What used to be a backyard where Evelyn Barata Lee’s children played is now covered from one side to the other with dozens of flower beds, growing everything from snapdragons and bachelor buttons to lilies and lady’s mantle.
In 2011, after her children left for college, Evelyn Barata Lee ’75 transformed her Southport, Connecticut, property into Butternut Gardens, a fresh-cut flower garden that produces about 45,000 beautiful flowers every year. Since then, Lee’s business has grown to include a small retail cottage, wholesale accounts, weddings and events, workshops and presentations, and even a flower delivery subscription service for local customers.
Growing up on 30 acres, Lee became accustomed to the outdoors at an early age and continued to learn more over the years. Sharing a bit about her knowledge, she says, “I have my master’s from Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. It comes in handy with knowing what to plant in the different little microenvironments. I studied horticulture at the New York Botanical Gardens, worked in a nursery, and studied floral design at FlowerSchool New York. I’ve just always been around plants, and I learned a lot as I ventured into my own business.”
Just under half of Lee’s 1.4-acre property is dedicated to flower beds. She also has a barn that serves as her workshop space for everything from starting seeds on heat mats, to storing flowers in an industrial-sized refrigerator, to creating arrangements and bouquets.
If cut at the right time, Lee can store certain flowers, like peonies and tulips, in her refrigerator for several weeks. “You want to cut, in most cases, before something is fully opened. It usually means cutting in the morning when they are hydrated and have the best sugar content, and then taking off a lot of the lower foliage. Then it’s getting all the flowers together in the cooler. Either bundling them in bunches or mixing them together in bouquets,” she says.
When it’s time to sell the flowers, Lee moves them from the barn right next door to her self-serve flower cottage.
During the off-season from the end of October to the beginning of March, Lee focuses on website maintenance and planning. “In the winter, I have spreadsheets thousands of lines long. I think, Okay, I’m going to have this many sunflowers as the main focal flower, but then what am I going to have around it and how long does that take to grow?”
“It’s hard running a small business, but I enjoy that. I love the plants and the different flowers. Because I’m sharing, I get to grow more than what I would if I were just growing for myself. It’s fun to try all these different things. I love the beauty of it. I love how happy people are,” says Lee.