Debra Prinzing: Seasonal + Sustainable = Slow Flowers

Debra Prinzing, author of Slow Flowers, answers questions about seasonal, sustainable, and local flowers. Debra Prinzing, author of Slow Flowers, answers questions about seasonal, sustainable, and local flowers. (photo by Mary Grace Long)

When I reviewed Debra Prinzing's book Slow Flowers back in July, I wondered about Debra's use of the terms seasonal and sustainable. I wondered particularly about how seasonal and sustainable such flowers would be in climates much colder than Debra's moderate Pacific Northwest. Before I ever published that review, I gave Debra a chance to respond to the questions I raised about this issue, as well as more pragmatic questions relating to the mechanics of flower arranging. Well, I published Debra's tips on flower arranging, but I never got around to publishing her meatier response on what seasonal and sustainable flowers means to her. Shame on me. I repent of my procrastination, and here it is. I hope it inspires you to think carefully through your own choices when it comes to cut flowers and flower arrangements.

Define Seasonal

Tulip arrangement as seen in SLOW FLOWERS by Debra Prinzing p 109 The tulips were grown locally in February--in a greenhouse. Are they seasonal? (Photo copyright Debra Prinzing.) 

Debra: In general, I try to design with flowers that are naturally growing in the garden or local flower farms at a particular moment in time. This approach closely mirrors what gardeners and foodies know about seasonal edible crops. If I can't grow that floral element in my own garden, then I turn to my local flower farmers to see what they are growing. Most of their efforts are focused on the same (seasonal) definition of what is naturally blooming in any given month in their Zone.

However, in order to sustain their businesses, especially in areas outside of California, many farmers are exploring "Season Extension" crops. These crops are usually produced early in the season (such as tulips, roses or lilies in greenhouses in February or March, long before you'd find them in the garden) or later in the season (such as protecting dahlias and specialty chrysanthemums in a high tunnel so they can continue to be harvested after an early frost in late fall). This rationale leads me to be, as you put it: "Mostly Seasonal."

Some people would argue these practices aren't producing truly seasonal flowers. But I am eager to have these flowers for several reasons:

  1. I love them - I'm unabashedly obsessed
  2. those American-grown flowers provide an alternative to the flood of imported options that occur in all 12 months of the year
  3. I know it helps my local flower farmers gain additional income on the shoulder months when their fields aren't up to full production.

Define Local

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.

            --Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act, H.R. 2419 (2008)

This definition above is the most recent Federal language about local. It applies to food, of course, but flower consumers can also use it as a rule of thumb. For me, I have a "pebble in the pond" mindset, which means local can begin in my own cutting garden, continue to wild-gathered weeds by the side of the road, to buying direct from the farmer or visiting a U-pick farm--and eventually (if I need to fulfill a specific flower item, ordering from a farm one state away, two states away, or domestically). Bouquet as seen in SLOW FLOWERS by Debra Prinzing p 64 These all came from the Seattle Wholesale Growers Market--in summer. Seasonal and local, no question. (Photo copyright Debra Prinzing)

Define Sustainable

This term has been co-opted just like "Organic" has been overused. I love how some of the flower farmers I interviewed in The 50 Mile Bouquet describe their approach to being sustainable:

  • "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." --Jennie Love, Love ’N Fresh Flowers
  • “We work hard to keep the soil healthy. That way, the critters make a living and so do we. Sustainability for us means leaving the land in better shape than we found it.”--Diane Szukovathy, Jello Mold Farm

Here are some of the other practices commonly found on a sustainable flower farm:

  • Field preparation
  • Organic fertilizer
  • Natural pest and disease control
  • Drip irrigation; water recycling
  • Cover Crops: vetch, peas and other legumes add nitrogen, suppress weeds and create a rich habitat for beneficial insects.

