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Princeton Roots

Elements of floral displays at local venues begin life on a preserved farm in Stockton

By Ilene Dube | Photo courtesy of Frederica Keep

Granted, it was a fairly balmy day in January to begin with, but when Peter McCrohan invited me inside the Mediterranean house, I found myself peeling off layers — wool hat and scarf, gloves, down jacket. He calls it the Mediterranean house because the plants he’s raising inside this greenhouse — white squill, oxblood lily, spider flower, and nerine — prefer a climate like that of grapes and olives.

“They grow in the winter and are dormant in summer,” says the tall 71-year-old farmer, wearing a worn leather cowboy hat and a down vest over a flannel shirt. “But they are frost tender, so I put a double-layered cloth over them at night. I mulch if it goes below 10 degrees outside.” Sitting at a patio table in the greenhouse, he looks down at his phone, noting that temperatures will dip into the single digits by the end of the week.

McCrohan operates Shoppons Run Farm in Stockton, raising flowers on four out of his 14 acres of preserved farmland. The season begins in March with flowering quince, followed by peonies, lilies, and deutzia, then dahlias in August and September. He also offers lilac, tiger lily, crinum, nerines, and bittersweet. “I don’t do arrangements, I don’t deal with event planning, I just grow the flowers,” he makes clear. His customers are largely floral shops and event planners, but he won’t turn anyone away. “People line up on the farm when they see things in bloom.”

A flower bed of dahlias. (Photo courtesy of Frederica Keep)

Shoppons Run, named for a nearby stream, offers cut flowers from late March through October. Sixty percent of his business is dahlias.

“I’ll tell you why people don’t grow dahlias,” he says, taking me into the building where he overwinters the tubers. “It’s because you have to dig them out in fall, clean them, label them, put them in bins — that’s three weeks of work. From the beginning of November until Thanksgiving, that’s all that I do.” He uses a portable radiator to keep the temperature at 42 degrees. “It’s a labor-intensive crop.”

McCrohan had given me a heads-up to wear boots for the mud. Just to get to the place, I drove three-quarters of a mile down a dirt road passing a “no outlet” sign. “It’s too bad you couldn’t come in the spring when everything is in bloom,” he says. I explain that spring flower stories are sowed in the dead of winter, and besides, how else would I get to bask in a hot house?

The horticulturalist/farmer/entrepreneur/preservationist is also a numbers guy. “In this 20-by-22-foot room I start 1,200 4-inch pots. There are 12 pots to a flat, and you need about 10 flats for a wedding,” he says. To store the dahlia tubers, he notes: “I have 25 bins with 100 tubers in each.” In the dahlia beds, “I grow 10 rows 120 feet long, spaced four feet apart. I have four gardens, and each holds 600 plants. Once you get it down you can make it work.”

And in the Mediterranean house, “each bed has 18 bulbs a foot, and there are 1,800 bulbs in a 10-foot bed,” says McCrohan,

He does all this without a staff — just hyaluronic injections into his knees, periodically, as he puts off the knee replacement surgery that he knows is inevitable. “I think I’ll get both knees done at the same time,” he says with a grin.

There are volunteers who help, including his dentist and his haircutter. And he did hire two 16-year-olds to create his website and social media. “They thought they’d won the lottery when I paid them,” he says.

Dahlias from the farm. (Photo courtesy of Frederica Keep)

He likes to cite tidbits from vintage gardening catalogs, such as the fact that Vineland, N.J., was once the dahlia capital of the U.S.

Among McCrohan’s clients is Lucy’s Ravioli in Princeton, and Dahlia Florals flower shop in Pennington. “She has a great eye,” he says of Dahlia owner Adriene Presti, who creates arrangements for, among others, Princeton University’s Prospect House, Chancellor Green, and the Princeton University Art Museum.

“I buy from him a lot because he’s local, and dahlias don’t ship well,” says Presti. “There are times where I’ve had New York designers in town working on events and they need dahlias right away, and Peter can meet the need.”

Betty Baines-Saum of HAWK+FLORET in Frenchtown says, “I love using local growers and Peter is top notch.” His flowers work their way into arrangements for, among others, Grounds For Sculpture and the Princeton Seminary.

Other Shoppons Run Farm clients are event planners, floral shops, wedding venues, and realtors in the New Jersey and Bucks County, Pa., river towns. In September 2022, when the New York Times Real Estate section was preparing a feature on Delaware Township, a photographer noticed five vases of flowers at a real estate opening and inquired about them. The photographer surprised McCrohan when she showed up with her cameras, and a few weeks later he was a centerpiece of the feature.

McCrohan has been interested in growing things since attending third grade at Nassau Street Elementary School, now home to Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts at 185 Nassau Street. Nearly two generations before Dorothy Mullen started the school garden at Riverside Elementary School, Miss Compton was teaching about germination and tubers and root development to third and fourth graders, McCrohan recounts. “We were planting radishes and spinach and even peanuts, which we planted in spring and harvested in fall.”

