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After taking most of 2020 season off, Flower Fields set to bloom again

Crews work in the ranunculus fields at The Flower Fields in Carlsbad on Wednesday.
Crews work in the ranunculus fields at the Flower Fields in Carlsbad on Wednesday. After spending most of the 2020 season closed, preparations are underway to provide safe social distancing, as the attraction gets ready for a March 1st reopening.
(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The 55-acre Carlsbad attraction will reopen with new social distancing measures on Monday

Over the past 18 years of managing The Flower Fields in Carlsbad, General Manager Fred Clarke has seen some disappointing crop years caused by early rains, freezes, droughts, pests and wildfires. But nothing beats the pandemic in terms of its unique double-whammy last March.

Just over two weeks into its 2020 season last March, the 55-acre floral attraction was forced to close its gates to visitors. At the same time, all of the orders for the Giant Tecolote Ranunculus flowers that the farm cuts and ships back East to wholesale distributors were canceled. Flower sales did eventually rebound, but to control expenses in the early weeks of the pandemic, Clarke mowed down the majority of the early crop to reduce water costs.

But everything’s coming up roses, or ranunculus in this case, for the 2021 season. On Monday, The Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch will open its gates for a nine-week spring season.

Master gardener Judy MacKenzie works in the Pot Head Garden area at The Flower Fields in Carlsbad on Wednesday.
Master gardener Judy MacKenzie works in the Pot Head Garden area at The Flower Fields in Carlsbad on Wednesday. After spendingmuch of the 2020 season closed, the floral attraction will reopen March 1.
(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Clarke said the county approved the venue’s safe reopening plan under the purple tier requirements for outdoor recreational facilities. Online-only ticket sales, timed ticket entry, reduced capacity rules and face mask requirements will be implemented for the first time. But Clarke said visitors will be in for a spectacular show, because the flower seeds germinated so well during the fall planting season.

“We had a fantastic germination this year, so it’s going to be really beautiful here,” Clarke said, during a walk around the property Wednesday, where a handful of staff gardeners and volunteers were busy getting things ready for next week.

Staff gardener Judy MacKenzie was trimming up greenery in the artist gardens near the Flower Fields’ front entrance. For the third year in a row, she’s creating scenic spots where visitors can pose for selfies. This year, she’s created garden archways with hanging mosaic artwork. Last year, she created an elaborate “Pot Head” garden featuring pots resembling ancient Greek busts that have plants growing out of their “heads.” She said it was heartbreaking putting so much work into the potheads last year, only to see the attraction close.

“I came back to look at it a few weeks later and it looked so good but there was nobody here to enjoy it,” MacKenzie said.

The Flower Fields in Carlsbad will reopen March 1 with marked queues out front for visitor check-ins.
To ensure safe social distancing, The Flower Fields in Carlsbad will reopen March 1 with online-only ticket sales, timed entry and marked queues out front for visitor check-ins.
(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Over the past quarter-century, the Flower Fields have become one of the region’s most-photographed tourist attractions. In the early years, Clarke was thrilled to welcome 75,000 visitors between March 1 and Mother’s Day weekend. But with the advent of Instagram and other social media platforms, business exploded. In 2019, the attraction drew nearly 300,000.

The long sloping hillside, which stretches for one mile along Armada Drive from Cannon Road south to Palomar Airport Road, has been home to flowering plants since 1923, when Paul Ecke Sr. moved his family’s poinsettia-growing operation south from Los Angeles.

When the Eckes transitioned from cut poinsettia flowers to potted poinsettia plants and moved their growing operations inside greenhouses, the Carlsbad fields were leased in 1965 to another local grower, Edwin Frazee. His family began farming ranunculus flowers in the 1930s and over time developed them into hardier plants with stronger stems and bigger flowers with more petals. When Frazee retired in 1993, the Eckes brought in a new grower, Mellano & Co., which has farmed the property ever since.

Fred Clarke, general manager of The Flower Fields in Carlsbad.
Fred Clarke, general manager of The Flower Fields in Carlsbad, demonstrates a new selfie station in the artist gardens. The Flower Fields will reopen on March 1.
(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

To ensure multiple acres of flowers are always in bloom during the spring season, the fields are planted in sequence, four to five weeks apart, starting with the fields farthest north in early September. Those northern fields are just now coming into bloom. By Mother’s Day, the southernmost acres will be awash in color.

Usually each spring, the Flower Fields hosts a busy calendar of events with multiple classes, festivals, art fairs and concerts. Many of those won’t be held this year, and all of the school field trips — which usually bring 7,000 children to the property — have been canceled.

Almost all of the regular points of interest will be open to visitors, though some may be monitored to avoid overcrowding. Attractions include the Paul Ecke historic poinsettia display, the sweet pea maze, greenhouses, a playground and the gardens maintained by the San Diego County Master Gardeners. There are also plans for live outdoor music, though the auditorium-style seating has been replaced this year with widely spaced benches to allow family groups to sit together but away from other guests.

This year, visitors will be able to visit a new pick-your-own blueberry patch, also located at the north end of the fields. Planted five years ago, the 1.5-acre patch opened for the first time last March. But when the fields closed, Clarke brought in a gleaning company to pick the blueberry crop and give the fruit away to the needy. There are five varieties of high-bush blueberries growing inside the patch, which is netted to keep out hungry birds. A basket is $5. Clarke said the patch should produce 20,000 pounds of berries this year.

A new U-Pick blueberries patch will be available at the Flower Fields in Carlsbad when it reopens on March 1.
(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

This year, the children’s gold mine “sluice” attraction will be closed so it can be converted into a temporary flower shop operated by the adjacent Armstrong Garden Center. In past years, visitors leaving the Flower Fields exited directly into the Armstrong nursery, but without the ability to control crowds there, the Armstrong pop-up shop will be located next to a new park exit.

Clarke said he’s optimistic that pent-up demand will make it a good visitor season this year, even though ticket sales have been capped at 50 percent of capacity. He said he loves seeing the happy faces of visitors when they first see the fields of flowers up close.

“One of the greatest attractions of this job is is watching our guests experience what we take for granted,” he said. “I love watching that happen. People have been cooped up for 11 months, so I hope we can bring them back out again.”

No tickets will be sold onsite. Around 240 tickets will be available for each half-hour entry slot from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. A roped-off waiting queue has been set up outside the gates and the number of plexiglass-protected check-in stations has been doubled to avoid a bottleneck at the entrance. Tickets are $20 for adults, $18 for seniors and military and $10 for children ages 3 to 10. Season passes are also available. For details, visit theflowerfields.com.

Some of the fist blooming flowers in the ranunculus fields at the Flower Fields on Wednesday.
Some of the fist blooming flowers in the ranunculus fields at the Flower Fields on Wednesday. After spending most of the 2020 season closed, the Carlsbad attraction will reopen on March 1.
(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)


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