Phoebe's Field Notes, April 2017

In October of last year, I took a quick break from field work and stepped into the brand new Soapy Gnome store (my friend Jenny’s lovely soap and body care business).  I was tired and worn out as only a farmer/florist can be at the end of a busy CSA and wedding season. As I looked around her new space and we chatted about her vision of creating a bright, comfy shop where people were encouraged to touch and smell her soaps, I had a vision of this sweet corner floral shop that I saw in London almost 18 years ago.

It had buckets of flowers on every surface and potted plants in every corner.  There was potting soil on a bench and vases stacked high on shelves behind the counter. There were lovely arrangements in the cooler, but most customers were shopping with  wicker baskets on their arms, choosing a bunch of fringe tulips from one bucket and forsythia branches from another. And "Oh, just a few ranunculus too please!" A quick wrap in brown paper and twine and off they went to brighten their homes.  

That memory nagged me all night, and well into the next day.  I kept shooing it away with stern mental reminders that I already had more than I could handle with the CSA and weddings and field work, but it just kept flitting about at the edge of my focus.  

If you want the whole grand tale that went into making that flitting vision into the Flowers By Phoebe Studio, clear a few hours in your schedule, stop at 111 E. Washington Street in downtown Goshen and I’ll tell you all about it. 

Some days as I juggle watering seedlings, delivering arrangements, greeting customers, and getting the fields prepped for winter, my rational self says, Why? How does a year-round floral shop fit into the slow flower movement's focus on local, fresh and seasonal blooms?  

Here are some things I’ve found to be true in my first month in the studio. 

People are happier when they have flowers around them.  On grey days, people come into the studio to soak in flowers the way they soak in sunshine.  They leave happier and I hope that they pass it on. 

Weddings, funerals and births don’t have a set season. Neither do human emotions.  We say what we can’t say in words with flowers all year long.  For the teenager in love who can’t say out loud, “I  love you so much it hurts,” a single full-blown rose says what they can not. For the kid who knows that mama works too hard and worries too much, a tulip says, “Thank you!” and it means more than the words itself. And snapdragons, well, they help us all to remember a time when life wasn’t quite so stressful. A time when we imagined flowers speaking to us as we moved their lips.But my biggest take away from the first month is this-- 

Opening a retail flower shop lets me have so many good conversations about the floral industry.

Here are just a few:

On a Monday, I ask Talissa, my wholesale representative, to go through the list of commercial farms once more so that I know exactly where all of the flowers are shipping from before I order for the week. She’s happy to do it when I explain that I’m trying to keep my carbon footprint low. Ordering from farms closer to Goshen means not only are my flowers spending less time in transport, but I'm also using less fossil fuels to get them here. She excitedly tells me that the wholesale company owns Peony and Hydrangea farms located in Michigan.  She's excited to start using my fresher flowers and smaller footprint logic to get other florist to order from these farms too.  I do further research and learn that Holland’s environmental protections are so much better than ours and exponentially better than those in place in South America. I find some comfort that I am doing something even in winter to feed industry in areas that respect the environment.

Wednesday, I conduct a short workshop for hardworking Moms at a local church.  We talk about why flowers are expensive in floral shops but cheaper at the grocery store. I describe the struggle for "mom and pop" flower shops to compete in the local economy when big corporate stores can buy in bulk and split it among multiple locations keeping their costs astronomically low. I explain that I can’t do that as a small shop without having lots of waste. We talk about where corporate income gets invested and where mom and pop money goes at the end of the day.  I tell them about the CSA and how they can invest not only in local business but also in local, sustainable family farms.  A week later, a husband of one of the women comes in and says, “My wife says I should only buy flowers here from now on.” I am so moved by their willingness to commit to their local community. I add some extra tulips to the vase to say thank you.

On Saturday, a customer notice that I have a bin labeled "organic materials only" behind the counter.  “Are you composting?” he asks.  I’m happy to say, “yes", even though hauling recycling and compost is perhaps one of my least favorite tasks because it reminds me of all of the waste in the commercial flower industry. After all, half of the mass that I  pay to ship in is thrown in the compost.  Super tall flowers are expected and most flower farms use extreme fertilizing regiments to ensure really tall stems. Those tall stems require extra long boxes. Every once in awhile,  I have a funeral arrangement that calls for long flowers, but usually I cut off half of what was grown when I condition flowers and I still have length to spare.  And the boxes, well, they pile up. I tell him I can’t wait until summer when the flowers come in from the field at vase length, already conditioned in the recycled Kroger bucket, ready for the cooler. He smiles and asks for two bags of compost for his compost pile and I’m happy to oblige.

The studio on E. Washington is often messy, and right now the cooler is filled with flowers that are not grown here in Goshen. By summer we’ll be a little closer to my vision, with flowers from local sustainable farms and our own gardens filling the buckets and cooler. 

I keep telling myself that I call it a “studio” for a reason.  It’s a place for trial and error, a place to try things out, a place where I can invite the community in to have an ongoing conversation about art, value, and beauty, and if I’m lucky, the flowers will communicate all that I cannot say.