A movement is underway in Baltimore to fill some of the city’s 14,000 vacant lots with urban flower farms where residents could grow zinnias and toad lilies and hyacinths to sell to local florists or invite the public to come pick their own bouquets.
The city’s spending panel is set to approve a $10,000 contract on Wednesday with a consultant to study market conditions around leasing empty lots to flower farmers as a potential outgrowth of the farm-to-table push.
Ellen Frost, who owns Local Color Flowers in Charles Village, said she’s looking for more local growers to fill her orders and help shrink the industry’s environmental footprint by using blooms that have been treated with fewer chemicals and traveled fewer miles.
“Flowers are a good option for people who are interested in farming but want to try something different or have a niche that sets them apart from food growers,” Frost said. “For us, it’s exciting as a viable entrepreneurial option for farmers, and to eliminate blight.”
With about a dozen urban farms operating in Baltimore, city officials are investigating other ways to use vacant lots, said Jenny Guillaume, the Growing Green Initiative coordinator for the city’s Office of Sustainability. The city started a push for more community gardens in 2011 to uplift blighted neighborhoods, give families access to more healthy food options and help unemployed residents earn money.
Now, Guillaume said the city wants to figure out whether market forces are strong enough to support flower farms, which also could produce petals to use for perfumes and both cooking and essential oils. Another option could be to open the meadows up for people to stop by and pick their own bunches, the way some orchards sell hand-picked apple bushels.
“More and more people are interested in using more local products, and that has encouraged flower farming,” Guillaume said.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said finding innovative ways to convert vacant property into modern uses will rebuild city communities and help meet her goal of growing the city by 10,000 families over the next decade.
“We have made significant progress in reversing decades of decline in many communities across Baltimore,” she said in a statement. “My pledge is to continue to be innovative in our approach to blight elimination. I’m optimistic about the potential to expand our initiatives further through flower farming and eagerly await the results of this consultant’s report.”
The city targets vacant property in several ways: the Homegrown Baltimore initiative to establish farmland on empty lots, the Vacants to Value program that rehabs abandoned homes and the Growing Green Initiative that stabilizes and holds land for redevelopment.
Some of the vacant property is not suitable for food production because of the size of the lots or soil contamination, among other reasons.
The consultant will investigate local supply and demand by surveying businesses, establish a working group of local stakeholders, chart lot availability, research how to process flowers into products and identify industry best practices, according to information presented to the Board of Estimates.
The idea was spurred, in part, by Walker Marsh’s winning Growing Green Design Competition submission. Marsh won about $64,000 in the city contest in September for his plan to create the Flower Factory on a half acre of empty land in the Broadway East neighborhood.
Marsh, who works as a field manager for Baltimore’s Real Food Farm, wants to break ground as early as the coming weeks for his flower farm. The space would eventually feature benches for community gathering spaces, a rain garden, compost, a storage shed and flower beds blooming with marigolds and tulips and snapdragons.
He wants the Flower Factory, planned for the corner of North Gay and North Washington streets, to be a catalyst for community building.
Marsh said he wants to sell boutiques on site, provide arrangements for weddings and special occasions, wholesale his flowers to local florists and partner with farmers’ market vendors.
Baltimore has at least flower farm. Maya Kosok, coordinator for the Farm Alliance of Baltimore City, started Hillen Homestead near Clifton Park in the Northeast about two and a half years ago with a friend who has since passed away. The farm sits on about a tenth of an acre, or 4,000 square feet.
The city’s decision to explore flower farms on a larger scale only makes sense, she said.
“Sustainable agriculture and urban agriculture have been gaining momentum in the last decade or two, and I have certainly been inspired by a lot of great examples in Baltimore and elsewhere,” Kosok said.
Kosok said she will make about $10,000 this year on her flower farm. The majority of the sales are to Frost, the owner of Local Color Flowers, she said.
Frost, who buys all her flowers within a 100-mile radius of Baltimore, opened her flower shop in 2008. This year, she’s made arrangements for 85 weddings and dozens of special events, she said.
The shop doesn’t have regular retail hours. Instead, customers make appointments to order arrangements. Frost said she also offers floral design classes and hosts a flower-themed book club.
She recently started convening a small group of potential flower farmers to talk about techniques, share stories and network.
“We started to understand for us to have a sustainable business model, we needed to have more flower farms in our pool and more closer to home,” she said.
Kosok said what she doesn’t sell, she gives away. She drops bouquets off to her neighbors and hands them to people walking by, because running a flower farm, to her, is more about giving back to her community than making money.
“What excites me is the different conversations I have. For me, the human interaction is at the core.”