Urban Flower Farming:
Christin Geall June 30, 2017
In 2002, Sarah Nixon planted a cutting garden in the backyard of her rented house in Toronto’s West End. She began selling her flowers, naming her burgeoning bouquet business My Luscious Backyard. But while demand increased, Sarah’s plot didn’t: she needed more land. Her solution? Instead of driving out of the city to leased land or uprooting her family to the country, she started growing in the gardens of her neighbors, trading her labor for their garden space.
Photography by Sarah Nixon except where noted.
Above: Sarah Nixon’s business, My Luscious Backyard, relies on urban gardens in the neighborhood to supply local flowers to the community.
Above: Sarah Nixon at work in Toronto’s West End. Photograph by Christina Gapic.
With a home of her own and ten other plots planted for the 2017 season, Sarah has a burgeoning business that still maintains a tiny carbon footprint; she grows locally and sells locally. She grows flowers in gardens that range from the classic semi-detached city front plot of 15 by 15 feet to a few larger lots. “Most people choose to have the flowers in the front yard, so I try not to have anything too ‘pickable’ close to the street,” she says.
Above: Anchusa azurea in a Toronto front yard.
Sarah’s Parkdale neighbourhood, bordered by Lake Ontario and High Park, has changed over the past decade, but some things have remained the same: the mix of detached and semi-detached houses, the sense of community, and a “Main Street” feeling along Roncesvalles Avenue where residents shop, eat, and stroll. Young families mix with the older Polish immigrants who inhabit the area’s Victorian and Edwardian homes.
Above: ‘Hot Biscuit’ and ‘Opoeo’ amaranth, destined for a local floral designer in Toronto.
Nixon offers beauty and maintenance to her garden owners, but not the option of using their yard as a cutting garden. “When you have such a small amount, every stem is accounted for. People understand that.” (Many of Nixon’s “lessors” are bouquet subscribers.)
Above: The dinner plate dahlia ‘Cafe au Lait’, popular with brides, thrives in Toronto’s hot and humid summers.
Nixon’s business is built upon weekly and bi-weekly subscriptions, bespoke weddings, and wholesale sales to local florists. “Alison Westlake at Coriander Girl was one of my first buyers,” Nixon says. “Many florists say they support local flowers, but Alison really did.”
Above: Scabiosa ‘Fata Morgana’ produces pincushion flowers on long thin stems.
Toronto’s frost-free days begin in mid-May and end in mid-October. Nixon starts almost everything she grows from seed, using a shed with grow lights and heat mats to get her plants started in the spring. The summers, hot and humid, mean zinnias, amaranth, echinaceas, and dahlias thrive. In the fall, Nixon’s tidies up her plots and settles into a Canadian winter of garden and wedding planning.
“I love my work,” she says. “And it’s a lot of work. But the joy my flowers bring people is a reward in itself.”
Above: Nixon’s daughter enjoying backyard raspberries. Raspberry is a useful foliage plant for florists, supplying bright green leaves on tall arching stems.
First published: May 09, 2016
Follow up to an interview with Matt Galloway on CBC's Metro Morning
Business is blooming for flower farmer Sarah Nixon, thanks to her innovative way of acquiring plots to grow her colourful crops in downtown Toronto.
For more than a decade Nixon has been harvesting and selling more than 100 varieties of flowers in and around the city.
When she started her business, Nixon grew the flowers in her own yard, selling them at local farmers markets.
But demand for her flowers took off and Nixon was quickly in need of what may be Toronto's most precious resource: space.
'I wanted to grow flowers on a larger scale, while at the same time living in downtown Toronto,' Nixon said.
Her solution was to use other people's yards. She asked around, advertised on Craigslist, and found volunteers.
It's not hard to see why. Nixon shows up with bulbs, seeds and tubers, starts the garden and keeps it going throughout the season. All you have to do is supply the water.
'It's a win win,' Nixon said. 'They get to have a flower garden without doing any work or investing any money and I get the growing space I need.'
Nixon says her gardens stand out and get plenty of compliments. Most of her partners ask that she plant in their front yards.
When it comes time to harvest flowers to sell, Nixon says the gardens still look great because she plants so many varieties and there's always something blooming.
'Often I'll harvest what's ready to be picked and later that day another flower will be blooming.'
Nixon has weekly subscribers who buy her flowers. She also sells to florists and designs wedding arrangements.
'There's a lot of demand for the unique types of flowers I grow. People are becoming more aware of supporting local agriculture, not just with food but flowers, as well.'
And Nixon is, once again, looking for more space. If you have a piece of your yard you'd like converted into one of her flower gardens–and you live in Parkdale or Roncesvalles –you can contact Sarah Nixon here.
Global News, August 27, 2010