Floral design with organic, personal touch

Melissa Palmer picks flowers in her "potager" - a classic kitchen garden - next to her house. (Charles Fox/Staff Photographer)

Melissa Palmer has already lived a creative life as a master gardener, master beekeeper, hand-spinner of wool, and farmer who has raised sheep, chickens, quail, donkeys, and a goose named Greg.

To this list of vocations and avocations, Palmer has added Florum, a floral-design business still in its maiden year. She's having a wonderful time. She thinks dill is "ethereal," for heaven's sake.

Then why is she so sad? Palmer explains.

The night before our visit, raccoons raided the chicken coop at her Titusville, N.J., farm near Lambertville, and slaughtered 30 beloved chickens. They used to come when she called their names!

So the mood is blue. But Greg and four chickens survived the massacre, and this place, Caledonia Farm, has a joy about it that's hard to resist for long.

It's quiet, green, pristine in places, wild in others, feeling vast at 131/2 acres, and brimming with the sights and sounds of nature. Especially at night, when the cicadas are ear-popping and fireflies thick as clouds.

"It's like God put little mini-lights on all the trees," says Palmer, recalling the recent night she and husband Dave were in the pool, rocking to Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" and enjoying the firefly show.

Besides the pool, and its stunning vistas, there's a two-level deck; a 151/2-foot-deep, spring-fed pond with a paddleboat; and several walled "outdoor rooms" created by a previous owner, who likely had no clue this ancient concept would be so popular in 21st-century America.

Of course, when Melissa, 49, and Dave, 54, a semiretired commercial printer, bought the place 10 years ago, everything was a mess. Cherry bookcases had been cannibalized for firewood, and the 50-by-50-foot "outdoor room" that Melissa appropriated for her French-inspired kitchen garden was choked with 6-foot weeds.

Today, she has her classic potager next to the house. It is equal parts practical - fruits, flowers, vegetables, herbs - and beautiful, incorporating raised beds, pea-gravel paths, espaliered apple trees, and a fountain filled with watercress, lotus plants, and goldfish.

The garden is entered through an archway woven with trumpet vine and scarlet runner beans; enclosed by Bucks County red-stone walls 5 to 7 feet high; solar-lit; irrigated with pond water; and fertilized with aged sheep manure. Scattered about are small sculptures, and terra-cotta pots and homemade troughs overflowing with bright zinnias and geraniums.

Here in this lovely hideaway, and on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at Florum, her shop in Market at the Fareway on Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill, Palmer creates her organic bouquets and arrangements for dinner parties and other gatherings - no weddings, too cookie-cutter - with unusual, often edible, flowers she grows herself or buys from local flower farmers.

Palmer says she can't possibly grow or farm-source all she needs or a client wants, so she sometimes buys nonorganic florist flowers from a wholesaler.

"So shoot me," she jokes.

Here are some favorites: amaranth, drumstick alliums, goldenrod, dahlias, coneflower centers, sunflowers, zinnias, lady's mantle, Queen Anne's lace, phlox, castor bean, gooseberry, lilies, ornamental peppers, and blue sea holly.

She combines those with her garden's "edibles," including the leaves and flowers of borage, kohlrabi, bloody dock, and chard; seed buds and pods of broccoli, dill, basil, and cilantro; tiny tomatoes; and grasses, both ornamental and foraged.

On Fridays and Saturdays this summer, Palmer has hired Jordan Wang, 19, to pedal a Dutch mail carrier's bike along Germantown Avenue to sell her signature seven-stem bouquets for $10. Loose and casual, they're wrapped in newspaper pages.

"Why give somebody the same-old, same-old they can get in a supermarket? You can break the rules," says Palmer, who has studied floral design at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square.

Her designs can be quite unorthodox in their use of, say, insect-ravaged kohlrabi leaves and purple basil gone to seed.

"I like to shock people, to start a conversation," Palmer says, although a few clients saw no beauty in plant senescence and complained, "Why are you selling me dead flowers?"

"It's a tough sell for some," acknowledges Kate Sparks, Palmer's mentor and owner of Lilies and Lavender, a three-acre, organic cut-flower farm in Doylestown, "but if you have the customer and they understand the reasons, they'll share your aesthetic."

Sparks, who does not use damaged flora in her work, cites that tradition in ikebana, the Japanese design school, and argues that "using perfect roundy-moundy flowers in an arrangement seems worse to me or not as nice as using a flower that has passed its prime but still . . . has its own type of beauty."

A flower farmer for 17 years, a designer for five, Sparks says interest in unusual, local, sustainably grown flowers has increased over the last two years in the Philadelphia area, mostly in the city.

"This is where we're going," she says of a trend that first emerged in New York and California, "and Melissa's coming along at the perfect time."

Palmer's already planning a saffron-crocus farm in another walled "outdoor room." A second barn will be restored for hosting grand parties and farm-to-table events. And where annuals grew this summer, she'll plant perennials like hops and elderberry.

"Anyone can sell flowers," Palmer says. "It's how you do it."