Text by Tovah Martin
Sarah Partyka might be Rhode Island’s most fervent cheerleader for fall. After all, it was in autumn 20 years ago that this third-generation farmer first opened her shop. “I vividly remember the day we launched The Farmer’s Daughter,” Sarah recalls. After scrambling to stage a knock-your-socks-off display of homegrown heirloom pumpkins and mums at her newly constructed shop, she was tempted to sit around biting her nails awaiting customer reaction. “Instead, I made lists, brainstorming ideas for making autumn better,” Sarah says. And she’s been wowing customers ever since in a greatly extended venue with greenhouses, display areas, and gardens galore.
Of course, The Farmer’s Daughter stocks items to infuse every gardening season, but autumn holds a special place in the heart of this shop. Other nurseries might call it quits when the trees start changing color, but not The Farmer’s Daughter. For Sarah, the growing season isn’t over until hard frost forces a full shutdown. Up until that day, the New England garden shop is scheming ways to augment autumn.
Coming from a family that launched the first pick-your-own berry patch in Rhode Island and armed with degrees in urban horticulture and turf management from nearby University of Rhode Island, Sarah had to think deeply about how to fit into the family tradition. “Gardening is in my blood,” she says. How to weave her genetic penchant together with her creative bent was the challenge. “I’ve always been drawn to unusual plants,” she says. “It’s grown from there.”
The autumn eureka came when Sarah realized that fall’s downtick is due to the lack of promising products available on the market. Given options, autumn can be a major moment on the map. “You naturally want to refresh in autumn,” she notes. “This is actually the perfect time to plant,” she explains, referring to the cool temperatures that make transplanting stress-free for plants. “And there is a whole litany of perennials and annuals that love to thrive in cool weather.” Finding those fall-performing plants was a nearly unexplored niche. “The potential goes far beyond mums and asters,” she says, something she discovered after researching her options. Before long, she had amassed a stellar inventory of strong players that come into peak as the days shorten.
Flowering cabbages and kales are a wonderful starting point, and they perform long after the first frost strikes. Couple them with ornamental grasses that send their plumes jutting up late in the season (fountain grass, or Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’, with burgundy leaves topped by peachy plumes is her personal favorite). From that starting gate, she began profiling late-season perennials such as Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea, which now comes in a variety of hues), rare asters, hardy chrysanthemums, Shasta daisies, and black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia cultivars).
“To extend the season, continue deadheading as flowers fade. Your plants will get another burst of energy,” she says. In addition, she offers annual performers to perk up fall. After a little experimentation, she discovered that petunias, pansies, violas, zinnias (especially the ‘Profusion’ series), lantanas, and gomphrenas can be coaxed to launch another spurt of flowers if pruned back in late summer. Verbena bonariensis hits its zenith at the tail end of the growing season, sending up spires crowned in purple flowers, while Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia rotundifolia) brandish radiant orange and yellow blooms.
Play your cards right, and autumn can be magnificent. “Sometimes I think autumn is my favorite season,” Sarah says, beaming. “Couple that glowing afternoon light with the scent of wood smoke wafting on the chilly air and it’s the stuff of dreams.” Autumn is just one more reason why Sarah has taken farming to the next generation, putting her own spin on traditions that run in the family. And yes, the customers eagerly crowd in. Proud of her land-based legacy and building on a strong past, for The Farmer’s Daughter, pumpkins were just a starting point.