The Farm-to-Centerpiece Movement
Not long ago, Jessica Gigot might have had a hard time designing a seasonal bouquet for her February wedding, even in the coastal Pacific Northwest with a relatively mild climate and long growing season.
But the explosion of interest in seasonal and pesticide-free food tilled in local soil is now spilling over into the commercial flower industry, making it possible to go local, even in the middle of winter.
Where small flower farms once seemed to be a vanishing species, new ones have been popping up across the nation. Farmers and growers are encouraging brides to eschew flowers that are out of season and have to be flown in from overseas, in favor of those grown nearby.
A seasonal bouquet is also more in line with a less formal, sylvan aesthetic, floral designers say, which means fewer blooms and in winter using more vines and evergreens, ornamental kale, moss-covered branches and snow berries.
“A fluffy dahlia is not what’s happening outside,” said Kelly Sullivan, a Seattle floral designer and grower who is designing the arrangements for Ms. Gigot. “In the winter, there’s this spare elegance,” said Ms. Sullivan, who for her design business, Botanique Flowers, draws from the Seattle Wholesale Growers Market Cooperative as well as from her own 6,000-square-foot backyard cutting garden.
The bouquet she plans for Ms. Gigot will include maidenhair fern and frost-resistant hellebore blooms, greenhouse-grown rose blooms from Portland’s Peterkort Roses, and foraged items, like weathered seed pods and shelf mushrooms.
Besides the assurance that these botanicals will not be coated with pesticide residue, just-cut flowers also look different, Ms. Sullivan said: “Fresh flowers have a luminous quality. They seem to glow.”
The rise in small flower farms partly reflects a widespread shift, according to Debra Prinzing, the author of “The 50 Mile Bouquet,” a book about the so-called slow-flower movement. “Buying from local growers can stimulate the rural economy,” she said. “We want to preserve farmland, and we want to preserve the family farm and living-wage jobs.”
Nationally, the products of small-scale local flower farms are more in demand on the coasts, Judy Laushman, president of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, wrote by email. “What a grower can easily sell in Portland or San Francisco or D.C. might languish on a grower’s truck in Sioux Falls,” she wrote, adding that this was slowly changing as consumers become more aware of differences between local and imported flowers.
Even so, to stay in business, small farms must learn to compete with the economies of scale enjoyed by larger operations.
The Seattle Wholesale Growers Market was formed in 2011 by a handful of Northwest flower growers. It operates out of a former brewery in the Georgetown neighborhood with about a dozen members.
Having a central market means that Diane Szukovathy, a founding member and president of the co-op, no longer has to drive around the city with her husband and business partner, Dennis Westphall, hauling flower buckets to shops and studios from their farm in the Skagit Valley.
The winter can still be challenging for a local operation, Ms. Szukovathy said. During the market’s first year, “It was really cold and dark, and our customers went away because we had mostly twigs and sticks in here.” And the wedding business wanes in the chillier months.
Gradually, the winter varieties and volume increased, and grants from the federal Department of Agriculture helped offset some costs. Ms. Szukovathy’s voice falls into a passionate near-whisper as she describes the tiny purple blossoms of a native desert tulip. “The fact that we’re farmers and we’re tenacious as hell is why we’re still here,” she said.
Despite their revival, small growers contribute only a small percentage of the total cut flowers sold in the United States. Most are still imported from greenhouses in Colombia and Ecuador, as well as from Africa, China and Europe.
One factor in the revival of local flower farms has been the influence of the investigative reporter Amy Stewart’s 2007 book, “Flower Confidential,” which is to many flower lovers what “Fast Food Nation” was to budding foodies.
Ms. Stewart wrote that flowers grown in developing countries were often tended by women and sometimes children, who were low paid and suffered abuses. The workers were exposed to pesticides, many of which were banned in the United States. Most conventionally grown flowers are also fumigated just before they’re shipped.
One of the growers she inspired is Jennie Love, of Love ‘n Fresh Flowersin Philadelphia. Theseasonalbouquetproject.com is the bicoastal brainchild of Ms. Love and another grower, Erin Benzakein, of Floret Flowers, in the Skagit Valley in Washington state.
Ms. Love and Ms. Benzakein confined their sourcing to within 25 miles of their farms to build weekly bouquets, photographs of which were posted online. An October bouquet by Ms. Love had dahlias, cosmos, pampas grass, broom corn, crab apples, northern sea oats, bronze fennel and sage. Other growers began posting links to their own seasonal bouquets.
In New York State, floral designers are beginning to buy land to farm their own flowers. A little over two years ago, Sarah Ryhanen and her partner, Eric Famisan, bought a farm in Montgomery County, N.Y., north of New York City. She named it the Farm at World’s End and started growing her own blooms to use in her wedding business and at her shop, Saipua, in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
She said she took this step when it became harder to find certain botanical elements at the Chelsea wholesale market in Manhattan after the economic crisis of 2008. “If you’re a wholesale market, you’re a lot more likely to sell white roses than dried eucalyptus seedpods from California,” Ms. Ryhanen said. “At some point I was, like, well, wouldn’t it be amazing to have things like digitalis and bearded iris, which I love and are really hard to source in the market.”
Ariella Chezar, another designer, also recently bought a farm in upstate New York and started growing flowers to use in her new Manhattan shop, Ariella New York.
Ms. Chezar is often credited with popularizing the more loose, wild-looking, textural bouquets with her 2002 book, “Flowers for the Table.”
In the late 1990s, Ms. Chezar said, the floral aesthetic was more tightly bound and uniform. “The look at the time was very French and tight, or what I like to call ‘roundy moundies.’ ” While making a name for herself in the San Francisco Bay Area, Ms. Chezar became friends with another floral designer, Max Gill of Chez Panisse.
“The aesthetic was very foraged and wild, and very seasonally driven,” Ms. Chezar said. “It drew me immediately, this looser, wilder, less perfect style, incorporating fruit on the branch and vines and really looking at how things grow naturally outside as a guide for creating different forms.”
Ms. Chezar, now back on the East Coast, said she was excited to finally have the control that growing her own flowers brings. “I’ve always struggled with what I call the dark underbelly of our business,” she said. “The necessity of blossoms being perfect and the growing conditions that make them perfect. Pesticides, mainly.”
Some of her clients are interested in how the flowers are grown, but many are not.
“It’s mostly still about pretty,” Ms. Chezar said. “If it happens to be grown sustainably, if it happens to be local, they’re happy about it. It’s like a plus, it’s a bonus.
“I’ve always been sort of preaching this local seasonal thing. Not just because it’s a trend, but because it makes sense. I’ve had brides who insist on peonies in July. I can get them for them, but it’s going to be really lame. It’s not going to have the lusciousness that a garden rose would have.”
“You can eat a tomato in January,” she said, “but why would you want to?”