Our noted speaker and co-founder of the ASCFG, Allan Armitage, and event organizer, Gail Zorn.

Want to Hold a Flower Festival in Your Hometown?

Here’s how two Georgia members are doing it, and you can too!
I’ve had the pleasure to attend Georgia’s Monroe Blooms Flower Festival in both its inaugural year in 2019, and this year, post-pandemic. Its two founders—Gail Zorn of Daybreak Flower Farm in Loganville, who’s also the founder of the Georgia Local Flowers collective, and Stephanie Kilroe, of Dancing Hearts Homestead in Monroe—are the fearless, fun, and imaginative instigators behind this flower takeover of the historic town of Monroe.

I absolutely believe that what they’ve created is an idea worthy of replicating by like-minded flower farmers in lots of cities, both large and small. If that idea sounds tantalizing, read on! Here is Gail’s and Stephanie’s advice on what they did, how they did it and, what it takes to be successful.

First, what IS Monroe Blooms?

It’s a one-day event in Monroe, which is the Walton county seat with almost 15,000 residents. Monroe, and Walton County are considered part of the Atlanta metro area, even though Atlanta is 50 miles away. It’s a super fun public celebration of everything floral, while also a celebration of the community. It showcases the historic town, its farmers’ market, florists, landscapers, and nurseries. Events included a presentation and book signing by Dr. Allan Armitage, design competitions, workshops of all kinds, Master Gardener demonstrations, flower merchandise, farmers’ market, artisan crafts, art exhibits, five astonishing floral displays throughout downtown for photo opportunities, and more.

How did you come up with the idea in the first place?

Stephanie: We were driving back from the ASCFG 2018 National Conference in Raleigh, and Gail said, “What do you think about a flower festival in Monroe?” And we just got going, right from there, brainstorming all the way back home. It was so, so exciting! Originally we were thinking we’d do it in 2020, but Gail got on the phone that same day, calling movers and shakers in city government and they were unanimous: “Let’s do it in 2019!”

Glorious blooms added to a downtown sculpture by farmer florist Jessica Drennan Neese of Field & Flower by In Bloom.
Celebrating the rainbow by Maggie Hadden of The Petal Exchange, flowers provided by Lara Jackson of Wolfsong Flowers.

Gail: Basically, I was looking for a way to 1) Showcase the farmers’ market (she was the market manager at the time); 2) Highlight local flowers, which I felt were underrepresented in the Atlanta area; and 3) Bring something totally new and interesting to Monroe.

Okay, great idea, but what did you think would be some of your biggest hurdles?

They quickly ticked off: Budget! We had no idea what kind of budget we’d need. Since this was untested, we were worried about how we’d get buy-in from local businesses, like restaurants. Could we get sponsorships? Volunteers—we needed the right people to serve on the planning committee, and the right boots on the ground for the event.

Gail: The greatest part of this was the unknowns—what we could spend and what the public reaction would be. For us, this was a high-risk but potentially high-reward idea.

Stephanie: We had no template to look at in the state of Georgia. We had to invent this event ourselves. We had a lot of ideas, such as wearable flower art at a dinner show, but we just couldn’t do everything the first time, or even the second time.

What were some of the big “pluses” in your favor?

Gail: We had the support of the Office of Economic Development in Monroe, and the Downtown Development Association. (Gail was the farmers’ market manager, which is funded by both entities) so I knew the people who could help make it happen.

Stephanie: And the people Gail called that day were on board immediately—it took no convincing. Since Gail had been the farmers’ market manager for a few years, she already had a relationship with all these people; she already had their trust and a proven track record with the market. Relationships like this are key!

The pair also said it was essential that they’ve had tremendous support from Monroe’s premiere florist, Jeff Lott of JL Designs, who’s a big booster of Monroe and a much-loved member of the community.

What were the key items on your first checklist/timeline?

Deciding who should serve on the steering committee. Lay out all of the ideas. Throw out the ideas that most likely can’t be implemented due to timing, budget or volunteers. Secure space for each of the activities, workshops, events, and displays, and find instructors or a teacher for each. Identify what will need to be purchased or donated, such as florals, getting florists to do pro bono design, items to use in displays, such as flower truck with bedding plants in its bed. Then, they said they worked on the project plan.

Actual time frame to plan the event?

