Raleigh Gigs: Magnolia queen Erin Weston


by
Liza Roberts
photographs by Lissa Gotwals

When magnolia farmer and luxury wreath-maker Erin Weston inherited 30 acres in Garner from her uncle a decade ago, she was busy pursuing a publishing career in New York. Becoming a farmer had no place in her plans.

But when a dream job as garden editor at Martha Stewart’s TV show fell through at the last minute, and she came home to help settle her uncle’s estate, Weston re-evaluated. She realized she had become “smitten” with the idea of planning 12 months of gardening for Martha; maybe she could move back to North Carolina and use those 30 acres to grow “a luxury farm good.”

But what she had in mind wasn’t magnolia, or high-end seasonal decor. Weston never set out to become a maker of  “round circles for your door,” sought after by clients including the Obama White House.

“I had a glorious image of what it would be like to be a farmer. I would grow small, pretty fruits.”

She started, actually, with small, pretty vegetables (microgreens like green-with-red-polka-dot Speckled Trout lettuce), which she sold to locavore chefs Andrea Reusing and Ashley Christensen.

Her father, Noel Weston, horticulturalist for the city of Raleigh for 30 years, had just retired, and became a rich source of information. First, though, she had to learn his language. “It’s like interpreting riddles from a Sphynx,” she says, “He only speaks in Latin.” So she took herself back to school at N.C. State and learned all of those Latin names for plants, how they grow, and why.

And at her father’s suggestion, she began to sell magnolia. Weston, who is now in her mid-30s, had some special varieties on the property already; one her grandmother planted had a particularly thick coat of orangey-brown velvet on the back of the leaves (Weston named it Noel for her father and for Christmas, and refers to it as “the Hermés of magnolia”).

At first, she sold simple cuttings to Robert Logan for his nursery at Seaboard Station. Then it was small bouquets of magnolia with unusual red and yellow conifers. Everything kept selling out, and she was able to quickly raise her prices. “Dad told me early on: Your profit is whatever’s going in the trash,” so she made a point to put everything she had to use.

On the day she opened her own magnolia-garland and bouquet stand at the North Carolina state farmer’s market seven years ago, her first customer said: “I love this; I’ll take it all. And can you come decorate my house?” That led Weston to try her hand at wreaths. She had no idea what to charge, so she considered her car insurance bill, and she looked at the 5 experimental wreaths she’d made. She divided the insurance bill by 5, took a deep breath, and decided to charge a bold $75 apiece. “I paid my car insurance bill in 45 minutes.” She’s never looked back, and her wreaths now sell for as much as $325.

Today, at Weston Farms, about seven miles from downtown Raleigh, she grows magnolia “like tobacco.” Her rows of short trees take three to four years to mature, at which point she tops them at five-feet-six and shears the sides; by the next year they have grown back completely.

Her specialty is not only in rare, hardy, and particularly beautiful magnolia cultivars, but in the combinations she makes with the rare firs she also grows. The sturdy plants make for wreaths that can last several years, she says.

This year, Weston expects to sell about 500 wreaths, plus many more garlands, topiaries, and other decor. Her business is no longer only at the Farmer’s Market; it has grown to the point that she has partnered with the Outdoor Butler, a Raleigh outdoor services business, to sell her products online. She’s also selling boxwood wreaths and decor in partnership with a grower in the North Carolina mountains and is sending her creations all over the country.

At different times of year, her responsibilities vary. Harvest, production, and sales all take an enormous amount of time and energy, so she’s hoping her new collaborations will free her up to to focus on the creative aspect of what she does.

“I really just fell in love with the rare and unusual,” she says. “I’ve become so smitten with the quality of life-giving things.”   

In addition to select days at the North Carolina State Farmer’s Market, Erin Weston’s wreaths can be found online at Raleigh-based Outdoor Butler, www.theoutdoorbutler.com. She will also sell them at NoFo in Five Points, and at Weston Farms pop-up shops.