Hot weather is hard on growing flowers -- and hard on flower growers. Last week, when temperatures hit 100 degrees, Robin Trott, co-owner of Prairie Garden Farm in Starbuck, Minn., spent about four hours every day, drenched in sweat, hose in hand, watering fields of blooms.
She forced herself to take her time by singing waltzes in her head. "It slows me down," she said. "If I rush, the flowers pay."
The flowers need to look their best because they're Trott's livelihood. Every week, Prairie Garden Farm delivers its freshly cut flowers, in a refrigerated van, to florists in west central Minnesota and the Twin Cities.
"It's a challenge to be a flower farmer up here," said Doug Trott, Robin's husband and farming partner. "It's a short growing season, but during the season, things work really well."
Mom-and-pop flower growers like the Trotts are a rare breed, even in an agricultural state like Minnesota. These days, most of the bouquets and bunches sold in florist shops, discount chains and grocery stores come from South America, where the growing season is long and labor is cheap. There's a small but growing push toward locally grown, seasonal blooms -- much as the locavore movement raised awareness of locally grown, seasonal food.
"It's a harder sell than local food," admitted Debra Prinzing, the Seattle-based author of "The 50 Mile Bouquet," a new book that celebrates the "slow flower" movement, small local growers and eco-friendly floral designers. Some publishers weren't interested in the topic, she said. "A lot of the reaction was, 'We're not putting [flowers] in our mouths -- why should we care?' But we're touching them, bringing them into our home. Wouldn't you rather be touching things that haven't been sprayed with toxic chemicals?"
Prinzing was inspired by "Flower Confidential," the 2007 bestseller by Amy Stewart that offered a behind-the-scenes look at the global floral industry. After reading it, Prinzing felt "outrage -- that something as beautiful as flowers had such serious implications for the environment and the people who grew them," she said. So she and photographer David Perry decided to travel across the country "to put a face on the flower farmers and tell their story."
Many small flower farmers are struggling to compete at a time when big chain stores are buying in bulk from growers all over the globe, driving prices down. "Local farms that are trying to pay a living wage are at a disadvantage," Prinzing said.
Yet locally grown flowers have much to offer, she said. They're more fragrant and last longer than flowers that have been grown on another continent, then shipped to the United States and distributed to chain stores coast to coast before ending up in a vase.
Even roses shipped from California have a much longer vase life than roses shipped from other countries, said Dick Weber, owner of Weber's Westdale Flower Home & Garden in Minnetonka, who buys his roses from the West Coast.
"There are very few rose growers left in the U.S. because the South American product is cheaper," he said.
That imported rose bouquet may be less expensive but it will probably last for just a few days, vs. up to two weeks for a domestic bouquet, he said. "The longevity is noticeable. For us, buying domestically is a big deal, keeping the business in the United States." He also buys from smaller, local growers, including the Trotts.
Locally grown flowers were part of the plan when Sue Mishow and Jodi Wilkens opened Enchanted Floral & Gifts in Sartell, Minn., early this year.
"We decided from the beginning we wanted to grow as many as possible, and to promote other local growers," Mishow said. "With the economy the way it is, everyone is thinking 'Keep it local.' We're dealing with local people, and if we can help them, they help us. Right now, in the summer, with things blooming, it's been just about all local suppliers."
Savor the season
Rather than demanding all types of flowers, all the time, consumers can enjoy flowers in a more eco-friendly way by savoring those that are in season, according to Prinzing. We've gotten used to having whatever we want, whenever we want it, but there's a cost, she said.
"I applaud Martha Stewart. She has elevated flowers, and she loves peonies. But now brides tear out magazine pages of peonies, and it's October. You can find them in October, but they're $15 a stem, shipped from New Zealand, and you'll be holding your breath hoping the petals stay on the stems for the ceremony," Prinzing said. "If you really want a peony bouquet, get married when peonies are in bloom. The economy is going to force people to go local and seasonal."
Doug Trott has seen increased bridal demand for locally grown lisianthus, a semi-hardy perennial that comes in a variety of colors. "It's beautiful, and very popular for weddings," he said. And some green-minded brides are now seeking out eco-friendly floral designers, who take the wedding color palette and source locally grown flowers that can fill the bill, Prinzing said.
But Weber, for one, thinks local flowers will remain a low priority for most brides. "If a bride is wearing a $3,000 wedding dress, she's going to want the flowers she wants," he said. "We buy from local growers what we can, when we can. But if people want certain things, we have to get it." Most weddings require large quantities and guaranteed supply, which are hard for small local growers to deliver, he said.
Even if you're not planning a wedding, there are lots of other, smaller ways to enjoy flowers in a more sustainable way, according to Prinzing.
If you don't grow flowers, plant some. "You don't have to have a cutting garden. Just tuck in a few annuals," she said. Your veggies will reward you for it. "We've gone so heavily into edibles that some people think of flowers as frivolous. But you need nectar sources near food."
If you already do grow flowers, cut some to enjoy inside rather than buying an imported bouquet. "Gardeners hesitate to cut," Prinzing said. "Give yourself permission to be a floral designer -- gardeners are the best floral designers."
Even when nothing's blooming, other garden elements make attractive bouquets, Prinzing said. "It's hard to be local in December, but there are evergreens and twigs. Even seed pods -- there's a cool architectural element when you put them in a vase."
And when you do buy flowers, seek out seasonal blooms grown close to home, she said. "There's a growing category of people trying to be intentional about what they consume. They don't want a huge carbon footprint. It's a bit of a culture shift."
Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784