But the winter will crave what has gone
Will crave what has all
– Future Islands
There is a day each year when my business takes a turn. My growers call it “Frostmas.” For them, the day a hard frost kills all the flowers in their fields marks the beginning of some well-deserved rest. For me, that day means I need to make some changes. I start to pull from my reserves of dried flowers. I get creative with alternative natural ornamentation and produce festive products appropriate for the season. I even do a little foraging. Most significantly, my sources to maintain a supply of fresh flowers shifts to growers farther away with the capacity for winter growing in the Mid-Atlantic. It doesn’t kill me, but Frost does make things more complicated due to my business model.
Stay Ready So You Don’t Have To Get Ready
I dry flowers all year. The supply definitely thins after frost, but climbing up a ladder and hanging flowers from the ceiling of my shop is a year-round activity. I’ve learned through experimentation which flowers keep their color, which hold their shape, which disintegrate, and which are prone to mold. I have boxes of dried flowers stored in a loft. I’ve changed my buying habits for fresh flowers by considering their suitability for drying. If they don’t make it into an arrangement or aren’t listed on a sales receipt I want them hanging from my ceiling for a later use instead of decomposing in the compost pile. The less-than-perfect blooms are excellent candidates for drying. I will jump at the chance to buy remainders, shorties or damaged stems at a discount for drying. Almost all of my dried flowers were left-overs or undesirable in some way, but I do have farmers who harvest entire crops (german statice and lotus pods) knowing I will buy them specifically to dry.
I also squirrel away other materials I know I will need in the winter especially as supply chain issues and seasonal consumer demand make some items hard to find. I am in competition with canners in the fall for the wide-mouth mason jars I need for “Winter in a Jar” – one of my cold weather specialty designs (more on that later). (Anyway, don’t the canners have jars from last year? They can have the giant bag of lids I refuse to throw away.) I order metal wreath frames and grapevine wreaths off-season (try finding them in a Michaels in November). I make sure my ribbon collection is flush. I spy on my coveted pinecone sites to see if any have fallen to begin my collection.
I start reaching out to my winter growers in September to forecast availability of post-frost fresh flowers and wreath components. These are farms with large greenhouses heated with steam or propane, acres of evergreens, interesting sticks and other hearty ornamentals. We even have a year-round, indoor hydroponic grower (that’s science!). We re-connect and talk about anything new they are growing and my projections of needs for the winter. Many of these growers don’t sell directly to florists. I am their exception. I developed these relationships over years. They appreciate my business mission and dedication to our local industry. They go out of their way to ensure we have local flowers for the winter. I am grateful for the partnerships. Without them, or my early preparation, it would be a lean few winter months at the shop. It’s a position I put myself in.
I offer typical floral services just like my competitors: weddings, floral design classes, retail, deliveries, subscriptions and special events. How I differentiate my business is by exclusively sourcing all of my flowers, foliage, branches and berries from local farms as close as I can to my shop. I am committed to this even after Frostmas.
Most florists buy their flowers from wholesalers. They don’t have to worry about Frost. The flowers they buy are grown near the equator or in countries where it’s a different season. They don’t even really need to change any of their designs. The varieties they use are always available from somewhere – 80% of all flowers purchased in the US are grown overseas and 90% of domestic flowers are grown on the west coast.
My local-only shop in Maryland stands out. Local flowers are my value proposition. They tell a story – well, I tell their story. I know the farmers who grew those flowers and what it took to grow them. When customers come in, they want to know those stories. My local flowers build relationships. From those relationships, over time, we have built a community – my flower people. Local flowers are different and special. There are varieties my customers have never seen before. Many are not typically found in a flower shop that sources from a wholesaler. I know they are not for everybody (I’ve heard, “that’s different” on several deliveries). You’re not going to get same from me. There are lots of other places to go for same. My customers seek out the unusual and different. They want local. And local flowers are not easy for me to procure in the winter.
