Why you should invest in local flowers in 2022

This is a First Person column by Ariana Salvo, a P.E.I.-based writer and photographer. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

A wave of local flower farms is blooming across North America — and it’s being led by women.

When I started growing flowers on Prince Edward Island in 2013, there were just five flower farms on the Island.

This past summer I counted 16 (and I may have missed a few). There are 162 Canadians in the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers (ASCFG), and the Canadian Flower Farming Facebook group now has 1,200 members.

Just as exciting — a growing number of florists are getting on board and starting to source their flowers from local growers. 

From farm to vase

Until recently, if you saw a beautiful floral arrangement, chances were high that the flowers in it were imported from Colombia or Ecuador. Like the farm-to-table culinary movement, local flower farming has emerged as a way to shorten the distance between farm and vase.

Growing flowers closer to home increases the diversity of flowers that floral designers and flower lovers have access to (since many flowers do not transport well), extends vase life, and absorbs the hidden costs that are not accounted for in the price we pay for imported blooms. 

Jenna grows flowers in Nine Mile Creek. She sells at the Downtown Charlottetown Farmers’ Market on Sundays during the growing season. (Submitted by Ariana Salvo)

On the surface, outsourcing flower production to countries with longer hours of daylight and lower labour costs makes sense.

It guarantees steady production and a wider profit margin for the companies growing the flowers, transportation firms, and even florists. It’s easy to overlook the fact that it’s hard to consistently grow massive quantities of one or two varieties of flowers without using synthetic pesticides and herbicides. 

Cheap flowers also often mean painfully low wages for farm labourers.

Local flower farms operating on a smaller scale can grow a wider diversity of plants and more easily utilize alternative insect management and weed suppression techniques, which reduce the need for synthetic pesticides and herbicides. Customers who purchase local flowers can feel good knowing that the farmers who grew them did not have to sacrifice their health and well-being to do so. 

Showcasing our local talent

My own flower journey began when I signed up for a flower farming and design workshop with Erin Benzakein of Floret. In addition to learning about growing, harvesting, processing, selling, and arranging, I also saw how essential visual storytelling content is to effectively connecting potential customers with local flower farmers.

Shellilee’s grandmother was a war bride from the Netherlands, and her Dutch heritage is featured in her farm logo: a bicycle with a basket full of flowers. (Submitted by Ariana Salvo)

Six years and many lessons later my farm, Red Roots Flowers, had found a home at the Mount Continuing Care Community, where I taught floral design classes to the residents. I was selling at the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market, delivering fresh flowers to subscription customers on a weekly basis, taking on small weddings, and making dry flower wreaths to extend my season. I had also launched a line of floral greeting cards. 

In 2018 my mother, who was living in California, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and needed support. When I returned to P.E.I. in the fall of 2019, I made the decision to take step back from farming and focus on my other two passions: writing and photography.  

Taking a break helped me to see that we have a strong, committed community of flower farmers on Prince Edward Island who are working so hard that they don’t have a lot of time to devote to sharing their stories — stories which are beautiful and inspiring, and need to be told. 

So I reached out to some of our flower farmers and asked if they would be open to having me photograph them in their fields and provide them with images they could use as they saw fit in exchange for a bucket of flowers I could arrange. Over the summer I did shoots at nine of the 16 flower farms across the Island from Lower Newtown to Summerside. 

Lucy, 13, has been running a successful sunflower U-pick for three years, and you can see her field in Freetown from miles away. (Submitted by Ariana Salvo)

Of the farms I visited, six had seasonal flower bouquet subscriptions (which make a wonderful gift for the flower lovers in your life!).

Below is a little information about the flower farms I visited this summer in the order in which I visited them, as well as a few I hope to get to next year. 

The growers

Vanessa Hamming has a bustling mixed flower farm in Bonshaw, P.E.I. She has a bustling CSA (community supported agriculture) and makes lovely Christmas wreaths using all local ingredients. Vanessa taught me how to make dry flower wreaths, and is also a fantastic teacher. When she has extra flowers, you can find her brightly-coloured bouquets at The Blue Goose in DeSable. 

Barb Jewel is one of our most experienced flower farmers and florists. She has been growing a wide diversity of flowers on her farm in York for over 20 years. She grows a diversity of dahlias, roses, and peonies, and also has just about every annual, perennial or filler you could possibly want. She has a large CSA, a self-serve wagon stocked with bouquets at the farm, supplies a number of local florists and sells mixed bouquets at Riverview Country Market. Barb also does the most beautiful wedding arrangements, using all local ingredients. This past fall she also started selling dry flowers to those wanting to make their own dry arrangements this winter. 

