For family-run herb and flower farm, business has sweet smell of success Floral displays are centerpiece

August 26, 1993|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

It's a sweltering August day and a welcome breeze stirs a wind chime on a poplar tree near the Riddle home. Nearby, dozens of butterflies flutter in a field of orange, pink and velvety blue flowers as two workers harvest them with a clock-like snip, snip, snip.

This swatch of serenity is Stillridge Herb Farm, 10 productive acres of diversity near the corn fields of Woodstock and the burgeoning suburban sprawl of Ellicott City.

Don't bother telling Mary Lou Riddle, who launched this operation from her kitchen more than 20 years ago, or her daughter Deborah Amoss that the era of the down-home, family-centered business is all but gone.

But the partners will admit it takes all you've got to keep such a venture flying.

"I have no children. There just isn't time," says the affable Mrs. Amoss, a whirlwind even when she's sitting to chat.

"I often say there should be 48 hours in a day," says Mrs. Riddle. Her energies are now mostly focused on crafting the wreaths and other arrangements of dried flowers that have earned her a slice of fame.

Mrs. Riddle's creations have made her and Stillridge Herb Farm virtually a household name among regional followers of the craft.

The two routinely rack up blue-ribbon awards at craft shows for the herbal and floral displays. Country lifestyle and gardening magazines pester Mrs. Riddle often, asking to come out to photograph a wreath or other arrangement for a planned theme.

There was even a time when the Smithsonian Institution in Washington would bus 50 members to the farm for seasonal lectures on herbs and an herb-based luncheon, which Mrs. Riddle and her family pulled together sans catering help.

Today, Mrs. Riddle revels in creating the dried flower and herbal arrangements that are custom ordered for weddings and home decorating or sold at three stores -- at the farm, in Ellicott City and in Annapolis -- that have become a key part of Stillridge Herb Farm's business.

"Her arrangements get snapped up very quickly. I can't keethem in stock," says Peggy Harig, manager of the store on Main Street in Ellicott City.

Mrs. Harig, one of 17 employees, says the dried flower arrangements are the most-often purchased item in the store, along with the six varieties of fresh potpourri the stores stock -- all made from the farm's crops.

Mrs. Riddle fashions her creations in a cool, fragrant workshop crammed from floor to ceiling with dried flowers of every color and description.

Ms. Amoss, a farmer's wife, manages the farm's enormously diverse array of herbs -- 15 varieties of basil alone -- and flowers.

She also oversees all three retail outlets, which market the farm's products and those of other craft artists. Another chore is keeping tabs on the cut-your-own harvesting programs, which she developed three years ago.

"I also blend all of the potpourri," she says. The recipes for these fragrant concoctions of herbs, flowers and oils are top secret, say co-workers.

"Only Deborah and her mom know the recipes," notes Mrs. Harig, the Ellicott City store manager.

August is a particularly busy time for the business, especially for Mrs. Riddle. These are the days for harvesting the summer's bounty of lavender, yarrow, globe amaranth and other flowers suitable for drying.

As flowers and herbs are harvested, Mrs. Riddle dives into fashioning hundreds of arrangements in her cluttered workshop. Many are stored for the 15 fall and winter craft and flower shows, which the farm enters, including the national granddaddy of them all, the Philadelphia Flower Show.

The shows are crucial for business, says Mrs. Amoss.

"We're not really there for the money we might make sellinthings," she says. "We're more interested in getting the word out about our farm and the stores. People who frequent these shows have an interest in herbs and dried flowers. If your display and your products are good, you generate customers. Word of mouth is our best advertiser."

Stillridge took a grand prize for its display at the Philadelphia show in March 1992, an honor that boosted its prestige further.

The business only periodically advertises in local newspapers. Mrs. Amoss maintains a mailing list of 25,000 past and current customers.

Periodically she mails out a newsletter, which includes an update on what herbs and flowers are available for cutting, or lectures on gardening and flower crafts. Products, such as the home-made herb vinegars, mustards, seasonings, and potpourri, also are advertised for mail order in the newsletters.

A growing segment of Stillridge's business are the three stores. While they carry an assortment of products grown and made on the farm, Mrs. Amoss has broadened the inventory to such products as reproduction English china, American-made reproduction country-style furniture, and collectible items such as hand-carved wooden trout, birds and dolls for home decorating.

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