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1970 – 2020: 50 Years of Cates Family Farm!

The farmhouse, high tunnel, and annual flower beds from the lakeside, summer 2019.

The big, three-story house at Cates Family Farm was completed in 1809. Its many staircases and doors tell of a time when farm families were huge — when the easiest way for a farmer to get cheap labor was to make it themselves. Ownership of the farmhouse and its surrounding lands has changed hands a few times. Built originally by a retired sea captain, the farm passed into the hands of the Cates family in the early 1900s. Benjamin Harold Cates, Sr. and his wife, Annabel Ingraham Cates had a growing family (they eventually ended up with a dozen children!) and were running out of space. The purchase of a big, rambling farmhouse, surrounded by a few dozen acres of pasture and forest, which was conveniently within walking distance of the village schoolhouse where Annabel taught, the local dairy and local general store that Harold operated, and the Quaker Meetinghouse the Cateses regularly attended, was the perfect solution For a growing family.

A view of the Cates Family Farm outbuildings to the west of the fields.

Annabel and Harold had six sons and six daughters, but of them, perhaps a third were interested in farming. Of that third, some had moved far enough away (including son Paul, who had hightailed it off to Germany) that when it came time to finalizing their will, the farm passed into the hands of their son George, who lived with two sisters in the big house. At that time, the farm was known as “Outlet Farm” — due to its abutting China Lake and the Outlet Stream that winds its way out of the lake, through Vassalboro, toward broader rivers. George was a forestry man, though he knew his way around a tractor and a dairy barn. He’d spent several years out West in the 40s, working in the national forests, and knew his way around the woods of the farm like the back of his hand.

Paul Cates holding sons Martin and Christopher in the summer of 1970, with the family’s Jersey heifers grazing in the pasture above them.

When Paul Cates came back to Maine in 1969 accompanied by his young wife, Elisabeth, and their son Martin, they settled into another family home in the village of East Vassalboro and, in 1970, began raising gladiolus on the farm in one of the fields that had lately been reserved by George for dairy cattle feed crops. At first, Paul was known simply as The Glad Man, selling gladiolus out of his VW bus. This moniker helped him to establish the Cates Glads brand — though in truth, the farm grew numerous types of cut-flowers — which lasted through the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Paul and Elisabeth continued using the lands, though they were in George’s name, until George’s death — when ownership of the farm passed to them. Around the same time, the first Cates heirloom glad bulb price list was published (this would later become a print catalog, and finally evolve into the web store that exists today) the most important word was added to the Cates Glads brand — Family.

The youngest of Paul and Elisabeth’s grandchildren, Klara, takes the lay of the land in 2018.

Cates Family Glads, as the farm was now called, lasted as a company name until the 2010s. By this point, Paul was well beyond retirement age (though in truth it took running himself over with the farm truck, which required several months of rest and leg elevation to heal) to force him to retire. Paul and Elisabeth’s son Chris was now the driving force on the farm — both figuratively and literally, since he’d not only taken on the lion’s share of farm operational work, but had also become the farm’s primary wholesale flower delivery driver. He had other projects on the farm besides flowers, though — he started raising a small herd of beef cows to feed himself, and he’d taken over George’s forestry and hay work. And so we made one last tweak to the brand in 2019: Cates Family Glads was now called Cates Family Farm.

Which brings me to the real reason for today’s post:

We Want You to Help us Celebrate our 50th Year in Business!

The Cates glad field (mostly without weeds).

To our favorite people:

On Saturday, July 11th, 2020, we are celebrating Cates Family Farm’s 50th year in business*! The work started earlier in 1970 than on July 11th, of course, but that’s right around the time the first glads always start blooming for us, and isn’t that something to celebrate by itself?

Because of the global COVID-19 pandemic, we’re unable to invite everyone to come visit us, both because there are restrictions the number of people at gatherings in Maine, and also because we have no intention of our little farm on China Lake becoming the epicenter of the next coronavirus infection spike. So, instead, we’re going to throw a bit of a socially-distanced party. Let’s call it…

A GLOBAL, WEED-PULLING HOOTENANNY!

Cates grandson Nicholas holding decidedly more than one weed in 2011, with the intent to toss the armful to the beef cow herd.

