This is the fourth and final part of a reflection on my journey to sustainable floristry. For parts 1 - 3, head here.


Little did I know in 2019 that leaving the land I had cultivated with passion for 8 years would also wind up being the year my long term relationship would end. A very shattered me clawed my way into 2020, and moved out of a beloved apartment in Crown Heights at the end of January.


The plan - once again - was to move home for a bit to regroup. It was winter, so events were on a downswing. I had 40+ events on the calendar though (more than ever before) and come March I was going to be very busy again. Or so I thought. I took a couple of weeks with two close friends in California and New Mexico. All the while, news of a strange outbreak on a cruise ship filled TV screens and newspapers. I wondered if I should be traveling at all.


You know what happened next. In a few short weeks, all 40 of those events were postponed. Then postponed again. Then postponed again. I had begun an apartment search, but hadn’t signed anything - and thank goodness. Work ground to a halt and the world was in crisis. 

Flowers outside of Dutch Flower Line 28th St. wholesale flower district NYC March 2020

 

For me, none of this felt quite so disorienting somehow - everything in my life had already turned upside down. All of a sudden, living at home with my mom at 40 years old was the sanest thing, rather than the weirdest. I took long walks on her country road every day. I de-compressed from my overstimulated NYC life. All the people, the noise, the traffic, the light pollution.


The daily work of holding up two small businesses - the farm and Molly Oliver Flowers - was suddenly off my plate. I applied for a PPP loan and got a small one, which helped me to continue to pay the rent on the Brooklyn studio I had in Gowanus.


After a month or so, I began thinking about all the flowers that farmers had been seeding since January (or even the prior fall). If we had no events, they were going to lose a huge part of their wholesale business. I thought about trapped New Yorkers. I felt restless and I wanted to do something. It seemed like an opportunity to offer subscriptions, something I’d wanted to do for years but had never had the time to. I was so excited to get in my car, visit farmers, and bring that color and vibrancy to New Yorkers, and it turned out to be a very popular medicine. 

Molly Oliver Flowers Seasonal Flower Project launch May 2020 Peach apricot foxglove

 We kept those subscriptions going - delivering door to door weekly - for 5 months. It was so energizing, and it turned out to be just the thing I needed at that very tough time. Yes, there was a pandemic raging and while that made life sad and inconvenient in many ways, I was insulated, safe, and wasn’t at high risk. Mostly, I was grieving my own major losses - the loss of the farm and the ritual of working with the land on a seasonal basis, my identity as a farmer, and my relationship and all the routine and rituals we shared as a couple.

Flower subscription NYC local flowers icelandic poppies orange flowers for your home weekly flowers Molly Oliver Flowers Brooklyn LIC Manhattan sustainable florist

 

When I decided to leave my farming position, I was left holding this business I had cultivated for years in the wee hours and weekends. It was a huge amount of work - we did approximately 30 events a year, from 2014 - 2019. And while neither of my two jobs were “full time” on paper, they most definitely were full time jobs in terms of time and mental space. Both required me at the helm, making all the decisions, and ultimately responsible for every success and failure. Time off was a rarity in those years. I probably worked an average of 70-80 hours a week.

I entered floristry from the perspective of a farmer, which I found was not so common in New York City. I hadn’t interned or worked for other florists. A typical Aries, I pushed ahead and I guess I figured I’d teach myself. Looking back, I really wish I’d taken the time to learn from others, even those who didn’t necessarily practice sustainable floristry. (So any of you thinking about getting into this work, learn from someone experienced first!). There were and still are so many things I re-invent unnecessarily. 


What I did enter with was a pretty deep understanding of how farming and the health of ecosystems are connected. Working as a sustainable farmer, you quickly learn that the main differences between organic / sustainable / regenerative farming and industrial farming is the approach to soil cultivation and your understanding of the farm ecosystem’s relationship to the wider ecosystem and planet.

Molly Oliver at the Youth Farm Brooklyn NY 2011 high school for public service diversified one acre urban farm pea trellis row crops organic vegetables and flowers


In sustainable agriculture, soil health is paramount: the maintenance of a diverse community of micro-organisms is key to the uptake of nutrients and plant growth. Without these millions of soil biota, plants do not absorb nutrients. The living soil organisms break down organic matter - dead plants, dead bugs - and through their digestive processes convert nutrients into forms plants need to grow. This is the key to life on earth - truly. In order to maintain and grow healthy and diverse populations of bacteria, fungi, nematodes, worms, arthropods and other soil critters, you need to aim for maintaining air, moisture, and organic matter in the soil. This will affect how you till - and how frequently (less is more here). It also affects how you fertilize: compost, rich in organic matter, is favored over synthetic fertilizers. Cover crops are planted to protect soil in the off-seasonl

 

Cover crops at the Youth Farm Brooklyn NYC Crimson Clover Winter Rye and Hairy Vetch urban farm urban agriculture

 

