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Five Questions With Donna Miller of Petals in the Pines…

Updated: Mar 13, 2022

I first met Donna six years ago, when my girls and I visited Petals in the Pines for a Spread Your Wings Day. It has since become a family summer staple and we look forward to visiting every year. Donna truly has something available for all ages, and I enjoy watching my kids run free while I catch-up with friends and pick Donna’s brain for gardening tips. I also love the PYO bouquets. She has so many floral varieties, and I feel good knowing they were grown locally in New Hampshire. Below, Donna shares about creating Petals in the Pines, ways to increase your connection to nature and a plea to stop covering your home gardens with harmful chemicals. Enjoy! – Rachel

1) Please tell us a little bit about Petals in the Pines. How did you develop this interest and space? Petals in the Pines began with my passion for flowers, particularly growing cut flowers and creating bouquets and arrangements with them. I’ve been gardening since I was a kid. My parents had a vegetable garden, and they let me have a corner of our urban yard. Wherever I lived through the years, until I settled here in Canterbury, I would grow flowers. The challenge on the Petals in the Pines property was that most of our land was forest or rock ledge. We had to clear portions of our 7.5 acres to create garden beds, before we could “grow” the business. It’s been a lot of work, but worth it! The name Petals in the Pines came to me one day, as I was walking the wooded trails that frame the gardens on our property. In the last 25 years, our floral offerings have expanded from selling a few bunches of flowers each week on a table by the side of the road, to selling professionally-arranged fresh flower bouquets and custom arrangements from our self-serve Farm Stand shop. We also have a Pick-Your-Own field with over 100 varieties of flowers. But selling flowers is just the beginning. . . .

While we were clearing the land and building our gardens, we were also growing our family. Our two kids were born in the late 1990s and I was always creating fun play spaces for them out in the garden–teepees covered in morning glories, a sunflower house, and themed plantings that attracted butterflies and other wildlife in order to pique their interest in the natural world. When friends brought their kids for visits, they would tell us how magical it was here and how hard it was to get their kids to leave at the end of the day!

On a family vacation, we visited the Heritage Museum on Cape Cod, and there was a landscape design hanging on a wall there for their future nature playscape for kids (called Hidden Hollow). I was mesmerized by this design–it was part of a program called Nature Explore, sponsored by the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation. I discovered there was a pre-school in NH that was certified in the program. Coincidentally, I happened to know the family who ran this school, so I got in contact with them and with the Nature Explore program. After meeting all of the requirements for a variety of nature-based play and learning spaces, we became a certified as a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom in 2011. 

The Outdoor Classroom is used in a variety of ways: we offer a popular weekly program called “Spread Your Wings” Day when families come for discovery time and spontaneous child-led play; we also have a “Tale Trail” where families can read the pages of a nature book on signs posted along our woodland trails (with follow-up learning activities in the Classroom); and we offer children’s nature-themed birthday parties. 

2) What is it like to own a small business in New Hampshire? New Hampshire is a small state and it seems like I can link someone I know with just about everyone who comes here. I love that feeling of connectedness–like having a very large family! Many people in NH (and vacationers from nearby states) have a great love for the outdoors, and that’s what we are building on with everyone who comes here. I also value the support from organizations like UNH Cooperative Extension where I’ve taken the Master Gardener and Natural Resource Steward courses. I have gained so much knowledge to pass along from these programs, and I continue to volunteer my time with both of them. Finally, as a small business entity, I like the fact that we don’t have a sales tax in New Hampshire. 

3) Outdoor play, gardening and connecting with nature are really important because they help people develop a relationship with the Earth. In turn, they begin to care about climate change and global warming. What are some easy beginner tips for people who don’t know where to start? For example, someone who’s never gardened before, an urban person with a baby, a city slicker who doesn’t hike etc. For each of these examples, I would say start small and simple. We didn’t establish our gardens all at once; it’s something that has evolved over the years. Start with a small space and plant vegetables you like to eat. You can even grow vegetables in containers on a patio or deck, if you have no yard. It takes time to cultivate and take care of a garden, so make sure it’s something you can manage. Whether you have a garden or not, get to know the plants that you have growing in your yard (even the weeds–pollinators love them!).

