This is the third part of a reflection on my journey to sustainable floristry. For parts 1 and 2, head here.

It took at least a year to feel settled back in New York. Maybe even two. In hindsight now, I understand that I was simply an east coaster, rooted by regular changing of seasons - a more visceral experience of time passing. In the two-season central coast, I was unmoored... It was also a slower pace, and far from culturally diverse, and while I fully savoured the experience I had working alongside the 30+ crew made up of an extended Mexican family, working on a full time production farm was isolating. 

I wound up working for various greening non profit organizations in NYC for the next 9 years. My main gig became managing a 1-acre farm in Crown Heights. Another UCSC Farm and Garden grad had launched the project the year prior to my return, and I jumped in as a volunteer pretty much right away. We developed the land surrounding a high school, as well as educational programming and training for the school and the general public. We developed a 20-hr/week training program for adults, ran monthly volunteer days, hosted corporate groups, ticketed dinners, free harvest festivals, and a weekly farmers market. 


The Youth Farm Crown Heights, Brooklyn at High School for Public Service organic vegetables and flowers 1 acre educational farm


Molly Oliver Culver teaching Farm School NYC students at The Youth Farm Crown Heights, Brooklyn at High School for Public Service organic vegetables and flowers 1 acre educational farm urban greenhouse management

This work felt incredibly meaningful and important to me. In addition to being passionate about empowering more New Yorkers with gardening and farming skills, and about increasing access to fresh food in historically underserved areas, I was also by this point very passionate about flowers and was very excited to weave flower production into the crop plan. At the time, there wasn’t much urban flower farming at any kind of scale in NYC. Over my 8 years, I taught hundreds of people about the varieties and growing techniques for 80+ flower varieties. 


Molly with Double Quick Orange Sunflowers Youth Farm Crown Heights, Brooklyn at High School for Public Service organic urban cut flower farm

We ultimately grew flowers on 10,000 sf., producing thousands of stems annually, selling to restaurants, florists, and a small CSA. The flowers provided a new entry point of learning about sustainable agriculture for all of our students and volunteers – their benefits as “food for the soul,” as pollinator friendly, as a way to increase biodiversity on farms, and increase revenue for urban farm projects.

High School for Public Service student making organic flower bouquet of parsley flower and centaurea bachelor's buttons 2012 The Youth Farm


Bouquets at Brooklyn Farmacy in 2012 grown by urban flower farm The Youth Farm


Co-managing this farm unfortunately did not fully cover my expenses, you may be surprised to learn:). I took on citywide gardening conference management in the winter, part time and consulting work for other “greening” organizations, and even a witching hours cleaning job at a restaurant/bar. I loved and believed in what I was devoting my working hours to. But it wasn’t cutting it financially.

In early 2011, an old high school friend got engaged and essentially begged me to do the flowers for her wedding that November. So sweet… she assumed I could design flowers – for a 200 person wedding, no less – because I knew how to grow them. I agreed eventually, somewhat skeptically. She flew me to Nashville, her father gave me $700 to spend on flowers (what I thought I needed LOL), and I got to work. And, I worked right up until she walked down the aisle. I had no idea how much time designing would take, and probably enjoyed the process a little too much. So much so that I emergency-called my mother, who was flying in for the wedding, and told her she needed to cab straight to the venue to help me finish. Covered in flower grime (florists understand this) I threw my dress on in the venue bathroom.

Molly Oliver Flower designing in Nashville, TN Wedding of Rachel Gore and Jonathan Freed

After that, another friend or two got engaged and I was asked again to do the flowers. I know I was excited - this was actually really fun. Really challenging, but fun. Getting to work with the beauty I was growing was beyond satisfying, it was transformative.

At the urging of a close friend I put up a Wordpress website. In fact, she offered to do it for me because I knew nothing about creating websites. I realized I did have a perspective. I knew I wanted to support local flower farmers, and connect people with the unsung beauty of seasonal blooms like Zinnias, Nigella, Scabiosa, Celosia…. The kinds of flowers that are built into a localized, seasonal crop plan. I wanted to introduce people to what flowers were in season locally, connect them with local farmers, and push beyond the norm of peonies, roses and hydrangea as mainstays for wedding flowers. I wanted to support new flower farmers also hoping to share those seasonal flowers. And so this business was somewhat accidentally born… somewhat unintentionally… and more on that in Part 4. 


Molly Oliver designing in friend’s apartment Brooklyn 2013


Molly Oliver designing fall 2013 wedding flowers seasonal organic flower design Brooklyn


More hard lessons were eventually learned at the urban farm I managed after a few years. I came to confront the awkwardness of my whiteness, on land and facilitating learning experiences for primarily people of color. It was problematic, I knew it, and it was having unintended consequences. My ability to feel safe on land, farming, was a privilege and these experiences brought that privilege into crystal clear understanding. I needed to move on and make space for others to lead and provide safe entry points to developing relationships with nature and agriculture that weren’t necessarily confined within skill-based learning of ‘sustainable agriculture’– a set of practices and a story about agriculture that had mostly been codified and sold by white people. 

My last year on the farm was 2019, a year before 2020 and some of the largest country-wide protests against police brutality the US had seen in decades. The patterns I’d read about in college books about colonialism and power, and then saw play out in daily life in the South Bronx and Santiago, had been bubbling up in my workplace. By that time, I occupied a position of power (as much as one can have as a part time urban farm manager) and as I was teaching the ins and outs of greenhouse management, composting, transplanting and all the rest, I was also preaching the need to honor the indigenous roots of capital O organic agriculture. It didn’t make sense to occupy that space anymore. 

Orange and Yellow Calendula growing in Brooklyn Youth Farm urban organic flower farm 2014


Cactus and Benarys Giant Zinnias growing in Brooklyn Youth Farm urban organic flower farm 2014


Thanks to the honesty and bravery of a handful of students, I was made aware of this, and made the decision to leave my position and… transition to full time floral design? I was deeply skeptical. I had identified as a sustainable farmer, involved in social justice work, for such a long time –  I had by that point worked 15 consecutive seasons cultivating vegetables and flowers. I was 38. I felt a mid-life identity crisis coming on. 


Flowers grown at the Youth Farm Brooklyn, NYC 2012 Calendula Gomphrena Peach Cactus Dahlias Tithonia Euphorbia Mountain Snow Amaranth Hopy Red Dye Tithonia Snapdraons Thai Basil


To be continued next week!

May 28, 2024 — Molly Culver

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