"Each region has its own local food tradition—because of the geography, because of the climate, because of the ways people have evolved with place—and it only makes sense that each place have a local flower tradition. And yet that in a lot of ways seems to have been lost, and I really see [local flowers] in a sense as us re-storying ourselves with the lands that we belong with." - Kellee Matsushita-Tseng
From left: Emily Saeger, Kellee Matsushita-Tseng and Molly Culver
Kellee Matsushita-Tseng, Emily Saeger, and Molly Culver, based in Santa Cruz, San Francisco, and Brooklyn, respectively, found their initial paths to farming through an interest in growing food and local food systems.
Drawn to the physicality of the work, they all found that farming was also a meaningful way to engage with social and environmental justice issues important to them. As Emily describes, while some of our connection to agriculture has been lost, local and sustainable farming helps restore that relationship. “We still have a long way to go, but I think [as] we move back to hyper-localized food and flowers, it creates stronger ecosystems and communities.”
Molly’s farm work similarly grew out of a desire to “contribute to growing food systems that respected land and culture.” Sustainable agriculture works against extractive capitalism, helps to balance and enrich local ecosystems, and provides food security, among a myriad of other benefits. Meanwhile, it keeps regional cultures alive and builds community. “What I’ve seen in my years of farming is that people love to connect with farms and where their food comes from,” Molly says. “It is grounding, reassuring, and fulfilling.”
Seasonal flowers, sustainably grown, ready for pickup at the loading dock of Seattle Wholesale Growers Market (c) WSDA
All three farmer-florists see issues of social and environmental justice as especially relevant to flower farming and the floral design industry. Through education and conversations with people in their lives, they aim to share knowledge about how flowers are produced and sourced. “The reality is that flowers are a huge industry [and] there’s a lot of waste in it,” Emily says. “There’s also a lot of, I would say, harmful industry practices—especially in terms of workers’ rights.”
Improving the floral industry as growers, designers, and consumers necessitates a cultural shift, in which we move away from disposable consumerism and decouple our relationship to the global extractive economy, Kellee says. “We have to think about the larger context of production,” which includes the social and environmental impacts connected to the cultivation and distribution of conventional flowers.
"If you give flowers to someone as a gift, it’s kind of twisted to realize the flowers were grown in a greenhouse where a woman is experiencing high levels of pesticide use and then experiencing birth defects, yet I’m buying these flowers for my loved one.” - Kellee Matsushita-Tseng
She continues: “Considering the human health impacts of conventional flowers is a huge motivation for growing local flowers. It’s more than just an environmental issue; it’s really a human rights issue, and also an issue of gender justice [because] most of the people who are working in [places that pack and grow flowers] are women.” Some of the newer farms Molly works with as a designer are led by women, people of color, and LGBTQ-identified farmers, which she feels is “such a beautiful thing.” Cultivating crops seasonally and locally, moreover, means less reliance on fossil fuels to grow, ship, and cool flowers compared to conventional flower production.
Urban-grown flowers from Silver Lake Farm in Los Angeles (c) Debra Prinzing
In terms of sustainability, Kellee, Emily, and Molly all see seed saving and providing for pollinators specifically as vitally important. Kellee explains: “There’s a huge lack of organic seed available in the market already, and then organic flower seed is almost virtually [non-existent,] so there’s a tremendous gap. I would say I can [find organic seed for] 5% of the species that we grow. In that regard for me there’s a huge motivation for people to be both producing organic flower seed as well as saving it themselves, not only for the aspect of being able to select [and create] varieties that are more adapted to your place and your land, but also to think about moving ourselves from the whole system of conventional flower production. Because when we’re only buying seed, we’re supporting the entire system behind that seed, that produced it.”
Regarding pollinators, most people who visit or work on flower farms attest to never having seen so many insects, birds, and butterflies before. By attracting and providing food for beneficial insects, pollinators, and predatory insects, growing flowers sustainably provides for the “whole ecosystem,” Emily highlights. “Most farms, even if they’re only selling vegetables, have a small pocket of flowers, because you have to give back some food to pollinators too.”
Local Flowers; Sustainable Design (c) Debra Prinzing
All three farmer-florists assert that their commitment to sustainably-grown, local flowers influences their floral design in many ways. Kellee, an educator and instructor at The Center For Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at UC Santa Cruz, begins a new design by thinking about the emotion she wants to evoke, “whether it’s a whimsical feeling or a feeling of freeness or a feeling of elegance.” She then considers the greenery that goes with that feeling. For the overall design, “I might choose one or two elements that are really special and unique, and design around those—whether it’s one seed pod or a special bloom that has a lot of different elements,” she continues. She’s particularly drawn to designs that are full of energy. “I’m really inspired by design that tells a story and isn’t just beautiful.”
Seasonal floral design featuring peonies, by Emily Saegar
For Emily, Lead Horticulturist at Filoli, a design starts with the season, which tells her what materials are available and influences “the emotional quality of the time.” A winter arrangement might be more quiet and subdued, while a spring arrangement may be louder and brighter. Following the season, color is an essential component to Emily’s designs. “I like picking up subtle tones of things, and I’m often really interested in the accents, as opposed to just the big show flowers.”
For Molly, owner of Molly Oliver Flowers, “growing up in a rural place with open fields and woods near our house infused my mind with the beauty of simple grasses, decaying trees, and mosses.” This encouraged her affinity for “natural-feeling, whimsical arrangements” that feature “wispiness and texture.” The designers agree that their arrangements are much more unique and evocative of place when they are made from local, seasonal flowers. “I really think that those are the arrangements that end up resonating the most,” Emily says.
Sustainability as it relates to flowers not only helps give rise to resilient ecosystems and a healthier planet through farming, as well as more meaningful floral designs, it also honors our human connection to flowers. “The first flowers that I really had a prime experience with were the peach blossoms on the tree that was in the home that I lived in when I was young, growing up,” Kellee says. “That peach tree was the first profound experience that I had with growing food, in a sense where I actually experienced it directly—that ability of the land to provide for us and share such abundance—and so those blossoms to me were always a really profound experience each year.”
Floral design by Molly Oliver Culver, Molly Oliver Flowers (c) Khaki Bedford
Molly and Emily echo these feelings. “Working on farms I grew to really love being around flowers—the colors and texture and beauty is so up-lifting. It’s good for the soul,” Molly says. Emily adds: “Generally in my experience I’ve found that the relationships and the conversations and many of the most powerful moments in my life have been outdoors, and so I think that gardens and nature and wild green spaces create this amazing container for human experience, one you can’t really replicate anywhere else…. Flowers in particular can have a really strong impact on people; they can connect us to some person or some place that means a lot to us.”
Honoring these connections requires awareness of the ways we grow and source flowers. “Flowers are so core to so many parts of our lives that people are going to buy flowers no matter what, and so if that’s the case, we have to change the way that people are producing and consuming flowers. There’s no other option,” Kellee says. The shift that is taking place in the floral trade, from exploitative, extractive practices to sustainable, community-based ones, takes into account what led Kellee, Emily, and Molly to farming in the first place, with the goal of having a lasting impact on our communities and the planet. Through sustainable flower farming and design we can appreciate the essential role of flowers on farms, in ecosystems, and in our lives.
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.