For the 2019 event we came up with the idea in September of 2018. The steering committee meetings began in February 2019. Initially they were held once a month, then every two months, then weekly. Six to eight weeks out, we began advertising Monroe Blooms (including a list of classes, events, and workshops), putting up posters, pushed out messages in selected Atlanta zip codes via Facebook to a targeted demographic. The first Monroe Blooms Flower Festival was held June 15.

For 2021, the steering committee meetings began in later April due to uncertainties related to COVID (“Could we even hold a large event?”), so the timeline was much more condensed than in 2019. It worked because they now had buy-in from the community: in their post-event analysis—a key component to measuring the impact of the event—local businesses reported higher sales which they said were directly related to Monroe Blooms. In fact, Jeff Lott said his store did three times its normal Saturday business. The second Festival was held on June 19.

What did you learn in 2019 to improve for 2021?

• Close the main thoroughfare through town.
• Get a professional photographer. Jamie DeRevere, of DeRevere Photography donated his time and expertise.
• We wanted to have more events and classes, although potential barriers were the logistics of space and finding teachers in our shortened timeline.
• Much better social media push in 2021.
• They realized in 2019 that they didn’t have enough bench depth in flowers, using local flowers and local wholesale flowers. In 2021, they couldn’t get donations from local wholesalers due to the pandemic, and that’s when Gail came up with the idea of pairing a local florist with a local flower farmer and they used EXCLUSIVELY local flowers.
• Paired up flower farmers (who weren’t already paired with a florist) to do a workshop.
• Added Flower Queens, which were a BIG hit (their paper flower costume design was the brainchild of Gail’s sister, Lynn).

What would you like to do differently next time?

• Dream bigger! Gail sent everyone on the planning committee links to the 3-day flower show in Greenwood, South Carolina, and the Philadelphia Flower Show
• Create and distribute minutes of planning meetings with commitments made during the meeting, which will help them track action items and commitments for the next meeting
• Start everything earlier!
• A dedicated tent for speakers.
• More music.
• Have a budget. While the city of Monroe paid all receipts, there has not been an upfront budget.
• Add an event website.
• Reach out to the producers of the “Small Town Big Deal” television show.
• Get more sponsors.
• Add garden tours over the weekend, to expand Monroe Blooms beyond a one-day event.
• Add an evening component, such as a restaurant with a flower theme, with volunteers wearing flower art.

For anyone contemplating trying something similar in their town, what do you think it takes to be successful?

Gail: Cultivate relationships; have a vision; dream BIG; you’ll need drive, persistence, the ability and diplomacy to work with many personalities.

Stephanie: Involve all the civic groups who would like to have more exposure (remember, it’s their town too!) and tie them into the event. Examples of who they included:
• Monroe Walton Center for the Arts (MWCA); a member of the MWCA did the festival’s poster both years pro bono and the center held classes for kids and adults during the festival.
• The Farmers’ Market held events specific to the festival.
• Monroe Museum.
• Onstage Theatre, which provided story times throughout the festival.
• Master Gardeners.
• Local historic homes and venues.

Any final pieces of advice?

Gail: This is a VERY scalable event that can be replicated in ANY size town! Just pick your components based on what your target demographic would like, and your dream of what you’d like to do.

Stephanie: Don’t be afraid to dream BIG! Always have a Plan A, a Plan B, and a Plan C. And ALWAYS have a sense of humor!

Getting to Know Gail and Stephanie

Gail Zorn, of Daybreak Flower Farm, has been in business since 2010, first growing a patch of zinnias to put a little something extra into her farmers’ market booth, where she was selling bread. Growing flowers was right up her alley, though, as she was a horticulturist and grounds director for a community college. Now she sells exclusively to florists, with about three-quarters of an acre under cultivation with perennials and annuals.

Gail Zorn
Stephanie Kilroe

Stephanie Kilroe, Dancing Hearts Homestead, started growing in 2017, encouraged by Gail, initially selling online to local markets. Today she sells primarily to florists, a big retail account, and does special farmers’ markets. She grows annuals, perennials and shrubs on a quarter acre, and, as this photo shows, loves drying florals.

Georgia Local Flowers is a collective of mutually-supportive Georgia-based flower farmers, started in 2017 by Gail Zorn to collectively join together as a single business entity that would have the volume and presence to attract florists and designers. It has evolved into a group of like-minded growers who mutually support each other’s endeavors in flower farming: growing, pricing, business advice and collaboration. About a dozen members participated in Monroe Blooms.

Val Schirmer

Three Toads Farm

Contact her at [email protected]