Flowers in the Heart of the City - Molly Gaeckle

A Minneapolis grower contends with the joys and challenges of operating a flower farm in the heart of the city.

After George Floyd died in May, Minneapolis residents took to the streets to protest police violence against Black Americans.

Amid chants of “No justice, no peace,” Blackhawk helicopters flew overhead, the National Guard patrolled the streets in tanks, fires ravaged neighborhoods, and Molly Gaeckle planted cut flowers at Northerly Flora in south Minneapolis. A Minneapolis grower contends with the joys and challenges of operating a flower farm in the heart of the city.

“Being in Minneapolis has been very emotional and intense,” says Gaeckle. “It feels like a form of activism for me that I can grow beautiful, joyful things in this darkness.”

Gaeckle started growing cut flowers in 2016. While working for the local food co-op, a farmers’ market, and a small-scale vegetable farm, she learned that the cut flower industry faced many of the same issues with social justice, workers’ rights, and environmental degradation as a local food industry; she wanted to do her part to help change the industry. 


A 6,000 square-foot plot of land became available after a local vegetable grower moved to another site. Gaeckle leased the space, located one block from her house, and turned it into Northerly Flora. 

She calls the first year “a giant experiment,” and recruited friends and family to sign up for her inaugural CSA to test the model and her ability to grow enough quality flowers to consistently deliver bouquets. Gaeckle had 40 CSA members in the first year. 

“I was so excited to get started, and it spiraled into a business,” she recalls.
Word spread and the CSA grew, increasing to 70 members the second year, and 155 members this year. Members pay $210 for the 10-week shares. Between July and September, Gaeckle meets members at locations across Minneapolis for weekly pickups.

Expanding Her Borders

As the CSA grew, so did Northerly Flora. Gaeckle expanded from the original 6,000 square foot plot to a second area of the same size and, this season, expanded to a third site in nearby Hudson, Wisconsin. She grows dahlias on one site, up to 80 different varieties of annuals such as zinnias, campanula, celosia, lisianthus, rudbeckia, amaranth, dianthus, and marigolds, planting early spring blooms on another, and summer-flowering  annuals on the larger plot in Wisconsin. 

To maximize her small space, Gaeckle focuses on high-density cultivation, and favors cut-and-come-again varieties. 

“One-and-done perennials are so much harder in a small space,” she explains. “You really need more space to spread out to grow those varieties.”
Gaeckle admits that growing on several smaller plots of land is one of the challenges of urban farming. Uncertainty about land access is another issue that weighs heavily on her. 
“It’s hard to have a long-term business plan when you don’t know how long you can grow on the site,” she explains. “I have a five-year lease on one site, and I’m year-to-year on another; I can grow there until they decide to develop it, which will happen eventually..

Minnesota is Indeed Northerly

Whether she grows in the heart of the city or a rural community, Gaeckle has to contend with short seasons, cold winters, and hot summers. 

“Minnesota’s growing season is so short,” she says. “We go from so cold to so hot; our shoulder seasons with mild temperatures are too short for most flowers.” 

Gaeckle has a single high tunnel but investing in a greenhouse on borrowed land is not an option, so she starts seedlings in her basement.

“I start the seedlings in the basement and try to start hardening them off in the backyard; it’s a crazy dance in the spring,” she says. “Space limitations are a growing challenge; we’re about to bust at the seams.” 
Despite the challenges, Gaeckle loves her urban location. In the city, she says, buildings protect against storm damage, offer insulation during late-season frosts, and minimize pest pressure. Gaeckle also appreciates spontaneous opportunities to connect with her neighbors.

“One of the best things about being in a neighborhood is chatting with passersby,” Gaeckle says. “If we weren’t in the city, I would miss the neighbors who walk by and chat. It adds a lot of emotional value to me.”

Connecting with customers is also what Gaeckle likes best about the CSA. The model has also helped
Northerly Farm remain profitable during the global coronavirus pandemic.

Sales of the seasonal subscriptions, which sell out every year, make up the bulk of the revenue at Northerly Flora. Gaeckle has also started selling to florists and providing flowers for a small number of events. Diversification, she hopes, could make the farm more financially sustainable and help avoid burnout. 

“I’ve been grateful for the CSA model, for sure,” Gaeckle says. “The pressure of pumping out bouquets each week, making sure there are enough flowers that are unique and blooming to fill the CSA subscriptions is stressful. With florists, it’s pretty sweet to sell a few buckets of flowers for $500 that take a lot less time than making bouquets.”

As Gaeckle contemplates the best mix of sales channels to maximize revenue and minimize stress, she’s also questioning whether the future of the farm is in Minneapolis or outside the city limits.

“On the Wisconsin site, it’s essentially unlimited space where I can do some long-term planning; I’m taking this step out of the city, out of urban growing and I’m at this crossroads with my business and deciding which direction I should go,” she says. “While I love being in the city, space will always be an issue.”

Jodi Helmer

Freelance Writer

Jodi Helmer is a freelance writer in North Carolina. Contact her at [email protected]