Roadside Renegades

The Flower Lady and Gent ignored all the rules and turned a roadside stand into a fixture in their Ontario community.

It all started with sunflowers. 

Paul Mailloux remembers seeing a florist near his London, Ontario home selling sunflowers for $10 a stem and thinking, “I could grow those.”

Mailloux was an avid gardener who loved tending to annuals and perennials at home. Both he and his wife, Suzanne Glasgow, grew up on vegetable farms, and starting a farm of their own felt like a natural progression. In 1994, the couple rented two acres of land and started The Flower Lady and Gent. 

Back then, there were just a handful of varieties of sunflowers and the couple planted all of them, ignoring expert advice about growing on speculation. 

 
Paul Mailloux and Susan Glasgow
When the sunflowers—and a few other varieties of cut flowers growing on the fledgling farm—started blooming, Mailloux remembers thinking, “I guess we need to figure out where to sell them.”

The couple purchased a buggy from a local Mennonite village and set up a flower cart at a busy intersection in London. Their plan: Fill maple syrup buckets with colorful cut flowers and let customers make their own bouquets.

“It took us about one hour to figure out it wasn’t going to work,” Mailloux recalls. “People had no idea how to make a bouquets; within an hour, we started making bouquets for them.”
Assuming customers would make their own bouquets was just one of the mistakes Mailloux and Glasgow made in the early days of their cut flower farming adventures: They failed to plant any fillers, grew two acres of flowers with no cooler for preservation; and hauled buckets of fresh flowers from the farm to the roadside stand in their cars, sometimes making three trips to stock their flower cart. 

“There was a learning curve,” Mailloux says.

Despite the challenges, which included balancing farming with off-farm jobs, the couple fell in love with flower farming and their customers were drawn to their bouquets.
Sunflowers remained a staple on the farm but, with more acreage, the number of varieties increased, too. The Flower Lady and Gent currently produces up to 100 different varieties of perennials and 40 different varieties of annuals. Glasgow highlights zinnias, snapdragons, and celosia as some of her favorites—and the brighter, the better.

After the first growing season, the couple also planted a wide selection of fillers.

Mailloux is always on the lookout for new varieties to try (or try again), adding, “It’s always important to have something new—a new crop, a new variety—it could be something you grew eight years ago and decided to grow again; the industry thrives on those new things.”

“People like fresh, local, and flowers,” Glasgow says. “Our bouquets are identifiable by the color, the vibrancy and the unique flowers. There’s a lot of thought and creativity in the way they’re put together.”

Growing Knowledge

Not long after they started The Flower Lady and Gent, Mailloux learned about the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers and attended his first conference in Baltimore in 1994. 

The annual conferences became a tradition, and the couple has made countless invaluable connections through the Association. 

“When we started we were the only ones in Ontario [growing cut flowers]; it wasn’t cool to do it back then like it is now,” he says. “It was neat to go to the conference and talk to people who were doing what we were doing. I got hooked right off the bat.”

Even after 23 years of growing cut flowers, Mailloux still loves attending ASCFG Growers’ Schools, explaining, “I learn something in every session; I don’t think there’s an end point to the knowledge part [of farming].” He also regularly flips through old issues of the The Cut Flower Quarterly as a reminder of best practices.

Their ever-expanding knowledge, coupled with a passion for growing, allowed Mailloux and Glasgow to significantly expand The Flower Lady and Gent. They purchased a farm in 2000, added a greenhouse, expanded production to eight acres, and even built their first cooler.

The Flower Lady and Gent became a staple in the community. Regular customers stopped in for “just because” bouquets and ordered arrangements for new babies, funerals, and other special occasions. Mailloux and Glasgow also expanded their business to include weddings.

The couple continued setting up their pop-up flower shop at the intersection until 2015. Now, they sell from their farm. Mailloux admits that leaving their location at a busy intersection affected sales but inviting customers to the farm provided unexpected benefits.
 

“We lost some customers who don’t want to drive out to the farm but the ones we kept are true flower lovers,” he says. “Even though our sales are down, our expenses are also down. It made us more efficient.”

 
Inviting customers to the farm—even when cars pull up after hours or while the couple are in the middle of field work—offers a glimpse of what goes into producing each colorful stem.

“People love to see the farm; they all take pictures,” Glasgow says. “We’ve met a ton of great people; some of them have been our customers for 26 years and they are still coming.”

Both have retired from their off-farm jobs (Glasgow retired from teaching in 2017 and Mailloux retired from his job as a civil servant this spring) but their desire to continue farming remains strong. 
 
“For every 10 jobs that needed to get done, only 6.5 of them got done while I was working. I’m hoping to increase that to at least seven now that I’m retired,” he quips. “I’ll have more time to stand around and talk to our customers. I don’t want to get bigger, I want to get better.”

Jodi Helmer

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