Local, Organic, Sustainable Flowers: Join the ‘Slow Flower’ Movement

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“The 50 Mile Bouquet” gives you an inside look at an exciting transformation that is taking place within the cut flower industry. As with food, more people are beginning to ask where their products come from. Meet farmers and florists who are embracing a “slow flower” ethic and working to bring local, seasonal, sustainable flowers to markets and consumers within 50 miles of where the flowers were grown.
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Diane Szukovathy of Jello Mold Farm in Washington’s Skagit Valley is a sustainable flower grower whose practices are safe for the earth, the flowers she plants and the people who ultimately enjoy them. She brings blooms from the field to market within 48 hours of harvest, to the delight of floral designers and flower lovers alike.
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The heady scents, evocative color and romantic appearance of old-fashioned lilacs are perhaps the quintessential symbol of springtime.
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In the back of a flower farmer’s van, buckets of blooms resemble a vibrant tapestry. From grasses and gourds to sunflowers and dahlias, the diversity of field-grown ingredients is sure to delight and inspire the floral designer who receives this delivery.
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Berkeley-based designer Max Gill creates soulful arrangements for Alice Waters’ renowned Chez Panisse Restaurant & Café. He uses wild-foraged ingredients, vines and branches from his city-sized garden and blooms grown by Bay Area flower farms.
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Flowers grown nearby are to be enjoyed and cherished in the moment.

The following is an excerpt from The 50 Mile Bouquet: Seasonal, Local and Sustainable Flowers by Debra Prinzing (St. Lynn’s Press, 2012). This book introduces many innovative voices of the sustainable flower movement: organic flower farmers, green floral designers, and consumers who are increasingly asking, “Where and how were my flowers grown, and who grew them?”  Most flowers on the market today are imported, mass-produced and chemical-laden, and in this book, Prinzing shows us that there are meaningful alternatives. A growing number of farmers and florists provide local, seasonal and sustainable flowers. With detailed reporting and full color photographs, this informative and visually elegant book takes us onto the farms and into design studios to follow the journey of the 50-mile bouquet. This is the first book to spotlight the major transformation underway in how cut flowers are grown, designed and consumed. This excerpt is the complete introduction of the book.

Do you enjoy flowers in your life? Are you drawn to a voluptuous heirloom rose like a bee to honey? Is burying your head in a just-picked garden bouquet and inhaling its perfume a joy-inducing experience? You are not alone. Our love affair with flowers is ancient and visceral.

But lately something has been missing from everyday flowers — you’ve probably noticed. That clutch of gerbera daisies or tulips from the supermarket may appear picture-perfect, yet it feels disconnected from the less-than-perfect (but incredibly romantic) flowers growing in your own backyard. The mixed bouquet delivered in a happy-face vase by a floral service is pretty enough, but somehow looks unnatural, as if it were produced in a laboratory and not in real garden soil, nurtured by sun and rain. These blooms feel far removed from the fields in which they grew. And they are, in more ways than one. To the many of us who seek that visceral joy of just-picked bouquets to bring into our homes or use for special celebrations — or give as gifts to others — the flower has lost its soul. What happened?

These are “factory flowers,” grown by a $40 billion worldwide floriculture industry whose goal is uniformity and durability — so as to withstand long shipping distances. They are altogether different from the carefree zinnias,  romantic peonies and wispy cosmos you clip from the garden for a home-styled arrangement. The $100 box of long-stemmed roses may look close to perfect, but its contents have been off the farm for up to two weeks. Those scentless creations were likely grown a continent or two away and shipped on a dose of preservatives to travel to you — poor substitutes for heady, abundant armloads of blooms gathered from grandmother’s cutting garden. They have lost the fleeting, ephemeral quality of an old-fashioned, just-picked bouquet.

A Greener Way: Sustainable, Local Flowers

“Green” floral design is only recently appearing in the sustainable living lexicon, but the term suggests using flowers that have been grown with eco-friendly methods. To us, it feels authentic, echoing the voices of those in the slow food movement. Why can’t we have flowers that come from local fields? Or ones that express the cycle of seasons? Isn’t that a more natural, and sustainable, way to bring flowers into our lives?

Faced with concerns about our food supply, the materials with which our homes are built and furnished, and the energy sources we consume, more people than ever are asking questions about the environmental impact of everything they use, drive, eat and even wear.

And yet, until recently, conscious consumers were largely unaware of the decidedly non-green attributes of their floral purchases. They bought bouquets without questioning the source, or the manner in which those flowers were grown (not to mention the environmental costs of shipping a perishable, luxury commodity around the globe). When presented with the real back story of their bouquets, some have initially said, “I don’t eat my flowers, so why should I care if they are organic or not?’ or “How damaging to the earth is a $10 bunch of cellophane-wrapped mums anyway?” For others, it’s been a revelation.

Take the idea of buying local: In the world of foods, the concept of “eating local” has become accepted in our culture. Many of us already embrace the premise that “local” is desirable, over non-local. According to a statewide study by the California Cut Flower Commission, 85 percent of consumers did not know where the flowers they purchase are from; however, more than half (55 percent) indicated they would purchase flowers grown locally, in California, if they were given the choice.

It’s our belief that many consumers want to bring home blooms that are fresh, local and safe. Even though hard data on the harmful effects of pesticides and other chemicals used in the commercial floral trade have been slow in coming, anecdotal evidence from our interviews with organic flower farmers, green floral designers, and retailers who market sustainably grown flowers supports our belief.

Whether or not they consider themselves environmentalists, consumers are beginning to exercise their choices at the flower stand, asking whether the beautiful roses, lilies or tulips they purchase at the local supermarket were grown domestically or were imported. They are looking for labeling that guarantees flowers have been produced in an environmentally and socially responsible manner — finding it in an increasing number of outlets as diverse as Sam’s Club, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and the neighborhood grocery store.

