Planting a seed in the soil and believing that it will germinate, grow and develop into a fully-formed and resplendent flower is a revolutionary and fiercely courageous action in my humble flower-farming opinion. There truly are SO many things that could (and often do) go wrong. Too much rain. Too little rain. Freezing or soaring temperatures. Not enough compost. Too much compost. An incorrect balance of nutrients IN the compost even when you apply exactly the right amount. Wind. Insects that attack roots. Insects that attack stems. Insects that attack foliage. The wrong kind of bacteria or fungus on your plants. Lack of air circulation. Birds that peck your flowers out of the ground….you name it and I can guarantee hundreds of enterprising farmers across the world have valiantly attempted to nurture a plant through it.
The miracle of farming really is that we are as successful as we are as often as we are. It really is a testament to the knowledge, experience, persistence, patience and pure grit of farmers who have some of the most innovative and creative minds I have ever come across.
I have to step back here, just in case it sounds like I am boasting that I have one of the most innovative and creative minds. I did not grow up in a farming family. My mother is an artist, educator and art therapist. My father was a composer and musician. Creativity we have, but I will never be as enterprising and self-sufficient as some of my friends who have been farming for a lifetime. I consider myself a humble flower farmer. Now in my fifth year of growing, I feel like I have made it to the third grade in the flower farming world. Long enough that I am painfully aware how much I do not know, and still enough in love with the flowers that I continue to press seeds into soil and plant new life with great hope year after year in spite of the odds.
This flower season has been cold and exceptionally wet. Now that the sun has finally started appearing on a regular basis my flowers are being chewed to death by insects loving the warm, moist weather. Most days I head to the field with a list of things I want to accomplish and leave having spent most of my time battling insects to just try to keep my babies alive. After months of nurturing and tending, it can be a little discouraging to have so much turning into insect fodder.
The one thing that makes it all worth it is the joy and connection that the flowers that do make it bring to my community. The edible flowers that a local confectioner turned into sweet lollipops and biscuits. The stray strawflowers that I had on my farmers’ market table that I gave to two curious little girls who delighted in their texture and bright colours. The joy on my dear friend Hope’s face as she married her love a couple of weeks ago holding a bouquet I had made.
When you purchase a bouquet of local flowers to take home with you this summer, in addition to taking pleasure in its colours, textures and perfume, maybe take a moment to celebrate all the hope that each of the blooms that was carefully nurtured, harvested and arranged in it represents. Hope for the future of agriculture. Hope for our continued and deepening relationship with the natural world. Hope that future generations will also have the bounty of interacting with nature. Hope that we hold onto the awe and pure-hearted playfulness and joy that we have as children into and through adulthood. Hope for the promise of another bountiful season to unfold in the coming weeks and months.
With it being International Women’s Day this past Friday I have been thinking a lot about the women who have influenced me and my farm business this week. I find that inspiring people inspire, and that even if you never personally meet any of these women, the simple act of sharing their stories has an incredible power to uplift and empower. So without further ado, here are some of the leaders in the flower world who have influenced my journey:
Erin Benzakein is a flower farmer, floral designer, teacher, leader and successful business woman. She and her husband Chris own Floret Flowers, a flower farm in the Skagit Valley in Washington. I came across Erin online quite by accident and was inspired by her entrepreneurial, trailblazing spirit, enthusiasm for flowers (not a crop I had ever considered growing before) and her out-of-the-box thinking. Erin began growing flowers as a mother at home with two young children out of a pure love for flowers. I don’t think she ever could have imagined that planting those first sweet pea seeds would end up playing such a major role in transforming flower farming and floral design across the globe, but it has. Erin started small, but her passion for learning how to grow the best flowers and for sharing her learning with others has led her to test out thousands of varieties of plants from all over the world to find the varieties with the longest stem length and vase life, the most interesting hues and textures and the most aromatic blossoms for the cut flower industry. I came across her and a course she was co-teaching with Jennie Love at Love ‘n’ Fresh Flowers in Philadelphia a month or so later. Following my intuition, I signed up for the workshop and flew down to Philadelphia. I spent the next few days totally immersed in the world of cut flower farming and learning how to design with locally grown flowers, surrounded by a slew of experienced farmers and designers who have gone on to rock the flower farming world. Since then Erin has honed her skills, grown her team, offered workshops on her own farm, developed an online workshop, launched a line of flower seeds, published a bestselling book, won a Martha Stewart award, and is soon to come out with her second book all about designing with seasonal flowers. She also has a blog in which she shares her learning and insights with flower farmers and designers around the world — an incredible resource for both beginner and more experienced flower farmers, florists and home gardeners. I feel incredibly grateful to have been able to work with Erin on her social media marketing early on in her journey, and to have helped her launch her beautiful line of seeds. Working with her taught me a great deal about focus, discipline, strategy, branding, generosity and the power that is generated when a woman chooses to empower other women around her. You can learn more about Erin and the incredible work she is doing in the flower world, browse her shop and read her blog here.
