Living Local: Deb’s Flower Farm

June 1, 2014 

They look like stone. They’re heavy like stone.

But, surprise, those planters Deb Fisher sells aren’t carved. They’re formed, and what’s more, they bear a name that calls to mind a planet in a pulp sci-fi novel.

Fisher’s hypertufa dish gardens are made from a mixture of peat moss, sand and Portland cement blended with water and molded into different shapes.

“The idea behind it is you get a container for your plants that’s nice and porous but durable,” said Fisher, a Julian resident and the owner of Deb’s Flower Farm.

“It sort of mimics the look of stone. So they look quite natural for your garden, and indoors as something different.”

A regular at the downtown State College farmers market Tuesdays and Fridays on Locust Lane, where she also sells cut flowers, Fisher often hears the same reaction to her hypertufa dishes.

“It really surprises me how many people it fools,” Fisher said. “They say, ‘Where did you get that rock?’ ”

She first discovered hypertufa dishes in a garden magazine about 20 years ago while living in Philadelphia.

They intrigued Fisher, but it took another decade for her to start making them.

Her inspiration came during a trip to Ireland. She saw ancient, weathered stone troughs, originally for livestock, being used as planters, and was drawn to their natural appearance.

But the dishes have more than aesthetic appeal going for them.

Fisher said the porous hypertufa material allows air to circulate in the soil and moisture to escape.

“It’s really good for a lot of plants,” she said. “They like to get oxygen to their roots.”

Succulents in particular thrive in the dishes, she said.

“Most of the ones I sell I plant them up with little succulents, and they’re ready to go,” Fisher said.

Dishes generally range in size from fitting in one palm to requiring two, with most costing between $10 and $20. Fisher occasionally creates larger examples, but because they’re hard to tote casually while browsing, they rarely make it to the downtown market or the annual Centre Furnace Mansion plant sale in May.

Batches of dishes require as little as two hours to produce, but there’s a catch. They need months to cure before they’re ready to hold soil and water.

“We were actually potting some up today that I had made back in February,” Fisher said recently. “It’s a process. You plan ahead. The ones that I had been selling last week in the farmers market had been made in the fall.”

Hearts are her most popular shape, though the dishes come in bowls, rectangles and dog paws, her latest twist. There’s even a football-shaped one — a smart call in Nittany Lion country.

Regardless of the shape, all dishes come with a bonus feature.

Fisher said a hypertufa dish, naturally brownish-gray, doubles as a watering gauge. Light gray means the plant’s dry and thirsty.

A rich brown, on the other hand, signals enough moisture.

“It’s an indicator to know when to water for those who are maybe not as knowledgeable about how to take care of plants,” Fisher said.

Ideas for shapes sprout from various sources: gelatin molds in thrift stores for a quarter each, fossil rocks around her rural home, small animals such as turtles. By now, she excels at turning solid possibilities into concrete realities.

“It gives me another form of creativity, I would say. It’s like my art,” she said.

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— Chris Rosenblum

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