Gardens

The Accidental Farmer

Cumberland’s Joanne Fryer is rescuing an heirloom apple orchard — by growing dahlias

Joanne Fryer on her Cumberland Maine flower farm

ABOVE Joanne Fryer, one of about 100 flower farmers in Maine, specializes in dahlias, which she wholesales to florists and event planners.

TEXT BY VIRGINIA M. WRIGHT
PHOTOGRAPHED BY LAURYN HOTTINGER

Joanne Fryer is a flower farmer and wedding-venue host because she’s an orchardist, and she’s an orchardist because some trees blossoming in the woods called for her attention eight years ago. It was spring, and Joanne and her husband, Gregory, were laying out a skijoring loop for their Samoyeds on the 40-acre Cumberland property they’d purchased a few months earlier. “There were all these white flowers, and I thought, my gosh, what are these?” she recalls. “And they were apple trees.”

Rare ones, it turns out. John Bunker, an expert in Maine heirloom apples and the founder of Fedco Trees in Clinton, identified more than 40 antique and unknown varieties growing on the property that the Fryers have since named Mowfield Farm. Enchanted, Joanne, who’s 62, reduced her hours as a mediation lawyer to embrace a new career rejuvenating the 150-plus-year-old fruit trees and propagating new ones. She plans to eventually gift the orchard to the town of Cumberland for inclusion in the neighboring 268-acre Rines Forest preserve.

ABOVE Karma Prospero dahlias, with lavender-tinged pink flowers.

That’s where the flowers and weddings come in. To raise money for an endowment to provide for the orchard’s care, Joanne grows dahlias, supplying local florists with 70 varieties, some with blossoms the size of dinner plates, like burgundy Naomi, dark, velvety red Karma Chocolate, and pale-pink Café au Lait. She also rents out Mowfield Farm, including a wing of the Fryers’ stately 200-year-old farmhouse, for weddings and hosts occasional workshops for professional florists with teachers like Sarah Campbell, a Maryland floral designer with a national reputation in the wedding industry.

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This year, because of COVID-19, Mowfield Farm is hosting no weddings, but couples still come to have their photos taken in front of the large Spring Snow crabapple trees, which have showy white blooms in spring, under the 225-year-old sugar maple, and in the rose and perennial gardens that circle the house. Demand for dahlias also has all but vanished due to event cancellations. Joanne planted hundreds of them anyway, because the tubers would likely succumb to rot or mold during a year in storage (in Maine, dahlias must be dug up every fall and replanted in spring).

ABOVE 1) Fryer’s top seller is Cafe au Lait, which produces 8-to-10-inch-wide creamy pink blossoms. 2) A handful of Mowfield reds, an antique apple variety not known to grow anywhere other than Fryer’s orchard.

But, so far, it’s business as usual in the orchard. Joanne’s apples aren’t grocery-store pretty or sturdy, but they are delicious. David Buchanan, of Portersfield Cider in Pownal, and Noah Fralich, of Norumbega Cidery in New Gloucester, buy them for their richly colored and complex-flavored brews, and Portland’s Two Fat Cats bakery piles them in sweet, juicy pies. Joanne’s favorite is Mowfield Red, which isn’t known to grow anywhere else and has rare pink-and-red flesh throughout.

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Though she’s a serendipitous farmer, Joanne, who grew up in North Carolina, comes from a long line of green thumbs. In 2011, her frustration with the poor, thin soil around her Yarmouth house prompted her to check out a newspaper ad reading “Gentleman’s Farm. Needs Work.” She drove to Cumberland and followed the long driveway across a golden field to the farmhouse. “I got out of the car and stepped on my glasses,” says Joanne, now standing in that same spot. Gesturing to a massive weeping willow off the front porch, she continues, “I couldn’t see a thing, and this tree looked like a live oak from the south. I thought, ‘I’m home!’” Mistaken tree identity aside, she was right.

ABOVE 1) Arborvitae, pruned from the bottom to deter deer, punctuate the farmhouse. 2) An arbor draped with Ramblin’ Red roses leads to a vegetable garden cultivated in a filled-in swimming pool. 


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