Barb Jewell is a flower farmer and floral designer on Prince Edward Island, in Atlantic Canada. Her family has run Jewell’s Country Market — a garden centre that sells seasonal garden planters filled and overflowing with blooms for many years. She is also the most experienced flower farmer in Atlantic Canada now, and has built up an incredible amount of knowledge that I often wish she would write about so I didn’t have to pester her all the time with questions! Fortunately she is incredibly generous in sharing her knowledge with the rest of the growers in our region. Barb has a booming wedding business all summer long. Most of the gorgeous Prince Edward Island-based wedding floral arrangements that you see photos of on instagram are her creations. I spent one spring helping out in her greenhouse, and then working with her on with her social media for the season, taking photos of her flowers and wedding arrangements before they were whisked off by brides. It was quite an honour to be able to accompany her through a full season, capture her business and share her story with her customers online. More recently she has started a CSA, which makes sure that islanders have access to fresh, locally grown flowers on a weekly basis all summer long. Barb has taught me a lot about taking responsibility for my own successes and mistakes. She has also taught me that no two seasons are alike, that I should always expect the unexpected and that investing in perennials is one of the best things I can do for the long-term success of my business. Busy as she and I both are, I rarely see her in person, but I am grateful to have her in my community because she always turns up in her humble, quiet way when I could use an extra hand or have a question I simply cannot find an answer to on my own. All her work over the years in the community has laid the groundwork for our current flower industry which would not be what it is had she not invested so much in building it to its current state. She also injects so much beauty into my instagram feed, our community and the lives of all the couples whose wedding flowers she has done over the years. You can learn more about Barb and her flowers here.
I have been following Zoe and Sue from Field of Roses in Gisborne on New Zealand’s North Island on instagram for some time. This mother-daughter duo have a flower farm that always looked like a dream to me. I love Zoe’s intuitive sense for colour palettes and textures that turn bouquets into exquisite works of art. Sue is Zoe’s mother, and is a natural born farmer — her grandmother loved to garden; her mother has a garden behind her house that feels like something out of a historical novel brought to life, and Sue’s passion for gardening and growing and nurturing plants is obvious the moment you meet her. In the fall of 2016 I headed to New Zealand to do an internship at Field of Roses. The farm is every bit as magical in person as it is on instagram, and Zoe and Sue have the best mother-daughter fun loving and supportive working dynamic I have ever come across. Their 1,000 rose bushes climb a steep hill next to their home and lie adjacent to a cut flower garden bursting with sweet peas, foxgloves, zinnias, dahlias, scabiosa and many other flowers that complement the roses. Before interning there I had never realized what a diversity of perfumes roses had. Each variety they had had its own distinct aroma, and the combination of all of these mingling on a single hillside made it feel like I was working in heaven every single day. Most of the roses from Field of Roses are shipped to flower markets and florists in Auckland, but Zoe also uses them in her wedding floral designs, and she recently launched a floral crown DIY box with instructions for brides wanting to make their own floral crowns. Zoe and Sue have also hosted a number of international floral design workshops on their farm over the years led by designers like Nicole from Soil and Stem and Tanya from Oh Flora. What I respect most about Zoe and Sue is how they create space for each other to be authentically and wholeheartedly themselves as individuals; how they celebrate and nurture each other’s differences; how much pleasure they take in each other’s company and how each of them uses their individual strengths to create a business that is joyful, empowering and inspiring to others. Now that I am back on my own farm I often think of Sue and how she always recognized how important humour is to maintaining a light atmosphere when you have been working hard on the farm all day and trying to figure things out as you go. One of her favourite sayings, which still makes me chuckle when I think of her, is: “Why do something once when you can do it three times?”
