Monica Palumbo’s Indigo & Ivory Farm in Savage produces a succession of flowers and foliage throughout the year for subscribers and her own freelance floral design business. (TBM / George Berkheimer)

Fresh flowers lift spirits and brighten the home and office, so what’s not to love?

The answer depends on provenance. That little celebration of nature in the foyer nook or on the dining table could be responsible for widespread environmental degradation tied to toxic pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides, unwise land use decisions, long-term refrigeration, and fossil fuel pollution from greenhouse operations and transportation.

“A lot of people look at flowers as natural, beautiful things but they don’t have the benefit of knowing all of the steps in the production process,” said Monica Palumbo, owner of the independent Indigo & Ivy Farm in Savage. “Local flowers are better for the environment and keep money in the local economy, which is just as important.”

Palumbo is among an increasing number of local growers who are seeking to give florists and floral designers a sustainable alternative to a standard industry practice that relies heavily on imported flowers.

Ten of these growers have even banded together to form the Chesapeake Flower Exchange, headquartered at Tanglewood Farm in Ashton, which pools their available products and increases selection options for purchasers who prefer to buy from a single source.

Lisa Derx is president of the Chesapeake Flower Exchange, an alliance of local flower growers seeking to bring more sustainability to the florist trade. (Submitted photo)

Grown, not flown

Lisa Derx, owner of Apricity Flowers, a boutique grower in Dayton, is one of the founders and the current president of the Chesapeake Flower Exchange.

After realizing that many local growers were counting on each other to fill orders if something was missing, Derx invited her collaborators to formalize their relationship. The Exchange formed officially in January 2023 and launched in April.

“Our focus is on florists, either brick and mortar shops or studio designers,” she said. “All of our growers also use practices that enhance the soil rather than detract from it.”

Some of the Exchange members also operate their own design businesses, and many sell cut flowers at local farmers markets or offer subscriptions.

“About 80% of the cut flowers sold in the U.S. are imported from other countries, mainly from Colombia, and are typically flown or trucked to other destinations across the country from Miami,” Derx said. “We grow and sell within a 50 mile radius, so it’s not as damaging to the environment.”

In fact, Palumbo said, the 80-20 ratio of imported versus domestically grown flowers was inverted before the 1990s, when new trade policies upset the balance.

“There is a momentum gaining right now driving a return to American-grown flowers,” she said.

“The end consumer is paying more attention to their own impact on the environment,” Derx agreed. “People who are concerned about where their food comes from and who are interested in purchasing seasonal food are starting to want the same for their decorative flowers, so we’re seeing more florists take that into consideration.”

Jill Coutts operates Tanglewood Farm in Ashton, which acts as the central hub for the Chesapeake Flower Exchange. (Submitted photo)

Mutual benefits

Palumbo, a retired Howard County schoolteacher, launched her business in 2020 and grows both native and nonnative flowers, perennials in particular.

“I have a succession of different flower and foliage production that can be used throughout the year,” she explained.

Kristi Gill, owner of Gill Hill Flower Farm in West Friendship, and Diane Lutz, who operates Dilly Dally Garden in Sykesville, said the Chesapeake Flower Exchange’s cooperative model has allowed its members to streamline their operations.

“We fill subscriptions on Fridays and wholesale orders on Tuesdays, leaving time for plants to recover and re-bloom between cuttings,” Gill said. “The wholesale side is less predictable, but we’re hoping that changes as the cooperative becomes more established and florists realize that they can rely on us to fill regular orders.”

Members are very supportive of one another, Lutz added.

“Everybody is happy to lend a hand or advice, and of course I have made connections with new florists and have made more sales that way,” she said. “Most of us work on our farms without paid help, so having orders come through the co-op cuts down on the number of phone calls, texts and emails coming in.” 

Chesapeake Flower Exchange member Patty Engler operates Bee Haven Farm in Carroll County. (Submitted photo)

Seasonal appreciation

It’s not just local flowers that are contributing to a more sustainable industry model, but other considerations as well.

“I don’t use flower foam, I use chicken wire and moss to hold my flower designs in place,” said Palumbo.

“A large part of our mission is educating the flower-loving public in how much waste is involved with conventionally grown flowers,” Gill said, which is something the Exchange is designed to minimize.

During the summer, the Exchange delivers approximately 2,000 stems per week.

“We’d like to see our customer base grow, because our farmers produce more stems than we’re currently selling,” Derx said.

Clients can be demanding, Palumbo acknowledged, but the priority for her is to source locally for anything she doesn’t grow herself.

“What surprises and delights a lot of my clients is that local can be beautiful and look elevated,” she said.

Seasonality also adds an element of surprise and freshness, Gill said. “I believe that as people become more aware of the seasonal nature of things grown in the area, it starts to become more important to them.”