We invite you all, in your own gardens, to go out on Saturday, July 11th, 2020, find at least one weed, and joyfully rend it from the ground. Bonus points if you can come up with some sort of terrible but brilliant pun to describe the moment, and make the late Paul Cates proud. (Fastidious gardeners, you’ll have to leave a weed in the ground prior to the 11th if you want to participate with us on the day of the hootenanny. (We’re sorry.))

In the absence of your own garden, we suggest you plan to find and remove weeds in your family’s or friends’ yards instead. Please note: we do not condone guerrilla weeding tactics such as leaping over hedges or garden fences in the middle of the night to steal dandelions from your neighbors’ flower beds, or pulling weeds on public land without a permit — we encourage everyone to party within the bounds of local ordinances.

Cates granddaughter Julia taming one of the beef steers in 2012.

After the festivities in the garden come to a close, those of us on the farm in Maine will likely end the day with a lobster feed. We hope that you all, as most honored guests of our first (and, to be honest, hopefully last!) socially-distanced global weed-pulling hootenanny, get to eat something delicious!

Of course, we would’ve loved to invite all of you to come and pull our weeds (with blanket permission!), but… perhaps after the pandemic?

In the meantime, with best wishes on behalf of the rest of the Cates family, and with hope that you continue to find joy in your (or your neighbors’ (within legal bounds)) gardens,

P.S.: If you take photos of your participation in our socially-distanced party, and you’d like us to include them in a gallery on our farm’s website, please email them to Me, Margaret Cates, at margaret.cates@gmail.com with the name of the photographer and location of the photo. We won’t post photos to which we can’t apply proper credit!

Really, though: pull only with permission.

P.P.S.: We mean it about the guerrilla weeding tactics. We hold no responsibility for anyone who gets arrested for pulling weeds.

* = Those of you who placed gladiolus bulb or dahlia tuber orders with us this spring have already gotten your birthday present! We included free limited edition 50th anniversary tote bags, whose appliqués were designed, cut, and applied in our dining room, with every bulb/tuber order this year.

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Notes from Up North, February 2019

This was a rough one to write. Of course it’s cold and wet in Vassalboro, because it’s winter. And of course we’ve brought you some real beauties this time around. But this is the first time since the founding of Cates Family Farm (and Cates Glads) that this letter has been written without input from Paul Cates. Paul passed from complications with dementia on October 21, 2018.

Paul Cates on his 93rd birthday in August 2018.

Paul’s joy of flowers lasted right up until the end. Chris Cates, self-described “Everything!” at the farm, would often bring in blooms for the kitchen table during the summer. He went outside often during his last summer with us, and sat on a chair on the walkway to watch the cars pass and chat with our roadside stand customers. Much to Elisabeth’s consternation, Paul frequently picked flowers out of the planters on the farm’s front steps, to give her a petunia bloom or a pansy. He’d pause to smell every bouquet that came in from the garden on his way through the house. He was, at his very core, the Glad Man our florist customers dubbed him so long ago.

You can read Paul’s obituary here. [Update 2020: the funeral home that took care of Paul has unfortunately closed and taken down the obituary. Our friends at The Town Line newspaper in South China, ME have graciously agreed to host the obituary here on their website.]

Paul would have been very disappointed if the annual letter didn’t come out as usual, so the show has gone on. You may notice that things look a little different around here. Let’s start with the price list: cates-family-glads.org is no more, and catesfamily.farm has taken its place as our home on the Web. Our price list is now fully online, as well. You can place your order via your PayPal account or credit card, or if you prefer, you can place your order and pay via check. We hope this simplifies the order process for many of our customers.

A single-page paper price list is going to go out to those customers who don’t have a listed email; those of whom we have an email on file for, we’ll be sending out a notification of the changes in our site and the availability of the online shop. We still can’t ship to foreign countries, unfortunately — even shipping to Canada is an incredibly complex and pricey process, so we’ve chosen to continue exclusively serving customers within the United States.

Enough about logistics, though. Let’s talk glads!

So, in 2018 we finally got a handle on the weeding. (It only took us 48 years.) So you’d think we would’ve had a bumper crop of bulbs! But alas, there were bug problems and health problems nonetheless, and after we sorted through our harvested bulb crop with a fine tooth comb, our list is a little shorter and our inventory a little slimmer than in previous years. But we can, and will, rebuild our list! Our planting stock and bulblets looked great last year, and promise to produce some healthy mature bulbs in 2019 (provided bugs aren’t, again, an issue).

