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.

Florist

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. 

Flowers on Ice: Winter Flower Farming, Part 1

On New Year's Eve, the roads froze, and as the clock struck midnight, it seemed no one was where they expected to be. The next day we heard from friends who unexpectedly camped on couches and rented hotel rooms in far away cities. When the South gets icy, no one is ever prepared, even in the mountains of North Carolina.

Maybe I should have understood this message from 2018. Winter would be very unexpected.

This hillside in Marshall, North Carolina, freezes because it's in a dark spot. It wasn't even that cold when I took this picture. I remember I was wearing a light jacket. It goes to show you: sunlight matters.

This hillside in Marshall, North Carolina, freezes because it's in a dark spot. It wasn't even that cold when I took this picture. I remember I was wearing a light jacket. It goes to show you: sunlight matters.

I was worried that January was a bad time to start a blog for the flower farm. How much could I really write about in January? And where would I get pretty pictures? Still, the blog had become my begrudging, defacto New Years resolution. Perhaps I should thank the weather for creating something interesting to write about.

New Years Day in Asheville (about 20 miles south of the farm) was the coldest ever recorded by the National Weather Service, a chilly 21 degrees. The previous record cold was set on the first day of 1922, and records go back to 1870. And it just got worse from there with days on end below freezing. The French Broad River froze, which hasn't happened in decades.

This winter has put all my cold weather preparations to the test. Time will tell how well they're working, but I'm learning some interesting things you might like to read about, whether you're a farmer or a gardener or simply someone who wants to be amazed by the strength and resiliency of plants.

Let me set the scene, and in the next couple of entries, I'll tell you what I know. And more importantly, I'll tell you what I don't know, what I'm learning and how I can do better.

I am a young flower farmer, being a young person in general. Maybe that means I'm inexperienced, but I would no more call a young person inexperienced than I would call an older person physically deteriorating. Flower farming is in my family, and I grew up with plants. I'll tell you about it sometime.

My farm is about 2 acres. It's wedged into a narrow valley that runs along a creek bed. We don't plant it all for winter, but we do have thousands of feet of crops going right now. Maybe you are thinking it was a bad idea to plant flowers in the winter, particularly given what I've just said about our historically low temperatures. Not so!

The French Broad River, which runs about two miles from the farm, froze during a long stretch of below-freezing days. The flowers, protected by low tunnels, soldiered on.

The French Broad River, which runs about two miles from the farm, froze during a long stretch of below-freezing days. The flowers, protected by low tunnels, soldiered on.

In the South, many flowers can only thrive if planted during cold temperatures. Tulips, daffodils and other bulbs are well-known examples. Poppies, ranunculus, anemones, larkspur, Bells of Ireland and campanula need a cold start to thrive, and they can freeze and unfreeze without trouble. Scabiosa, foxgloves, snapdragons, yarrow and many others have more flexible planting dates in our region, but why not get ahead if you can?

There's a little basic science behind why some plants can freeze and others can't. Here's the Cliff Notes version. We all know what happens to a glass jar of liquid when you put it in the freezer. It explodes. The same thing happens in the cells of many annual plants. Growing sunflowers in October? A cold night will render them limp and black. The cells froze over night, as if millions of tiny jars of water exploded in the freezer.

Our poppies didn't mind this extremely cold day. They were cozy in a low tunnel in the field.

Our poppies didn't mind this extremely cold day. They were cozy in a low tunnel in the field.

But some plants fill their cells with antifreeze. It's not so different from what you put in your car. It's an electrolyte solution that lowers the freezing point of water.

Other plants have better adapted cells. So you know how you can freeze a plastic jar but not a glass one? The winter hardy plants are more like the plastic jars.

At certain low temperatures, these adaptations won't be sufficient. This month, we are flirting with those low temperatures, but I've done a couple of things to help our plants. Here's a quick list:

  • Use the sun. Our mountains cast long shadows over the land, and southern exposure is hard to find. The upside is I have learned to focus on topography. If you live in a flatter place, you might not notice the lay of your land as much, but it is equally important. When growing winter crops, it's important to get as much southern exposure as possible. I grow in raise beds (mounds of earth the tractor makes -- like furrows, no constructed sides). The winter rows run east-west to maximize solar radiation. I try to rake the soil at a 5 degree angle toward the sun. Eliot Coleman's "Four-Season Harvest" will convince you the extra effort is worth it. Such a wonderful book! I got a bit sloppy on some of the rows, and I can see a difference in plant health depending on how well I raked!