More flower shops and wedding designers are marketing themselves as “organic, local and sustainable,” seeking healthy, artful ingredients grown in their own communities by small family farms. As demand for green flowers increases, the sources of chemical-free crops will also expand, allowing the local flower farmer to earn a living wage supplying designers, florists and consumers in his or her own community. Seasons change, and so do the varieties, offering us the pleasure of celebrating the full cycle of a calendar year in the garden. But seasonality does not mean giving up our floral traditions. There are lovely, domestically-grown roses available to buy and give on Valentine’s Day — but only for those who are intentional, insisting that the florist source Oregon- or California-grown roses for holiday giving. And of course, you can embrace the moment differently, such as giving your beloved a pot of hyacinth blooms that have been forced indoors.

As more flower consumers pose the questions: “Is this local? … Is this seasonal? … Is this sustainable?” — we’ve heard them. We’ve collected the answers to those questions and more in the pages of The 50 Mile Bouquet. In this book, you’ll find inspiring and creative resources and how-to ideas, techniques and information to enjoy flowers in your daily life, even if you aren’t a gardener.

Planning a wedding? We’ll introduce you to floral designers who work with local farmers to create unforgettable, one-of-a-kind bouquets for your day of days. Planning a special event that cries out for fresh flowers, but you live in an area with limited access to fresh, locally grown blooms? We’ll put you in touch with domestic flower farmers and florists from other areas who can ship your orders overnight.

Our book aspires to be the essential resource for savvy, eco-conscious consumers who may be aware that the flowers they buy at the corner market or order from a local florist or wire service are not organic, but who need a road map to guide them to better — and more beautiful — alternatives. Rather than pointing to the perceived lack of choice or limitations of the floral industry, The 50 Mile Bouquet will empower and equip gardeners, flower enthusiasts, floral designers, event planners and their customers to take a proactive, informed approach to the flowers in their lives and work. Consider this the “slow flower” guide to organic flower growing, gathering and design.

What Does the Term ‘Sustainable Flowers’ Mean?

Recently, a reader of our blog asked: “I have always bought local. What I don’t understand is the term ‘sustainable.’ Can you expand?” Before we even had a chance to post an answer or define the term, another reader shared her point of view as an urban flower farmer and designer. Jennie Love owns Philadelphia-based Love ‘n Fresh Flowers. She wrote:

I am a small flower farmer in Pennsylvania who grows organically, but is not certified as ‘organic’ due to the debilitating high costs of going through the (USDA) certification process. So I use the words ‘sustainably grown’ to describe my flowers (due to government regulations, if you’re not a Certified Organic operation, you cannot use the word ‘organic’ in promoting what you produce). What ‘sustainably grown’ means to me is this in a nutshell: being careful to not take more from the land and the community than I am putting back into them. 

In my daily farming practices, I am using cover crops, compost, all-natural fertilizers, good watering practices, limited tilling of the land, lots of native plants so the local insect population has food sources, nurturing old antique/heirloom flowers that might not necessarily be money makers but are going to disappear from our world if growers like me don’t keep using them, and generally being very thoughtful about how everything I do in the field is going to impact not just that field but the forest that surrounds the field, the underwater streams that run from the field to the rivers, and the flora and fauna in that field and elsewhere in 5 to 10 years. And I never use synthetic chemicals to fight bugs or weeds.

In my business practices, I work hard at engaging and educating my immediate community — literally my neighbors — and the city in which I live. I try to always be transparent about what I am doing and what my goals are when people ask about my business. I have recently hired my first employee and I am paying well above minimum wage (more than I can afford, really) and providing flexible work hours that fit into his schedule so his quality of life improves because he is working for me. I make a point to donate lots of flowers to different non-profits and to nursing homes …

Most importantly, to me at least, is that I have a rule: My flowers never go farther than 75 miles from where they grew. I want my flowers and my business to enrich the lives of those who live around me in as many ways as possible. To me, that’s giving back more than I take from this world.

We were so impressed with Jennie’s eloquent and respectful response. She highlighted some of the challenges small flower farmers face when it comes to the nuances with definitions and labeling of organic products definitions. The myriad terminology is helpful to learn, and we sometimes use “organic” with a lowercase “o” to differentiate from Organic, as defined by the United States Department of Agriculture.

Change Your Relationship With Flowers

In The 50 Mile Bouquet, we discuss flower farmers, supermarket flower buyers, floral designers, wedding planners, farmers market vendors and creative DIYers who are committed to growing, selling and designing with a “green” approach. This is a topic that will engage your senses. Let your eyes feast on some evocative photos of slow flowers. Get lost in the images of both the uncommon and the everyday  buds, blooms, branches, leaves and berries — as they grow and are ultimately used by floral artists. We share intimate narratives of every person we’ve met on our floral journey, including the growers who are passionately committed to sustainable practices and the designers who use ingenuity and innovation to source their ingredients locally and seasonally — and eliminate conventional and often harmful industry practices.

We hope The 50 Mile Bouquet connects you with a healthier, flower-filled lifestyle, one that helps you engage with nature, with the environment, and with the very blooms you desire. Enjoy safe and sustainable flowers, the ones you grow yourself in a cutting garden or the ones in pots on your balcony. Gather bouquets with your children, not worrying that they’ll come in contact with pesticides. Share those bunches with a neighbor who doesn’t have a garden. Source fresh blooms from flower growers in your own community, whether you live in the town or country. And finally, learn how to design with confidence, as you create personal, evocative bouquets of your own. It’s a better way to beautiful.

Reprinted with permission from The 50 Mile Bouquet: Seasonal, Local and Sustainable Flowers, published by St. Lynn’s Press, 2012.

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