Put the garden in a vase

Growing things to look at instead of eat makes its return

craig.sailor@thenewstribune.comJune 25, 2014 

You replaced your roses with rutabagas, your peonies with potatoes and your barbecue grill with a pea trellis. And you don’t even like peas.

Debra Prinzing, a Seattle and Los Angeles-based garden and home design author and speaker, has some good news for you: It’s OK to grow flowers again.

“Flowers are back in vogue,” she says.

At the height of the recession, gardening pundits preached edibles over ornamentals, she says.

“It almost became politically incorrect to grow anything you couldn’t eat.”

Prinzing says the move was fueled by the economy, paranoia about food security, health and celebrity endorsements like Michelle Obama’s garden at the White House. That was all well and good, Prinzing says — up to a point.

“The pendulum swung so far toward food that anyone who was interested in growing ornamentals was kind of doing it in secret because we were shamed that we didn’t have a farm in our backyards,” she says.

Prinzing is the author of “Slow Flowers,” “The 50 Mile Bouquet: Local, Seasonal and Sustainable Flowers” and other lifestyle books. She is a contributing garden editor for Better Homes & Gardens and writes for a variety of outdoor and architectural magazines.

On Saturday, Prinzing will speak at the Gig Harbor Garden Tour. The tour, which benefits child and adult literacy programs, features seven gardens. Her talk, “Follow Your Flowers From Field to Vase,” will cover the slow flower movement and demonstrate eco-friendly flower arranging.

Q: What’s caused this resurgence in growing flowers?

A: Several things. If you’re a food gardener you need pollinators, and flowers attract pollinators. That’s my biggest argument for the people who say flowers don’t matter.

Q: I’ve just started keeping bees for that very purpose.

A: I cannot go visit a garden these days without being sent home with a jar of honey. I don’t need that much honey, but people are so enthusiastic about their particular honey. That points to the other issue I see happening in other consumer categories. Which is: know the origins of whatever you consume. That’s the slow food movement in the culinary world and that’s the model the floral industry is now following. It’s just as important to know where the flowers were grown, who grew them and the practices they used.

Q: Why should we care?

A: There are a couple of reasons. Washington state is the second largest producer of cut flowers as an industry in the country, after California. We have a renaissance going on of small and large cut flower farms.

Q: After tulips and daffodils what are other popular flowers grown in Washington for that industry?

A: Peonies and dahlias. Those are value added, expensive flowers. They are couture flowers that the bridal market wants.

Q: I’ve noticed that twiggy and viney things are popular in bridal and other bouquets.

A: The brides of our area are seeing in bridal magazines, or on Pinterest or on Instagram and all the hot wedding blogs a look that is very whimsical and wild and eclectic. It looks like it came out of a garden — things that your grandmother grew. I have a friend in Whatcom Country who is growing — not sweet peas — but pea vines for the floral trade. Sometimes it’s not the flower, it’s that corkscrew tendril vine that the designers want to see hanging off a bouquet or boutonniere. Things that are edible are creeping into the floral industry anyway.

Q: So, no more dozen red roses?

A: That’s why gardeners are able to access floral design now. It’s not those perfect, long stemmed South American roses that are so generic, perfect and uniform. Consumers are rejecting that look and want more seasonal, reflective of place and time, just like you would with your food. And that’s what slow flowers is as a subject matter that I’ve become so passionate about: connecting people with the source of their flowers.

Q: How did you arrive at the 50-mile bouquet?

A: That’s a metaphor, to say 50 miles. It’s a play on the 100-mile diet. I’ve changed my opinion since working on that book.

Q: What’s your mileage now?

A: I was speaking to the board of the California Cut Flower Commission. This farmer puts his hands on his hips and says, ‘If I listened to your 50-mile rule I’d lose 90 percent of my customers.’ I said, ‘No, it’s just a concept. It’s not a rule.’ My evolution is the pebble in the pond approach. Your backyard is the most local you can get. If I can’t source it from my own yard I might borrow or forage from a neighbor — I always ask permission. Beyond that is a farmers market or you-pick farm. Beyond that I’d buy from Oregon or California. We are so lucky on the West Coast. We should never buy foreign.

A: California is local?

Q: In the winter it is. Otherwise we’d just have twigs and cones.

A: Some would say that flowers, like coffee beans, are a luxury item.

Q: It is a discretionary purpose. I love bringing flowers indoors from my garden. That’s not luxury. That’s everyday practice. If it is a luxury item, all the more reason we should be making sustainable choices about consuming those goods. We shouldn’t be using jet fuel to fly a perishable product from two continents away.

Q: What questions should we be asking the growers who sell flowers at the farmers markets?

A: Ask them what their practices are. Where is their farm? How long ago were they harvested? Let the vendor know you appreciate sustainable practices. Very few (flower growers) are certified organic. That label is more for food.

Q: If you’re not growing your own what should you look for at the flower market?

A: Look for tight flower heads so that they’ll continue to open when you bring them home. Look for color peeking from the top of the buds. With lilies look for only one bud open on the stem. If you’re buying a mixed bouquet pull it out of the bucket. Look at all the flowers and foliage so that they are not wilted or limp and to make sure there’s no slime on the stems. Sometimes (flowers) are recycled.

Q: If I never want to buy a commercially grown flower again what would I have to do?

A: In Western Washington we have the ability to harvest 12 months of the year for our vases if we’re interested in growing our own leaves, branches, berries, vines, bulbs, perennials and annuals.

Q: Are flowers the stars of your arrangements or just supporting characters?

A: There are two ways I go about making floral arrangements. One is to use an awesome floral element at the peak of perfection, like eating a tomato off the vine. And then I build around that flower. The other way is to start with the vase and ask, ‘What would look good with this?’ I love old five and dime vases.

The reason gardeners can make really awesome arrangements is that we can use the foliage in our gardens. You can use two thirds foliage. We know what flowers we, like but have we thought about what foliage we can grow to make our arrangements look special and not the three leaves you see in every supermarket bunch? Which are salal, ferns and bear grass.

Q: Which are foraged commercially here in Washington.

A: I’m not interested in salal, but a friend of mine moved here from Dallas and she freaked out. ‘Oh my god. You guys have salal.’ Yes, I have some in my garden, and you’re welcome to cut it. In Texas it’s some kind of rarity I guess. Gig Harbor Garden Tour

When: Saturday and Sunday (June 28-29)

Prinzing talk: 2 p.m. Saturday (June 28)

Tickets: $25 at

Information: gigharborgardentour.org/, debraprinzing.com/

Ticket sources: Gig Harbor: Ace Hardware - Gig Harbor Stores; The Garden Room; Rosedale Gardens Nursery; Wilco Farm Store; Wild Birds Unlimited . Lakebay:Sunnycrest Nursery and Floral. Tacoma: Garden Sphere Nursery. University Place: Willow Tree Gardens and Interiors

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541 craig.sailor@thenewstribune.com

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