Grateful Through the Growing: Mary Dowell and PetalRow

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Because a striking 80% of flowers in the US are imported, there are only certain assortments you can get from a grocery store or florist. Most flowers are unable to handle the elements when shipped, which leaves consumers with a limited variety of options to choose from – unless you’re buying locally.

Knowing this, Mary Dowell tends to grow most of her crops from seed, offering a wider selection of flowers when it comes to her garden and Starkville-based business, PetalRow.

Dowell, a mother of four, recently retired critical care nurse, and now, a flower farmer, started out like any other. She didn’t have any knowledge on how to grow something. But when Spring 2020 rolled around, she took a small hobby to another level and grew a flower farm out of her backyard.

“I knew nothing,” Dowell said. “I wasn’t even trying to be a flower farmer. I found these things because I was pursuing weird hobbies like everybody else. Then, the next thing I knew, I was looking up YouTube videos on how to grow them.”

When Dowell started planting in her backyard, she had less than 600 square-feet of growing space. While that might seem a bit small, flowers are actually the most lucrative crop per acre one can grow.

However, they can be a bit tricky when it comes down to the harvest, having to be harvested at a very specific time of day. Plants ultimately need to maintain a quota of daylight in order to actively grow. So, if you harvest in the middle of the day, you risk shortening their vase life. Because flowers absorb the most water at night, they are the most hydrated early in the morning. And since you want to harvest them at the coolest time of day, mornings are usually the best.

A lot of time, hard work and sweat goes into this type of business. Not only is it a lot of work to harvest all the flowers, but they must also be properly conditioned, designed and arranged. Since Dowell tends to grow most of her crops from seed, she also had to learn how to soil block, or compress her soil mixture, on top of everything else.

“I think people romanticize it,” Dowell said. “It’s something that sounds so magical, walking through a field of beautiful flowers, and it is, but it’s also very dirty work.”

Yet, all of this hard work is what Dowell enjoys most. She loves being outside, and so do her kids. Having that outlet is the perfect way for her to spend time with her family while bringing something unique to her community.

“Even though it’s difficult sometimes – the business creation, community connection, the growing, and of course, even the building and designing of the bouquets and stuff – it’s all a creative outlet for me,” Dowell said. “That’s really why I started this to begin with.”

Dowell has always had an interest in growing things and nurturing their beauty. Years before PetalRow took off, Dowell was married and raising her first two children. The family lived in a tiny, 900-square foot apartment as she and her husband paid off student loans. Like most, she started off with house plants. Yet it was here, gardening in this little space, that she learned the importance of finding peace and happiness in the smaller things: such as with flowers.

“I think people underestimate how much joy something as simple as a flower can bring,” Dowell said. “We use flowers to celebrate all of the big moments in our lives, but maybe, our little moments will become bigger moments if we start to include more of them in our day-to-day life.”

For Dowell, gardening has taught her much about herself and her life, highlighting certain aspects she never thought to look at before.

“Gardening helps you get in touch with nature and the seasons and learning to appreciate the special aspects of each,” Dowell said. “Once you start seeing yourself accomplish something that counts, it gives you infinite energy to keep going.”

Just like her plants, Dowell’s passion for gardening grew until it spilled over from hobby to business. However, she never lets herself lose sight of what’s important: finding joy in the small things. Whether or not you find those simple moments in gardening, Dowell knows it’s important to find that joy somewhere.

“It’s great to have goals and you should be challenging yourself, but I’ve found the main key to enjoying the journey as I pursue my goals is to make up my mind to be content and grateful, whatever the circumstances,” Dowell said. “I think more people need to find little things that they can do every day that brings them joy.”

Photography by Mary Dowell