By Minda Honey | Photography by Ryan Noltemeyer
Forty-five minutes outside of Louisville, in the aptly named Mt. Eden, sits 90-acres of bliss known as Black Rooster Farm. And early next month, the farm will be bursting with blooming wildflowers. Until then, it’s the domain of an exquisite white peacock, a squad of hens and a feisty black rooster. “We named the farm before we knew how mean roosters are!” said owner-operator Kristen Nagel as she welcomed me and photographer, Ryan Noltemeyer, into her 1915 farmhouse. Nagel runs a weekly bouquet subscription service. This past May, she offered a Mother’s Day box to her subscribers filled with choice items from local makers.
Over a spread of fresh fruit, cheese and crackers – the fancy kind – Nagel told us how the seed of her dream to own a wildflower farm was planted many years ago when she traveled to Lake Michigan for her sister’s wedding. They spent the day picking flowers and drinking wine with their mother, and it reminded her of growing up on her grandparents’ “farm” in Northern Indiana, “There were no animals or anything, but there were three lakes and we spent every waking minute out there.”
Despite her fond memories of a childhood lived wildly, Nagel decided after graduating from Purdue University she just had to get out of the Midwest. So, she made her big getaway to Orlando. Looking back now, she chuckles, “That’s how small town I was! No, actually, I had family that was living there at the time so I knew I had a place to crash if I didn’t like it.” And when in Orlando, one must do as the Orlandans do and get a job at Disney. For about a year, she was a server at a cocktail bar that’s now shuttered. “I was interviewing at architecture firms and finally I got a job at a firm and I worked down there for about six years,” Nagel said.
Orlando is where she met her Manhattan-born-and-raised husband whose career in finance took them to New York, where she had her daughter, and then the family moved to Philadelphia, where her son was born. As much as they loved Philly, they weren’t so sure about raising a family there. They didn’t even have a yard and Nagel had grown up fishing and catching frogs on acres and acres of land. She wanted that for her children. So, when a position in Louisville opened for her husband the family decided to go for it. Nagel recalls thinking, “I mean, the Derby’s there, it’s got to be pretty cool right?”
The Nagels quickly fell in love with Louisville. since it was the best of both worlds. They could enjoy all the city had to offer from their home in the Highlands and then drive for less than 30-minutes and find themselves out in the countryside. After having her daughter, Nagel had a strong desire to return to work at an architectural firm. But after her son, she didn’t feel the same drive to return to a buttoned-up workplace. She did some design and ran a small Etsy shop, but it wasn’t until the prospect of the farm presented itself that Nagel says she knew she’d found her purpose, “I had zero hesitations. Not that I thought it would be easy – because it’s been an eye-opening experience – but we just kind of went all in.”
Some lessons learned? Nagel says the first year, they just threw handfuls of wildflower seeds out into a field and waited to see what would happen. What happened was weeds. Now, they know to plant their wildflowers in orderly rows to make weed management easier, which is crucial for a farm that uses no chemicals whatsoever on their 90-acres. Soon, they’ll begin the process to become certified as Organic. Nagel said making the choice to be pesticide-free meant she had to get over her distaste for bugs, and now she can spend entire afternoons out in the fields clipping flowers. I’m not quite there yet, so I kept my arms and legs inside the cart when Nagel took us on a tour up, down, over and around their very hilly property where three creeks converge; her two happy labs raced along ahead of us to guide our way. The tour took us past a new pond that Nagel said will be home to six goslings and where they plan to grow cattails and waterlilies. At one point, near the house, Nagel plucked a few green leaves that were sprouting behind her house. We crushed them in our hands and sniffed. It was wild lemon balm.
Black Rooster Farm is a friend to the bees and the Monarch butterflies – they’re growing about 20 acres of pollinator-friendly plants. This time of year is a waiting game, but they’ve planted annuals, biennials and perennials including sweet peas, cosmos, lemon mint and even snuck in some not-so-wild dahlias. Their seeds come from American Meadows in Vermont. Nagel is proud to be a part of the “slow flower” movement, which she says is similar to the food-to-table movement. Consumers are becoming more aware of where their flowers are grown with an emphasis on buying local flowers grown within a 50-mile radius. Grocery store flowers, many of which are grown in South America, travel such long distances that they are often clipped two weeks prior to arriving at the store and are often covered in chemicals. Nagel also likes to get away from cookie cutter bouquets and prefers a more wild, organic look when she’s arranging flowers. Frequently, she’ll find a cool vine that she’ll add or get creative with what’s in season like including small peaches from the fruit tree in the backyard. Nagel turned the previous tenant’s art studio into her flower crafting shop. There, stacked on a couch, are boxes of seeds, a tray of succulent clippings and a tidy workspace where Nagel gathers her bouquets.
Nagel is mostly self-taught. “We’d be nowhere without YouTube,” she says about learning how to run a farm and arranging flowers. She also took a course at Forage on Frankfort Avenue where she learned the importance of greenery, texture and filler flowers. She says the most important thing to remember at home is to keep leaves out of your water and bleach everything – including scissors and vases. There is naturally occurring bacteria on the stems of flowers that can shorten the lifecycle of your bouquet.
When I asked Nagel how she selected the small businesses to showcase in her Mother’s Day box, she laughed and said, “So, some I stalked on Instagram.” Instagram. She was amazed by how warmly her idea was received by other local businesses, many of them owned by women, and she plans to continue to do special, seasonal boxes that highlight Louisville’s unique offerings. The Mother’s Day box and future boxes are exclusively available to Nagel’s subscribers – subscribe at blackroosterfarm.com.