2023 Speaker Profile: DEE HALL
Dee Hall continually finds creative ways to bring her seasonal flowers to customers in her Norfolk, Virginia, community. Beyond her CSA subscriptions and everyday deliveries, Dee builds community with fellow flower farmers. She will discuss how she developed Mermaid City Flowers by growing flowers in her own residential garden and on "borrowed" property of her neighbors. You'll also hear about Black Flower Farmers, the organization she founded in 2021.
Dee Hall’s car is full of soil. Shovelling it onto to a new growing space is on her to-do list for the day, as is ordering new business cards and checking in with florists to get a sense of their upcoming orders for Mother’s Day. Such is the typical day of Norfolk, Virginia-based flower farmer and proprietress of Mermaid City Flowers—as in there is no such thing as a typical day.
Innovation and creativity are part of the fabric of Dee’s life and business as an urban flower farmer. Now in her fourth year, Dee currently grows on her own property as well as five other sites, including her neighbor’s yard. That neighbor was the first to offer up his space. “He loves flowers, but he’s not great at growing them,” says Dee. He saw was she was doing and invited her to have her flowers spill over into his yard, which was well-equipped with raised beds, irrigation drip tapes, and rain barrels. “People saw me using his space and another friend offered,” says Dee, and her urban farm grew from there. Today, her various plots total about an acre and she has a few other properties on standby for when she’s ready to expand.
Flowers and community have been ever-present in Dee’s life. Her grandmother was a teacher and a florist on the side. “She had a massive garden,” says Dee, and although she died five years ago, her Saint Lucia garden endures. And her love of flowers passed on to Dee, who often watched her grandmother make arrangements. Dee also spent a lot of time in New York’s community gardens, and was fortunate to grow up across the street from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. From these early influences the joy of plants, gardens, and growing stuck. “I took a garden with me wherever I went through adulthood,” says Dee.
For the most part, Dee sells her flowers direct to customers. She has a subscription service, offers various bouquets through her website, and does the occasional wedding, workshop, or pop-up. She generally gardens in the morning before it gets too warm and then heads into the studio or does administrative work. She’s a one-woman show, but now that her teenage son can drive, he occasionally helps with deliveries. (Dee jokes that he also like to tell her about the mistakes she makes in her logistics process.)
Sustainability is woven throughout her business model. Her efforts are multipronged, and include on-site composting, using integrated pest management techniques such as beneficial nematodes, rainwater capture, and forgoing floral foam in her arrangements. Her property is certified as a wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation and is also a monarch butterfly waystation through Monarch Watch. The idea to improve her property for wildlife values started with the removal of one small patch of grass. “I wanted to attract pollinators,” says Dee, “so I took out the grass, put in native plants, and it started from there.” Today, the property is filled with sound and movement—birds, insects, toads, and even snakes. “It can freak you out when you dig and a toad jumps out, but it’s good to have these things; it’s good that the garden is alive.” Butterflies and moths are of particular interest and she grows plants such as bronze fennel which is good for the caterpillars, but also for bouquets. “I spend so much time outside that I can identify butterflies without seeing them,” Dee says. “I can tell it’s a monarch by the way it’s flying.”
“Community is the key part of what I do,” she says, and her model speaks to the ethos “if you build it, they will come.” Making her garden vibrant and forward-facing built community and brought her additional growing space. “You just kind of have to step out because I’m walking a path that’s not traditional in farming,”
Dee’s efforts at sustainability also involve her community. She’s a keen recycler and is always on the lookout for vases, for instance, and her friends, neighbors, and customers know it. “People will often put vases on my porch,” she says. They’ll also leave clear plastic milk jugs, which she uses for winter sowing. “They know that I try to utilize every bit that I can,” she says. “I try to repurpose or reuse items as much as possible.” This even extends to gathering cardboard for new beds from a local plant shop. To Dee, all of these efforts help build community. “They’re building reciprocal relationships with community members and businesses that are like-minded and it’s been great for everyone involved.”
Her belief in the power of community saw Dee launch Black Flower Farmers in 2021. Currently there are about 30 members, with new people coming online to join their active Instagram group. “If I can find them on Instagram, or if someone else says, ‘hey, there’s this person doing what we do,’ I’m happy to bring them into the fold,” explains Dee. It’s a diverse group with a broad range of expertise from newbies to expert farmers like Mimo Davis at Urban Buds who’s been flower farming for over 30 years, and members come from across the United States and even Canada, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. “It’s been a great experience,” says Dee. They share all sorts of info—available grants, favorite suppliers, how to put together a funeral arrangement, dealing with government agencies, and such. Dee explains that at times members come up against racism in their business dealings so the group provides a safe space to share experiences and get help. “It’s been great for everyone to have that community,” she says.
At the Slow Flowers Summit, Dee will be sharing the story of Mermaid City Flowers and her distributed urban farming model. “Community is the key part of what I do,” she says, and her model speaks to the ethos “if you build it, they will come.” Making her garden vibrant and forward-facing built community and brought her additional growing space. “You just kind of have to step out because I’m walking a path that’s not traditional in farming,” she says and she’s keen to help others explore this innovative model. She’ll also introduce participants to Black Flower Farmers and explain how to get involved, ever planting seeds and growing community.
Slow Flowers Summit welcomes Adrienne Mason as our profile contributor for the 2023 season. Adrienne Mason is a writer and editor based on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. She specializes in writing about science, nature, and the cultural history of the west coast. She is the author of over 30 books for both adults and children, the most recent of which is Whales to the Rescue. Adrienne also specializes in writing for museums, parks, and interpretive centers, and her work is in dozens of exhibits across Canada. When she’s not at her desk, Adrienne spends as much time as possible outdoors—hiking, camping, beachcombing, and in her garden, to which she recently added two large cut flower beds. Visit Adrienne at adriennemason.com.