Kate Dutton finished up a contract as a researcher with the Muskrat Falls Inquiry, before finding herself unemployed and in COVID-19 lockdown. In the pause, she realized she wanted to return to her past work and passion for floriculture. She has since launched Blue Bridge Gardens, a business embracing the Slow Flower movement.
Blue Bridge Gardens will offer bouquets and arrangements using fresh cut flowers. The product will be grown outdoors, and include foraged flowers and flowers produced at Dutton’s property in Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s, just outside of St. John’s.
“My husband really encouraged me and said this is the year to test stuff out. See what you can grow,” she told Atlantic Business Magazine, in a recent interview, recalling the start.
The 2020 growing season became the test for different flower varieties. She added eight, raised beds of roughly a metre by two and a half metres (four feet by eight feet), in addition to her pre-existing planting space.
“The planting methods I use are fairly intensive spacing, so that encourages longer stems, as well as maximizes the harvests you can get,” she said, explaining her approach.
She also uses succession planning, so as one crop of flowers blooming in a specific period is harvested, another crop is ready to plant in the freed space, to get the most out of the growing season. There are certain varieties that do better than others, but Dutton says there are plenty of attention-grabbing blooms that work.
“I think people are starting to realize that yes, it’s a challenging climate, but it doesn’t mean we only grow turnips,” she said.
It’s all informed by past experience. Dutton grew up around her parents’ organic gardens, selling into farmers’ markets, and previously worked in horticulture jobs for larger-scale producers, including for a flower wholesaler. She has a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Concordia University, but completed a Master Gardener certificate program with Dalhousie University in 2017.
A flower-based business was something she has been thinking about for a long time. And in 2020, after providing cut flowers to friends and acquaintances, she tried some collaborations with local, small businesses, including Yorabode. The property management and home renovation consulting company had been looking specifically for foraged bouquets.
“From there, I developed a business plan (for Blue Bridge Gardens) and said ‘Ok, let’s give it a go,’” Dutton said.
She found small business start-up support through the Newfoundland and Labrador Organization of Women Entrepreneurs (NLOWE) and began to seek out some unique, Canadian flower varieties to get started on her microfarm.
Last fall, she planted 1,200 tulips to use in kicking off flower sales in 2021. “It seems like a lot, but at this point I wish I had planted more,” she said.
She is adding 12, new, raised beds in 2021 for additional product, all on offer for delivery within 24 hours of cutting. It’s the Slow Flowers way.
“As a Slow Food chef cooks with what is seasonally available, a Slow Flowers florist designs with what is seasonally available,” states Debra Prinzing, a Seattle-based writer and advocate.
Prinzing’s “Slow Flowers Manifesto” online explains the “movement” toward locally sourcing cut flowers began in the United States, the world’s biggest market for cut flowers, where the supply is largely imported from growers in the Netherlands, Ecuador, Columbia, Kenya and Ethiopia, to name some of the top exporting countries.
“The movement recognizes that this is not sustainable for people or for the planet, particularly when flowers are often considered a luxury,” Prinzing states. “Slow Flowers believes that it is irresponsible to support the continued production and consumption of a perishable product that devours so many valuable resources (jet fuel, packaging material, water, to name a few), especially when there is a domestic alternative to imported flowers.”
In a 2003 report, the U.S. International Trade Commission noted the country produces flowers, but not enough to meet its own demand, increasing since the late 1980s and tied to disposable income.
“Prior to the 1970s, the vast majority of world cut flower consumption was supplied by local production,” the report stated. “At that time, any international trade in cut flowers was primarily limited to cross-border trade. The expanded use of commercial jet aircraft, the establishment of frequent and reliable transoceanic airline service, and the development of sophisticated receiving, handling, and shipping facilities in many countries has allowed for a world market in fresh cut flowers.”
Flowers move in and out of Canada in much the same way, as part of a healthy line of international trade. In 2019, cut flowers and associated products had a farm gate value of $1.6 billion, with over $500 million worth being exported, per Flowers Canada Growers, representing greenhouse growers, distributors and importers/exporters.
There are a lot of big farms out there, with well-established, year-‘round business.
Dutton isn’t tearing that down, but sees a niche for her business start-up, with its hyper-local product. She said serving the climate conscious consumer is an area she knows others, like online flower shop Newfoundland Floral Design (@NewfoundlandFloralDesign on Facebook), have also been tapping into.
Blue Bridge Gardens will be selling through online orders, market and pop-up sales. Dutton is hoping for a mid-May tulip harvest, but will be announcing on social media when product is available this spring.
If the business works out and grows, Dutton’s interested in adding an element of outreach, with educational opportunities.
“(And) if people are inspired to grow their own flowers, I think that would be fantastic,” she said.