Our original inspiration: Erin Benzakein, floret
Meet the Flower Farmer
With a contagious passion for the natural world and all its beauty, Erin Benzakein of floret grows flowers and other botanical floral design ingredients on a two-acre certified organic farm in Skagit Valley, north of Seattle. Her delicate, ephemeral blooms are pure joy to behold, intoxicating to inhale and cherished by those who bring them into their lives. When a bride clutches one of Erin’s bouquets it almost seems that all her hopes, dreams and affections are contained in that unforgettable creation. That moment in time is symbolized by Erin’s flowers.
Through many conversations with Erin, visits to her farm in every season, and during our on-location photography sessions together, David and Debra have been inspired to tell the story of Erin and other visionary flower farmers, growers, gatherers and designers.
Our very first conversations about creating this book, ”A Fresh Bouquet,” took place with Erin. Her enthusiasm for this project and her commitment to growing and designing with seasonal blooms inspired us to explore more completely the burgeoning “slow flower” movement across North America. We are immensely grateful to Erin for her original inspiration behind this project.
Here is Debra’s extended Q&A interview with Erin, a version of which was published last year in Sunset. David’s awesome portrait of Erin with her son Jasper riding piggy-back in a field of alliums (above), accompanied the piece.
Erin Benzakein became captivated with fresh-from-the-border flowers while working on a Seattle estate’s garden crew. “I never before thought you could go into your yard and cut so many flowers. They looked like the Dutch paintings – perennials, berries, vines, floppy roses – all spilling out of a huge vase.”
Inspired, Benzakein planted two rows of sweet peas to create a fragrant “tunnel” (“I wanted to walk down it, just for the experience,” she confides). Suddenly, the now 29-year-old mother-of-two became a flower farmer. “It was a done deal. All the vegetables got ripped out and were replaced with flowers.”
Since 2007, with her husband Chris Benzakein and their “bunch runners” (9-year-old daughter Elora and 6-year-old son Jasper), Benzakein has operated floret, a 2-acre certified organic flower farm in Mt. Vernon, about 90 minutes north of Seattle.
Why are sustainable flowers important?
Eighty percent of the cut flowers we buy in the U.S. are imported from countries that do not have worker safety or pesticide regulations. I don’t think we should sacrifice the health of our earth, or that of the farmers, their children and animals, just to have a bunch of pretty blooms on our kitchen tables.
If you buy your flowers locally – at a farmer’s market, from a roadside stand, or a grocery store that sources bouquets from local growers – they’re probably sustainably grown. You’ll help eliminate the use of jet fuel that flies flowers to America, keep money in your local economy and enjoy healthier and fresher blooms.
Go into the garden you have – right now! Give yourselves permission to cut an awesome bloom or a few sprigs of this or that. You can grab greens from your hedge and pick up local tulips from the farmer’s market. It’s kind of addicting. Yes, I love flowers, but when I give them away, I see how powerful and moving they can be for others.
What inspired you to farm sustainably?
The most important reason is my children’s health and safety. Our home is in the center of our little farm and my children basically live outdoors during the growing season. Their days are spent among the flowers as they build forts in the raspberry patch, make elaborate doll picnics out of bits from the garden and race up and down the paths while we’re harvesting. I am aware that anything I might use on the flowers, such as herbicides or pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, will be directly in contact with Jasper and Elora. This reality has prompted me to only use organic practices to grow my crops.
How do you maximize your two acres to the fullest?
My secret weapons in getting the most possible production out of my land: succession planting and feeding the soil regularly. Since I am on a small plot and need every inch, I implement this technique with great success. In the spring, I till in my cover crop, add a nice dose of organic compost, a dressing of organic fertilizer, and plant my flowers. After the first crop is finished blooming and harvested, I pull it out, add another dose of compost, fertilize, and replant with another crop. This enables me to grow up to three times the amount of flowers on my land in a single growing season.
What are some of your favorite flower crops for bouquets and other arrangements?
My main crops include sweet peas, ranunculus, peonies, ‘Limelight’ hydrangeas, old garden roses, Oriental lilies, sunflowers, and dahlias. But I harvest from spring to late fall, so there are some months when I cut branches, vines, berries, thistles, grasses and pods for my arrangements.
Who are your customers?
In addition to growing for wholesale customers and florists, I supply organic mixed bouquets and flower bunches to Whole Foods stores in Washington and Oregon. Plus, I make organic bouquets for a group of weekly subscribers in Seattle, and I design for brides who want their weddings to be “green.”
Do you think sustainable gardening is here to stay?
People are definitely changing the way they see their yards. Lawns are being replaced by flowers, fruits and vegetables. Whether gardeners are concerned about the quality of their drinking water or the health of their children and grandchildren, they are eliminating chemicals and embracing organic practices.
Beyond organic practices, what other ways is your farm sustainable?
I schedule my Seattle flower and bouquet deliveries on just two days each week so I do not have to drive that 180 mile-round-trip more than necessary. You should see my little van – it’s packed to the brim with flowers!
What gardening trends impress you these days?
Everyone I know is changing the way they see and use their yards, especially in cities. Lawns are being replaced by vegetable gardens, flowers and fruits. Families are bypassing the synthetic fertilizers and the insecticides they once depended on and learning to compost and garden in harmony with nature. In many urban areas, programs are springing up that educate and support gardeners who want to keep a flock of chickens in their backyards. It’s fantastic! Throughout neighborhoods and along back roads, these thriving little plots are being born and tended to by a band of thoughtful and committed gardeners.
What is the next sustainable frontier?
I believe buying locally-grown products (flowers, honey, vegetables, milk, meat, eggs – even nursery plants) is the next frontier when it comes to true sustainability. By buying local we are able to support local farmers and artisans. Our money stays in the community in which we live. We reduce the amount of fossil fuel used to transport the goods. We have access to the freshest, safest, most vibrant – and flowers – on the market. And we are connected to the seasons in the deepest possible way.
INFO: floret (360/424-3403) or www.floretflowers.com.