Rainbow riot: Santa Cruz County dahlia farm offers respite amid fire recovery

Rainbow riot: Santa Cruz County dahlia farm offers respite amid fire recovery

BEN LOMOND — For Karla DeLong, the 3-year-old memory of how the CZU Lightning Complex fires scoured both her family’s land and the greater community seems like a lifetime ago.

Colorful dahlias are harvested at Beeline Blooms dahlia farm in Ben Lomond. (Shmuel Thaler – Santa Cruz Sentinel) 

“And in some regards, it feels like no time at all,” DeLong said during a visit late last month.

DeLong, offering a tour of her Stephens Lane property, pointed to where the forest line had receded, revealing what is now a sunny and sprawling mountain meadow. The fire inadvertently cleared space for what is now home to Beeline Blooms Flower Farm, co-run by DeLong and sister Katrina London. The farm’s name, in part, was inspired by DeLong’s many beehives on the property and paid for through insurance money from the farm’s fire-demolished barn.

“The fire, it came within 3 feet of the house,” recalled DeLong, who has shared land with what was once a Christmas tree farm for the past 16 years. “We went from five hours of sun in the summer to literal surface of the sun.”

DeLong said that as her family began to recover from the fire’s effects, they agreed they did not want to live in a burned-out landscape. Searching for a healthy recovery model, the Mountain Feed instructor who teaches topics ranging from beekeeping to homesteading opted to lean into her love of gardening and dahlias.

“Just having an outdoor space became so obvious with COVID and everything,” DeLong said. “I started this farm specifically to bring people back into the burn zones in a way where they could be comfortable. So, flowers make people happy. So we really went for it.”

Katrina London holds a harvest bouquet at the farm. (Shmuel Thaler – Santa Cruz Sentinel) 

DeLong credits the survival of her home to having her retired firefighter husband’s know-how protecting the property ahead of and during the fire, in addition to moisture from the existing garden and a “mushroom wall” along one side of the house.

“We’re very fortunate to have not lost our home, but we lost so much of our community. That’s been really hard,” DeLong said. “Because we did lose seven houses in the neighborhood.”

London agreed that the area’s entire landscape was altered in the fire’s wake.

“The garden provides kind of some solace,” London said. “Some place that feels like things can grow again.”

Evolving into a sustainable future

In its second year, the farm has begun serving as a $25 you-pick garden for the public on specified hours, but is open to community members who lost their home in 2020’s CZU fires to wander in at any time, DeLong said. Wednesdays also have evolved into the farm’s “volunteer day,” DeLong’s favorite day each week, she said. Many of those who contribute their time were affected in some way by the fire, she said.

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Vallarie Way, a first-time volunteer from Live Oak, said she wanted to bring her mother and friend to experience the farm.

“We kind of got lost in the garden,” Way said. “I said we could only stay until 11 o’clock. The next thing I know, it was time to go.”

A vegetable garden with gourds, herbs, beans, tomatoes and more also is slowly inching up alongside the 350-variety rainbow rows of dahlia plants and many of its products are donated to Campesina Womb Justice — a mutual aid project bringing womb care kits, personal protective equipment and herbal medicines to farmworkers. DeLong said she hopes one day to offer an outdoor classroom right on her own farm, shared with her husband, sister and children.

“It seemed so clear that it was an opportunity to really make something amazing,” DeLong said. “Any occasion, whether it’s to wish someone well or celebrate someone or someone has died — anything — the first thing you do to cheer someone up or celebrate is bring flowers. Well, I’m talking about 5,000 people that needed to have flowers.”

Through community donations last year, the farm’s visitors raised more than $10,000 toward the restoration and refurbishing of the Alba Schoolhouse, a historical little red schoolhouse in Ben Lomond that served as a community gathering point before it burned down in the fire. The effort is overseen through the nonprofit Friends of the Alba Schoolhouse.

If you go

What: Beeline Blooms.

Where: 220 Stephens Lane, Ben Lomond.

You-pick autumn hours: 5-7 p.m. Tuesdays, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Fridays, weekend you-picks and special events announced on Facebook and Instagram.

Volunteer: Wednesdays. Contact farm for details and sign-ups.

Contact: Call 831-252-1807 or email karla@beelineblooms.com.

Information: beelineblooms.com.