In the latter - in large scale industrial farming - where crops are grown largely as monocultures on massive scales - soil is merely a convenient medium to grow crops. The actual life in soil is largely ignored, trampled on, and driven out. This farming is chemically-based for convenience and speed: in other words, crops are grown and synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are applied systematically to support their growth. Industrial (or “conventional”) growers attempt to control the environment - rooting out any competition using herbicides and pesticides that are harmful to any living soil biology and disturb nature’s system of checks and balances. Broad based pesticides are used, eliminating the possibility for microorganisms to do the necessary work of metabolozing nutrients from organic matter for new crops to grow. Pelliticized fertizer is applied; not broad applications of compost which feeds soil critters as well as crops. And, tillage is practiced rigorously - even recklessly. Organic matter breaks down and disappears, and the conventional farm system quickly develops a dependence on the synthetic chemical approach. Not to mention, the soil itself deteriorates and becomes very prone to erosion… a large reason why we have major eutrification problems (algal blooms that suck up oxygen and are responsible for marine life die off) in the Gulf of Mexico. 

 

In 2011, I began teaching soil science, and eventually developed courses for several urban ag/horticulture institutions (and still do at Brooklyn Botanic Garden!) for over a decade. This critical information about the soil food web - upon which human life can rely and sustain itself - was so eye opening to me, and I wanted to help share and spread it to as many people as possible. Industrial farming is a huge contributor to global warming; and is a huge polluter. Any business I began was going to be rooted in that perspective.


In the same year, 2011, I designed my first wedding; in 2012, my second. In 2013, we did around 10. Molly Oliver Flowers grew from my creative roots, my knowledge about soil health, my concern about climate change. People my age getting married connected to those ideas and were looking for a way to celebrate with flowers that felt less wasteful. Molly Oliver Flowers continues to be my attempt to uplift sustainable farming (and soil health), seasonal/sustainable floral design, and provide a waste/carbon footprint conscious option for event floral design.


I’ve written quite a bit about our commitment to sustainable design practices - you can read more on that here if you like. 

Molly Oliver Flowers sustainable flowers Josh radnor wedding Cedar Lakes Estate New York winter wedding January flowers amaryllis ranunculus calla anemone
 Photo courtesy of Forged in the North

 

 

Wheelbarrow full of flower compost Molly Oliver Flowers sustainable floristry Brooklyn NYC

 

Finally - a word on running a small business, which is more broadly, what I'm doing at this point. I grew up in a fairly small town, essentially filled with family-run businesses through most of adolesence. Buying school clothes were annual trips to Fleishman’s and Bob’s. School supplies re-upped at Dudley & Beckwith. I didn’t love being hauled from errand to errand to the family-run pharmacy, to Bishop’s for groceries or Page’s for hardware supplies - but those places are so dear to me now and I am so grateful that some of them have survived. I would say half of them are gone. Small business gave my town and my life character. Small business gave people meaning in their lives and allowed relationships to grow. My first jobs were at small businesses - a bookstore, a chocolate shop, and a restaurant. As I grew up, I watched small businesses die and big box stores balloon in their place. Walmart came to town.


To this day, I try - best I can - to shop at the local hardware store, the farmers market, and locally-owned chains in NYC. I hate to see communities (and families) lose the knowledge and care that small business owners offer. 


Molly Oliver Flowers is where I’m trying to merge my need for a creative outlet with my values, for the time being. That sounds nice, but I won’t sugar coat it - running a small business is incredibly difficult. Incredibly taxing. Incredibly all-consuming. I am constantly stressed by new problems I’ve never dealt with before, stressed by changes in the economy and people’s spending habits, stressed by transient staffing (the nature of the business), stressed by incoming young florists that provide energy and inspiration but often compete with low price points. (I was one of them once; they’ll learn how to price or move on). The sheer number of hats I need to wear in a given week is mind boggling: accountant, CEO, manager/supervisor to 10+ employees, marketer in chief, buyer, sales rep, customer service agent, floral designer… HALP!


I am at my desk more than ever these days, save my trips to the wholesale flower district, and a few hours spent arranging prior to events or on-site design work. It’s the nature of being the boss… and as you grow the challenges just get more numerous and complex. Don’t even get me started on the demands of social media. Oh, to run a floral shop prior to the age of Instagram… how nice that must have been…

I still find joy in the little things. The weekly shopping trips at the CT Flower Collective and along 28th street, which feels like a miniature Main St. of small family run flower businesses. We’re in it together - the wholesalers, florists, and farmers and the early morning punchdrunk gossip and conversation over Persaud’s most incredible Smokebush or the new local farm product at JRose… it buoys me. As do the Tuesday arrivals of buckets upon buckets of gorgeous stems for our subscriptions each week - the beauty our local farmers conjure is unmatched. A thank you note from a wedding client. Good news from my virtual CFO (it happens sometimes!). 

If you have supported us in ANY way over the years - thank you so very very much. Verbal / emoji encouragement, purchases of special bouquets for holidays, subscriptions, workshops or events… every sale counts and helps us grow. Continues to give us experience we need to improve. 


If you’ve been reading along these past few weeks, thank you! If you have any questions - or care to share any feedback - leave a comment below!

June 11, 2024 — Molly Culver

Leave a comment

Please note: comments must be approved before they are published.