Great, consistent varieties Gemini, Abbie, and My Rose are among this year’s list. There are several new (or new to us) varieties gracing the virtual pages of our shop as well; Prince of Orange and Rhapsody in Blue among them.

“But Margaret,” you might ask, “Why are there so many varieties without photos this year?” Well, it’s simple — last summer the weekend weather often wasn’t conducive to tromping around in a field with a digital camera, and during the week I have a full-time job off the farm that prevents me from being in the field during the day. May the weather provide us enough sun on Saturdays for weekly photo shoots this year!

Whether you’ve been a loyal customer for years, or you’ve just discovered our little farm on the banks of China Lake, I hope you have a marvelous 2019, and that you have the chance to bring a little beauty into your life with some wonderful glads.

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Notes from Up North, February 2018

Well, another year has come and gone, and it’s time once again for households across the country to receive their Cates Family Glads annual mailer.

“But wait!” you might be thinking. “Doesn’t Cates Family Glads usually send out a bifold catalog instead of a packet comprising a few pages?”

And you’d be right! However, due to an amalgamation of environmental factors, last year’s growing season was a rough one in Central Maine — a very rough one. There was wind. There was rain. There was drought. There were bugs. There were weeds. And though we fought valiantly, we pride ourselves on being picky about the quality of bulbs that we offer to our customers, and some of our mature stock just didn’t make the cut.

Because we’re picky about quality, our bulbs weren’t fully cleaned and sorted until mid-January. Inventory was a relatively quick process… but then, disaster struck again in the form of a corrupted system driver on Margaret’s computer, which hobbled her ability to do anything beyond threatening to throw the laptop out the third-story window at the farm during the several weeks it took to diagnose, troubleshoot, and repair it. (We were contemplating just photocopying our handwritten list of varieties at one point to speed up the process.)

With all that in mind, instead of our usual catalog, this year we’re going back to our roots and offering a humble price list to our loyal customer base. We’re full of hope that in 2018 Mother Nature will look more kindly upon our farm in East Vassalboro and grant us just the right kind of weather to rebuild our collection from last year’s bulblets and planting stock.

Despite our struggles with the elements in 2017, we do have some good news! Gracing our cover page and our listing this year is 75th Anniversary, a gorgeous royal purple gem of a glad that was introduced in honor of the 75th anniversary of the Canadian Gladiolus Society. Another beautiful addition to our listing in the same color family is King Solomon, which we haven’t had available since 2012.

The world is changing, in and outside of our glad patches. Technology has connected us in ways that we’ve never been. Technology made it possible (after a bit of a delay) for us to produce this catalog and the website on which our price list lives. It lets us communicate with our customers and other glad fans on social media, helps us organize events, and keeps us up to date on weather conditions and markets. There’ve been innovations in farm equipment, crop rotation, fertilizers, and irrigation.

But there’s one thing that technology can’t outshine… and that’s the beauty of a glad field in East Vassalboro, bursting with color in mid-summer.

On behalf of Paul, Elisabeth, and the rest of the Cateses of Cates Family Glads, we wish you all a colorful 2018, with hope for just enough rain to make your glad patch the star of your neighborhood.

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Notes from Up North, January 2017

It’s cold and icy in East Vassalboro, and our minds are on what the coming summer will bring us. 

2016 was dry. Very dry. We got our planting done in record time, and then experienced nearly an entire month without a drop of rain. As you can imagine, many of our varieties objected to this kind of treatment, and as a result some simply didn’t grow. We lost 35 varieties of mature bulbs to the drought. 

However! We didn’t lose those varieties entirely. We had a great harvest from bulblets last year, despite the drought. We’ll be restocking some of those temporarily missing varieties in next year’s catalog. Those bulblets really saved our skins! 

We’re really looking forward to 2017’s crop, since the bulblets not only saved several mature varieties, but introduced some new trial varieties (as well as some old timers we’d phased out of our commercial grow before we began this catalog). Expect to see some new or returning faces in upcoming listings. 

Returning to this year’s list is a Cates Family Glads favorite, True Love. This robust pink-salmon glad has stood the test of time (and drought) and remains healthy and gorgeous. 

