well,” says Spencer of Jefferson City’s
River City Florist. “She’s not going to just have carnations
and daisies and baby’s breath. She has things out there that we
want to see.”
and excellent quality are only part of Davis’ formula for growing
her business, however. Some of the credit has to go to her outgoing
personality, as well.
to be really good at growing but, more importantly, you have to be really
good at selling,” Davis says. “I have a pretty dynamic personality
and between me and the flowers we tend to win people over pretty easily.”
sorts flowers into 10-stem bundles in the kitchen of her home. Helping
her is her mother, Dolores Penn-Davis.
manner has served her well beyond relations with florists, though. She
has become a popular speaker before flower industry groups and at small
farmer conferences. Often her talks deal with extending the growing
season, a topic Davis knows well. She bought her first greenhouse in
2001 and has added three more since.
growing in these hoop houses because I was missing all of the holidays,”
she says. “February through May are huge flower buying periods.
You have Valentine’s Day, St. Patty’s Day, then you go into
graduations and right into wedding months. I was missing all that by
just growing in the field.”
Last year Davis
received a grant from the Missouri Department of Agriculture to demonstrate
the use of unheated “low tunnel” greenhouses to fill in
gaps before the summer and fall growing seasons. The grant requires
Davis to share her results with others, even would-be competitors.
a problem. Davis is happy to offer advice. “I’m passionate.
I just absolutely love this and really support other growers.”
Besides, she says,
despite impressive growth so far, Davis and her WildThang Farms are
still a tender plant. “I still feel brand new at it.”
For more information
write Mimo Davis at WildThang Farms, 14150 S. Bob Veach Road, Ashland,
MO 65010; or e-mail WildThangFarms@aol.com.