Let Local Flowers Bring You Home

Posted in Community, Gardens, More Stories, Nature

This article was originally printed in Whidbey Life Magazine’s Spring/Summer 2016 print issue. The Fall/Winter 2016-17 print issue of Whidbey Life Magazine will be out in a couple of weeks! Look for it in your mailbox {subscribe here} or grab it at one of our local distributors. To whet your appetite, we thought you’d like to read an article from the Spring/Summer 2016 print issue.

Whidbey Life Magazine Contributor
October 5, 2016

Have you ever pulled dandelions from a city lot to make a childhood bouquet? Broken off blooming branches from an untended shrub to display on a windowsill? Wandered along the side of a country road picking Queen Anne’s lace and foxglove, butterfly weed and yarrow?

Tobey Nelson of Vases Wild selects owers for an arrangement. Photo by Marsha Morgan

Tobey Nelson of Vases Wild selects flowers for an arrangement. Photo by Marsha Morgan

Have you ever grown a row of flowers between your vegetables? Left a couple of dollars in a neighbor’s honesty box for a Mason jar full of blooms? Gathered a handful, or an armload, of something beautiful that grew right beneath your feet?

If you did, count yourself a slow flower enthusiast—an admirer of flowers that are seasonally available, suited to local conditions and free of chemicals.

Such pullers and pickers count themselves among the increasing number of Americans who love the simple elegance and admirable hardiness of blooms grown in their own part of the world. They are less well known, and a little bit behind, those who have joined together to form the movement known as Slow Food—those advocates who promote local food grown with taste, nutritional value and sustainable agriculture in mind. But the movement known as Slow Flowers, is…well…steadily growing. Locavores, move over and make room for locaflores.

Some might ask whether it really matters if our flowers come from far away or from our own backyards. Whether it matters if our blooms take their time coming to maturity under the open sky or are sped along by fertilizers applied in precise doses at precise times in the confines of a greenhouse that operates like a factory.

To Amy Stewart, author of “Flower Confidential,” it matters very much. She claims that once you understand the difference between imported and homegrown, “you’ll never look at a cut flower the same way again.”

Three Whidbey Island flower growers agree. With shovels, secateurs and seeds, they make both a living and a life raising and selling blooms that are sustainable, artistic, ethical and breathtakingly gorgeous. They are our very own, homegrown Slow Flower farmers.

 Wild. Photo by Molly Landreth Weddings, Lightworks360

Wedding centerpieces created by Vases Wild. Photo by Molly Landreth Weddings, Lightworks360

Vases Wild

This marks the fifth summer that gardener, horticulturist and wedding planner Tobey Nelson has been making flower art under the name Vases Wild.

It all started at a wedding show in Seattle when she asked herself why nuptials were not being exchanged more often on Whidbey, an island within easy reach of the city that offers the perfect backdrop for one of life’s most important rituals. As she researched the situation, Nelson found that Whidbey was something of a secret. “I talked to people who didn’t know about the island, attended a wedding here, and then fell in love with the place.”

That realization coincided with her innate pride of place. “I feel strongly about promoting Whidbey Island as a destination and as a community. Events in general, and weddings in particular, provide jobs.”

 Hellebore and black pussy willow oral jewelry created by Vases Wild. Photo by Suzanne Rothmeyer

Hellebore and black pussy willow oral jewelry created by Vases Wild. Photo by Suzanne Rothmeyer

As she began promoting Whidbey as a wedding destination among her clients and peers, Nelson also polished her social media skills in order to market to the betrothed. And, since brides are bombarded with imagery and information, she had to find ways to make her creations stand out. Fresh and dried floral jewelry, botanical headpieces and arrangements using succulents are some of the ways she distinguished herself from other floral designers. Her jewelry and headpieces, delicate yet durable, can be worn for a wedding or for any special event—a date, a prom, a night at the theatre.

Five years later, Nelson continues to take every opportunity to recommend local hair salons, stylists, dressmakers, musicians, chefs, caterers, vintners, brewers, hoteliers, venues, photographers, officiants. She also employs local artisans—metal workers and carpenters—to make custom forms, including floral chandeliers, cylinders to support flowers in vases and arbors. A collaborator by nature, Nelson values the synergistic spirit present among Whidbey Island flower growers, who refer clients back and forth, lend and borrow equipment and sell flowers to each other.

But for a floral artist to locate on Whidbey, far from the lucrative urban wedding trade, other factors must be at work. So it is with Nelson, who has a passion for pastoral landscape, farmland preservation and healthy soil.

