Please welcome Debra Prinzing, author of The 50 Mile Bouquet, a documentary-style book that takes a fascinating and in-depth look at local, not global, flower-growing.  We’re giving another copy away, but you’re going to have to work for it–Debra asks you to post a photo of one of your own bouquets online and put a link to it in the comments.  

The idea for The 50 Mile Bouquet – chronicling the “slow flower” movement – originated in 2006. After corresponding with each other about the things we were each doing in our complementary spheres of garden writing and photography, Seattle photographer David Perry and I arranged a one-day road trip to the Skagit Valley in Washington State, to scout each other’s garden sources. One of the highlights was a visit to the amazing heirloom rose garden of David’s friend, Waverly Jaegel. That day we discovered (and continue to nurture) our mutual fascination with the stories of the floral industry’s unsung heroes: the flower farmers.

This book was years in the works, first as a concept, then as a self-funded creative collaboration. Along the way, the two of us delighted in each new encounter with a passionate grower or inventive floral designer – all of them believers in the importance of locally-grown and seasonal ingredients as their form of creative expression.

Our winding 50 Mile Bouquet “road trip” has been one of discovery and unforgettable beauty. The 144-page book was designed by the talented James Forkner of Studio Bolo and published on April 1, 2012, by Paul Kelly of St. Lynn’s Press.

I’ve been a journalist for nearly 30 years, first as a fashion writer; then a business writer; and finally, by 1997, when I turned to something much more personal: my love affair with the garden and good design.

Writers are sponges, and we are driven by an insatiable, need-to-know curiosity. In pursuit of our stories, we can’t help but absorb knowledge about myriad topics, taught to us by generous subjects whose own passion is infectious. That’s exactly what happened to me while gathering the narrative of local flowers from so many talented individuals.

So I would like to share 10 important lessons I learned from the flower farmers and floral designers featured in the pages of The 50 Mile Bouquet:

1. Live in the Season. Like the chef whose menu planning is informed by the farmer’s seasonal ingredients, inspired floral design occurs in a similar way. Rather than feeling restricted, something quite magical occurs when we understand seasonal floral choices. We learn to live in the moment, using observation of nature and an intimacy with our own garden to discover what each month of the calendar offers us: Intriguing branches, twigs, stems, blades, buds, berries and blooms — all for our sensory enjoyment.

2. Define LOCAL on your own terms. This word is a moving target, and you have to determine for yourself what local means in your community. We used “50-miles” to emphasize the enjoyment of flowers that travel the shortest possible journey between the field and vase. You won’t know unless you ask the florist or supermarket flower department to tell you. There was a big scam going on here in Seattle last year when our own natural food market started selling mixed bouquets with a sticker that read: “Locally hand-tied in the Pacific Northwest.” A number of us in the community complained that this was just a form of green-washing to imply the flowers had been locally grown (which they weren’t). All that label really meant was that someone in a local, PNW warehouse was bunching up imported blooms and putting a twist-tie around them. That is NOT local, people!

In 2008, Congress passed H.R. 2419, which amended the “Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act.” In the amendment, “Locally” and “Regionally” are grouped together and defined as:

“. . . the locality or region in which the final product is marketed, so that the total distance that the product is transported is less than 400 miles from the origin of the product; or the State in which the product is produced.”

It is also possible to enjoy a one-block bouquet, especially if you harvest from your own neighborhood. I encourage you to come up with your personal guideline for sourcing locally.

3. Understand what sustainability means in the flower trade. Like “local,” the term “sustainable” has oh-so-many meanings. Do your homework. When we started trying to wrap our arms around this subject, Jennie Love, a flower farmer and eco-florist in Philadelphia who owns Love ‘n Fresh Flowers, shared her personal definition of sustainably grown blooms, and we included it in our book’s introduction:

“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. ” That’s the best definition of sustainable flower farming we’ve heard – and we were thrilled that Jennie shared it with us.