Overhearing a conversation at the Annex restaurant on Nassau Street in the mid 1980s, McCrohan learned that Miss Compton was living in a retirement home in the southern part of the state. He called to tell her she had such an influence on his life that he had just graduated from Cook College, the agricultural school at Rutgers, with a degree in horticulture. “‘You got so many of us interested in gardening, I just wanted to thank you,’” he says he told her. And it was just in time, as she died shortly thereafter, at 103.

Living on Hamilton Street, McCrohan babysat for his across-the-street neighbors, Carol and Alex Wojciechowicz. His older sister, Mary, went to school with New Jersey Barn Company cofounder Elric Endersby, and McCrohan’s younger sister, Patty, worked for the Barn Company. She was at Princeton High School at the same time as actor John Lithgow and photographer Richard Speedy.
McCrohan’s mother, who worked at ETS as an office manager in the Buildings and Grounds Department, instilled a love of nature in her three children, according to her Town Topics obituary. His father, also named Peter McCrohan, served as chief of police of Princeton Borough from 1960 to 1973. Even after he retired to Florida, McCrohan Sr. was still called “Chief.” His obit describes him as a raconteur; apparently the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

His son recounts a lot of time spent in the principal’s office. How did that jive with being the son of the chief of police? “I had to keep my nose cleaner than other kids, but my father knew what kids do, and it didn’t take much to get called out back then — just running down the stairs or sneaking a Hershey bar in class. But as the son of the chief of police, I couldn’t drink beer or smoke pot at a dance.”

During summers off from Princeton High School, McCrohan worked at the Walker Gordon Farm in Plainsboro, baling hay. Later, while renting space at the Goldman chicken farm on North Post Road in Princeton Junction, he grew strawberries on three acres. It was a short but intensive season. Hopewell artist Ken McIndoe painted a large strawberry on a wooden pallet for a sign — to this day it holds center stage in McCrohan’s art collection in his house.

“I wasn’t college material,” he admits. “I didn’t know how to study. But I realized I wasn’t going to make it growing strawberries alone.” Thus, he describes his 16-year journey to earn a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from Cook College.

When his girlfriend moved to the West Coast to attend UCLA, he followed her, taking a job for her father, renowned botanist Howard Gentry. They were researching then-new crops, such as chia and jojoba; and red squill, developed as rat poison by the Navy before World War II because it was a natural emetic. But McCrohan realized it had a beautiful flower and renamed it white squill for the bloom. He continued growing the squill on land he purchased in Murietta, Calif., while also taking other jobs, such as at the Desert Botanical Center in Scottsdale, Ariz., and for Native Seed Search in Patagonia, Ariz.

Growing flowers in the desert was all about chasing water, so McCrohan decided to return East 14 years ago. He scoured properties in New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Maryland before finding his dream site on the 14 acres in Stockton. Purchased from the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, “it was covered with multiflora rose, ivy, and wisteria, and I said ‘perfect!’”

What was perfect was the soil, fitting the name of the region: Sandy Ridge. “The sandy loam is like the soil in Hammonton, perfect for growing peaches (New Jersey was once the Peach State, he informs me), and where Campbell Soup grew its tomatoes,” he says.

“This is such a verdant area,” he continues. “For cut flowers, this area is ideal: It has a good climate with a long growing season, great soil, and, most importantly, markets that are close by.”
Among his neighbors are Sunflower Glass Studio and David Rago, of Rago Antiques.

After all the work to clear the land and establish the farm, waiting three years to get farmland assessment, he’s not so sure he’d do it again. Not to mention the 1879 farmhouse that needed work. He had to rebuild the greenhouse and depended on the income from the squill in Murietta while getting Shoppons Run established.

Peter McCrohan at the farm. (Photo courtesy of Frederica Keep)

Now that this farm is supporting him (“I’m not doing this for a hobby,” he says), he is planning to preserve the farm in Murietta as wildlife habitat. “It’s the fastest growing town in America,” he says of the region where he served on the Planning Commission to control rampant development. “I was a slow grow advocate in a fast growth town.”

His passion to preserve open space led him to run for Delaware Township Committee twice, the second time losing by only 100 points. He’s not sure if he’ll try again.

“Here I am in Delaware Township with preserved land — how can I take it to the next step?” he asks himself. “Maybe finding young farmers, helping them find long-term leases and getting organic certification where they can get the biggest bang for the buck. I want to act in a proactive way, not just preserving land but contributing to the modern high value of agriculture.”

And he plans to keep farming for as long as he can. His father, who lived to be 95, often touted early retirement as the key to longevity, but McCrohan has his own ideas.

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