Debbie Deal

Spring 1998

By Jane Lamb

Debbie Deal had just completed the monumental task of converting a collapsing lobster-trap shed into a trim little shop. She’d had a contractor jack up the derelict outbuilding, resill it and skid it up to the roadside. Then she’d tackled the restoration herself – reframing, reboarding, setting in windows, shingling. “I’d never built anything in my life. It took me a whole season to build that silly thing,” she says. But then she faced another, perhaps even more perplexing, challenge. “When I finally got it done, I had to make a hard and fast decision. What was I going to do with it?”

That was seven years ago, and what she has done has been to transform a neglected saltwater farm on Johnson Cove in Friendship into an attraction as compelling as the classic sloop that’s Friendship’s other claim to fame. Spectacular rows of delphiniums in every shade of blue, lavender, pink and white dominate close to an acre of organically-grown annual and perennial flowers and vegetables. The. resurrected trap shop is now Friendship Garden and Farm Stand, center of a thriving business that draws a steady flow of customers from miles around. Landscapers and home gardeners come for seedlings and field-grown plants. The summer folks, who double the midcoast population from July Fourth to Labor Day, snap up fresh vegetables, carry off armloads of cut flowers for their homes and festivities and make a point of topping off their expedition with a breathtaking eyeful of the incomparable blues of sea, sky and delphiniums.

Handywoman’s Dream

Deal wasn’t thinking delphiniums when she camped out with sleeping bag, battery lantern and porta-potty in her under-reconstruction farmhouse eight years ago. It all began when the Massachusetts company she worked for as an ad rep started going under. Fed up with the corporate world and armed with some months of unemployment insurance, she decided she would move to Maine and make a new life for herself. Deal had been an art major. She had been captivated by the state’s landscape and slower pace during many a stay at her parents’ summer place in Cushing. Based there, she spent six months looking for houses and businesses to buy, but nothing came up. “I almost ended up buying a laundromat in Belfast,” she recalls with mixed horror and amusement. “At the last minute I bailed out of that. I knew it wasn’t right for me.”

Deal found a charming old sea captain’s house in Warren and lost that opportunity to an unscrupulous realtor. Furious at first, she later realized that her true destiny was the farmhouse in Friendship, but even that was elusive. Another buyer had first dibs. As her search ended along with summer, she reluctantly returned to Massachusetts, planning to take her house there off the market and take “another yucky job.” She’d barely walked in the door when the phone rang. The other buyer had dropped out of the running and it was her turn. “I was home one hour and just turned around and came back at six o’clock the next morning and I got it!”

What she got was almost a joke, she says. The house had been in the same family since 1832. When she bought it in December of 1989, half the windows were missing, the kitchen wall was split a foot away from the main house, the well was frozen. All the “good stuff,” such as the central fireplaces and other original features, had long since been removed. A chimney hung crazily off the back wall. She set local builders to work at once. Finally, in February, she could stand it no longer. “I moved up here among all the construction with my down sleeping bag, porta-potty, a box of cornflakes and a little igloo cooler. I lived on cold cuts and cereal until the following fall.” When she finally got appliances into her redesigned, old-fashioned kitchen, she couldn’t even wait to finish the wide pine floorboards. “It was like – I’ve got to cook real food!” The floor has yet to see a finish other than butcher’s wax, but the cook has moved from plain hot food to playing with such fun things as lavender ice cream and exotic salad greens.

Rebuilding the mother of all fixer-uppers had to come before anything else. Deal, a slight, exuberant woman of boundless energy, grit and good humor, ripped up layers of rotting flooring, replaced sills and joists, tore out partitions and the south wall that looks down across fields to the shoreline. The view, now open to a broad expanse of glass, was glimpsed through two tiny windows, one of them in a ridiculously-located bathroom. The farmhouse, snugly insulated and sheathed in new white clapboards, nestles among old lilacs, rugosa roses and hollyhocks. A brick path bordered by spicy dianthus and culinary herbs leads to the front door, replacing a horrendous platform of cement and concrete blocks that took all but dynamite to remove. The woman she bought the house from, in her 80s, was leery of selling it to a “young girl.” (Deal was 36 at the time.) “She didn’t know what a worker I was,” she says. “The deal with the builders was, ‘You can have the job if you let me work with you and teach me.’ I picked up all my skills from them. That’s how I learned I could do the shed.” She later hired on as a helper to the same contractors and, along with the tricks of the trade, gleaned many a useful bit of well-aged lumber from their other remodeling projects.