We started using the app iNaturalist last year, and have been identifying the hundreds of plants and trees that grow here. After 25+ years of being on this property, we were amazed at the variety we discovered–from the tiniest spring ephemerals and wildflowers to trees and shrub species that we never knew we had. Once you identify something growing near you, find out if it is native to New England or the US (or not), and why people grow it (for beauty, to attract pollinators/wildlife, for food, etc.). All native plants are part of an important ecosystem and should be kept as part of your yard or property. Don’t just grow grass!

For an urban person with a baby or a city slicker who doesn’t like to hike, I would again suggest: start simple. a) Invest in a good sturdy pair of walking or hiking shoes. b) Start with short hikes first, which are very doable at Petals in the Pines (we have 2 miles of trails, broken up into various lengths of loops, up-and-backs, and connecting pathways). c) Be prepared for mosquitoes and deer flies–apply repellent before you head out, or dress properly to avoid getting bitten (we recommend protective gear from BugBaffler (a NH company). d) Get kids interested in nature from a young age. We live as part of nature, not separate from it. Learning to understand, appreciate, and respect the natural world – without fearing it – are important steps to saving it. 

4) Please tell us about your own zero-waste journey. What are some habits you’ve mastered and others you are working on? Along with eggs from our chickens, we grow more than two dozen basic types of vegetables and fruits (without chemicals) for our own eating and preserving, and we use our compostable food scraps to build our garden beds. We skip the traditional composting process and put our vegetable scraps, egg shells, coffee grounds, etc. on the ground where we are building our next garden bed. We layer the compost with manure from our chicken coop, grass clippings, chopped leaves, etc. This process is called lasagna gardening or sheet mulching

Our Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom has mostly been stocked with creative play items and educational things we had on hand or re-used from yard sale purchases, Goodwill, or the swap shop at our transfer station. We have done a lot of repurposing, and very little is purchased new. Mud Kitchen (one of our most popular play areas!) is filled with interesting dishes, pots, pans, and old-fashioned utensils–all re-purposed and acquired for free or at very little cost. While our family has always recycled, we just built a new kid-height “Recycling Station” at our pavilion, so our guests can sort their waste here and thus help us to recycle it. 

Lastly, with our floral business, we accept donated used flower vases and offer them at no charge with flower purchases. This helps us keep the cost of our bouquets down and keeps the glass out of landfills. Many people have vases piling up in cupboards in their homes–they like to be able to clean out and bring them here, knowing they will have a new life.

I think the biggest thing we still have to work on is plastic. It bothers me how much is packaged in plastic, and we are always looking for ways to reduce that. Last year we shifted from starting seeds in small plastic pots to growing them in soil-blocks for later transplanting. Our daughter who just graduated from college is on a mission to reduce waste of all kinds, and I’m learning a lot from her. 

5) Anything else you’d like to share? My hope is that most people who visit Petals in the Pines will leave here having learned something and feeling inspired to try something new when they get home. I love it when I hear moms talking about play areas they want to develop in their own yards for their kids! Education is at the core of what we do here, and in recent years I’ve become more acutely aware of the need to grow native plants in order to protect our native insects, birds, wildlife, and biodiversity. Petals in the Pines is “On the Map” with Homegrown National Park, an effort to encourage people to reduce their lawn size and convert this space to native plants and wildflowers. Also by keeping keystone tree species like native oak, cherry, and willows, we’ll be able to restore much of the insect and bird populations we’ve lost over the years.

Visiting here you’ll see this effort in action–and it’s like walking in your own park, on a micro scale, surrounded by beautiful flora and fauna. Americans have covered so much of their landscape with lawn that doesn’t support life, bolstered that grass with chemical fertilizers and pesticides to keep it looking good, covered bare soil with mulch, and raked it clean in the fall to keep everything neat and tidy. This is basically sterilizing yards for the sake of uniformity and status – but it comes with real costs, both economic and ecological. At Petals in the Pines, we want to teach guests how dangerous this is, and how to reverse it in beautiful and healthy ways.


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