A flower-powered solution for Philly's vacant lots

Urban farmer Jennie Love, owner of Love 'n Fresh Flowers in Roxborough, has focused on the bridal market. (Char & Co.)

Andrew Olson, a horticulturist and co-owner of Farm 51, a West Philadelphia vegetable garden, spends his days navigating all the familiar obstacles that come with farming on vacant lots: limited water access, soil contamination, land tenure, and security concerns.

But these days his harvest is fewer turnips, more tulips.

Last fall, he and business partner Erica Maust launched Chicory, an urban flower farm and design studio on two quarter-acre parcels, one in West Philadelphia and another in Roxborough.

It's part of a small but growing slow-flower movement that's infiltrating the import-dominated wedding industry, spawning community-supported-agriculture programs, and transforming a handful of the city's 40,000 vacant lots into fragrant (and profitable) urban farms.

Olson, who still toils at Farm 51 in his spare time, sees enormous potential. "I'm really passionate about urban agriculture, but I think it's really hard to make a living doing it through just vegetables alone," he said. "You can get a lot more money out of a square foot of flowers than, sadly, you can vegetables."

One sign that the industry may be reaching critical mass: A group of farmer-florists from Greater Philadelphia has organized with the goal of creating a growers' cooperative to market and distribute their crops to florists.

Kate Sparks, owner of Laughing Lady Flower Farm in Doylestown, founded in 1998 as Lilies and Lavender, is spearheading the effort. About 15 growers are interested, including Chicory and another new urban farm, Jig-Bee, in Kensington.

"I've thought about it for a long time. But it wasn't really viable until the last year, because there wasn't anybody to connect with," Sparks said.

They've enlisted the Keystone Development Center and the Philadelphia-Area Cooperative Alliance to investigate the idea's feasibility and to explore potential business models for what's tentatively called the Philadelphia Flower-Growers' Cooperative. On May 19, they will host a meet-and-greet with area florists.

The phenomenon is mirrored by growth in urban flower farming in Detroit, New Orleans, and Chicago (which even has a signature fragrance). In Seattle, a growers' cooperative offers a centralized wholesale market; it's Sparks' dream to create something similar here.

East Coast cities also are abloom. Baltimore officials were so intrigued that they commissioned a study last year to explore the potential for growing flowers on some of that city's 10,000 vacant lots.

The research showed that flowers are an overlooked urban-agriculture product for which there's plenty of demand and potential for profit.

"Cut flowers were viewed more as a luxury item, and the markup was 30 to 40 percent on average, compared to a 15 to 20 percent markup on local vegetables," said Jenny Guillaume, coordinator of Baltimore's Growing Green Initiative, which runs a program offering long-term leases to qualified farmers. She's hoping to extend that program formally to flower farmers.

While healthy soil is necessary to grow flowers, some farmers said they worried less about soil quality than they would if they were growing food.

That's the case for Cassie Plummer and Justin Kumph, who started Jig-Bee flower farm on a quarter-acre of city-owned land in Kensington last year.

They did some soil testing on the lot, next to a converted warehouse that Plummer manages. But growing vegetables would have required even more analysis, she said.

So, instead, they looked to flowers. They obtained a license to use the land and began tilling the soil, clearing out trash, and building a collection system to capture rainwater from the warehouse roof for irrigation. This year, they launched a retail business, offering floral design, bulk flowers, and bouquet subscriptions.

Farmer-florists are experimenting with different business models, but most agree that the premium associated with the wedding industry is what makes this business profitable.

Sparks recently stopped selling at farmers' markets to focus on wholesale, full-service floral design and growing for design-it-yourself brides. Some visit the farm up to a year in advance and request specific blooms that Sparks grows to order. Others bring their bridal party to Sparks' studio to create their own centerpieces. (Prices start at $1,000 for partial-DIY packages, for which Sparks makes bouquets and boutonnieres and provides bulk flowers for centerpieces.)

Philadelphia urban-farming pioneer Jennie Love, of Love 'n Fresh Flowers, has been farming two acres in Roxborough since 2008. She started off selling at farmers' markets, but was soon flooded with wedding requests.

Now, she handles 50 or 60 weddings in a season, and runs workshops for design-it-yourself brides (for example, one for spring centerpieces costs $225). She can't keep up with the demand.

"There seems to be more and more interest in sourcing flowers locally and seasonally," she said.

Still, that doesn't mean brides can get anything they want when using local blooms.

"There's definitely an educational component to what we do," Love said.

Brides often come in with inspiration images from Pinterest. Then, she gives them a gentle reality check, letting them know what will be available in time for their weddings.

Almost every season, though, has something special: Hellebores, ranunculus, anemones, and fritillaria for early spring, followed by tulips and heirloom narcissus as the weather warms.

"We'll have loads of peonies in early June, then lisianthus and zinnias. In the fall, we have thousands of dahlia plants and antique varieties of mums," she said. "We grow over 200 varieties of flowers at the farm, so there's always something pretty magical happening."

Winter is, perhaps, not quite as magical. But, even it is not impossible.

Claire Landau, 30, and Scott Orway, 31, of West Philadelphia, got married last December, and, undaunted by the frozen ground, hired Chicory to provide their floral design.

The result was dark-green bouquets, loaded with evergreen boughs, holly, and succulent plants and brightened with a few paperwhites that were forced in a greenhouse.

"They ended up foraging for a lot of the things in my bouquet," said Landau, who was happy to forgo bright blossoms in exchange for a compelling story. "We love what they do to make unexpected and abandoned pieces of Philadelphia useful and beautiful."

Chicory handled four weddings last year, and already has 30 booked for 2015. Now, Maust and Olson are seeking a larger, permanent space where they can plant peonies and other shrubs that are long-term investments.

Olson thinks the trajectory of local flowers will mirror the rapid growth of local food before it.

"It's a little political and divisive, when food insecurity has been talked about for so long, to say, 'Let's grow flowers on this vacant land,' " he said. "But there's so much vacant land in the city that there's plenty of room to do both."