YES, IT’S WINTER, but take the “slow flowers” challenge now, anyway, says Debra Prinzing–especially with the holidays upon us. Slow, as in local and fresh, not imported and chemical-laden from the traditional floriculture industry. Slow as in stuff from your own backyard and nearby, made into a sustainable, seasonally appropriate arrangement. “See how much beauty you can create close to home, every week of the year,” Debra says, “starting right now.”
Seattle-based Debra Prinzing is a longtime garden writer and author most recently of the books “The 50 Mile Bouquet” and “Slow Flowers” (Amazon affiliate links). When a garden designer friend who has also been a guest on this show, Kathy Tracey of Avant Gardens, recently wrote about a workshop she’d attended with Debra, I knew I had to invite her to my public-radio show so we could all learn more. The transcript follows:
my slow-flowers q&a with debra prinzing
Q. Your own adventure into slow flowers began with an “aha” from the food world.
A. It did. I’m in Seattle, which is a big food community, and there are big food communities all across the country where we’re celebrating the chef and the farmer—they’re like the rock stars.
The slow food movement began in Italy, I think, in the 80s, and migrated to the U.S., but in the U.S., I credit Alice Waters for raising our awareness.
Q. Isn’t it funny how long ago that is? We think of it as “new,” but it isn’t.
A. She started that restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, more than 40 years ago. When we were working on the book “The 50 Mile Bouquet,” it was a real privilege to get to photograph inside Chez Panisse and interview Max Gill, who is her field-to-vase florist. The same philosophy as the food on the table guides what Max designs for the big bouquet that is on display in the restaurant.
Q: “Field to vase?” I love it.
A. It’s another way to look at the journey. The food mile can be equated to the flower mile. As more of us begin to connect the food on our table and the field where it grows, it only makes sense to ask the same questions about the flowers that fill the vase on the table. Where were they grown?
Q. Sometimes the answer isn’t what you would expect. It’s far away.
A. The numbers are shocking. Eighty percent of the cut flowers sold in the U.S. are imported. That means 20 percent are domestically grown. That number has been plummeting downward for about 30 years due to policies that basically incentivized some South American countries to have duty-free access to our market for flowers. That’s a whole geo-political discussion.
When we go to buy flowers, there is no country-of-origin labeling enforced at the supermarket level, whereas every piece of fruit or vegetable has that little sticky label. So there’s a disconnect.
We see flowers wrapped in garish bunches at the checkout, and they’re months away from the date when their ancestors would have typically emerged from the soil. I think it’s no wonder we’re not emotionally wooed by these flowers. There’s no sense of season or place or who grew them.
Q. It’s completely contextually inappropriate, I agree.
So before “Slow Flowers,” Debra, you wrote “The 50 Mile Bouquet” book, which in turn sort of turned you into a hands-on floral-design person yourself along the way.
Garden writing takes one down many unexpected paths, as you know. After I wrote five or six mostly Northwest-regional books, I became enthralled with the story of local flower farmers in my community, in Washington State.
Washington State is actually the second highest-producing state for flowers in the country, after California. Oregon is Number 4, and New Jersey is Number 3—according to USDA figures.
For “The 50 Mile Bouquet,” I had teamed up with a photographer collaborator, and we began traveling around the West Coast gathering stories of flower farmers, who we believed were a forgotten part of agriculture. These intrepid farmers are trying to make a living from their land, just like someone growing carrots. They were my entry point to understanding what’s happening in the floral industry in the U.S.
That whole “buy local” movement is certainly influencing all aspects of consumer spending, but I even met floral designer who were early adopters in that world. They were acting like a farm-to-table chef who had a relationship to an heirloom-tomato grower, and were growing these heirloom flowers.
Q. In my tiny Hudson Valley town of Copake, New York, we were recently the beneficiaries of a social-investment project that converted farmland to organic. Three farm families are on it now—one of whom is a flower farmer: Tiny Hearts Farm, Jenny Elliott and Luke Franco, are farming alongside their vegetable-growing colleagues. It has been so well-received in our community, and at the farm markets. People have this light bulb go off—there’s the fresh produce and at the next stand, there are the locally produced flowers. “I want that, too,” they say.
A. For a lot of CSA farmers, they might have an unplanted row alongside the vegetables and they plant some sunflowers or zinnias, and they take those to the market or put them in their CSA boxes, and the response is so positive that it’s like the gateway drug: “Oh, we’ve got to grow more.”
Q. It’s easier to sell people rutabagas when you put flowers in the box, too. [Laughter.]
A. And actually flowers do have a higher per-acre revenue potential than a commodity food crop, so that’s another appeal to people like the farm in your community.
Q. As I mentioned at the start, I got in touch with you after my garden designer-nursery owner friend Kathy Tracey alerted that she had attended your workshop you gave at historic Blithewold mansion recently in Rhode Island—and took the slow flowers challenge herself. Kathy is someone who has a fantastic eye, and does a lot of arranging herself, and was totally sold. Tell us what happens in those workshops, and what you try to get across.
A. It’s funny: It’s not so much about rules. Here’s what happens at those workshops, which are usually at a botanical garden or a hort society or a nursery. I just tell my personal story about discovering seasonal flowers, and I stand back and watch the magic happen.
The photos from that workshop at Blithewold will blow your mind. It’s like a metaphor for the diversity of human nature when you put 15 women and men in one room [above photo], give them all access to the same selection of flowers and foliage and berries and such, and you witness such personal expression and individual creativity.
You can talk about form, line, texture—all the principles of design. But the thing that happens is that people are responding to memory, and this emotional connection to maybe a flower that their grandmother grew, or something they’ve seen in their neighborhood for years but never realized it could be cut and put in a vase.
