Friday, June 13, 2008

watch this garden grow!

I'd like to introduce a new friend of mine...Erin Benzakein is a seed planting, farm developing, flower growing, plant watering, floral designing, tree huggin', earth lovin' ROCK STAR! (Those are only a few of her talents--she is also an accomplished business woman, a pioneer and champion for local sustainable flower farming, and one of the genuinely nicest people I've met!).

Erin began her own floral design company a few years ago, but soon realized her true passion was actually in organic gardening. And I'm thrilled--my search for local/organic/sustainable farmers has been very difficult, so Erin is a true blessing. I love that she has experience in the design end; she knows what looks good, what holds up, and how to combine textures and colors. In fact, she's so good that I would call her our very own local Ariella Chezar. And I don't throw that compliment around.

I'll let her tell the rest...

I know you are a very accomplished florist, so tell us about your new adventure with organic flower farming and the journey that took you there.
Well, this whole crazy adventure actually started with the growing end of flowers and the designing part came later. I was filling in on a landscape crew in the Highlands and the head gardener who was also in charge of doing the flowers for the estate would frequently comb the grounds for extra material to use in her bouquets . These arrangements were the most incredible things I had ever seen ! Up until then it had never occurred to me that you could actually cut garden flowers and bring them indoors. Well not long after that I was knee deep in trialing every flower that I could get my hands on, devouring dozens of books on flower arranging/growing and convinced a local designer to show me the basics of wedding design . Now I grow about an acre and a half of certified organic flower, over 200 varieties this year! It's totally out of control but I'm loving it!

What sort of offerings do you have on your farm?
I grow pretty much anything that can be cut! Cherry tomatoes on the vine, grasses, shrubs for foliage, unripe fruit on the branch, garden roses, peonies, rosehips along with more standard fare like Dahlias, Sunflowers, Snapdragons, Sweet Peas, Lilies etc. I am constantly trialing new material and adding more names to my wish list for next year. I keep thinking that this obsession will hit a wall at some point but so far I just keep getting deeper and deeper into it. Last year I grew 37 varieties of winter squash, 43 varieties of ornamental grass and 17 different rosehips, the possibilities are unlimited !!!

Are you finding a large demand for local, sustainable crops? I’ve found it so difficult to find good sources, so am personally thrilled to have found you. But what about the rest of the world—is it catching on?
So far the response has been fantastic! Florists that I would have never thought would be interested in using local, organically grown material are taking my cards right and left. I have found that it's actually the consumer who's the last to catch on in this case. Most flower buyers are still stuck on Orchids, Stargazer Lilies, Gerbera Daisies and South American roses. So even though designers want to use local product they have to be creative in how they can weave it into their clients requests. I'm interested to see how it all plays out but I have a hunch that consumers aren't far behind. It's just that it doesn't occur to most people that commercially grown flowers are actually a very toxic product grown in distant lands by very low paid labor. If people only knew the truth they would probably be much more open minded when it came to using locally grown product in their weddings and celebrations!

What are some of the big challenges you’ve had in establishing your business?
Making up my mind ! Last year was a huge trial year for me and I did a little of everything! I sold bulk flowers to designers, did weddings, parties, a weekly office route and a subscription service to Seattle ! So now that I've refined my direction hopefully things will pick up some steam and smooth out a little. I realized I can't do it all and do it as well as I would like. My heart is really in the growing and so I made the decision last fall to cut away the rest and just focus on the flowers. The other big challenge for me has been my own fear. Selling yourself, your product, your vision, it can be really scary! Sometimes I'll hesitate on doing the next step in building my business because I get spooked. But each time I work through it a huge reward is on the other side!

And successes?
I have found if I can just be myself and share my passion for flowers everything else takes care of itself! Last fall I got the up the nerve and approached Whole Foods about carrying my flowers this season. Well they said yes and so in a few weeks you'll be able to buy organic mixed garden bouquets from our farm at their 4 W. Washington stores!!!

What are your personal favorite flowers for cutting/arranging? Favorite non-floral elements from the garden?
My all time favorite blooms are:
*Garden Roses (especially anything from breeder David Austin)
*Sweet Peas (April in Paris or High Scent are the best varieties!)
*Species Lilies (Rubrum is amazing--sometimes having up to 20 blooms per stem!)
*Eremerus or Foxtail Lily (6ft tall spikes in salmon, white, orange, pink these regal beauties are to die for and sweetly scented too!!!
*Limelight Hydrangeas (last year my blooms were literally the size of footballs! The chartreuse green looked fantastic with anything and they quickly jumped to the top of my list.)

My Favorite non-floral ingredients are:
*Ever bearing Raspberry foliage with unripe fruit attached
*Currant Tomatoes (I weave long strands of them through bouquets. Talk about a conversation starter!)
*Physocarpus or Ninebark foliage( this shrub has deep chocolate colored leaves that last 2 weeks in water!)
Any other ideas on incorporating green design principals into events?
First, flexibility is essential! I realize that this goes completely against traditional wedding planning. But Nature is a living breathing phenomenon that can vary in her seasons up four weeks depending on the year. No two springs are the same and one wishing for local/green flowers must be willing to flex a bit.I know many brides have their heart set on a certain flower and this can make it very difficult to go green when they are out of season or impossible to grow locally(Orchids, Stephanotis, Colored Callas are a few examples). If you can pick a color pallet rather than a specific flower and then leave it up to your designer to find local ingredients that fit the feel, style and color I would bet 80% of your wedding flowers could be sourced from within 100 miles of your wedding site. You can also opt for local filler flowers and foliage if you just can't part with those Callas though.Every little bit counts!

A few other ways I have found to green up the flower side of things are:
*To use recycled, rented or reusable vases
*Create arrangements that can be used multiple times like large urns for the ceremony that can be transferred to the reception area .
*Having a large roll of Kraft paper to wrap up bouquets at the end of the celebration and sending them home with guests is a great way of sharing the abundance and ensuring it doesn't go into the trash!
*Also limiting the use of floral foam and composting the flowers after the event are awesome too.

I can't wait to begin incorporating Erin's beautiful blooms this summer. Wherever you are, I hope this inspires you to seek out local growers using happy-earth methods. Thanks Erin--for being an inspiration to me!

Photos: All (AMAZING!) flowers from Floret Flowers, photography by David Perry. (And for any garden lovers out there, check out David's blog--it's beauty will knock your socks off).

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