2022 Speaker Profile: TJ McGrath
Meet floral designer and sustainability influencer TJ McGrath. Contributor Jo Ellen Meyers-Sharp recently interviewed TJ for this Slow Flowers Summit feature.
It wasn’t until his father retired and took up gardening that TJ McGrath even thought about gardening. He helped his dad build a koi pond, “and that’s how I started thinking about gardening.”
He grew up in a big Irish family that planted only tulips and daffodils, because his mother thought perennials were messy. “We had mostly lawn,” recalls TJ, who will speak and design florals at the 2022 Slow Flower Summit (June 26-28).
After a few years in an apartment, TJ bought a house, a move that started him on the road to floral design. The house had peonies. Everywhere. There must have been dozens of the plant. TJ impressed the seller, who had an Irish brogue, by being of Irish descent and by knowing the plants were peonies. His real estate agent told him that’s why he got the house on a low-ball offer.
At his new house, he’d cut the peonies and give bouquets to neighbors. From this beginning, TJ developed into a designer of unique arrangements for special events and for the pleasure of his clients. He also has a flower subscription service.
Eventually, a neighbor who is an artist, had a good size backyard where she grew a lot of native plants as subjects in her paintings. He added to her garden, and they swapped plants. At the time, he was an executive at major retail company in New Jersey. Yet the plants called to him.
“I started cutting things, bringing more flowers indoors, and re-designing grocery bouquets,” he says. People were impressed with his arrangements. His interest was so strong he decided to leave his well-paid New Jersey corporate position.
Retail flower shop
He eventually worked at a local flower shop, which sold all kinds of home accessories unrelated to flowers. “The first year, we pushed flowers as hard as we could,” such as telling customers the store had a cooler full of arrangements that would look great with the candles they were buying.
Like a lot of people, TJ’s job ended at the end of 2020 because of Covid-19. While talking about his predicament over dinner one evening, his partner Andrew Paish encouraged him to open his own studio rather than accept another position at a high-end flower shop, saying, “It's time for you to believe in yourself and go out on your own.”
A business is born
Two weeks later, in 2021, he opened TJ McGrath Designs LLC, which he operates out of his 830 square foot home in Plainfield, New Jersey. TJ specializes in natural arrangements of locally grown or American grown plants in season. The philosophy requires commitment, he says, acknowledging challenges to find enough flower growers in his area. “I have developed good relationships with local farmers. I just keep talking to more and more people, letting them know there are more of us who want the flowers. It’s still very grass roots in our area.”
I have developed good relationships with local farmers. I just keep talking to more and more people, letting them know there are more of us who want the flowers.
At the Slow Flower Summit, TJ plans to talk about sourcing local flowers, especially larger quantities for weddings and events. He hopes to encourage designers to build relationships with growers and farmers. He thinks it would be to their advantage if wholesalers and co-ops put on their availability lists where their products are from. “I wholeheartedly believe that.”
Growing his own
TJ recently led a workshop his favorite greenhouse grower, H J Hautau & Sons Florist (c) Jessica Gallo, Fine & Fleurie Photography
TJ used to grow his own plants. “I used to have lots of different perennials, but now it’s the complete opposite.” Echinacea, Rudbeckia, and Iris were among those blooming in his garden between late March through late October. Oh, and yes, among the plants that started his career, a white tree peony made the move to TJ’s second house.
TJ and Andrew welcomed two dogs, an English setter and a shelter rescue, named Chaucer and Percy, respectively, to the family. “I did have a beautiful garden, before we owned these two dogs. In three years, they destroyed everything.” He hopes to begin planting and growing again, away from the dogs’ romping areas. He’s planning some raised beds. He’s growing dahlias in his front yard this summer. It’s a plant deer don’t seem to bother, a prime consideration where he lives.
Fortunately, his clients know that he sources local or American grown plants. (For subscribers, this means that there are no arrangement in January). Arrangements are delivered close to if not at peak, TJ said, “I’m lucky to have clients who like to have an arrangement that looks like art delivered.”
All photography, courtesy of TJ McGrath
Slow Flowers Summit welcomes Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp as our profile contributor for the 2022 season. Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp is the Hoosier Gardener. She’s a 25-year, award-winning veteran of print journalism and owner of Write for You! LLC, a freelance writing and editing business.
You can find her blog at hoosiergardener.com. Jo Ellen is immediate past president of GardenComm: GardenCommunicators International. She's the former editor of four regional gardening magazines. She is a garden coach and has a four-season commercial and residential container planting business. For nearly 25 years, she has worked at a large, independent garden center in Indianapolis, including a stint as buyer of perennials, trees and shrubs. A popular speaker, she has more than 50 5-star reviews at greatgardenspeakers.org.