As a long-time landscape designer, Nelson is keenly aware of the effect of pesticides on water quality and soils. “Many of the local farms I work with achieve fertility by building soil with manures and compost rather than by applying chemical or synthetic fertilizers, resulting in less runoff,” she said. “Spraying is reduced or eliminated in fields that are planted for diversity. And many flower farms are bush-based, so those fields are not regularly plowed, which means fewer carbon emissions.”

Nelson reported that 80 to 90 percent of all flowers in America come from beyond our borders, where pesticide regulation is lax to nonexistent. Plants are sprayed with pesticides while still growing in the ground or in the greenhouse. Many flower heads—especially roses—are dipped in a fungicide before being packaged. When a box of flowers arrives in a port, it is likely to be fumigated. These are the ingredients in the bouquets into which we bury our faces—seeking fragrance—and then place on our tables, right next to our lovingly-prepared organic food.

Mass-produced flowers also put workers at risk, Nelson noted, whether they are spraying pesticides on rows of identical plants or inhaling fumes over open vats of fungicide. And commercial blooms just don’t deliver what Nelson always takes care to include in a Vases Wild bouquet: scent. A flower bred for traveling is not a flower bred for sniffing. When it comes to commercially grown flowers, looking “fresh as a daisy” is all important; scent is sacrificed in favor of longevity. That’s why Nelson grows her own fragrant beauties: roses (the shrub rose “Golden Celebration” is a favorite), peonies and sweet peas. In addition to scented flowers in her bouquets, she also includes cedar, salal, fern, alder branches, filbert catkins and white poplar (foraged on the beach, after obtaining permission). “When I sell a bouquet, I love it most when I can say ‘this bouquet is island grown’. But I’m always proud of my commitment to using all American-grown flowers, even when I can’t source all my blooms from Whidbey.”

Hairpiece created from sedum by Vases Wild. Photo by Shonda Hilton Photography

Hairpiece created from sedum by Vases Wild. Photo by Shonda Hilton Photography

In her own garden, Nelson has something blooming all year long, both for her own pleasure and for the survival of pollinators. “When it’s warm enough for bees to wake up, I have something for them to eat. Once we get into summer, the garden is bursting with lush floral color and fragrance.” She likes to “stack” her plantings to “keep the soil covered and busy so nature doesn’t introduce her own agenda.” The governing principle for both her garden and her floral arranging is diversity of leaf and bloom.

As a grower and arranger, Nelson’s passion for slow flowers is deeply rooted. “To support my local economy. To keep from exposing myself or my customers to pesticides. To preserve American farmland. To encourage bees by providing bee habitat. And because local flowers lend themselves to a romantic, naturalistic kind of styling. There are so many reasons to love slow flowers!”

Melissa Brown of Flying Bear Farm inside her greenhouse. Photo by Marsha Morgan

Flying Bear Farm

Melissa Brown first discovered Whidbey Island as a child when her mother’s art was being shown in a Langley gallery. After that, her visits to the island were occasional, but the place was never too far from her mind or heart. As a young woman, she learned about plants by working at Seattle’s Tilth Garden, which is where she met her future husband, Benjamin Courteau. After they married, the couple teamed up with her parents to launch an experiment in intergenerational living. The four set about to find a property on Whidbey large enough to accommodate a homestead for two families and land enough to farm. When that land and homestead appeared near Langley, Flying Bear Farm was born.

“We’re interested in supplying ourselves and our community with things you don’t normally get,” said Brown, who grows flowers for her floral arrangements, sold under the name Flying Bear Design. Brown sees a cultural shift away from conventional floral arrangements to slow flowers. “There’s a desire for local flowers with a ‘gardeny’ look and natural fragrance.”

Weddding reception centerpiece by Melissa Brown, Flying Bear Farm. Photo by Krista Welch, Love Song Photo

Weddding reception centerpiece by Melissa Brown, Flying Bear Farm. Photo by Krista Welch, Love Song Photo

That cultural shift is coming at a good time for Brown, because opening a flower shop is an expensive enterprise with an uncertain future. Overhead and the need for a large and diverse inventory make it difficult to make a go of it. And flowers, considered luxuries by most of us, are one of the first items to be sacrificed when money is tight. The 2008 recession forced many flower shops out of business, and in the years since the domestic trade hasn’t fully recovered.

What’s a flower grower, designer and seller to do?

One of Brown’s solutions is the “pop-up”—a temporary stand in front of, or inside, an existing retail business. A one-off, one-time farmer’s market stall. Flying Bear’s latest pop-up—held outside the Langley restaurant Kalakala over Valentine’s Day weekend—was a perfect example of what happens when young entrepreneurs join together to attract customers. Cooperation. Collaboration. Synergy.

