Lancaster County natives and well-known gardeners Verna and Viola Mueller have given up rototilling their 5,000 square feet of growing space in Willow Street, but it’s the only gardening concession they’ve made to their octogenarian status.
The twin sisters, 88, grew up on a farm in Providence Township, south of Refton. They started planting flowers and vegetables in the corners of the family’s farm garden — where, they explained — the horse couldn’t plow (they said they learned from their mistakes).
At ages 5 or 6, the twins remember, they had already started to sell what they raised at their parents’ market stand at Lancaster city’s Southern Market.
Much later, in the 1960s, the Mueller sisters were in their 30s and working at full-time jobs. When the family moved to the Willow Street area in 1964, Viola said, “Willow Street was farm-like, so having a 5,000-square-foot plot for a family garden was not unusual.” They started growing flowers and vegetables again as a hobby. For the twin sisters, it was just like old times.
A Blooming Business
Their business, Mueller Twins Flowers, doesn’t use a website, social media or print to advertise, but they are never short of customers. Buyers include retail and wholesale florists, wedding and party planners, and a steady stream of loyal customers who come for some of the freshest and prettiest cut flowers and arrangements available anywhere.
Besides their warm-weather, fresh flower business, the twins also dry flowers from their garden and prepare exquisite floral wreaths and arrangements for sale year-round. They work with the dried flower arrangements in the basement of the home that they have lived in for some 60 years.
The Mueller twins’ garden has turned into somewhat of a tourist site, with garden tours as well as flower-arranging sessions for clubs, church groups and others during the summer.
The tenth-of-an-acre plot grows a broad range of flowers. With the right weather, Verna and Viola say, they will be harvesting their first perennials this month, including irises, daffodils and peonies. Their gladiolus, calla lilies and dahlias will follow. In all, the Mueller flower garden will yield customer favorites such as cockscomb, zinnia, aster, celosia, lady slipper, tuberose and lisianthus, their favorite flower, among others.
“Our fresh flowers are truly fresh,” Verna said. “We pick them the day orders are picked up or when needed for drop-in customers.”
The Muellers start their seeds in outdoor hill beds. They are covered in straw and tobacco muslin to germinate. The gardeners inspect the seedlings regularly and transplant them into their growing area when ready throughout the spring. The pair also begins to tend their perennial beds of iris, daffodils and peonies as the weather permits, because they know their customers will be asking for them as soon as they are ready to pick.
Gardening is hard work, the Mueller sisters said. But hard work is nothing new to the twins. Their family owned a market farm and, like all farm children, they had regular chores — from tending chickens to helping in the family garden as soon as they were old enough to lend a hand.
“Our gardens have always been mixed gardens,” Verna said, “with strawberries, lima beans, potatoes, leaf lettuce, onions, asparagus and green beans, and lots of space for flowers.”
The twins eat the vegetables they grow and can lots of the extras.
“We still grow a lot of vegetables for our own use today,” Viola said, “but, like most everyone else, we freeze the fruits and vegetables. It’s quicker (than canning) and they really taste better.”
From Hobby to Business
The idea to sell the flowers they were growing started for the twins with chrysanthemums in the 1980s as a hobby. They expanded to sell cut flowers and flower bouquets, especially at flea markets. Wanting to get better at what they were doing, the twins took courses in flower-arranging for a year at the Lancaster County Career and Technology Center site in Willow Street. They also attended seminars at Stauffers of Kissel Hill and Funk’s greenhouses.
For the Muellers, who were already experienced gardeners, the courses and seminars were an opportunity to learn modern arranging techniques to bring to their backyard business.
The twins are always happy to give gardening advice and have helped customers and visitors make their gardens more productive. For instance, said Viola, “We had a customer bring us an African violet plant that was overgrown. (It) had to be separated and replanted, as the owner wasn’t sure what to do with it.”
The Muellers explained the pruning process to the African violet owner and helped the customer trim the plant correctly, which was all it needed to grow and stay healthy.
The quality of the sisters’ flowers and wreaths has attracted a following and their reputation grows by word-of-mouth.
“We live close to the Willow Valley retirement complex,” Verna said, “and residents found their way to us regularly for flowers and told their friends, who shared our location with other friends, and our business increased steadily.”
The Muellers come from a family blessed with longevity. The twins’ father lived to be 101 years old, and their mother passed away just before 100. The twins are now gardening as exercise as well as it being a labor of love. They can still spend a good part of the day in the garden during the growing season.
Raised in the Mennonite faith, the Muellers enjoy sharing their gift of faith through gardening and presenting faith-based programs for groups. One is called “God’s Hidden Treasurers” and uses flower arrangements to illustrate Bible verses. They also have a program focused on using gourds as crafts, as well as an apron program that incorporates 65 aprons, each with a story.
Content in retirement, the Muellers enjoy what they are doing and have no plans to stop.
For more information, call 717-464-2356 to order cut flowers or flower arrangements for pickup during the growing season.