In Roxborough, Reinventing Philadelphia’s Oldest Industry

 

Photo: Nicole Juday

Down the lane from the CVS in Upper Roxborough, still within the city limits, is a rural hamlet of fields, barns, and 19th century farmhouses that time seems to have overlooked. Here on two acres are the lush flower fields of Jennie Love, owner of Love ‘N Fresh Flowers, a floral design company that grows its own organic flowers–mostly for the wedding market. Love ‘N Fresh Flowers also runs a floral CSA and retails mixed bouquets at Weavers Way Coop stores.

The Burpee Seed Co. plant was located in the Hunting Park industrial corridor | Source: 1942 Works Progress Administration land use map

Historically, Philadelphia was the center of the horticultural industry in America, home of the most important nurseries and growers. Today, Love ‘N Fresh Flowers is the only commercial horticultural grower in Philadelphia.

The company’s flower field is like a Pixar version of the outdoors. Glossy ladybugs climb up fat stems of ornamental wheat, and bluebirds swoop over the rows of bright flowers while butterflies weave around visitors’ heads. On a recent overcast afternoon I visited Jennie at her leased field to talk with her about her experiences as a pioneer of locally grown floral design.

Nicole Juday: You’re an organic grower.
Jennie Love: We’re interested in sustainability; taking really good care of the land, planting cover crops, not spraying, using organic pest deterrents, harvesting at proper stage, and thinking intently about what’s seeping into the ground.

NJ: This is the third year of your business. How is it evolving?
JL: The plant inventory is much more comprehensive this year, and I have a handle on quantities and what’s needed for a big event. Instead of 60 snapdragons I need 5000 snapdragons. I’m finding that sweet spot in terms of the volume I need. I grow on two acres within the city. That’s a lot, but not compared with traditional growers, so I’m learning how to effectively grow as much as possible with the space I have.

Photo: Nicole Juday

The workshop series I’m leading this year is exciting, and the wedding business has gotten huge. I have a lot of weddings this year–I’m afraid to count them. And so far never a repeat customer–put that in your article!

But I do want to be careful about expanding. Love ‘N Fresh will always be a small-batch business. As with any artisanal producer, there’s only so big you can get before you start to lose the hand-made quality that makes you special.

I’ve never advertised, because the flowers speak for themselves. People are hungering for something different, and when they see my flowers they start gushing. I can’t qualify what’s different about them, but these plants are grown in sunlight, in a field, when nature has had its way with them, and they just look better.

Photo: Nicole Juday

NJ: You wear two different hats, each of which is pretty specialized.
JL: Probably up to ten hats! Besides owning the business, I’m the grower and the designer. Sometimes florists come to visit the field and they have no idea what plants they’re looking at. It’s not their fault, but they’ve never seen the flowers actually growing, only once they’ve been cut. Yes, I exhaust myself doing it all but I think it’s fundamental. I have control over what I’m going to use–not looking through a wholesale catalog, but a seed catalog, and know that the quality is going to be perfect because I grew it myself.

NJ: Does being the grower inform your design work?
JL: I do not pre-plan my designs at all–that might scare people to hear! I don’t have spread sheets or recipes–no 3 carnations, 5 roses, 2 babies breath. I literally harvest all week, turn around, look at all the buckets and start designing, bearing in mind the colors the client said she likes and the flowers she loves and hates. I just go with what nature gives me. This creates the Love n’ Fresh look that is so unique–it’s just natural and I think it makes a big difference. It’s organic not just in terms of chemicals, but also “this is what nature wanted you to have. Enjoy!”

NJ: What’s the difference between your flowers and florist flowers?
JL: Local is what’s different. Our flowers are not going to be bigger and more exotic, like what’s coming from the Dutch market. Those flowers are huge! But not necessarily better. Even if they’re grown organically (and they’re not) they’re still shipped across the world, and unless you’re doing some gigantic arrangement, bigger is not better. Those flowers are pumped full of fertilizer and the entire plant is sacrificed for one flower stem. We harvest over time, and let the smaller side branches develop.

Other flowers can smell rotten, and they have no other fragrance. Our sweet peas have fragrance, same with Sweet William and snapdragons. I’m a dictator about harvesting at the exact right second, to maximize fragrance and freshness. On a wholesale level nobody is taking that much care. That’s why my flowers are better.

One other really important thing is that our flowers never leave water, so when you give them to a client they are so fresh. I regularly get asked to ship flowers, and I say no. I get asked to do weddings more than a 75-mile radius from here and say no. Even after I grow them I don’t want my flowers going anywhere else. I started this business because I wanted to stay local.

NJ: You manage to price competitively?
JL: People sometimes think that local flowers will be cheaper than florist flowers, and that can be true. Certain flowers are easier to grow in our climate, but others are more difficult and they’ll be more expensive, especially when they’re grown organically. In general, the price for local, organic flowers will be about the same as from a florist.

NJ: Some couples are looking to reduce the footprint of their wedding–your company obliges.
JL: The flowers the bride carries are sustaining this open space, and preserving the ecosystem. They get to see how their investment is going back into the farm. The money I get isn’t making me rich, but it’s supporting something sustainable. This is more a life than a business.

NJ: How many hours a week do you work?
JL: Every waking moment. I don’t even know how many that is. But I love growing, that’s what I do. I want to be in the field, not just the office.

About the author

Nicole Juday spent many years as a horticulturist before trading her shovel for a laptop. She now writes about gardening and natural history for the WHYY website NewsWorks and a number of print publications, as well as giving lectures and tours. With a particular interest in landscape history and old plants, she loves exploring and researching forgotten gardens, and wants more Philadelphians to appreciate our city's remarkable horticultural legacy.



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