Learning from Lewis Miller in New York

I love telling people I'm traveling for work now that my work is flower farming. It's like saying, "Not only do I have a job I love -- I get to travel too!" I'm not getting rich, but I am happy, and sometimes it's nice to flaunt it.

I resolved to do more continuing education this year, and that means traveling to flower classes. I have plans to learn more about farming and floral design. Every field has its celebrities, and the flower industry is no different. There are well known farmers and floral designers. I don't know if farmers will ever become household names, but I imagine there will be some famous floral designers, sort of like celebrity chefs.

Lewis Miller, whose class I took in New York, is well on his way to becoming a name. I woke up this morning to an article in the New Yorker titled "The Banksy of Floral Design." I laughed because I used those same words to describe him to someone last week. (Banksy is a street artist whose true identity has never been revealed. If you don't already know this, you are probably unaware of the most renowned artist of our time.)

Lewis told us about kangaroo paw (an ornamental plant) in the eventspace at the beautiful  Whitby Hotel . No kangaroos were harmed in the making of this flower arrangement.

Lewis told us about kangaroo paw (an ornamental plant) in the eventspace at the beautiful Whitby Hotel. No kangaroos were harmed in the making of this flower arrangement.

So how is Lewis Miller like Banksy? He drops flower art on the streets of New York without permission or pay. He does sign his work -- somewhat unlike Banksy. But they're similar because they're both motivated by the idea that art belongs to everyone, not just those who can afford it.

Miller's installations are called Flower Flashes, and they're most commonly found in trash cans (not so different from giant vases, after all). Here's a link to a gallery of all the Flower Flashes, and below is an image of my favorite one, a giant flower boa on the sculpture of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Central Park.


I was excited when another flower farmer alerted our Facebook group about a small class with Lewis Miller happening in New York. (Thanks, Mara from The Farm at Oxford.) At less than $200 for a few hours, it was a very good deal. (Design classes tend to be expensive.) Thanks to our local budget airline, Allegiant, I was able to hop on a $39 flight to New York. 

But how much is it really possible to learn in two or three hours? For a couple hundred dollars, a few excellent pointers cover the price of admission. Over the course of my career, they'll more than pay for themselves in time and materials savings. Plus it's cool and fun to meet admirable people face to face. Here are a couple of things Lewis said that I will always keep in mind while I'm working:

  • When you're creating a floral design in a vessel, it's customary to begin with a grid of woody stems. The woody stems help hold the flowers in place and prevent heavy heads from nodding. I knew that. Most designers know that. But here's what I didn't think about: Not all the woody stems need to be part of the design. Lewis cuts them short, so just the ends poke up above the edge of the vessel. The raw ends won't show in the final design, but the stems are exactly where they need to be to support the flowers.
  • Add flop first. By flop, I mean vines like jasmine. I usually add flop at the end, but I think it's better integrated at the beginning.
  • Roses can be filler. Since roses can be expensive, and many people like roses, I tend to make them focal flowers. I don't grow roses (yet), so I don't get that excited about them. It's nice to think about blending them in and using their girth to create fullness while drawing the eye to some more interesting flower.
  • It's OK to leave guard petals on roses. What a relief! I think I actually let out a sigh when Lewis told us he leaves the outer petals on. Many florists remove the outside ring of petals from roses because they tend to be thick with brown or green edges, and sometimes they're bruised. But I've always thought they make roses look more natural, especially hybrid tea roses, which tend to look a bit more commercial. I'm sensitive about looking like an amateur, so I dutifully remove the guard petals, but I'm not going to do that anymore! Thanks for freeing me, Lewis!
  • Pick up the arrangement and drop it settle flowers into their natural places. If the grid of woody stems is doing its job, the arrangement will hold together, but it will look more relaxed. Holly Chapple, another celebrity florist, if such a thing exists, has manufactured a tool to replace the woody grid. There are some pretty amazing videos of her tossing flower arrangements. It works! Check her Instagram for the videos.
  • Don't be too precious -- or precise -- when adding flowers.
  • Blow on flowers to help them open. I'm going to use this trick on every arrangement forever!
  • Lastly, Lewis Miller loves carnations. He's among a growing group of designers who grow this classic flower. They will always be dear to me because my great grandparents (and grandparents and cousins) owned a carnation farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. This once beloved flower was all they grew. So I am happy to incorporate them into my designs. Their big fluffy heads add color and texture in thick swathes. And Lewis embraces their knobbly stems too!

In so many pursuits, it's overthinking that holds people back. A lot of Lewis' tips liberated me from ideas about how things had to be done.

Lewis brought all the flowers, and it was lovely to work with high quality blooms, albeit imported ones. (There's not really any other way to get flowers in New York in February yet. Hopefully that will change in my lifetime.)

I loved designing just for fun. I rarely give myself a chance to relax and learn. I'm always thinking about the business side. Here's what I made (Lewis was a good sport and took a picture with me):

Asheville Florist

When the class was over, Lewis let me pick his brain about Flower Flashes. Here are a couple of things I learned about his process:

  • Ask for forgiveness, not permission. He doesn't get permits or anything like that, and the city has never cared. Who could complain about flowers, anyway?
  • Give each installation a sense of place. Lewis picks locations that scream New York -- street corners, abandon storefronts, construction barriers. And the flowers are bold, in keeping with the streetscape. Conveying a sense of place is always one of the goals of my work, so this idea really resonated with me. But instead of trash cans, I'm working with rhododendron branches and river rocks. We live in very different places!
  • It's not about the money. Flower Flashes are free to see and touch -- that's the point. Lewis doesn't really know or care if they bring him extra business. I have a feeling he's doing just fine, regardless of additional exposure.

It was nice to get out of the mountains and see the big city. It's been a year since I was there, and I was happier and more confident in the business than I was a year ago. Funny how much attitudes change in such a short period of time!

When I would go to New York in college, I was always trying not to do anything weird or Southern. I've definitely dropped that guard. I missed all kinds of trains and walked the wrong way on the wrong street and tried to hug people who didn't want to be hugged. Trying to get a waiter's attention, I yelled "Sir!" in a restaurant, and everyone laughed. I couldn't figure out why that was funny. When I got home, my cousin Grace, who is from Philadelphia, told me people don't say, "Sir," in the North. Funny! It's nice to be settled enough to be myself in New York. Letting go of trying to impress people tends to be a good thing, whether that means leaving the guard petals on roses or hollering Southernisms at poor unsuspecting waiters.

My next learning experience is coming up quick! I'm going to a business of farming conference in Asheville. Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, which runs the market where I sell flowers, sponsors the event every year.