Above: Flowers from CASFS (left); bouquet designed by Molly Oliver Flowers (right)
For many who have developed an interest in agriculture, the paths that led farmer-florists Kellee Matsushita-Tseng, Emily Saeger, and Molly Culver to flowers may sound familiar. “Farming for me was the convergence of all the things that I felt that I wanted to work on and cared about—in terms of community health, environmental justice, and a re-storying of our approach to land and plants and food,” says Kellee Matsushita-Tseng, who is leading the panel “Sustainable Farming x Floral Design” at the Slow Flowers Summit in June. After some earlier work with youth empowerment programs, Kellee began farming and is now an educator and instructor at CASFS (The Center For Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems) at UC Santa Cruz. Emily Saeger, Lead Horticulturist at Filoli in Woodside, CA, similarly found her way to farming through an interest in social and environmental justice. After undergraduate school, “I was feeling a bit lost and sort of lacking in tangible skills, and I was really wanting to work with my hands,” Emily says. After studying international relations, Emily quickly came to the understanding that “working from an outside-in perspective doesn’t really help anyone, that change is really from the ground up.” Molly Culver, owner of Molly Oliver Flowers, a Brooklyn, NY-based floral design studio, describes her experience living abroad in Chile and working with community gardens in the Bronx as instrumental in stoking her desire to contribute to agricultural systems that “respected land and culture.” The “connection between social justice and environmental stewardship is ages old,” she says, “and the desire to build a more just and sustainable future drives me in my work.”
Above, from left: Emily Saeger, Kellee Matsushita-Tseng and Molly Culver
While all three farmer-florists initially got into farming through food, as their work on farms progressed, each became more and more intimately involved with flowers. Having studied photography and media art, Kellee found ultimately working with flowers to be a “great meeting of my visual and design background with my farming background.” Emily also found the artistic component specific to flowers to be an exciting addition to farming: “Farming is really hard work; it can be monotonous and rigorous. I mean, it’s also not monotonous because the weather, pests and markets are constantly changing —but flowers added this art component, and I’ve always loved art and had some form of art practice in my life.” For Molly, “floral design was a natural outgrowth of flower farming.” As farmer-florists, Kellee, Emily, and Molly have close relationships with the flowers they work with, which they feel comes through in their floral designs. “[A]ll the power from a tiny seed, to the cultivated bloom or seed pod, is transformed into a piece of art that's shared—it’s a powerful chain to be intimately involved with,” Emily says.
Floral design by Kellee Matsushita-Tseng
As growers and designers, Kellee, Emily, and Molly are committed to the various aspects of sustainability that go into flower farming, including stewarding soil health, implementing organic growing practices, and supporting other local growers. In the cutting garden at Filoli, Emily employs completely organic growing practices. In the gardens in general she says they try and save seeds when they can. “Our sweet peas, for example—we have a Filoli mix that we’ve cultivated over many, many years [by] collecting different seeds…. That’s what we sow every year.” She has also started cover cropping to enhance soil health.
Floral design by Molly Oliver Flowers (c) Khaki Bedford Photography
All three farmer-florists recognize the importance of healthy soil, specifically when it comes to growing flowers. Molly explains that when she managed cut flowers she “often relied on kelp emulsions, as well as compost and cover cropping over the winter, to provide enough nutrients and organic matter for healthy soil structure” to give rise to healthy plants. “Building soil and being good stewards of the soil ecology is really the only way that we can grow flowers,” Kellee says. When processing flowers, Kellee also highlights that abstaining from the use of pesticides, chemicals, and preservatives necessitates high standards and effective systems for harvest. “We always need to harvest at that ideal time, so that we have the best quality and longest vase-life, and we use extremely clean tools and clean water,” Kellee describes. “What it translates into…is this really tight system where there’s a lot of attention to detail.”