We’ll also be promoting something a little different in 2017 — our daughter Helen and her husband will be selling organic, Maine-grown table and seed garlic this summer. If you’re a foodie (or trying to stave off some vampires), keep an eye out on our website and Facebook page for garlic harvest season! We’ve also added a line to our order form so you can indicate whether you’re interested in receiving more information closer to the garlic harvest. 

Whether it’s glads or garlic, we wish you a fantastic 2017 growing season. May it be wetter than the last! 

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Notes from Up North, January 2016

Happy 2016 from the snowy village of East Vassalboro! 

We’re thinking back to last summer — it was a hot one! We had visitors from out-of-state during midsummer; daughter Dorothee and her children came to stay for several weeks. Our house was often full of family, children and grandchildren alike! A surprise “165th” combined birthday party for us at the Vassalboro Grange Hall was the highlight of our summer. 

Despite the heat, the growing season was decent. We were able to restock a few varieties that have been absent from our listing in recent years, and we’re testing out a lot of new (to us) varieties in our “special” glad field that’s reserved for varieties of which we have fewer than 20 bulbs. Some of those varieties may be present in our 2017 catalog. 

In lieu of new introductions, this year we’d like to feature two of our old favorites. These are glads that have truly stood the test of time, surviving the decades with impeccable health. 

Atom is a small, very cute medium red glad with a narrow white halo around the petals. This 1946 introduction is one of the oldest, healthiest glads in our collection. 

Early Highlight, introduced in 1973, is very appropriately named! This bicolored, orange and yellow miniature has been the top of any listing of glads ranked by earliness since its introduction. It’s the sign we wait for every year, because once Early Highlight blooms, glad season is here! 

This year’s special was inspired by a glad which, sadly, is absent from our 2016 listing. Baker’s Dozen, one of our most successful “parent” glads for hybridization, is in a restocking year and we hope to have it back in the catalog in 2017. In its honor, we’re running a Baker’s Dozen Special: buy stock of any twelve varieties and we will provide you with bulbs of a thirteenth (our choice) for free! 

With hopes for a beautiful, weed-free glad-growing season, 

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Notes from Up North, January 2015

Warm greetings from a cold and windy East Vassalboro, ME! 

The summer of 2014 had mild weather with occasional rain. The weeds were prolific and healthy! Our beef cows got a lot of “weed salad.” For health reasons (knee replacement, etc., etc.) I was out of the glad field for most of 2014, but I was hardly missed. Our extended family, organized by son Chris, brought order into the glad field, both in weeding season and during bulb harvesting. 

The low point of last season came one dark, late summer night when Elisabeth and I were stranded in the back field with a pickup truck full of bulbs. The truck lights didn’t work; the truck wouldn’t start. Finally, we stumbled down the farm road, past the small creek. It’s a wonder we didn’t fall in! As is often the case, it was “Chris to the rescue!” He jumpstarted the truck and brought the bulbs down to safe, temporary storage in our greenhouse. 

Chris’s contribution continued through drying and cleaning time, until the bulbs were safely in winter storage — where he then took inventory for our catalog. Daughter Margaret also made major contributions. She was in the glad field almost every weekend this summer, taking pictures for our Facebook page, website, and 2015 catalog (which, at the time of this note, she was in the process of producing). 

This year’s catalog marks the return of some heirloom favorites, two new introductions, and the addition of some stunning Eastern European cultivars. 

To celebrate our 45th anniversary, we are offering an “early bird special” to our bulb customers. For all orders with a subtotal of $45 or higher which are postmarked on or before March 15th, take 10% off the cost of bulbs before tax and shipping. (Note: sales tax is required for Maine residents only.) 

Wishing you a beautiful growing season, 

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Notes from Up North, January 2014

2013 was a good year for glads. There was enough rain to keep them growing. A series of 90 degree days in July was short enough to do no damage. 

Despite Elisabeth and Margaret being in a bank when it was robbed… despite Paul getting a leg injury in a freak accident, an injury which required 3½ months of elevation-type recuperation… we had a good season and have harvested an excellent crop of glad bulbs. 