4. Be a floral designer even if you don’t have a garden. Not everyone has the passion to plant and care for a cutting garden, let alone the square-footage in which to do so. Act like a inquisitive floral designer and develop your sources. That means patronizing the farmers’ market and U-Pick Farm Stand, as well as conducting your own wild-foraging techniques (see point Number 5, below). Friends and neighbors with prolific gardens or overgrown shrubs are also great sources of floral ingredients.

5. One person’s weed is another person’s bouquet. Inspired designers see the inherent charm in plants that many of us would otherwise ignore. Case in point: fruiting raspberry or blackberry vines. If, like me, you live next to a vacant lot overrun with Himalayan blackberries, you may soon discover how cool those clusters of not-yet-ripe green berries look in an arrangement with other seasonal ingredients. David Perry recently showed up at one of our book-signings with a bucket of all sorts of humble blooms and branches, causing the audience to ooh and aah over what he described as “blue collar floral ingredients.” In his eyes, prosaic Photinia x fraseri foliage, when harvested at its early-season red stage, is a gorgeous design element in the vase. He also showed off the emerging flower heads from his rhubarb patch, which are nothing short of dazzling.

6. Keep those clippers on hand. One designer explained it this way: “While some women have lipstick in their purses, I have a pair of Felcos.” She views her personal harvesting efforts as a public service! “If branches are hanging onto the sidewalk, I do my part to clip them back,” she pointed out. The foragers we met gain permission first before ever cutting on public or private property. Wild drifts of Queen Anne’s lace, growing in a ditch alongside of the highway, though, seems to be fair game.

7. Living plants are floral ingredients, too. If you’re in need of design inspiration, take a trip to the garden center or nursery. We discovered that many designers use this approach. Max Gill, who creates beautiful, local arrangements for Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Restaurant in Berkeley, pointed out: ” . . . it is as important to go to a nursery to buy a 5-gallon plant as it is to head to the flower market.”

Susie Nadler, the talented designer whose flower shop, The Cutting Garden, is housed at Flora Grubb Gardens in San Francisco, feels the same way. Many of the nursery’s potted echeverias and aeoniums, as well as a selection of titillating tillandsias, make their way into Susie’s bouquets with dahlias and other cut-flower ingredients. “The idea that you can have a living plant in your bouquet – one that will live on beyond the wedding day – is appealing to a bride,” she said.

8. Use anything as a vase. Container gardeners have elevated this philosophy to a high art form, and now it’s the floral world’s turn to re-imagine the bud vase into something more interesting. From vintage pottery and Mason jars to tarnished trophy cups and teapots, I’ve filled all sorts of vessels with my bouquets. And for the budget-minded, there is an ever-ready supply of generic glass florist vases on the Goodwill and Salvation Army thrift store shelves, all for a song. Keep a stash on hand for when you send visitors home with their own backyard bouquets.

9. Skip the chemicals. Green foam, or florist’s Oasis, is the dirty little secret of conventional floral design. Time and time again, eco-conscious floral designers identify the foam brick as the most harmful aspect of their trade. The material is formaldehyde-based and therefore is harmful to touch (and breathe when it breaks down into fine particles in the air). Motivated to find an alternative, designers who care about the environment have sought alternate ways to stabilize their stems. Green floral arranging techniques include using loosely-formed chicken wire; old-fashioned or new-styled flower frogs; or a framework of branches inserted into the vase before the flower stems are added. Hey, even those 1980s glass marbles will work!

10. Channel your inner floral designer. You don’t have to earn a certificate from the London School of Floral Design to create a seasonal, local and sustainable bouquet. I contend that gardeners are especially qualified to arrange flowers. After all, we know a lot about our plants, their bloom cycle, their natural form and character – and their seasonality. We also know what colors and textures we like when combined in the landscape. A vase is just a little piece of the garden, gathered and arranged to please the eye.

So give it a try and design a bouquet. We’ll award a free copy of The 50 Mile Bouquet to one Garden Rant winner, based on photos you post here by Sunday night.