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Farm to vase: Maryland floral designer sources only local flowers

At the corner of Brentwood Avenue and 31st Street in Baltimore’s Charles Village rests a floral design studio. Vintage cut crystal vases line the walls, satin ribbons cascade over a work table and birds chatter in the rafters.

The studio bursts with fresh-cut flowers—pouring from buckets and chilling in cold storage—but at least one common variety has no place there.

“Roses? Never,” Local Color Flowers co-owner Ellen Frost says with a smile.

There aren’t many florists bold enough to tell brides “no” when they ask for the world’s most popular wedding flower. But it’s the reason behind Frost’s “no” that really differentiates her business. Every stick, shrub and bloom in her arrangements is locally sourced from farmers within 100 miles of Baltimore, the vast majority within state limits.

Those farmers don’t do roses, so neither does Local Color.

“We love Baltimore and we love our farmers,” Frost said. “There actually is a pretty large cut flower industry in Maryland and Virginia, and just in terms of our own passion and thinking about social justice, we really believe that buying locally makes the most sense, environmentally and for our clients personally.”

Frost previously worked in affordable housing construction in San Francisco and Baltimore and in 2007 graduated from Loyola University Maryland, earning an MBA with a concentration in social entrepreneurship. By 2008, she and her husband, Eric Moller, were ready for a new challenge.

“I always saw service as working at a nonprofit because that’s my background, but I saw, all of a sudden, that you could be a for-profit business and still make an impact on your community,” Frost said.

Moller added, “We were interested in being entrepreneurs and trying to figure out what to do. Ultimately, we decided to follow Ellen’s interest in flowers and grow the business from there.”

While maintaining their full-time jobs, they launched Local Color Flowers out of their Baltimore home. Frost headed client interaction and arrangement design, while Moller kept the books, created a website, led online promotion and did the “heavy lifting,” they said.

They arranged flowers for eight weddings in the first year, strictly sourcing all of their flowers from three farms in Hunt Valley, Glen Arm and Cecil County. They soon discovered their visits to local farms and in-person interaction with local growers were unique among floral designers.

Most florists receive shipments from wholesalers carrying crates of Ecuadorians roses, Dutch tulips and Kenyan orchids, rendered identical and flawless by heavy doses of pesticides and factory environments with low-cost labor, Frost said.

“When we tell other florists about how [our] model works, they really cannot picture going to a farm in the middle of the week. It just doesn’t make any sense to people. They’re like, ‘You mean, flowers just don’t show up at your shop and look exactly the same?’ We actually go to a farm and nothing looks the same,” Frost said.

Their model has shown early success.

Frost left her construction job to manage Local Color Flowers full-time in 2010. Moller became full-time in October 2012. They expanded outside their home and opened the studio, office and garage space this year, and now employ nine part-time designers and workers, several of whom are graduates of the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Local Color is interacting with other Maryland organizations through its locally sourced, environmentally conscious mission. Their studio is powered by wind energy bought from Clean Currents. Flower waste is recycled through a community composting program. And Black Ankle Vineyards in Mt. Airy orders 300 to 500 Maryland-grown tulips—stand-ins for roses—for Valentine’s Day events.

“Right now, 80 percent of the flowers in the United States are grown outside the United States. We’re trying to change the industry from the inside until it becomes normal again to buy locally. People should be asking, ‘Where did my flowers come from? Are they really coming from Maryland or California or from Kenya?’ That’s our long term goal.”

Small changes in Maryland’s floral industry are already apparent. According to Moller, some farmers have expanded and banded together to meet growing demand for locally sourced flowers. One of those groups is Capital Flower Growers, a partnership of three cut flower farmers outside Washington, D.C.

“The growers will tell you—they always laugh at me—I will show up to the farm with my phone and the client’s Pinterest board and swatches from their dresses, and we go out into the field and say ‘OK, what would look best with this color or this style?’” Frost said.

She’s also started taking Vine video of seed plantings for special advance orders and farmers wishing brides “happy wedding day.” Several farmers, many of whom just recently started using smart phones, send her photos from the field and maintain active Pinterest boards themselves.

“So much of what we are trying to accomplish is a connection between where your stuff is coming from, who’s growing it and how it gets to you,” Frost said. “It’s a really personalized product. It’s more of an experience than just ‘Here are your wedding flowers.’ We want people to be proud of their purchases.”

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