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Flourishing in a Field of Dreams

When nothing can keep a good man down

By Claudia Watson  

Photographs by Laura L. Gingerich

Acres of farmland rest under the rays of golden sunlight, soothing the bareness of winter’s rough edges. But there’s a surprise at the turn on the highway. A tidy roadside patch of vibrant tulips bursts through the hard-crusted earth, shouting, “Look at me!”

Families, children dressed in their Easter best, grannies and young lovers, all tiptoeing through fields of tulips, not in Holland, but bucolic White Hill. Photographers follow. All sharing the unexpected joy and the promise of hope at Blueberry Hill Farm.

This April marks the second year Blueberry Hill Farm, known for its juicy-sweet, plump blueberries, hosts a festival of blooms, a much-anticipated harbinger of spring. And that’s just what the farm’s owners, Anthony and Janice Dyson, wished for.

“I wanted the area in front of our retail storefront to be colorful and welcoming with a small roadside patch of flowers,” says Janice. “We felt folks would stop to see the flowers and come in to see all the fresh products we offer from the farm, not just at the blueberry time.”

Then she grins, adding that their eldest son, David, ignited with imagination, had a more significant dream.

A graduate of N.C. State University’s Landscape Agriculture program and a professional landscaper, David always shared his mother’s fondness for flowers. “When I graduated, I managed a commercial landscaping business. We used a lot of fall, spring and summer flowers,” he says. “When my mom told me her idea, I thought, ‘Hey, I can do this but on a larger scale.’”

After months of research and meetings with large tulip farm owners in North Carolina, David did the implausible. In the fall of 2022, instead of planting a simple flower bed for his mom, he planted 20,000 tulips in several trial plots by the roadside and on the gentle slope that borders a large pond on their 25-acre farm. Success followed.

“Last spring it wasn’t uncommon to see people blow by us on the highway, turn around, and come back to walk in the fields and cut some flowers to take with them,” he says. “That made my day.”

The new technicolor landscape on Blueberry Hill Farm is joyful and optimistic, revealing its poignancy only after you discover how it’s been achieved.

On a summer’s day in 2017, David, his wife, Katie, younger brother, Derek Dyson, and others took a couple of river boats to a swimming spot on the Black River in Sampson County.

“We’d been there a lot over the years, and I knew it well. I dove into the water several times, but the last time I didn’t come back up,” says David, recalling the terror of being helplessly submerged under water. “I felt like I had 10 seconds to live.”

The others jumped in and searched the murky river. Nothing. Then Derek, a firefighter for Sanford, found him, and they pulled David to the river’s edge. He was airlifted to the New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington.

David had crushed the C5 vertebra in his spine, causing him to be paralyzed from the waist down and classified as a person with quadriplegia. After surgery he was transferred to the Shepard Center in Atlanta, one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation, where he remained for nine weeks.

“When we came home, I couldn’t sit up without help,” he says. He and Katie sold their two-story home and built a handicap-accessible home for themselves and their son, Carson. His physical therapy regimen is nearly a full-time job. Now, he frequently drives his handicap-accessible van from their home in Greensboro to White Hill. Anthony says David can get anywhere in his standing power chair.

A modified ATV, courtesy of North Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation, has put David back into the fields at Blueberry Hill Farm, where he’s in control and savors every moment.

“Though I can’t plant, this ATV gives me the ability to go anywhere in any weather condition on the farm,” he says, using a dashboard lever to lock his chair into the ATV floorboard. I hop in and fasten my seatbelt. “Do you want to go 5 mph or 50?” he says with a smile as we take off. It’s November, and it’s tulip-planting day.

“I utilize my entire agriculture background for the farm,” he says, pointing to the rows of dormant blueberry, raspberry and blackberry bushes and muscadine vines. “Now, it’s the flowers, too. We handle it all, from the soil amendments through harvest and everything in between.”

A few days before my visit, over 45,000 tulip bulbs arrived in a refrigerated semi-trailer and were off-loaded into the farm’s cooler. “This is all David’s doing,” says Anthony, opening the cooler door where stacks of plastic crates marked with the bulb’s variety and color waited. “He’s a whiz on the computer and quite adept at sourcing, and all of our tulip bulbs are shipped to us directly from the Netherlands.”

The tulip often invokes thoughts of the Netherlands, and indeed, the Dutch deserve credit for its global popularity and exciting history. However, it is not indigenous to that country. The tulip is native to a vast area, including the arid climates of Africa, Asia and Europe. It’s a perennial, bulbous plant that blooms in various colors from early to mid-spring. Like most bulbs, it needs cool dormancy (vernalization) to bloom, making it challenging to grow in North Carolina.