We’re preparing our catalog, which will include most varieties from the 2013 book, plus a new introduction and several interesting re-introductions. This is a stock-rebuilding year for several Cates favorites, but if there’s a variety that has been listed in the past that you’d been hoping to get your hands on in 2014, give us a call — we may have a few bulbs in that we could spare. 

I’m cutting this short to focus on catalog preparation. (Your reading this is evidence that we succeeded.) 

Greetings to all our glad friends, and happy growing! 

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Notes from Up North, January 2013

Hello from the warm Cates kitchen in East Vassalboro, 

We finished planting our glad bulbs on May 31st, the earliest date ever. This was largely due to the presence of Elisabeth’s 16-year-old German nephew Friedrich (Freddy), who said when he arrived, “I’m here to help you, not to do touristy things!” 

As usual, we said in 2012 that we would have to cut back — and, of course, we wound up with perhaps 50 more varieties of glads than we’d had in 2011. 

July was hot and dry. Our son Chris, always concerned for his aging parents, often said, “Dad, you aren’t working outside in the heat today.” (Our daughter Margaret established a rule whereby I wasn’t allowed to work in temperatures that were higher than my age minus five.) Well, I may be aging, but I don’t give up easily. The solution: up at 5 AM, in the field at 5:30, about three hours of weeding in the cool of the morning. I came down from the field with muddy hands, realizing that the heavy morning dew was saving the glads from serious heat damage. A new flame weeder was also a help in weed control. 

Our flower and bulb harvest were both successful. The bulblet harvest was the best we’ve had in recent years. 

This catalog lists more varieties in the heirloom and the younger lists than last year’s did. We’re happy to offer four introductions: two of our own Baker’s Dozen seedlings, Ethan (465 M) and Persephone (466 M); Angel Wings (201 M), an outstanding variety from Dave Kollasch, whose Fruehling we introduced in 2011; and our first Russian intro, Gromov’s beautiful Maya Plisetskaya (423 M), which was previously introduced in Russia in 1997, but is being registered in North America for the first time by Cates Family Glads. 

That’s already more than I intended to write, but there’s still room to say, “Happy gardening in 2013!” 

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Notes from Up North, January 2012

This is rare! Finally we had a growing season with nothing to complain about! In 2009, there was almost never-ending rain. In 2010, we had a major weed problem due to worker shortage. 

In 2011, however, we had a good balance between rain and shine, and therefore a successful harvest of both blooms and corms. As a result, we were able to re-list most of the glads un-listed in 2010. 

Our supply of corms this year is sufficient for us to restore the “6 for the price of 5” special we reluctantly did not offer last year. Please make note of it on your order forms. 

It is a strong motivator for us to be able to make available gladiolus varieties which are otherwise difficult to find. We continue to look for heirloom cultivars and are willing to purchase or trade for same, even if you don’t know their names. (We enjoy detective work and are grateful to growers who help us identify the unknowns.) 

We are building up stock of several rare old-timers. We also have a growing collection of Eastern European varieties, as well as several seedlings which have yet to be introduced, and will list some of them when supply is adequate. 

Wishing a great season to glad growers nationwide, 

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Notes from Up North, January 2011

Well, you see, its like this: last summer we had some great new ideas for weed control, but — a key member of the weeding brigade was not available. Thus, some tough choices. In the end we abandoned a “weed heaven” right in the middle of our second field and concentrated on pampering the bulblet crop and our new introductions of old glad varieties. You’ll find some of our best new/old glads in our 2011 listing. 

Let’s talk bulb size. So many times, I’ve been asked, “What are better, medium or large corms?” Many say that medium bulbs are healthier, but we find that since we have hosed off all bulbs and then disinfected them by a quick dip in a Lysol solution (a tip we received from a former Maine governor), there’s little difference in the health category. 

In many, perhaps most cultivars a healthy, large bulb will give a better bloom than you can get from a medium bulb. Still, both are large enough to do very well in your garden. But, be careful how you experiment with untried weed-control methods, and don’t count your helpers before they are hatched. Or something like that. 

We are excited about new and old offerings in our catalog and on our website this year. If you miss a glad not in our 2011 list, ask us. We may still have a limited stock, all washed, dipped, dried, and cleaned. 

We really do think of our bulb customers as glad friends, and hope that our bulbs will contribute to your glad success this year. 

All the best from us to you!