Logistics, supply, and products all change for my business after frost. I need to account for the time and expense of additional transportation – some of our winter supply options do not offer delivery. I need to adjust our schedule and update our website and social media. I have to haul the wreath machine out from my home basement and schlep it to the shop. I need to educate some of my customers why I don’t have tulips yet, and how heirloom mums are just as beautiful and even more interesting. My designers have sappy hands. There are dislocated magnolia leaves, scattered pine needles, and loose berries rolling around everywhere! It couldn’t be more fun.
Growing on the Shoulders and Turning Up the Heat
Our growers are in USDA Planting Zones 6b, 7a and 7b where winter temperatures below freezing are not uncommon. So, nothing delicate, my usual inventory, can survive. We reliably source from a group of growers close to us for most of the year. They primarily grow seasonally in the field. First frost usually hits sometime in late October, but we can never be sure. As the leaves fall, my phone becomes frost command center with a weather app always open and daily, early morning grower alerts reporting temperature damage to my orders. Inevitably, a 5AM text will gleefully (annoyingly) announce the end of field flowers for the season.
That’s when I activate my post-frost suppliers. They fall into a few categories. First are my usual field growers who can extend the season with limited capacity in hoop houses and unheated greenhouses. They can produce dahlias and mums through Thanksgiving. Next are growers with heated greenhouses. I need to drive about 90 minutes (ironically north into Pennsylvania) for snaps, stock, sunflowers, cabbage, alstromeria and lisianthus in the late fall and ranunculus, anemones, freesia and carnations in the winter. Then there are my tulip growers starting in December. Tulips are relatively easy to grow indoors with heat and artificial light. Lastly, I started ordering anemones shipped from a large family grower in New York a few seasons ago to fill out my inventory. I have a smaller selection of fresh flowers in the winter, but I piece it together.
The designs and products in my shop reflect the harvest of the farmers in my region. After frost, delicate and bright are eclipsed by rustic and earthy. As we get festive, I have evergreens. These are the two design seasons for me when field flowers expire: fall and holiday. For both, the focus is on texture, foliage, branches and pods. Stems are rigid and thick. I wear gloves when working. I lop instead of clip. There is snapping, crunching, twining and bending. Leaves are featured rather than stripped away. My orders are delivered in boxes instead of buckets. The harsh environs after frost produce the ingredients for an austere aesthetic, but there is beauty in the muted simplicity and spirit in the conifers.
My focus in the fall after frost is dried flowers. They convey the turn of the season as a bouquet wrapped in paper. Various dried short stems in a small vintage glass jar is an interesting display of mixed media on a desk. I arrange dried flowers among fresh flowers in centerpieces. I have a request this fall for an entire dried flower wedding (we’ll see). The patterns and feel that dry flowers can produce in wreaths are manifold. I adorn them upon mini wreaths for something cute. I affix them to metal hoops for elegance. I entwine them in grapevine for drama. By the time I’ve exhausted the supply, I and my staff are exhausted. Dried flowers have their time and place.
Everything goes green for the holidays. Evergreen wreaths are the symbol of the season and I go all out. I will order up to 13 types of evergreens: boxwood, blueberry juniper, blue ice cedar, blue atlas cedar, atlantic white cedar, false cyprus, arborvitae, white pine, loblolly pine, norway spruce, hemlock, holly, and magnolia. Add some pine cones, dried lotus and poppy pods, bells and a bow and the wreath is front door ready. For the pieces that didn’t make it onto a wreath, “Winter in a Jar” brings much joy to the party. I tie some jingle bells on a mason jar, toss in a few pinecones and some branches with berries among the evergreens and a holiday classic is available for purchase.
Same is boring. That is why I always keep my shop full of something new and wonderful. The winter provides something different, but also that craving for something gone away. It takes more work for our local-only shop to persist when the fields nearby are barren, but that is when we flex our creative muscles to produce unique designs. Our winter products are some of our favorites, because we know what it took and how we worked so hard to make them.
A version of this article was previously posted in Botanical Brouhaha.