Kathy: At what point do we say that it is just not sustainable to grow certain things locally, even if it is less environmentally costly than the way it is currently being done? How do we even figure these things out, that the amount of airline fuel needed to import flowers and the amount of gasoline needed to truck them to their destination does more environmental damage than the heating oil used to heat the greenhouse that grows them locally? At what point do they cancel each other out? At what point do we say, roses in February is madness! The environmental cost is too great, no matter where they are grown? Or do we ever get to that point? Do you see what I'm getting at? (And yes, that is simplifying the issue.)

Debra: The long debate about "What is Sustainable" is something people (flower consumers) will have to define for themselves. You ask: "Are tulips or roses in the winter really sustainable?" The simple answer, I guess, is NO. But the more nuanced answer (in the context of a global floriculture industry where flowers are treated as cheap commodities), is this:

People are going to buy flowers year round because the supermarkets have them in stock....but the majority of consumers don't think one second about where their flowers come from OR the enormous carbon/transportation footprint that is consumed by shipping flowers from South America to the U.S. on chartered jumbo jets. Something like 35 chartered jumbo jets DAILY fly from Colombia to Miami just filled with flowers.

Here's one bit of data you can use: The California Cut Flower Commission recently sponsored a study by SureHarvest on the sustainability of California’s flowers that found California’s flowers’ transportation footprint was 3-16 times less into the major cities throughout the US, when compared against product flown in from South America. [source:]

I'm far more willing to support my local flower grower who might be heating his or her greenhouse to temperatures slightly above freezing just to have a much more sustainable (local) alternative to imported blooms. Yes, there is an energy cost to growing flowers. But there's an energy cost to growing flowers (and food) all year long, if you take into consideration the amount of water that's used especially in the summer. Rose bouquet from SLOW FLOWERS PG 116 These roses were grown locally--in February. Are they sustainable? (Photo copyright Debra Prinzing)

As for the roses, the people at Peterkort in Oregon and the dozen or so remaining rose green operations in California are continually striving to improve their energy efficiency practices. One of the ways they are doing this is using intensively-planted hydroponic growing systems that yield far more roses per square foot than if those plants were in the ground. The hydroponic water is recycled; the greenhouses at Peterkort have resident chickens that act as natural pest and weed control, eating their way up and down the rows of rose plants. In addition, plants that keep producing flowers year after year, like hybrid tea shrubs, are in their own way a sustainable permaculture system that uses less labor than planting annuals year after year.

American roses represent only about 3 percent of all roses sold at Valentine's Day. The other 97 percent are shipped from South America. So if I'm a florist and my customer really wants to give his or her sweetheart a dozen roses at Valentine's Day, I would urge that customer to source from an American rose grower. The "flower mile" and related energy consumption is always going to be lower when we buy from an American flower farmer. And when we do support American flower farms, we're helping preserve farmland, support living-wage farm jobs, encourage economic development in rural areas and save an agricultural industry that is being threatened with extinction.

For me, as a home gardener, I have many ways to get my flower fix in the winter - and you probably do all of these things, too, even in Cold Climateland. I do a lot of bulb forcing and orchid growing indoors during the winter. There is absolutely no additional energy to keep those plants "toasty" because I'm using the household heat and light from my home's south-facing windows. I consider amaryllis and narcissus flowers to be the best indoor flower choices - in pots or cut from forced bulbs, far better choices than hothouse lilies and roses, which are really special-occasion flowers for my floral budget. I also use a lot of houseplant foliage in the winter for my floral designs. Rex begonias, fancy-leaf geraniums and ferns get clipped for their beautiful foliage to augment flowering bulbs or orchids. And all of this indoor activity is minimal compared with my daily harvesting of conifer boughs, colorful twigs, berry-laden branches and broadleaf evergreen foliage from the garden.Hydrangea bouquet as seen in SLOW FLOWERS by Debra Prinzing p 53 Tight buds of pincushion flowers (scabiosa) punctuate the rounded form of hydrangea blossoms, both from local growers. The cranesbill blossoms are from Debra's garden. (Photo copyright Debra Prinzing.)


Kathy, gardener & geek

Member, Garden Writers Association



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