Floral curtain by Molly Oliver Flowers (c) Khaki Bedford Photography
Molly adds that on farms “we never used chemical solutions for post-harvest, only clean water and clean buckets.” The farmer-florists also agree that an integral part of sustainable flower farming is supporting other growers. Whether they are growing flowers themselves or sourcing from other growers, Kellee, Emily, and Molly choose local, sustainably-grown, seasonal flowers, over conventionally-grown flowers that require the use of pesticides and the burning of fossil fuels to ship around the world, thus strengthening the farming communities and ecosystems around them.
Kellee Matsushita-Tseng florals
Rather than being a limitation, sustainability is an integral part of the three speakers’ design process and visual aesthetic. For Kellee, a key to creating meaningful designs lies in the way plants and specifically flowers relate to our sense of place. “When we think about ecology and ecosystems, the root of the word, ‘eco,’ is home. So if we’re really trying to create a sense of connection and harmony to our place [through our designs], it only makes sense to do it with elements that are telling a story of where we are,” she says. Instead of feeling constrained by prioritizing sustainably-grown, seasonal flowers, she finds joy and inspiration in searching out elements unique to place and season, and has found that sustainability pushes her creativity: “I feel like my best design work is when things are a little bit more sparse and I need to give more attention to all of the specific elements, and each item matters.”
Seasonal flowers by Emily Saeger
For Emily, sustainability in design means knowing your materials—what’s available and appropriate to harvest—and being able to experiment. “My design I would say is generally less restrictive, and a little more open, the form,” Emily explains, which results in part from choosing not to “manipulate the material” into a particular vision, as is typical in traditional floral arranging, but rather letting nature influence or create the design.
Molly agrees that choosing to work mainly with locally-grown product is really “a boon because there is so much amazing botanical beauty out there,” and also adds that “by narrowing my palette down to the seasonal flowers, it brings some extra focus and ease in the decision-making process when working with clients.”
A floral figure at Filoli, designed by Emily Saeger
Sustainability in floral design relates not only to the flowers themselves—where they come from and how they’re grown—but also to the other materials used in designing and the byproducts of design. Non-recyclable containers and holders, plastic, floral foam, and more are common to traditional floral design. Kellee also observes the fact that flowers are often “coupled with events that are so wasteful in themselves,” such as weddings where people buy thousands of dollars worth of flowers that are ultimately thrown away. All three farmer-florists find ways to avoid using disposable, unsustainable materials, and to limit their waste. “In my own design, I don’t use floral foam,” Emily says, and “I try to always use recyclable materials—chicken wire and things that I can use over and over and over again.” Molly works with a waste management company to dispose of and recycle any materials she receives from growers that can’t be composted, and she composts everything she can at urban farms, noting that there is a growing need for floral waste drop-off in New York City. Through outreach and advocacy, moreover, Kellee, Emily, and Molly aim to change the way people think about and consume flowers.
Bud jars by Molly Oliver Flowers (c) Iris Photography
To transform the floral industry and make sustainable practices for flower farming and designing the norm, all three panelists agree that education and advocacy are essential. “I think in general there is not enough education about flowers,” Kellee says, especially compared to the education available surrounding local, organic food. “As florists,” Molly adds, “we need to learn to work with the limitations of flowers that aren’t hopped up on chemicals and communicate those limitations to clients.” A cultural shift is necessary to improve the floral industry, and honor our deeply-rooted human connections to flowers. Because flowers are typically used for “celebrations of life and marriages—these amazing, beautiful celebrations of human experience,” Emily says, “it does a disservice to the celebration itself if you’re using flowers that are grown by workers who are mistreated or poorly paid or that are putting toxins into the environment…. I just think it totally goes against, is in contradiction to what the point of having flowers is.”
Slow Flowers welcomes our 2020 Summit contributor E. T. Perry. E. T. is a writer and editor based in New England. She graduated with honors from Vassar College in 2013, earning her BA in English and specializing in literature and literary theory. She is a lover of sustainable agriculture and self-reliance, and has experience gardening and farming, including on a flower farm in the Hudson Valley, NY. She has contributed creative writing, arts journalism, and literary criticism to a variety of publications, both in print and online.