Finding the Organic Balance

The gift of an herb book from her mother, with the motherly hint that she might consider an herb farm on her sunny south-facing slope, was the initial answer to Deal’s quandary about what to do with the shed she’d finished. “I started tilling up the upper garden, and it just grew,” she recalls. She now has quadrupled her ground under cultivation and can’t seem to stop opening up more. But the first year looked doubtful. “The dirt was so horrible, it was liked compressed driveway dirt,” she says. “A friend of mine, a landscaper, said ‘Put a foot of cow manure on the whole thing.’ Everybody in town said you just don’t do that, but it was perfect. I grew a lot of lush stuff that first year. Things just went crazy. Then every year I put lots of compost in. It’s all organic. I got soil tests done. The last couple of years I haven’t had time for them, but everything is still cranking, so I know it’s okay.” She has been a MOFGA member since she first heard of the organization, but has never felt the need to be certified.

Deal, who comes from a place where putting a geranium on the doorstep is considered gardening, absorbed horticultural know-how in huge gulps, through reading, careful observation and intuition. “In the beginning, I looked up everything,” she says. “But after awhile, you just start to know.” She attributes her relative freedom from insects and diseases as much to good luck as to planning. “I noticed more bugs when I first started, but now I’ve gotten everything pretty much in balance, I literally haven’t any bugs,” she says. “I think it’s partly to do with the wind.” She keeps the gardens clean, and well-cultivated, with plenty of air space around the plants, relying on endless hand hoeing and weeding with her tools of choice, a high-grade, super sharp hand cultivator and narrow-bladed hoe. She makes every effort to scramble the rows to avoid a monoculture situation. She’s had a few bouts with cucumber and flea beetles. “Normally it’s so minor I just work around it. I try to catch bugs in certain cycles. Healthy plants don’t get bothered much.” Though she has bought some excellent reference books, such as Gardens Alive, she doesn’t do a lot of studying. “If I have a problem, I call Extension. There are so many great sources around here to get help from.” Including the birds. Deal takes a sash out of a barn window every spring to welcome back the barn swallows. Together with their tree swallow cousins, they made a noticeable dent in the insect population.

Abundant bloom is essential to a business that depends heavily on flowers, so Deal keeps bees to ensure good pollination. In fact, learning about the effects of pesticides on bees reinforced her gut feeling that organic was the only way to go. Earlier she had several hives and had enough honey to sell in the farm stand. Though she thinks her bees have survived fairly well the onslaught of winter and disease that has hurt many beekeepers, she has consolidated them into one healthy hive. She now leaves the honey for the bees to winter well on, the market value of flowers being greater in her operation than that of honey. Besides, she says, she’s had her fill of lively, time-consuming adventures with swarming bees, as well as the heavy 60- and 90-pound supers that are beyond her weight-lifting capacity.

No Tomatoes, No Potatoes

Debbie Deal, whose adventurous spirit keeps her eyeing derelict buildings to restore and plowing up more space to accommodate the divided perennials that she can’t bear to throw out, might be called a romantic pragmatist. She’s willing to bow to the authority of nature when it comes to what to grow and to go with the cash flow when it comes to business. “I didn’t come here with a big business plan,” she explains. “I know what they’re all about and boy, was I getting away from that!” Thus, she doesn’t raise potatoes because they’re subject to too many diseases. She doesn’t raise many tomatoes because they don’t ripen until after her major clientele have left for the summer. She dropped European cucumbers from her list because no one bought them despite their superior quality. One year, following what turned out to be a false lead, she raised literally a ton of leeks. There was absolutely no market for them, so no more leeks. In her six years in business, she has shifted from supplying restaurants and raising lots of vegetables to giving up the restaurant trade and focusing more and more on flowers, for which the demand continues to escalate.

Deal does cater to a steady clientele for the summer vegetables – lettuces, mesclun greens, peas, beans, carrots, onions. They overflow antique blue spatterware pails and kettles in the farm stand, set off by a few antiques that remain from an earlier enterprise – an old bean thresher in mint condition that actually works, a cider press that sees annual resurrection for a one-day pressing and picnic in the fall. An old dough trough filled with dewy ears of corn imparts the atmosphere Deal deliberately cultivates. What she has to offer can be unpredictable, as any farmer knows. Last summer she had “a melon season to die for,” she says, citing Pulsar cantaloupe, Burpee’s Ambrosia and Yellow Doll watermelons among the most spectacular. Ironically, she enjoyed most of them herself, since they didn’t ripen until September.

But flowers count for most of Deal’s business. A brilliant patchwork quilt of rectangular raised beds behind the farm stand dazzles the eye. Six-foot-tall delphiniums, red and yellow gallardias, blue and white campanulas, blazing zinnias, magenta foxgloves rising from a mass of white shasta daisies mingle their hues and textures and fragrances with four-foot lavender bushes, waist-high pansies and dozens of other herb and flower species. Rows of irises, lilies, hundreds of Canterbury bells and 2,000 or more delphiniums, mature plants for cutting as well as first-year plants for the following spring landscape trade, adorn the field that slopes toward the water bordered by trellises of pink and white sweet peas. Roman-stripe rows of pale and dark green, rust and burgundy lettuces demonstrate that vegetables are just as decorative as flowers.