It’s an exciting way to get people to see flowers as something that are from the garden and nature—and not just from the supermarket.
A. I was interviewing floral designers for “The 50 Mile Bouquet,” but I hadn’t sold that book yet. I was pitching it to an editor in New York, who basically said, “That’s fine if you live in a place like Santa Barbara, but what about the rest of us?”
It got me thinking: I’m in Seattle, technically Zone 8A or 8B, and basically in winter my floral-design elements are conifers or twigs. I bet you could say the same thing about your yard. So to prove a point—that even in the most un-Santa Barbara-like places, nature can enrich our lives—I started making bouquets by just gathering elements from the garden.
I said I’d create one a week for a year. At the time I was calling it “The 52 Weeks of Local Flowers Project,” which sounded like an 80s self-help book.
Q. [Laughter.] Good thing you worked on the title.
A. By the time it came together I’d been using the term “slow flowers” for awhile, and it just seemed right to use it for the book. It implies sourcing locally, being conscious, anti-mass market.
So the slow flowers challenge is to take that process—really a meditative process—of observing nature and considering yourself a student of nature. Take a walk around your garden, or in your neighborhood (where of course you should only gather what a storm has knocked down, unless you have neighbors as I do who invite me to come clip).
Q. Always with permission, of course.
A. Yes, foraging with permission. Gather what’s around you, in season, and then I augment with what I can purchase from local farmers. Or maybe you can go to the nursery and buy some kind of potted plant, or some kind of landscaping plant, and cut an element off of that.
Q. I used to purchase cut orchid stems from a local greenhouse—not the usual white Phalaenopsis, but something unusual. I’d buy a stem or two, and surround it with other things I had on hand, and the orchid blooms would last for weeks.
A. An aside: That whole idea of how long a cut stem will last in a vase has done a disservice to the cut-flower industry and to flowers in general. When we talk about the farm-to-table meal, we only expect to enjoy that food for what, maybe 45 minutes? Or a bottle of wine: the same. Those are agriculturally based products we’re happy to take pleasure in for just a moment. But somehow with flowers we complain, and think that they are a waste of money if they won’t last 10 days, or 14 days. I’m trying to get people to live more in the moment.
Q. You started your own slow-flowers challenge years ago, one November. [One of Debra’s November 2011 arrangements, above.] Even though December is even more challenging, it’s also a good time to have some element of holiday décor that perhaps we can use as inspiration for our foraging.
[Top-of-page photo, a wreath Debra just made, with the step-by-step detailed in this story.]
A. At Blithewold, for instance, we had dried hydrangea flowers [below, Debra’s arrangement from that event], privet berries, seedheads, rose hips, Callicarpa berries—besides the things that would by now be past.
Right now, I have Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick, the contorted filbert, outside my window. Now that the leaves have fallen, those little catkin tassels are draped off of these contorted branches. One of those in a tall base would look so modern and so awesome on my mantel for weeks. Just a branch.
Q. The winter chapter of “Slow Flowers” begins with a Thoreau quote: “One must maintain a little bit of summer, even in the middle of winter.” It’s winter-ish already—the hardest time to “go local” with any botanical product, of course—so are there any tricks for success this time of year, especially if you simply feel you must have a dose of bloom?
A. In general, evergreen needled material or broadleaf material and twigs will be the base of your arrangement—colorful twig dogwoods, for instance, or branches with buds.
Q. I love the twig willows as well.
A. Yes, and then you can do the “cheats,” the orchids like we mentioned, cut or potted. I have a half-dozen Rex begonias, such as ‘Escargot,’ and their leaves are so dramatic in a floral arrangement.
Q. I use my fancy-leaf begonia foliage, too.
A. Any leaf that you would cut and try to propagate in water—an herb, a geranium, a begonia—they will be happy in a vase and last longer than you would expect.
If you’re really craving flowers, you can go the route of paperwhites or amaryllis being forced indoors.
I also use Echeveria, which are not winter hardy in Seattle. I store my pots of them in the garage under lights to keep them alive. I will cut one of those and wire it and it will appear again and again as a floral element in my arrangements.
They’re teal blue and beautifully symmetrical. You can just cut it half an inch under the base of the flower to just give yourself a little neck, and use that over and again in winter arrangements. Tillandsias, the air plants, can be used this way, too.
I’m super lucky because in Seattle we have an organic tulip grower, Alm Hill Gardens, at the Pike’s Place Flower Market, who grows winter tulips, so I can get tulips from Thanksgiving to Valentine’s Day. Don’t hate me!
Q. I won’t. But it’s a good reminder: People should inquire about locally sourced flowers, and there may be such a place near them. Your podcast and website can help, right?
A. The SlowFlowers dot com website is free for anyone to use, and is basically a directory of American-grown flowers, and the farmers and florists who bring them to the marketplace. Right now there are 425 farmers, designers, studios and shops listed in 47 states.
enter to win the books
Are you still gathering gleanings from your garden, or up for taking the slow-flowers challenge if you haven’t yet? When was your last “arrangement” or wreath or other locally gathered display?
My answer: After a recent storm, I decided to make use of the fallen magnolia branch, replete with fuzzy flower buds, rather than lament its untimely removal from the tree. I’ve been enjoying it, ikebana-style, in a pitcher here for weeks.
I’ll select a random winner after entries close at midnight Sunday, December 21. Good luck to all. US And Canada only.
more on slow flowers and debra prinzing
(Photos are (c) DebraPrinzing/Slowflowers.com except for portraits, (c) Jean Zaputil/Studio Z Photography and Design.)
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).