“We brought everything: table, chairs, umbrella. We had a square reader for taking credit cards and tracking things. We had rustic buckets and wonky crates, and we used them to tell our story. I brought things to build our brand: galvanized French flower buckets and chalk boards,” she recounted. “I try to think of what people are going to expect when they buy flowers and then incorporate it into my ethos.”

Brown is convinced that part of the appeal of slow flowers is their authenticity. “Young people had grandparents who grew sweet peas, and those memories inform desire. There’s also the desire for the story—the story of where something comes from. We’ve grown up in a culture of obsolescence, everything fake and cheap and anonymous. People are rediscovering the importance of the story that’s attached to what they buy. Who grew it? Who made it? Where does it come from?”

As much as Brown enjoys creating a rustic ambience, she enjoys surprising her customers. She enjoys being the woman behind the accidental find. “There’s pleasure in discovery. People like coming upon something unexpected,” she said. “And then taking it home with them.”

Although Brown grows a variety of flowers, she also sources blooms from places like MilePost 19, Sonshine Flower Farm and Full Cycle Farm. Like Tobey Nelson, Brown appreciates the cooperative spirit among Whidbey Island flower farmers and envisions a future in which they intentionally coordinate their crops to help fill gaps in each other’s inventory.

Bridal bouquet by Melissa Brown, Flying Bear Farm. Photo by Krista Welch, Love Song Photo

Bridal bouquet by Melissa Brown, Flying Bear Farm. Photo by Krista Welch, Love Song Photo

Another of Brown’s workarounds to the lack of a bricks-and-mortar flower shop is to attract customers to the farm. This summer she plans to offer a CSA subscription for a weekly bouquet (recycled vase included) or a bucket of flowers (for those who like to arrange their own).

Although the farm and floral business is both a team effort and a family affair, Brown finds she has many more ideas than hours in the day to realize them. For someone so enterprising and inventive, the life of a slow flower farmer offers balance and the opportunity to…well, slow down.

“The best part is being around beauty all the time, having the opportunity see beauty wherever it is,” she said with a smile. “Even if I’m just weeding, I’m seeing the beauty of the soil.”

Kelly and Pam Uhlig of Sonshine Flower Farm at the Bayview Farmers’ Market. Photo by Dianna MacLeod

Kelly and Pam Uhlig of Sonshine Flower Farm at the Bayview Farmers’ Market. Photo by Dianna MacLeod

Sonshine Flower Farm

Three years ago, Pam and Kelly Uhlig sold off their goats and alpacas, plowed up the fenced pasture that fronted on their farmhouse, and began creating what would become a giant flower garden. Over time, they erected two large greenhouses, a poly-tunnel and a seed house. Downed cedars were milled into doors for the greenhouses and planks for the sides of raised beds. A hemlock tree became a potting table. Last spring, they added a long-awaited cooler—a 10′ x 12′ refrigerated space—that holds buckets of cut flowers along with the promise of a more flexible planting and harvesting timetable.

The Uhligs—a mother-daughter team—have remained true to their original intention to create a production flower farm that is gentle on the earth. To preserve water, they installed a drip irrigation system. To build soil fertility, they mulched with aged goat and alpaca manure. To keep hard rains from compacting the soil, they placed layers of cardboard over bare earth, allowing the cardboard to break down over the winter and add to the humus.

Bird’s-eye view of a portion of Sonshine Flower Farm, early spring. Photo by arborist Kyle Rapp, taken from 40 feet up a tree.

Bird’s-eye view of a portion of Sonshine Flower Farm, early spring. Photo by arborist Kyle Rapp, taken from 40 feet up a tree.

“I believe in being a good steward of the land,” said Pam. “If I spray, it’s certified to harm neither people nor the land.” Pam relies on the Organic Material Review Institute to guide her toward benign products. When arranging flowers, she rejects the spongy green material known as Oasis in favor of chicken wire and sphagnum moss, coconut husk fiber and biodegradable “floral soil.”

“I grow flowers to be used locally and sustainably. No fossil fuels for shipping, no dipping in chemicals,” Pam said. To her, Amy Stewart’s “Flower Confidential” is the revelatory book that should spawn a revolt against fast—and foreign—flowers.

The Uhligs plant their crops on a scale most of us can barely imagine: 10,000 bulbs, including tulips, ranunculus and anemones, were planted during the fall of 2015 while dahlia tubers were being dug up and stored in bulb crates for separating and replanting the following spring. This kind of mass planting requires massive planning, from the first day of the year (January for sweet peas) to the last (December for ordering annual seeds).