“Cut your own” is the way Deal sells flowers. “I hand out scissors and people go down into the garden and pick what they want. I charge by the size of the bouquet. It’s the only way I can do it. I don’t count stems. I’d be all day just doing that,” she says, implying that she has too many other things to keep up with. “I’m forever digging up delphiniums,” she sighs. She runs her entire enterprise single-handed with the sole exception of a little help from her father on the lawn mower and her faithful golden lab, Jessie, who serves as official greeter and constant gardening companion. She gave up supplying restaurants partly because she couldn’t be away to make deliveries for even a half-hour. “I would be swamped. I couldn’t leave and it’s hard to find anyone to hire. Most of the summer help around here find better-paying jobs as sternmen with the lobster fishermen or in construction.”

Growing Her Own

Deal receives every seed catalogue known to gardening and spends countless winter hours making lists of all the new things she’d like to try, and then whittling it down to the few for which she might just have room. But mainly she saves her own seeds for things she will repeat year after year. She raises all her own seedlings for both annuals and perennials. In the beginning, she had a few lessons to learn. “The first year I bombed,” she relates. “I bought so many packets but I couldn’t get them to grow. I was so frustrated. So the next year I tried all these experiments – soaked the seeds in water, some in manure tea, refrigerated some, put some in the freezer. I did every combination there was and they did grow.” Then a funny thing happened. Thrifty yankee that she is, Deal couldn’t throw away all the good dirt and potting mix in the trays that didn’t germinate the year before. “I dumped it all in a garbage bag, thinking I could use it. There was nothing in it but dead seeds. The next year, I used that dirt to plant something else, and up came several thousand delphiniums. All of the old ones germinated. I had to throw most of them out. They needed to go through that cycle in the winter, sitting out there in the barn.”

As her operation expanded, Deal realized she’d have to have a greenhouse. It was too expensive to buy all the seedlings she’d need. Once she had moved the old lobster shack, she chose its former site beside the barn, which had to be filled and leveled. With her usual enthusiasm, she ordered a kit. “It turned out to be the hardest thing I ever did,” she recalls. “I started so late in the fall and the thing came with no instructions.” She assembled the double plastic, hoop style structure herself while autumn winds whipped around her. Although the greenhouse is indispensable for the numerous plants she raises for herself and others, it has a few disadvantages. It has to be kept inflated all year as insurance against the winds that whip up the cove, sometimes reaching 80 mph in winter. “It’s too hot in summer to grow tomatoes,” she says. “Even with the doors open and the fan going things would cook.”

So far, she hasn’t considered the hoop houses that other Maine gardeners find so useful for raising tomatoes for early market. Besides, Deal has too many other projects going. Last November (1997) found her chasing windblown shingles around the yard before they could tear into the greenhouse. They were part of another building renovation. Heeding her father’s constant admonition that her barn, stuffed with dried flowers, gardening equipment and all the other things farmers and gardeners can’t possible throw away, was a serious fire hazard, she collected two more derelict buildings. It took two huge boom trucks to haul home an old henhouse and a wharf building, which would become a 16-by 24-foot and a 10-by 12-foot pair of storage sheds. Racing against winter as usual, she managed to get them roofed as snow moved in early and, eternal optimist, expected to have them closed in before real winter.

At the same time, Deal was making summer plans for the long spruce roost poles from the henhouse. They’ll become teepees for the pole bean seeds she’s never used and giant ladder trellises for sweet peas. She’s already had one more patch of ground plowed up for the purpose. She’ll load it with cow manure and lime in the spring, have the soil tested and “add a bit of character” to the lower field.

Deal has managed to stay out of debt, relying on the proceeds of the sale of her Massachusetts house and other income, and her accountant tells her she’s doing well. “My business is definitely building, but it takes time for people to find you,” she says. “My whole experience here is loads of fun, but it’s a lot of work and I sometimes wonder if I’m making anything.” Then she looks around her and reflects: “It’s so wonderful to be here. The best part is I’m a visual person, so I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing what’s been created here, from looking out at the water.” But Debbie Deal is not just a dreamer. She’s an indefatigable doer. “Every year I say I’m pretty much maxed out for what I can do and every year I expand. Every year I’ve said I couldn’t possibly do more, and I did!”

Jane Lamb, formerly of Brunswick, Maine, is now retired in California.

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