“You buy cheese and you know where it comes from, so why wouldn’t you want to know where your flowers come from?”
Increasingly, we are discovering designers who have become accidental farmers. Or, we are meeting flower growers lured into the role of designer thanks to requests that they create bridal bouquets and farmer’s market bunches.
These two worlds are happily intersecting, motivated by necessity, innovation and experimentation. Earlier this week I wrote about Silke Vom Bauer, a Marin Co. flower shop owner who barters, forages and gleans for seasonal ingredients.
Now meet Baylor Chapman of San Francisco-based Lila B.: Flowers, Gardens Events. As a Certified San Francisco Green Business member, Baylor believes in local and sustainable design.
I was introduced to Baylor by fellow writer Susan Morrison of Creative Exteriors Landscape Design, a landscape designer who has recently collaborated with Rebecca Sweet of Harmony in the Garden on a forthcoming book about vertical garden design.
After Susan learned I was coming to San Francisco last month, she urged me to visit Baylor. I’m so grateful that she connected the two of us. Actually, Susan, Rebecca, Baylor and I met for a flower gals’ lunch at Stable Cafe, a hip space that features Baylor’s fresh bouquets on its counter tops.
Baylor’s fashionable studio is located a few doors down from that lunch spot. Based in SF’s Mission District, she turns out some pretty dazzling vases, bowls and urns filled with seasonal and local blooms.
Yet when she decided that the flower universe has far too many awesome varieties that she wanted to use in her designs, but that were hard to source locally, Baylor thought: Why not? I’ll grow those blooms myself!
She started a roof garden in the warehouse building that contains her 500-square-foot design studio. “We had to walk up 75 stairs to tend to plants growing in milk crates lined with screening,” Baylor recalls. Stair-climbing wasn’t the worst of it, though. All the soil and water had to be hand-carried to the roof just to keep the flowers alive.
It didn’t take long for Baylor and her staff to expand their search for a ground-level gardening space.
“We found an old parking lot about 1-1/2 miles away in a neighborhood called ‘Dog patch,’” Baylor explains. “I only rent the perimeter of it.” Here, at any given time, 100 to 150 large plastic pots, the 15-gallon size that you typically find holding landscaping trees, are filled with a thriving crop of city-grown flowers.
The Lila B. Lot Garden thrives in a rather rugged neighborhood behind a fence topped with barbed wire. It has certainly beautified the neighborhood and been the impetus for drawing office and shop workers out from behind closed doors.
“Now you see hummingbirds and bees flying around,” says the utterly engaging designer. “The car repair shop guys come out and enjoy it here for lunch. It’s sort of a sanctuary.
While she doesn’t often bring clients here, the presence of a pop-up flower farm in a city parking lot has helped Baylor greatly expand her offering of annuals, vines, fruits, shrubs and perennials. “If I know far enough in advance what flowers a bride is interested in, I can certainly grow it for her,” Baylor says.
She relies on Annie’s Annuals, a fabulous specialty and mail-order nursery in the East Bay area, for many unusual seedling varieties. Sophie de Lignerolles, an artist who works for Lila B. as a designer, maintains meticulous spread sheets of the flowers they grow. “Sophie is propagating from seed now, which I think is pretty fabulous,” Baylor says.
Among the crops here, you’ll find salvia, rudbeckia, gallardia, oat grass, asters, scented geraniums, roses, lamb’s ear, sweet peas, veronica, nigella, passionflower, sea holly, cosmos, scabiosa, sunflowers, cerinthe, zinnias and plants grown for their fruit and foliage. It is a mind-boggling selection of excellent design ingredients.
If you want to take a virtual tour of the Lot Garden, follow this link to “A Secret Garden in Dog patch,” a YouTube clip that Baylor recently shared with us.
Baylor is well equipped to grow her own unique floral choices, thanks to her background in landscape design. After earning a garden design certificate from University of California at Berkeley Extension, Baylor spent time on the crew of a Bay Area estate garden. The owners put a high value on organic practices and the “green” flowers from the grounds were frequently harvested for interior bouquets. Baylor soon found herself creating these arrangements.
“I really love transforming a space with flowers,” she says, her friendly face breaking into a warm, inviting smile. “Even though flowers are ephemeral, I treat floral design like I do garden design. I think of each arrangement as a mini garden, with its own texture, scale and color palette.”
Take a look at this dreamy gray-green creation in a pewter vase that Baylor created the day I visited. It’s monochromatic in an entirely exciting way, full of life with edibles, succulents, grasses, blooms and unexpected ingredients like guava fruit. “I want people to be curious,” says the designer. “I want my bouquets to be beautiful to the eye, but they should also prompt the question: ‘What is that? Where does it grow? Can you eat it?’”
After she completed landscape design studies, her interest in floral and botanical design lured Baylor into more creative gigs, including freelancing for other studios and shops.
In 2007, Baylor opened Lila B., named after her grandmother. At first, she worked out of the loft where she lives. That in itself is a pretty cool place: a wood-clad structure that originally housed a cardboard box factory (think high ceilings and tall windows).
After one year of literally living with her flowers, Baylor got lucky and moved her studio across the street to another warehouse. This one is an old laundry facility that now houses 60 artist studios. Baylor’s tiny studio, seen above, was once a loading dock. It faces the street and has a huge, roll-up door so she can bring light and fresh air into the design space.
Being based as she is in the temperate environment of Northern California, Baylor enjoys an excellent, almost year-round source of flowers from her suppliers. She takes advantage of San Francisco’s wholesale flower market where many California growers bring their crops to sell. A few “weird and wonderful” suppliers are favorites, including two sisters who run a company called Florists at Large. They stock foraged goodies such as fruit, branches and wild ingredients you’d never find in a conventional flower shop.
On the day of our visit, Baylor had just completed a prototype design for a dinner party centerpiece. She used all local flowers, including ‘Golden Celebration’ yellow roses, yarrow ranunculus, geranium foliage, echinacea pods, Abelia and dill-gone-to-seed in a pleasing, natural mosaic of hues and forms.
There were also dozens of round glass vessels destined to grace the tables for a local Bat Mitzvah celebration that evening. The party theme was “under the sea,” and Baylor reinterpreted the idea with a living landscape including leucodendron and protea, acquired from California growers. Sensational!
She prefers using recycled vases, citing a local metal salvage yard as one of her secret sources. The guys there “get” what she’s doing and they enjoy saving her urns, vases and bowls that have been sold as scrap – just for the copper or silver plate. Baylor picks up these vintage vessels for a song and utilizes them for centerpieces and other arrangements.
She repurposes glass ceiling fixtures into gorgeous urns and keeps costs down for some clients by renting large containers. Client are also encouraged to use vases from their personal cupboards rather than buying something generic for the sake of calling it new.
“I’m hoping that people are drawn to me because of what I’m doing and what I’m interested in doing,” Baylor explains. “I don’t want to be one of those sell-outs.”