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Burnside Farms in Nokesville is said to have the largest "Pick-Your- Own" tulip event in North America.

Holland in Haymarket: North America’s Largest Pick-Your-Own Tulip Festival

Burnside Farms in Nokesville is said to have the largest "Pick-Your- Own" tulip event in North America.
Burnside Farms in Nokesville is said to have the largest “Pick-Your- Own” tulip event in North America.

By Michelle Hurrell

In Haymarket, there is a Civil War legend that Union General Ambrose Burnside ordered his men to burn the town to the ground, but to spare 4905 James Madison Highway and its occupants. Thus, the story goes, the property became known as “Burnside Farms.” While the town was indeed set ablaze by Union troops in 1862, Burnside did not give those orders. (The man who did, Lt. Kurd Baron von Veltheim, was later court martialed for his actions.) It is more likely that the farm’s moniker comes from its location alongside Catharpin Run, which is a “burn” or small creek.

Still, the story lingers, said the farm’s owner, Leslie Dawley. Viewing modern-day Burnside Farms in springtime, its fields ablaze with colorful blooms, it is easy to picture even the most war-hardened commander being moved to preserve this parcel of land.

What began as a horse farm for Dawley when she and her husband, now deceased, purchased the property in 1995 has grown into the largest pick-your-own tulip festival in North America, she said. In 2011, the importer providing the farm with amaryllis bulbs offered an irresistible deal on 35,000 Dutch tulip bulbs. Dawley said that she and her son Michael Dawley, who runs the farm with her, bought and planted them for the 2012 season. The planting took off, and they planted 104,000 tulip bulbs for the 2013 season and more than 150,000 for this April’s festival.

“Many customers visited Holland and have said our tulips are similarly beautiful, but they love ours more, because they can take them home,” she said.

Now entering its third year, the festival, called “Holland in Haymarket,” runs during most of April, give or take a few days depending on weather. This year, the excitement is extended, with daffodil blooms available for picking in March and Dutch iris in May, said Leslie Dawley.

Work for the tulip festival begins long before any plants are seen. The Dawleys labor from sunrise to sunset for two months to get the bulbs in the ground. Then there’s the most unpredictable element of their work. “The challenge to owning and running a farm is the weather,” said Michael Dawley.

Place of Tranquility

Customer Connie Thomson of Manassas said the results of the Dawleys’ efforts are not only beautiful, but also teach a life lesson. “They are planted in the fall and must survive winter before they bear their beautiful blooms in spring,” said Thomson. “We hardly ever welcome the hard times, the harsh winters of our lives, but so often we come through strong and sturdy, too.” She added that the flower fields are a rare place of tranquility in busy Northern Virginia.

Entry to the farm’s fields is $3 for each flowering period. A “Daffodil Pass” allows attendees to enter as much as they like until the tulip picking begins. An unlimited entry pass to all three of the farm’s spring events is $6. “PYO” (pick-your-own) rates are $1 for two daffodils, $1 per tulip and 75 cents per iris. Pickers can choose from 22 varieties of daffodils, 145 of tulips and 20 of iris.

Photo opportunities also exist. Benches, chairs, a flower cart and wheelbarrows in the fields offer spots for posing among the blooms. Another photo favorite is donning a pair of the 200 authentic wooden Dutch shoes, sized infant to men’s 13. Children can play in the clogs on a stage. “Watching the kids dance around on the stage in their little wooden shoes melts your heart,” said Michael Dawley.

Baby ducks and chicks add to the idyllic farm setting. Visitors can also get a look at the farm’s turkey, goats and peacocks.

The Dawleys said they are creating a live video feed of the fields, and posting a daily photo, at www.BurnsideFarms.com to help take the guesswork out of when to visit. The site links to the farm’s Facebook page.

Family Farming Legacy Continues

The Dawleys have been in the flower business for three generations, and their farming heritage stretches back even further. Leslie Dawley said that her great grandfather was a farmer in Canada and North Dakota and her grandfather ran a large farm in California. Her parents grew tropical plants in greenhouses just outside of Richmond and sold them to garden centers in Northern Virginia.

Her first business was Hedgerows, a flower shop in McLean. Her well-known clientele included former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and ABC news anchor and reporter Sam Donaldson, said Leslie Dawley.

Her experience and family history may explain why Dawley can grow rows of perfect rainbow-colored blooms organically, using only certified organic fertilizers and no pesticides. She explained that it takes a lot more for an organic farmer to produce a healthy crop than one who relies on conventional, chemical methods. The Dawleys only use vegetable-based Neem oil and the birds to handle problem insects, she said. They even hand pick grasshoppers off flowers and feed them to the chickens.

Leslie Dawley, also a beekeeper, knows firsthand the ecological damage pesticides cause, her son said. “This needs to be taken seriously, because without bees, we won’t have food,” he explained, citing reports that blame pesticides for the honey bee’s decline in North America. Many plants require pollination by bees to produce fruit and vegetables, which carry the seeds for the plant’s next generation.

“Always a Joy to Visit”

If you miss its flower explosion this spring, Burnside Farms has other events throughout the year. Its “Pick-Your-Own Sunflower” festival in July includes cooling stations that spray visitors with refreshing water mists. In the fall, Burnside Farms has the largest local selection of pumpkins and gourds, the Dawleys said. Their fall festival also features hayrides and slides. In November, they sell freshly cut Virginia-grown Christmas trees. “Regardless of the season, it’s always a joy to visit,” said Thomson.

Mother and son said that they both love the farm because they can work in the fresh air, plus there’s no commute, Leslie Dawley joked. But the real joy of running Burnside Farms “is the final fruit of our labor, and watching people enjoy our beautiful blooms. Food for the body, flowers for the soul,” she said.

Michelle Hurrell is a recovery support specialist, leading psycho-social groups at the PRS, Inc., Mount Vernon Recovery Academy, which is dedicated to helping adults with mental illnesses, substance abuse disorders or learning challenges strengthen their recovery. She can be reached at [email protected]

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