Mimo Davis owns Urban Buds, an urban flower farm in St. Louis, Missouri with her wife Miranda and their darling boy August. I met her for the first time at the first flower workshop I attended in Philadelphia back in 2013. Like Erin at Floret, Mimo and Miranda are pros at growing a massive quantity of flowers on a very small piece of land. I have yet to have the pleasure of getting to know Miranda well, but Mimo is the Regional Director for the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, and before starting Urban Buds Flower Farm she operated Wild Thang Farms — the largest cut flower farm in the state of Missouri — for over a decade. She also worked at the Missouri Wildflowers Nursery where she specialized in native plants. What inspires me about her is her no-nonsense attitude and practical approach to growing flowers. Yes she wants to bring beauty into this world, but she has figured out how and when to grow each flower she wants to grow so that she gets the highest price for every single stem. Growing this way minimizes input of time, financial investment and energy, and maximizes output and income so that she can support herself and her family and continue to do work that she loves. I will never forget her asking me the first time I met her why anyone would grow bleeding hearts in the spring or summer when you can get ten times the price per stem if you force them in the greenhouse and sell them in February for Valentine’s Day when nobody else has them. In addition to being practical, Mimo is exceptionally generous with her knowledge, traveling all over North America to share her techniques with fellow flower farmers. I have often wished I could download all that knowledge she has stored in her brain, so am grateful that she turns up over and over and is always so willing to share with those of us who have far less experience than she does. You can learn more about Mimo and Miranda and their urban farm here.
This past fall I had a serendipitous meeting at Temple Coffee in Sacramento, California. My mother noticed that the woman sitting next to us had a beautiful bouquet sitting next to her table. Mom asked her where she had gotten it from, and it turned out that she had grown and arranged it herself and that she was a flower farmer growing in Rio Linda, on the edge of Sacramento. The woman’s name was Kori Hargreaves, and it turned out that in addition to being a flower farmer and designer she was also an experienced weaver and natural dyer, among many other things. The two of us exchanged information and made a tentative plan for me to go out to her farm for a visit. A couple weeks later I got in touch and headed out for a tour of Dawn Creek Farm. It turned out that Kori was originally from Santa Cruz. After attending university at UC Davis, she and her carpenter husband Toby decided to settle in Sacramento a couple of years ago to establish their own farm. I asked if she would be open to having me come out and volunteer once a week while I was on the west coast, and (thankfully!) she agreed. I have helped Kori disbud and then dig up and pot her mums for the winter; pull up last year’s beds and irrigation tape; spread compost on new beds for this season; roll out irrigation tape; burn landscaping fabric; plant this year’s ranunculus, anemones and narcissus; start seeding, and with a number of other small things that needed to be done on the farm.
Kori sells to around fifty wedding florists located in and around the Sacramento area. She grows all sorts of flowers, but her spirit flower is the mum, and she grows over 100 varieties of mums which she has collected from her network of fellow gardeners spread across the state over a number of years. I had been really looking forward to helping her harvest her mum crop, but she was hit with an unexpected early hard freeze that wiped her whole crop out just as it was starting to bloom. In true Kori fashion she took a few days to regroup and then decided to utilize one of her other fortes — natural dyeing — to turn what she had left of her crop into another product that she could sell: hand dyed silk ribbon. The way she turned what was a pretty massive loss into a gain is just one example of Kori’s creativity and industriousness. Working alongside her for the past six months has taught me a lot about how to take a vision and create a step-by-step plan to unfold that vision into reality. I have deep admiration and respect for her ability to organize, systematize and execute a plan; for the creative solutions she comes up with to the problems that come up on the farm every day; for the way she listens to understand rather than simply to respond, and the way she always shares her knowledge with a quiet yet generous humility.
As the flowers that I helped Kori plant in the fall begin to bloom I am truly blown away by the quality of each and every stem we harvest. Getting to take some home every week to arrange and enjoy has shown me what a tremendous difference the quality of the flowers makes in beauty of the final arrangement. Many of my friends have pointed at a bucket containing flowers I have carried home from the farm with the intention of arranging them and commented on the beauty of the “arrangement.” That a bucket of not-yet-arranged flowers looks to my friends like an arrangement is a testament to me of what a quality product Kori is growing. It is a reminder to me of the importance of caring for my soil, watering consistently and tending my flowers all along the way. Follow Kori’s flower journey on instagram here.
There are so many other growers and designers who have inspired and continue to inspire my work including Nicole Land at Soil and Stem; Katie Davis from Ponderosa and Pine, and Emily Avenson at Fleuropean. Here’s to all of these inspired and inspiring women and to all the rest of you whose paths I have yet to cross but who are blazing new trails in the flower industry in your own unique ways!
As I embark on what promises to be a truly amazing year of learning with and from other growers and designers, I will be sharing my journey and learning experiences with you here. Please leave comments below my blog posts and come connect with me on Facebook and Instagram. I cannot wait to share the year ahead with you!