Molly Oliver Flowers, Brooklyn, New York

Urban farming is taking root in several locations. Two young growers take up the challenges of growing in the city, and sharing what they’ve learned with children.
Fritz Bahr, Commercial Floriculture, 1922

Molly Culver and Deborah Greig co-founded Molly Oliver Flowers in 2012. Molly Oliver Flowers is not a farm, but a sustainable floral design business based in Brooklyn, New York. That said, Molly and Deborah are both farmers—technically farm managers—for separate one-acre urban farm projects. While the farms grow primarily food crops, they both grow flowers as well, and the design business is able to purchase from the farms, from other urban farms, and from regional growers in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.The duo handles floral work for mostly weddings, though they hope to branch out into other special events. What started as friends of theirs getting engaged and asking them to do wedding flowers has blossomed quickly into 25 weddings a year—a number that is at the upper limit of manageable, considering their day jobs.

From New York to California
Not only are they farm managers, they work for educational farms, so educational programming is a major component of their jobs. Molly shares that she and Deborah have a “bizarrely parallel story—we both worked at AmeriCorps Vistas for Just Food, a nonprofit here in New York City dedicated to connecting communities with resources to help make fresh, locally grown food accessible to all New Yorkers. We both worked with environmental justice organizations in the South Bronx to facilitate some of the first CSAs there. 

Deborah went on to intern at Hawthorne Valley Farm in the Hudson Valley, and I worked as a community organizer for a few years. We both ended up at the University of California—Santa Cruz training program for organic farmers from 2006 to 2008, where we were first introduced to cut flower production.”Fortunate to have UCSC Farm Garden Manager and fellow ASCFG member Christof Bernau as an early mentor in cultivation, postharvest, marketing and bouquet making, she says, “We fell in love with flower growing and floral design. So, our advocacy around healthy food access morphed into farming and food justice advocacy, and it brought both of us back to New York City.”

From there, it was a natural outgrowth to incorporate their newfound love of flowers. Of course, with ready access to vegetables, you can be sure to find interesting vegetable and herb seedpods and foliage featured in their arrangements. Some favorites include flowers of arugula, chives, leeks, and fennel, radicchio leaves, chard stems, ‘Redbor’ kale, and garlic scapes.

Deborah is agriculture director for East New York Farms, one of the city’s oldest urban agriculture organizations, while Molly manages The Youth Farm, located in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, going on its sixth season. Molly says, “We have dreamed of having our own cut flower farm in Brooklyn; time will tell if the right opportunity presents itself!” She explains, “The main challenges to urban farming right now (in New York City) are accessing land that is affordable, and being able to scale up to a point where you could sustain yourself just from farming. For me, it’s not possible to make it on farming alone. Hence, the floral design business.”

From the Liberal Arts to Floral Artists

Deborah graduated from Vassar and Molly from Barnard. While neither studied agriculture, both left college and almost immediately got involved with food justice work in the city. Wanting to get actively involved in social justice work, Molly says that she found that food and organic agriculture felt like the right place and space for that. Similarly, neither has formal training with floral design. Molly says, “I believe I developed my sense for form and shape from my mom, who is a multi-media artist, and avid, lifelong vegetable and flower gardener. Her knack for creating beauty out of whatever was available to her was instilled in me early on.”

Molly Oliver Flowers, an independent business, purchases cut flowers from The Youth Farm and East New York Farms, just as other florists and restaurants do. The Youth Farm is a project of Green Guerillas, a 502 ( c ) 3 nonprofit that has operated in New York City for more than 30 years, mainly with community gardeners. East New York Farms is a project of the nonprofit, United Community Centers. Molly notes, “In some cases, our clients overlap. Some of our first clients of Molly Oliver Flowers were teachers and CSA members who teach at the High School for Public Service, our chief partner at The Youth Farm.” One of the reasons clients like working with Molly Oliver Flowers is that when flowers are sourced from The Youth Farm or East New York Farms, that money goes toward supporting youth and adult farm education.

Deborah grows popular annuals and some perennials at East New York Farms, but her primary market is the immediate East New York community, and the majority of their growing space is devoted to vegetables (especially hot peppers, and other Caribbean crops). At The Youth Farm, a third of the growing area is in cut flowers, and they grow over 80 varieties. Their staple flowers include: tulips, daffodils, sweet peas, larkspur, zinnias, scabiosas, sunflowers, gomphrena, euphorbia, cosmos, basils, mints, calendula, dahlias, yarrow, tansy, hyacinth bean vine, and marigolds.

The Youth Farm has one 40’x20’ hoophouse used for larkspur, but the majority of the flowers are grown outside in raised beds. Molly explains that using raised beds, “is really important in our setting for creating public awareness of where crops live and where people can walk. We have a sandy loam soil, so it’s not entirely necessary, but it’s also a point of instruction for our apprentices, in demonstrating healthy soil practices.” They learn to call the pathways the “zones of degradation,” and the beds the “zones of productivity.”

Cultivation is done on a hand-scale level. Apprentices learn primary and secondary cultivation techniques like double and single digging and the incorporation of compost, all using efficient tools like the garden fork, broadfork, rake, etc. Nearly 70 beds were double dug when first created. After that, they adhere to minimal soil cultivation for healthy soil biology development. In the spring the cover crop will be weed-whacked, or turn into the soil. Then the beds will be single dug with garden forks or broadforks, then raked and tamped. Molly say, “We use 3’ and 4’ bed markers to maintain an even bed width, edge and tamp our sides. For transplanting, we are big fans of the dibbler available through Johnny’s, as well as the 4-row seeder for salad mixes.”

