Do you enjoy flowers in your life?

The following is the illustrated introduction from our new book, The 50 Mile Bouquet: Seasonal, Local and Sustainable Flowers (St. Lynn’s Press, 2012). Our official release date was April 1. Mother Earth News fully excerpted the introduction for its readers last week, and we wanted to share it here, as well. Enjoy!, Debra and David

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  

“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. Here 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. 

A sustainable rose by any other name

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 5–10 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 further 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 you’ll see that in the pages of this book, we sometimes use “organic” with a lower-case “o” to differentiate from Organic, as defined by the United States Department of Agriculture. To learn more, please check out the useful section on Sustainability Terms.  

Change Your Relationship with Flowers  

In the pages of The 50 Mile Bouquet, you will meet 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 book that will engage your senses. Let your eyes feast on the evocative photo portrayals of these “slow flower” pioneers. 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 invite you to read the 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. Follow with us as we tell the story of The 50 Mile Bouquet, as it travels from field to vase. 

We hope that this book 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.

Debra and David


{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Miriam Goldberger April 4, 2012 at 6:39 am

Very dear David and Debra –
I cannot tell you how Thrilled I am with your mission to awaken support for locally produced, sustainable cut flowers throughout North America.
I have ordered my copy of The 50 Mile Bouquet and can hardly wait to devour it! I look forward to connecting with you in the near future. I have so many floriferous stories to share with you. I salute you!!
– Miriam Goldberger

Jean | Delightful Repast April 10, 2012 at 7:45 am

I was so excited to learn about your book (which I don’t have yet) and your blog. I’ve been into local, organic, sustainable, etc for decades and have long been concerned about the highly toxic imported flowers most readily available. I have florist friends who have chronic skin conditions from working with toxic flowers. One must wear rubber gloves when arranging flowers. (Imagine the effects on the workers where the flowers are grown!) Also, these perfect blooms travel long distances by air, polluting the planet, using up fossil fuel. Not sure of my facts here, but quite possibly flower growing operations have displaced rainforest. I wish you success with this issue.

Lydia Plunk April 10, 2012 at 9:22 am

This book is to be admired. Lovely to look at: a brain beneath the beauty.

Tom @ Tall Clover Farm April 13, 2012 at 8:03 am

Congratulations Debra and David, I’m eager to get a copy of this book. After a recent workshop at Jello Mold Farm, I’m ready with trowel in hand, field plowed and a hankering for a hoop house. I’ll keep an eye out for a booking signing on Vashon. ;-)

Maggie April 24, 2012 at 12:46 pm

It’s great to see attention and publishing dollars going into promoting sustainable, organic flower production. Kudos.

Lynn May 1, 2012 at 9:08 pm

It took 10 years of research and travel to green certify my florist while sourcing local/US product and alternative hardgoods. I was stunned at the environmental, chemical, and social issues I uncovered and knew I had to make a change as I consciously could not continue to take money for something that went against my beliefs-it is now my mission. I always feel that I am a ‘lonely’ wolf in my endeavor to bring awareness to the state of the floral industry-the hushed state rather; so I was really heartened to stumble upon your site and book! Back in 2000, it was considered fanatic and nonsensical to preach green floristry and a difficult and winding tale to tell. Today eco minded anything is the new gold in corporate marketing so it is not so terribly nonsensical now. However, a florist is a nature thought of business so the need to be environmentally friendly is still seen as redundant, and loudly, debunked by almost all connected with the florist industry.
The American farms are fighting for their life against the imports and the new, forever duty free status to Columbia {with Ecuador for sure coming soon} just adds more salt. Nothing personal, just politics, and capitalism. But I say it as personal because nearly 70-80% {holidays are the highest} of flowers sold in the US are from South America and beyond-where chemical/environmental regulations are minimal to none as are fair labor practices. It is a sad true that the flowers are chemical laden for every stage-up to the consumer {including the ‘little packets’}; and I agree with you that they are indeed a created clone, and …they are exhausted from it all by the time we get them. It is no wonder the poor things last only a few days on your table. As an artist, I am passionate about my 30 yr. business, but I am an environmentalist first; and all that I have uncovered puts the everyday, traditional, florist as toxic and damaging as a pvc manufacturer in China. If the import issues and toxicity of the flowers doesn’t enlighten you, then the MSDS report on the floral foam will send you into shock. I have been on the inside of the industry since college and will keep at it, and will keep at the big corporations funding and perpetuating it until some are exposed and others listen. The internet is a big help, and unfortunately also is not. As I read your excerpt on the Mother Earth News page, a Teleflora ad bordered; one of the said big corporations fueling and perpetuating imports of everything with their own contracts to foreign farms as well as factories in China for all their hardgoods. I so applaud you and sincerely, wish you the best with your book. I hope it flies. If you ever come to the East coast-we must get together; we are much in sync. Lynn Mehl, Good Old Days Eco Florist, New Windsor, NY

Debbie May 24, 2012 at 5:35 am

Hello! Nice to meet you!
I’m so excited to find your site and your book. I’ve always been a gardener, but this year I’ve dedicated 500 square feet of our backyard to 8 4×12 raised beds where I’ll be growing cut flowers in what I call my Backyard Flower Farm… Your book ( and mission ) will serve as more inspiration as I trowel my way through this new endeavor… It is my wish to provide fresh, local home-grown bouquets to my neighborhood and beyond. I may even make it into my local Farmers Market if my flower farm blossoms enough this season to warrant it! My mission it to inspire people who wish they had a farm to look at their own pot through a farmers eyes! I will look forward to the 50 mile bouquet newsletter and posts! Thank you ! If you like you may follow my flower farm journey at my blog!
Deborah Jean

Sammy August 7, 2012 at 8:35 am

Totally agree with everything you have said. The carbon footprint must be immense from this trade and clearly takes market from the local area. My friend is a florist and always tries to source local flowers

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