Ask Erin Weston about success and she brushes aside the question.
“Part of being a farmer is that it does keep you humble, because Mother Nature is cruel,” she said. “The minute you say you’re an expert or that you’ve made it, you’ve set yourself up for failure.”
On 30 acres of land along NC Highway 50 in Garner, Weston grows more than 10,000 magnolia trees and a variety of exotic evergreens, from which she creates high-end seasonal home décor. The distinctive Weston Farms magnolia wreaths have been lauded in Architectural Digest, Garden & Gun, Southern Living, and House Beautiful magazines. She ships thousands of yards of garland to hotels across the country, and her clients include floral designers from Raleigh to the White House.
“We just sent garland to River Farm, which is a farm in DC that was owned by George Washington,” said Weston. “It will be going to the 100th Anniversary for the American Horticultural Society.”
In 2002, Weston inherited the suburban acreage from her uncle. The Apex native says she had a “crazy idea” to be a farmer when she was living in New York — and the farm fantasy firmly took root.
“I wanted to cultivate a luxury product grown on the land I was left,” Weston said.
It seemed like a good time to move back to North Carolina, settle her uncle’s estate, and start a new chapter. Soon after taking over the property, she began growing microgreens and herbs to sell at restaurants and farmers markets. Her father, Noel Weston, had recently retired after 30 years as horticulturist for the City of Raleigh, and he served as her adviser. Weston had some initial success, counting chef Ashley Christensen as one of her clients, but she would be out of money by the holidays.
To bridge the financial gap, Weston’s father suggested she cut branches from her grandmother’s prized magnolia tree and sell the arrangements. The seasonal greenery proved popular, with the magnolia garlands and bouquets selling out regularly. She was initially reluctant to create and sell wreaths, but as she says now, if you are a small-business owner, you have to listen to your customers.
“People asked for wreaths so many times. I was like, maybe I can make them on my own terms,” Weston said.
She whipped up five experimental wreaths and sold them all in under an hour for $75 each. Today, a basic 22-inch wreath sells for $165, with some of the elaborate wreaths selling for twice that amount.
Appeal of the Magnolia
The business may have started with her grandmother’s tree, but the magnolias standing in orderly rows are not your garden-variety Magnolia grandiflora. Weston and her father worked with plant breeders to perfect the proprietary cultivar and its distinctive leaves — glossy green on one side and velvety brown on the other.
To harvest the precious foliage, which is found only on the 18 to 24 inches of new growth, the tops of the trees are lopped off and the sides are sheared every fall. The aggressive pruning also results in long, straight, vertical stems — perfect for garlands and wreaths.
“Some people like to ask how long does it take to make a wreath, and I like to say it takes three years,” said Weston, laughing. “We grow all the trees for approximately three years, and then we harvest only the tips, because it’s only on the tips of the new growth that the magnolia foliage is super beautiful. From there, we cut the magnolia. A 28-inch wreath has over 1,000 leaves in it, so it’s a super-premium product. After the tips are harvested, they’re made into wreaths, and then we ship nationwide.”
Raleigh designer Antoine Ponton has collaborated with Weston for nearly three years and says her unique magnolia displays fit with his business goal to “remember the past and embrace the future.”
“Her truly original and family-cultivated breed of southern magnolia is one of a kind,” he said. “This allows her to continually create fresh and beautiful greenery designs that are extraordinarily custom.”
Friend Matthew O’Connor says the first time he saw Weston’s magnolia leaves, he thought they were artificially treated in some way.
“I’m from Long Island; we don’t have magnolia up there,” he said. “The thick, soft chocolate velvet on the back, the sheen of the rich forest green of the leaf, and the beautiful wave and curves of the leaf is what makes it so very unique.”
For the DIY-er
Like the trees on her farm, Weston has strategically grown her business over the years to better accommodate the needs of her clients.
One of Weston’s newest offerings is a subscription service, providing customers with convenient ways to re-design and refresh their wreaths, year-round.
“People have been asking for refreshes for their wreaths for years,” said Weston. “We’re known for the beautiful brown backs on the back of the magnolia leaves, but the green will eventually fade. The refresher program is a way they can keep their magnolia looking great throughout the season.”
The new Estate Boxwood Collection offers a faux greenery that you can add fresh elements to and use year after year. As you’d expect, nothing from Weston Farms is less than elegant — the faux English Boxwood is intricately designed and easily mistaken for the real thing.
Weston Farms’ new box program also offers a seasonal build-out, allowing for year-round projects and enjoyment.
“So in the fall you’d get feathers and a blue conifer, and then in November you’d get the greenery for the holidays,” said Weston. “All the ingredients in the box are something that can be used if someone’s going to make a wreath at home.”
Additionally, Weston Farms offers wreath-building kits that can be ordered on their website and small bouquets that can be reconfigured in a variety of ways.
“We have these small bouquets. They’re like 12-inch bouquets, and people can always deconstruct them and tuck them into the wreaths,” advises Weston. “Faux material is a great base for a wreath, and then you can use our leaves as accent points. You don’t need the whole wreath to be just our leaves; it can be other greenery. You just need a hint of it.”
For those who are interested in fundraising, Weston Farms has recently started the Weston Farms Fundraising Program, a new initiative that will be available to institutions, schools, churches, and the like. It’s a great way to give back to the communities and organizations that have helped make Weston Farms a reality, Weston said.
“We’ve now got a dedicated year-round fundraising project,” said Weston. “This is something we have put a lot of energy and attention into. We’ve created some new products at a lower price point, so it’s easier for folks to sell for their fundraising efforts. We’re using the same quality standards, but a different type of magnolia. It doesn’t sacrifice any beauty, it’s just a little pared down. Instead of having a super-premium 28-inch wreath with 1,000 leaves, we’re rolling out a premium product that has under 100 leaves, but the leaves are bigger.”
“The program offers tools to aid organizations — from social media order forms, information, and promotional guides. By offering this, we hope to support those who supported us.”
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