Xandra van der Geer has flower farming in her blood. Born in the Netherlands, she worked in the gardens at the P.E.I. Preserve Company for years and has always kept a garden at home. Her son recently purchased a farm near Cardigan in eastern P.E.I. as the base for his textile business, and Xandra is establishing a flower farm on the property. Xandra brings together an incredible knowledge about flowers with considerable landscape design experience.

One of the things that makes Carina’s bouquets distinctive is that she integrates vegetables (like flowering kale) into her bouquets to complement her flowers. (Submitted by Ariana Salvo)

Carina Phillips, her husband Byron Petrie, and their son Remy grow a mixture of vegetables and flowers on their farm in Morell, in eastern P.E.I. They have a CSA, sell at the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market, and offer DIY wedding flowers (they supply the flowers, you do the arranging). One of the things that makes Carina’s bouquets distinctive is that she integrates vegetables (like flowering kale) into her bouquets to complement her flowers.

Stephanie Dewar’s beautiful vegetable farm and flower U-pick is nestled into the rolling hills of Cornwall, P.E.I. Committed to the long-term health of the land, Stephanie is growing chemical-free flowers in her tiny but magical flower garden that is open to the public July through the end of September. It’s the perfect outing for friends: kids will have a blast frolicking through the flowers, and you’ll leave with a bucket full of joyful blooms.

Shellilee Ballum’s flower farm is an oasis in the middle of an industrial farm landscape. Surrounded by grain fields, the blades of windmills silhouetted against the skyline to the west and steam billowing silver from Cavendish Farms to the east, this tiny farm bursts with charm and colour. The first thing I saw when I got out of my car was Shellilee’s mother sailing towards me like a mirage on her bicycle. Located in Summerside, this sweet farm has a U-pick and mason jar bouquets for sale at its roadside stand. Shellilee also hosts periodic flower arranging workshops.

Emily VanToever is the farmer extraordinaire behind Humble Bum Flowers in New Glasgow, P.E.I. In addition to growing flowers for her growing flower CSA, Emily is helping her brother and his business partner to establish a cider apple orchard on the property. Emily has an agriculture degree, is a red-seal-certified electrician, a mother and a talented sailor.

Jenna Holmes loves to grow — pretty much anything, really. But most recently she has turned her sights toward flowers and began growing flowers on a beautiful piece of family land in Nine Mile Creek. She sells at the Downtown Charlottetown Farmers’ Market on Sundays during the growing season.

Lucy Bernard is (as far as I know!) P.E.I.’s youngest flower farmer. At 13, she is busy with school in the spring and fall, so she chose to focus on a flower that requires minimal time during the school year, and gives her maximum output during the summer: sunflowers. She has been running a successful sunflower U-pick for three years, and you can see her field in Freetown from miles away.

Xandra brings together an incredible knowledge about flowers with considerable landscape design experience. She is just at the beginning of her adventure at her new location, but she described her vision while we walked the land, and I can tell it’s going to be a paradise. (Submitted by Ariana Salvo)

Trish Tymstra’s sweet flower farm has a lavender U-pick and sells lavender skin care, as well as body, bath, and home products. It is also the perfect spot for a photo shoot. Lavender grows very well on P.E.I, but the season is short, so you have to be on your toes and get out to enjoy the experience when the fields are awash with flowers.

Isobel Forrester is one of our founding flower farmers. Anyone who goes to the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market will have left with a bunch of her blooms at some point, and a number of the growers on the Island have been her students at some point in their flower journeys. I always hit her stand in May because she knows the best spots to find Mayflowers and always has little honey-scented bunches for sale around Mother’s Day.

Laughing Lavender is a lavender U-pick owned by Nicole Rodger in Borden, on P.E.I.’s South Shore. Next year, 2022, will be their sixth year in operation. In addition to having a U-pick that is a great road trip adventure, you can find their fresh lavender at Bloom House Flowers in Kensington and dried bunches and sachet bags at Cottage Life Boutique in Cavendish.

Olivia Doran is the owner of a cut flower farm in O’Leary. She is dedicated to building healthy soil that will grow the most vibrant blooms. She sells her flowers at Webb’s Vegetables in O’Leary, does special events and will be launching a CSA in 2022.

Zach Hancock is (as far as I know) our first male flower farmer on P.E.I.. His backyard garden is tucked away in Orwell Cove, and boasted some gorgeous dahlias, zinnias, peonies and lupins this past summer. Zach is also a talented photographer.

Most Islanders know Jennifer Ridgway from her successful flagship shop, Moonsnail, in Charlottetown. She and her partner now have a new venture: a flower and veggie farm in central P.E.I. This was their first official season, and their stand was bursting with vibrant flowers that could be purchased at their downtown and Brackley Beach Moonsnail locations.

Located in Tyne Valley, Windy Acres is a lavender farm owned by Debbie Linton and her husband, Ted Dingman, that also sells lavender bath and body products.