“The weather is finicky — especially nowadays — it’s hot, then cold,” says David, a loyal Wolfpack fan sporting his N.C. State cap as he steers the ATV. “When planting, the soil temperature must be 55 degrees or below to ensure good root development before winter sets in.” Last November the soil was too warm to plant until late in the month, as referenced in the region’s newly acquired 8A growing zone. Pre-cooled bulbs from the Netherlands ensure proper root development and avoid stunned blooms.

“Soggy soil is the kiss of death for bulbs,” he says. “But our soil is very sandy, and it drains a bit too fast to hold the needed moisture for tulips.” Organic matter should be worked 10 inches into the soil, followed by applying slow-release nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium fertilizer (10-10-10 or 3-5-3). Tulips also need plenty of sunshine.

This spring at Blueberry Hill Farm, visitors will experience variety. Tulipa Darwin hybrids are among the showstoppers, including the vibrant yellow ‘Novi Sun’ and one of the tallest tulips, ‘World’s Favorite’, a tomato-red flower with golden yellow petal edges.

If you crave sweets, ‘Tom Pouce’, aptly named for the lusciously sweet Dutch pastry, is your treat. This flower is pale to bright pink with a creamy, golden-yellow base. And just in time for spring weddings, the pure white and very statuesque ‘Wedding Dress’.

We’re also planting some remarkable mixtures of Triumph, Darwin hybrid, Double, Lily-flowering and Single Late tulips to offer constant color throughout the spring season,” says David.

At the edge of one field, he stops the ATV a few feet from a beloved orange 1952 Allis-Chalmers tractor nicknamed Allis. She’s just recovered from a spitting and sputtering session that called for repairs. Healthy again, Allis is pulling a bulb-planting machine the farm purchased from the Netherlands.

“It’s our new tool and we’ll get all 45,000 bulbs set out in the next couple of days,” David says. “In 2022 my dad made a template out of PVC pipe that the workers pushed into the soil to plant the 20,000 bulbs. It took weeks.”

Standing by the bulb planter, Derek hollers, “Hey, what color do you want next? Yellow?”

“No. Yella!” shouts Janice, enthusiastically correcting her son’s pronunciation. “In my family, it was always ‘yella’ and they tease me about it.”

Derek dumps a crate holding hundreds of “yella” tulip bulbs into the bulb planter. Allis pulls the planter over an intended row, using its steel discs to cut a 10-inch-deep trench, drop one bulb with roots down, and then cover the trench with its three rear wheels, settling the soil.

“Hey, no bulbs left behind!” says eagle-eyed David, pointing to some bulbs that jumped the trench and need planting.

“It’s only our second year, and this is amazing,” he adds as he presses the accelerator lever on the ATV and takes off across the edge of the farm. Here, he’s carefully choreographed mixed planting to include a mood-lifting view of thousands of perennial daffodils (Narcissi), anemones, globes of alliums, Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica), and cobalt-blue grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum) blooming en masse along with the tulips.

Once those early spring flowers fade, a stunning display of 10,000 peony-like ranunculi will appear, including Ranunculus aviv and Ranunculus picotee varieties. Hundreds of unfurling peonies and poppies will inspire the romantic.

When the summer heat rises, the landscape gives way to summer perennials, including natives, rose mallow (Hibiscus lasiocarpos), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), and lupine (Lupinus). Vibrant zinnias and sunflowers grown from seed will provide an energizing space in late summer.

After a final pass of the farm, we head back to the pond, where it’s time for a family photo with Allis, the tractor.

“It’s truly magic,” Janice says as she surveys the farm in the late afternoon sun. “David is strong, determined, courageous and unstoppable. Along with our faith, this farm heals us and keeps us moving forward.”

David stands next to Allis with the assistance of his chair, mother and father. He is quiet but smiling. Perhaps fueled by gratitude, he understands the power of the moment — a moment of joy for life on the land that provides their hearts with peace, plenty and purpose.

Spring is nature’s reminder that resilience blooms from within.  PS

The Dyson family actively encourages visitors to take a stroll, cut flowers or just come and share the joy of spring. Blueberry Hill Farm, located at 3250 White Hill Road, Sanford, is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. It’s a u-pick farm for berries and flowers (they supply the clippers and flat box for flowers). Fresh-cut flowers are available for pickup, as is a tasty jar of sugar-free Traffic Jam, or Blueberry Jam made with the farm’s berries, in the storefront. Admission: $4 per person; u-pick flowers $1.50 per stem. No pets, please.

(Instagram @blueberryhillupick).

Claudia Watson is a freelance writer and longtime contributor to PineStraw and The Pilot who finds joy daily, often in a garden.