Here’s the thing I learned today: You can’t be sad standing in a field of sunflowers. No, seriously. There must be some sort of karmic law that makes you smile when surrounded by these happy plants. I experienced it when I went to visit the sunflower farm on Oxford Rd in Oxford. For our interview, owner Bill Eason, aka Mr. Sunflower, had set up a table outside his home where a vase of sunflowers and zinnias took center stage. How could you not smile?
86-year-old Eason has been a lifetime Eastern Shore resident living in the house on Oxford Road since 1959. With farming in his blood (his dad and brother were farmers), he and his wife, Rose, started a produce stand at the site, first selling corn and then including tomatoes, beets, and other vegetables. They were so successful that they expanded to a new building and stand also on the property. Besides the produce, the Easons had also been growing sunflowers because they seemed to attract people to the stand. That, too, expanded when Rose got him interested in zinnias.
And then, in 2012, Rose passed away, and Eason stopped growing vegetables and closed the stand. He didn’t want to do it without her, he said.
But he continued to cultivate sunflowers because he loved watching them grow. So much so that they began to encompass most of his 3.5-acre property as years went by. The zinnias also began to take on a life of their own and took up some space on his field. They became a way to honor Rose’s memory. “I’m really proud of them,” he said. “I’m sorry my wife is not here to see them, but maybe she’s looking down on them because they’re doing great this year.”
Anyone traveling to and from Oxford is used to seeing Eason’s sunflowers in various stages of bloom throughout the entire summer and deep into fall. That’s because he has a staggered planting strategy that takes him past what most people think is too late to sow. “It’s about 65 days for the shoots to come up, and I plant them about the middle of September,” he said. “And they’ll come up in late November or early December if the weather doesn’t get too cold because they can even handle a frost. But I’ll take a chance on the late ones every year.”
That’s not to say there aren’t challenges, including hungry deer, which have sometimes ruined a plot or two. But not all wildlife is destructive, and watching his sunflowers sustain the bumble, honeybees, and birds brings him enormous joy. He also never tires of taking pictures, estimating he’s amassed around 5,000 on his phone, he told me, flipping through photos of customers holding his sunflowers, bees with their legs heavy with pollen, and birds landing on the flower head picking out seeds.
There’s no typical day for Eason, who, for obvious reasons, is enormously proud of his plants. As we spoke, he walked among them, pulling up a weed, cutting off dead bent-over flower heads, or selecting blooms for his stand. Today, like many others, he’s trailed by his calico cat Ava. It’s all in preparation for the steady stream of customers who usually drive through his lot.
At the self-serve stand, you can buy either a $5 or a $10 vase of flowers (vase included, which you can bring back or keep) and the dead flower heads, which he called ‘nature’s bird feeders.’ Eason enjoys being able to provide this service, and the only complaint he ever gets, he said, is the mess made by the pollen released from the massive sunflower heads, although he’s heard there may be a solution—hairspray.
I asked if there was a secret on why his fields were so prolific, especially since I learned he doesn’t use fertilizers. Does he sell his super seeds so we can recreate these beauties? Actually, Eason buys his seeds yearly from Talbot AG Supply in Queen Anne. “It’s a hybrid small seed that grows well and is treated so insects don’t eat them.” Probably the best secret is hiring Eason to plant them for you, something he does as a side business.
Despite everything I was learning, I was anxious to share what I thought I knew about the flowers. He set me straight: Sunflowers don’t follow the sun. No matter how you plant them, they always face east. And if, like me, you’ve aww-ed over how sunflowers turn toward each other when it’s cloudy, prepare to be disappointed, “I’ve never seen that happening,” he said.
The one thing I was right about is that his flowers bring others joy. Said Eason, “I take sunflowers around and donate to the hospital, doctor’s offices, restaurants, churches, and homebound folks,” he said. He reminisced about bringing sunflowers to a friend’s wife battling cancer. It deeply touched him how his simple gift brightened her final days. Recently he brought a couple of dozen flowers to a church and told people to take them home. “That was my pay–to see happy faces. I probably donate as many or more than I sell.”
Beyond bouquets, Eason extends his generosity and community spirit through parades, festivals, fundraisers, and more. His decorated trailer is a familiar sight, whether for Waterfowl Festival, strawberry festival, Christmas parade, or a cancer benefit. On October 21, he’ll help Oxford Community Center’s (OCC) Harvest Moon Dance fall gala. OCC’s Director, Liza Ledford, said, “Bill has a smile like no other. His generous nature can be seen in all of his flourishing sunflowers! We are so lucky he shares his flowers to support many Oxford organizations, including this fundraiser where his beautiful flowers and tractors will be the main decorations.”
Before I left, Mr. Sunflower handed me an armful of sunshine and zinnias. Pollen or not, many days later, they still make me smile.
Bill Eason’s Sunflower Farm is on Oxford Rd, approximately 4 miles from the town of Oxford. 410-924-3486
Val Cavalheri is a writer and photographer. She has written for various publications, including The Washington Post. Previously she served as the editor of several magazines, including Bliss and Virginia Woman. Although her camera is never far from her reach, Val retired her photography studio when she moved from Northern Virginia to the Eastern Shore a few years ago.. She and her husband, Wayne Gaiteri, have two children and one grandchild.