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Local bouquets offer rarer, pesticide-free blooms

The organic food movement popularized the 100-mile diet, turning tomato plants and bean poles into backyard staples. But if you can turn locavores on to beans and beets, why not roses and rudbeckia?

The 100-mile diet? Try the one-mile bouquet.

Just like fruits and vegetables, much of Canada's flower supply is jetted in from distant lands, such as Colombia, Ecuador and the Netherlands. But this summer in particular, gardeners-turned-florists across the country have been resisting the imports while the season allows, transforming their own backyards and those of neighbours and strangers into mini flower farms for small-scale flower-arranging businesses.

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Torontonian Sarah Nixon, whose floral service is called, appropriately, My Luscious Backyard, gets much of her raw material from her own home garden in the city's Parkdale neighbourhood. But she also taps three other local yards, where she tends flower beds with the permission of the owners either free of charge or for a small fee, depending on the condition of the garden.

Scouting area yards for blooms was "a completely crazy idea" when she started her business eight years ago, Nixon says as she navigates the thyme-lined stone pathway that runs through her garden today. The lush, free-form arrangements she produces were also a tougher sell. "For a while, everything was very round, very compact and very modern," she recalls. "Now [customers want and appreciate]wildness."

In Vancouver, Megan Branson of Olla Urban Flower Project maintains at least three backyard flower farms, from which she and partner Dionne Finch source dahlias, rudbeckia, giant sunflowers and even winter blooms such as Christmas roses. Constantly on the lookout for beautiful material, they also sometimes knock on doors to acquire blooms, approaching gardeners with particularly fecund inner-city plots.

"Think big flowering hydrangeas with 250 blooms," Branson says of an especially successful haul. Olla buys its flowers from gardeners at market prices and uses them in arrangements inspired by ikebana, the Japanese art of flower design. This summer, Branson and Finch opened a new boutique in the Gastown area of Vancouver. Branson calls the city "lotus land, with a four-season wedding climate."

Indeed, both Olla and My Luscious Backyard have had many brides-to-be as clients, although her services, Nixon cautions, aren't for control freaks, who must understand that her designs are at the mercy of Mother Nature.

For some consumers, the less formal, idiosyncratic nature of such arrangements is extremely attractive, while others equate organic flowers with "half-dead farm flowers in a jar," Nixon says.

To win over the skeptics, both Olla and My Luscious Backyard use aromatic herbs in their arrangements, adding another sensory element that many scent-free commercial blooms don't have.

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They also incorporate unique specimens that aren't typically seen in flower shops, giving their bouquets a "hand-crafted" feel.

"For people to change their buying habits, you have to offer them something equal or better," reasons Nixon, whose backyard oasis includes everything from lantern-shaped Love in a Puff to plush purple Pincushion flowers.

Another strong selling point - especially among the eco-minded - is the lack of pesticides on local blooms: Many of the cut flowers from other countries are "a lot more toxic," Nixon says, pointing out that the farming standards in those nations aren't as stringent as Canada's, leaving workers exposed to fumes.

In their insistence on selling local blooms when they can, Nixon, Branson and Finch are following in the footsteps of earlier, even smaller businesswomen.

Mike Levenston of City Farmers, a non-profit website for urban veggie growers, cites one of his Vancouver neighbours, a Greek immigrant named Mrs. Gallos, as a pioneer in this area.

For 15 years, he says, Mrs. Gallos, who spoke little English, also sold flowers she grew in her garden, leaving unattended Mason jars full of blooms on her front lawn along with signs listing prices.

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"She was 'the flower lady' long before urban agriculture came around," Levenston says, recalling her moniker in the neighbourhood.

Just this summer, Mrs. Gallos passed away at 89 after suffering a stroke while tending to her flowers.

"Gardening to her last day," Levenston says.

Editor's note: This article includes the correct spelling of Megan Branson's last name and identifies Dionne Finch as her partner in Olla Urban Flower Project. Incorrect information appeared in the original print version.

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