Pompon ranunculus. Photo by Kelly Uhlig

Pompon ranunculus. Photo by Kelly Uhlig


Sweet peas / Photo by Kelly Uhlig

But no amount of planning can account for the vagaries of weather and temperature. Sweet peas can finish by July 1 or last right through the month. Tulips can arrive on time or three weeks early, before flower buyers are prepared—emotionally and psychologically—for them. Early or late arrivals can pose a problem or offer an advantage, depending on the kind of bloom and the season’s progress. Because the price of flowers, like any commodity, is governed by supply and demand, some early arrivals are welcome. “Flowers are a mind game,” said Pam. “You can’t anticipate everything; you do try to get your product to market first.”

But no matter what the weather throws at her, planting is Pam Uhlig’s great passion. “A snapdragon seed is practically microscopic,” she observed. “Yet months later I’m cutting stalks of flowers from that plant for baby showers, weddings, memorial services.”

Although 10,000 bulbs may sound like an impossibly large amount, the Uhligs know that not all of those flowers will make it to market. “Birds, bugs, weather, predators…you lose a lot and you have to accept that,” said Kelly. “Bugs are attracted to white flowers, so they get chewed more than other colors.”

Of the flowers that survive, a portion are destined for the Bayview Farmers Market, where the Uhligs arrange and sell glorious bouquets under a tent that draws customers from all four corners. Another portion is meant for the Seattle Wholesale Growers Market, which means loading a van with buckets of tightly-bunched blooms and catching the first ferry to be on site shortly after dawn, when florists are shopping. Another portion ends up in the flower-arranging hands of Melissa Brown and Tobey Nelson.

Kelly Uhlig composes a bridal bouquet. Photo by Pam Uhlig

Kelly Uhlig composes a bridal bouquet. Photo by Pam Uhlig

As much as the Uhligs enjoy bringing their flowers to the wholesale market in Seattle, they love the contact with customers that the Bayview Farmers Market provides. “Generally, guys want bright colors: orange, yellow, red. Women like the jewel tones and the muted colors,” Kelly observed. “But in the fall, as the days grow shorter and darker, everyone wants bright colors,” Pam added.

Pam, a graduate of the Edmonds Community College horticulture program, understands the importance of offering “leafy greens” with her flowers. Foliage provides a contrast in color, texture and shape to the flowers in a bouquet. Accordingly, she grows the sturdy and handsome ninebark and other deer-proof shrubs around the perimeter of the garden while interplanting purple cardinal basil and other striking foliage plants between rows of flowers.

The talent for growing flowers extends to knowing how to cut them to preserve their freshness and make them last. Pam offers bouquets that will, if treated correctly, hold for at least a week. “The trick is knowing when to cut…and using clean implements. Containers and clippers need to be sterile. Clip the leaves off a flower stalk, because foliage quickly rots when submerged in water.”

Just like the other slow flower growers on Whidbey, the Uhligs alternate between shears and social media. Kelly regularly posts photos and videos on Instagram to market what’s in season and to include admirers in the daily life of the farm, with all its tribulations and triumphs.

Despite either, mother and daughter look forward to each and every day, come rain or shine, deer or slugs, late frost or early warmth. They enthusiastically agree that slow flower farming—the cultivation of beauty and commitment to earth’s ecology—comes pretty close to a life lived in the Garden of Eden:

“Slow flowers express emotions, appeal to the senses, touch the soul.”

Cultivated, harvested and designed by the likes of Tobey Nelson, Melissa Brown and the Uhligs, how could it be otherwise?

Tobey Nelson: www.vaseswild.com
Melissa Brown: www.flyingbearfarm.com
Pam and Kelly Uhlig: www.seattlewholesalegrowersmarket.com or sonshineflowerfarm@gmail.com

“Flower Confidential,” Amy Stewart, Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill NC, 2007
“The 50 Mile Bouquet: Seasonal, Local and Sustainable Flowers,” Debra Prinzing, St. Lynn’s Press, Pittsburgh PA, 2012
“Slow Flowers: Four Seasons of Locally Grown Bouquets from the Garden, Meadow and Farm,” Debra Prinzing, St. Lynn’s Press, Pittsburgh PA, 2013

Dianna MacLeod wore out her knees, bent her back and learned a little Latin in her own garden for 25 years before moving to Whidbey Island in 2011, and when she came she brought 300 of her green friends with her. Dianna has managed an organic demonstration garden, written grants for gardening nonprofits and opened her Seattle garden to Tilth and Northwest Perennial Alliance tours. She looks forward to wearing out her knees and bending her back on her own five acres sometime this year.


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