City Farming Isn’t Like Country Farming

One challenge of urban farms is bringing in raw materials, like straw, fertilizer, and compost, without paying too much for transport. For the past three years, Molly has organized a cooperative purchase of organic potting soil from McEnroe Farm for eight different urban farms. She explains, “If we can put 20 pallets (40 yards) of potting soil on one flatbed truck the freight cost is much more affordable for our operations.”

Urban farms find different solutions for irrigation water. East New York Farms collects rainwater from five adjoining homes, but most use city water. Gardens without direct access can hook up to street hydrants. The Youth Farm gets water from spigots on the outside of the school. They have several drip irrigation systems, some overhead sprinklers, and wands. Using chlorinated city water makes it sterile for rinsing, but there is potential for destroying some of the good bacteria in the soil.

Being in the city perhaps opens the farms to more scrutiny. Molly says, “We’ve all faced some question from the city and whatever agencies we are tied to about the safety or liability of what we’re doing. We’ve had to work together to create safe standards for soil fertility and to build awareness of what soil health is and how to establish and maintain it.”

Despite those generalized issues urban farmers face, Molly says one of their biggest challenges is balancing farmer training and education with field work. “Making sure we get to that first flush of weeds with the hula hoe, or getting Hortonova trellis up over a crop can be a challenge when you are training others.”

Her position at The Youth Farm is a year-round, full-time job. From preparing soil in late winter to full scale production through spring, summer and fall, and finally updating records and setting new goals in late fall, Molly is always busy. She has found that her floral design work provides balance to her roles teaching and farming. She reflects, “It is a different kind of creative process, and I really love coming to the studio to focus on design after a long week of farming and teaching and so much interaction and movement.”

While it’s not unusual for flower farmers to dabble in floral design as part of their business, Molly Oliver Flowers is unique as a floral design business owned and operated by two urban farmers who farm for social justice. 

A Little Background About The Youth Farm

The Youth Farm is situated in a low-income neighborhood, with the majority of people of West Indian or Jewish Orthodox descent. Many, or most, of our students are West Indian-American. Our main crops are grown for this community, so, plenty of hot peppers, bitter melon, callaloo, kale, collard greens, tomatoes, etc. We see our purpose at the Youth Farm as creating access to nature, to farming and gardening experiences, and high level training for those who want it, and to grow fresh, affordable produce and flowers for the surrounding community. 

At the same time, we aim to educate the community about the true cost of growing food and why our prices may be slightly higher than what they’re accustomed to. As we are a combined production and educational farm, people who come to The Youth Farm get exposure to how production farming feels and works. There are also many skilled farmers and gardeners from the immediate community who can bring their families to the farm, and share their own knowledge and farming practices.

As the interest in urban farming grows, and as cities continue to expand in population, we believe urban farms will become vital places for people to retain some connection to the roots of their food sources—to beehives, vegetable and flower farms, chicken coops, and other small but valuable examples, as engaging with these things helps people to connect the dots between food and their overall health.

We are located on the grounds of the Wingate Campus, home to four high schools and a middle school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The project began as a vision for increased outdoor hands-on learning for young people at Wingate, and specifically our early and principal partner, The High School for Public Service.

We developed a year-round elective course that freshmen through senior students can elect to take, called Go Green; the curriculum is based in food justice, as this is the core value of The Youth Farm. The students who take Go Green learn about the environmental justice movement, the food justice movement and all issues involved, from migrant and farm labor issues to corporate control of food systems, as well as nutrition and cooking. Besides Go Green, we run an afterschool extra-curricular club with the art teacher called Farm Club, and are now running a Go Green class with another high school at Wingate.

For the past four years, we’ve been funded to run a Summer Youth Leaders program that employs 12 youth to work and help run the farm. These youth learn farming skills, community organizing skills, and marketing skills; they help plant and harvest, perform outreach for our market, and sell at our market, in addition to some team-building activities and cooking seasonal meals every day. East New York Farms runs a similar youth program, but year round. Finally, we are now developing a Youth Leadership Council thanks to new funding from State Farm; this group will be made up of some returning Summer Youth participants, Farm Club members and other youth volunteers. This group will help guide the activities of the farm and how they intersect and engage with the students at Wingate.

At the Youth Farm we run an Urban Farm Training Program, an intensive program for adults interested in farming and related careers. Six to ten individuals participate in a rigorous hands-on curriculum, 20 hours per week, from April through November, moving through rotations in Irrigation, Compost, Farm Management, CSA and Farmers’ Market Management, Propagation, and Flowers, concentrating on key skills in each. At the same time we have a 25-member vegetable CSA, 25-member flower CSA, five regular restaurant accounts, and a weekly farmers’ market, which all bring in important income for our project.

Education and production happen concurrently. It’s challenging at times, but ultimately part of the goal is to have people really experience on some scale what it feels like to farm. We now have had 15 graduates. Many have remained in urban farming, as educators or starting their own farms, consulting businesses, etc. Some have gone on to work at larger farms outside the city.

Besides these two pro-grams, the farm is open to all to come for open Volunteer Days twice a month to help out and get their hands in the dirt. We also run a field trip program, through which schools and other groups (special needs, afterschool, corporate groups, etc.) can book a customized tour or work day on the farm.

Megan Bame

Megan Bame is a freelance writer in Salisbury, North Carolina. Contact her at [email protected]