  • Black cloth. Sometimes a friend. Sometimes a foe. Many cut flower growers use black landscape fabric to warm the soil and control weeds. Most of my flowers are in fabric, with the exception of stock, some of my anemones, and some of my ranunculus. I might change my mind when the weeds start to grow, but in the future, I probably won't use landscape fabric on my winter crops. I'm not noticing a huge advantage in the warming effect, and it tends to get icy around the edges, constrict some plant growth and generally annoy me. Plus it's labor intensive to put down and take up. But the real reason I won't use it next winter has to do with water. It doesn't let the soil breath. Which brings me to my next point.

  • Drainage. You need it. We're breaking in a new field this year, and water is moving in unexpected ways. Thank goodness for our raised beds, which eliminate much of the mischief. However, I'm still digging plenty of ditches to reroute runoff. In the winter, too much water is really dangerous because plants can rot and fungus can thrive. And it takes a very long time for soil to dry in cold conditions.

  • Agribon. I don't have a high tunnel or a greenhouse at the farm. I have some access to indoor growing areas, but the majority of my winter operation is outside. I rely on a very odd polyester substance for protection. I use Agribon brand for no particular reason, and I much prefer the 35 weight, which doesn't rip as easily as 19. The story goes that tobacco farmers helped invent frost cloth or floating row cover or Agribon or whatever you want to call it. They asked Dupont if they had anything, and Dupont gave them disposable diaper fabric. I'm still trying to confirm this story, but it makes sense. The fabric has strange properties. It freezes to itself super easily, sheds dirt, holds water and insulates incredibly well. This winter, my paths have been frozen solid while the ground under the low tunnels is still soft.

  • Low Tunnels. Agribon does not a low tunnel make. You have to prevent the fabric from touching the plants. Otherwise, when the cloth freezes, it will hold ice crystals against the foliage, which is the opposite of what you want. You want the frozen cloth to hold a layer of warm air between itself and the ground and create a humid zone. So what holds up the cloth? For me, its 12.5-gauge wire that I cut from a big roll.

  • Wire. Finding the right wire at the right price is important. I started with plastic conduit, which was way too much expense and work to cut and bend. Then I switched to 9-gauge wire. Still too expensive. Finally, I settled on 12.5-gauge wire that I hunted and hunted for. At first glance, it appears too thin, but it is really the greatest. The 9-gauge is too rigid. It topples over too quickly and gets misshapen when you jam it in the ground. The greater elasticity of 12.5 gauge wire is useful, and the price is unbeatable. The 4,000-foot roll I bought for $80 will get me through the year no problem, and I'll have lots left over. It's such a pain to find. I tried to find the website link for you but couldn't. It's outside, and you'll have to ask the staff to hunt for it, and when they come back with the 9-gauge, be prepared to send them back to look again. They'll find it. I measure and cut in the field using my arm span. I'm nearly 6 feet tall, so when I hold the wire from palm to palm, it's the right length.

  • Bricks. Agribon needs to be weight down. I use bricks because we have access to free, abundant bricks, and they're easy to move. Some people use sand bags filled with dirt. Some people shovel dirt directly onto the fabric. I tried that. I don't like it. Makes a mess.

That's my setup, more or less. It's very simple. Is it enough, you're asking. Yes and no. In our climate, this level of protection is sufficient for what I'm growing. It's inexpensive, and it's temporary. Those are the advantages.

I open tunnels on warm days and let the plants get fresh air. Moisture near the plants creates a more favorable environment on very cold days, but on normal ones, it encourages fungus to grow in our muggy climate. Also, you can see all the fabric, wire and bricks that go into making this thing happen.

I open tunnels on warm days and let the plants get fresh air. Moisture near the plants creates a more favorable environment on very cold days, but on normal ones, it encourages fungus to grow in our muggy climate. Also, you can see all the fabric, wire and bricks that go into making this thing happen.

We will build a permanent high tunnel with tall metal supports and plastic walls. That might happen as early as this summer. But as a Georgia native, I'm more fearful of heat than cold. It's really easy to fry a plant in a poorly vented high tunnel in the summer in North Carolina. So I'm not in a hurry.

I got all my fabric low tunnels in place just in time for our first snow, a very unexpected 8 inches in December. More on that next time!