Sustainable Flowers on the Front Range

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Moving Towards Sustainable Flowers One Bouquet at a Time

by Ann Schmit, Wild Ones Front Range member and flower enthusiast, and Helen Skiba, owner, Farmette Flowers in Longmont

Why would Front Rangers passionate about native landscaping care about growing flowers ourselves or supporting our local farmers who grow them? Have you ever wondered where that flower bouquet you picked up from the supermarket came from, or the bouquet you had delivered for a friend’s birthday from the local florist? Many of us, gardeners and non-gardeners alike, have become educated about the impacts of factory farming and the benefits of acquiring our food from local food systems and farmers markets. Those benefits include the use of more sustainable farming practices, healthier and more nutritious food, and investing our dollars in ways that have greater local economic benefit. So why wouldn’t we want to do the same when it comes to the cut flowers that brighten our homes and bring a smile to the faces of our loved ones? Most of us do purchase flowers at some point. The fact is that the commercial flower industry has enormous ecological and social impacts, and we as champions of sustainable gardening need to educate one another about those impacts and make choices that promote local and regenerative flower production.

Let’s first take a look at some of the environmental and social consequences of the $40 billion global commercial flower industry. According to a 2016 article by a World Resources Institute researcher, since the 1990s flower production has shifted to developing countries where climate is favorable and labor costs lower. Columbia, Ecuador, Kenya, and Ethiopia are now the largest producers. 80% of flowers sold in the U.S. are imported, with most of those coming from South America—350 million cut flowers are imported to the U.S. annually! Even American-grown flowers are problematic. I’ll touch on some of the key reasons that sustainability-minded gardeners should be concerned about commercially-grown flowers.

Water use: It won’t surprise Front Range gardeners that commercial flower production requires significant amounts of water. For example, cut flowers account for 45% of Kenya’s virtual water exports, reducing water available for crops like maize that are critical to food security. Lake Naivasha in the floriculture area of Kenya has shrunk significantly as irrigation for flower production has increased, impacting local drinking water supplies and aquatic organisms dependent on the lake. 

Pesticide use and human exposure: It also won’t surprise you that floriculture requires significant fertilizer and pesticide inputs to produce those perfect blooms. Because flowers are not edible crops, they are exempted from regulatory limits on pesticide residues, despite having as much as 50 times the amount of a given pesticide allowed on food crops. And beyond the obvious ecological impact of that pesticide use, exposure to pesticide residues among floriculture workers and florists is a big concern. Studies have shown that floriculture workers’ health is deeply impacted by the pesticides omnipresent in their workplaces. Genetic damage was reported in 71% of cut flower workers worldwide. A 2017 study of European florists found more than 100 pesticides in commercial flower bouquets being handled by florists, and that residue of many of those pesticides were being taken up through florists’ skin. Flowers imported into the U.S. are not tested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for pesticide residues; however, USDA will reject an entire shipment if one insect is found. This creates an enormous incentive for over-application of pesticides by foreign floriculture companies. As I mentioned, buying flowers grown in the U.S. may not be the solution. A draft analysis of U.S.-grown roses by the Environmental Working Group found a dozen pesticides in their small sample of bouquets, including two that EPA lists as probable carcinogens; one was detected at a level 50 times higher than the amount allowed in food. Ornamental crops, including cut flowers, ranked 5th among all crops in the number of documented worker pesticide poisonings in California in a 1999 study.

Climate change impacts: Because so much of cut flower production occurs far from wealthy markets in the U.S., Japan, and other developed countries, there is an enormous carbon footprint created by the need for long-distance refrigerated shipping to keep your blooms fresh. The International Council on Clean Transportation calculated that the 4 billion (yup, billion) roses imported to the US from Columbia in January and February produced 360,000 metric tons of CO2 just to make it to the US — this doesn’t include CO2 produced during growing or during refrigerated shipping and storage in the US. According to the EPA, that is the equivalent of nearly 78,300 cars driven for a year. One 2007 study looking at  cut flowers grown in Kenya and the Netherlands for sale in Britain found that each kilogram of roses produced 27.3 kilograms of CO2, a carbon footprint greater than that of beef. 

In sum, massproduced flowers diminish local water resources, impact ecological and worker health, and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. So as conscientious Westerners trying to protect our native landscapes and ecology, is there a way for us to enjoy the beauty and fragrance of fresh cut flowers in our lives? The good news is yes! Here are some approaches to consider. Please share this information with your friends, families and local communities to get the word out there.

Support your local regenerative or small-scale flower farmer: Go and visit one of the Front Range farms listed in the resources section, or send the owner a brief email. Ask questions about the practices that are most important to you: Are workers well-compensated? Low or no pesticide use? Practices that improve soil health like cover cropping, perennial plantings, and no-till farming? A regenerative or progressive flower farm at the height of the season will look unimaginably diverse, both in flowers and in bird, insect, and invertebrate life. Ask your flower farmer what they are doing to reduce waste, save water, preserve soil carbon, and reduce their carbon emissions. Now imagine asking these questions of a King Soopers floral department — you would only get blank stares. The only way to know for sure how your flowers are grown is to see for yourself. However, remember that flower farmers work just as hard as vegetable or animal farmers. Offer something in return for their time, whether purchasing their flowers, joining a workshop, or simply paying for a farm tour.

You can purchase regeneratively farmed flowers directly from local growers (see Resources to find your local growers), as part of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares, or from your local farmers market. Keep in mind that these fresh beautiful blooms will be available when they are in season, which may not coincide with our floral-heavy holidays such as Valentine’s Day; however, many innovative Front Range growers are finding ways to extend their season with bulb forcing and other techniques. In general, you can expect to see local flowers available from about Mother’s Day through early October on the Front Range. Many growers offer additional products like dried flower bouquets and wreaths, dahlia tubers, flower seeds, and online or in-person classes when they are not able to offer fresh cuts.

Once you see the incredible array and diversity of what local flower farmers can offer, you’ll never go back to the grocery store’s dyed mums and toxic roses. 

Tuck some of your favorite cutting flowers in with or alongside your native landscapes (with a focus on those that benefit pollinators): Many varieties can be grown from seed or neonicotinoid-free starts can be purchased from local nurseries. Although they will need some water, they will provide beauty and joy in your landscape and inside your home and will also benefit pollinators. And you will get to exercise your creativity as you arrange flowers and foliage in your own personal style!

Seek out flowers that are certified: If you purchase mass-market flowers, look for certifications like Whole Trade, Rainforest Alliance Certified, and Certified American Grown. But understand that these certifications do not address climate change or carbon footprints, especially when the flowers come from across the country or across the globe. 

Resources and Sources

List of Front Range Flower Farms:

Pesticides and Cut Flowers, Joby Warrick, National Wildlife Federation Magazine, June 2000.

What Are the Environmental Costs of Valentine’s Day Flowers?, Kathleen Buckingham, World Resources Institute, February 2016.

For your next Colorado bouquet, try a flower CSA, pick-your-own farm (or winery!) or mobile flower shop, Denver Post:


Slow Flowers, Debra Prinzing, 2012

The 50-Mile Bouquet, Debra Prinzing and Amy Stewart, 2012

Flower Confidential, Amy Stewart, 2007

Native Plants

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This page is newly planted! Please check back as the content grows…

Opuntia sp. growing in a garden on the Hogback just west of Metro Denver, CO

What makes a plant “native”?

Doug Tallamy and Rick Darke define a native plant in their book The Living Landscape as: “a plant or animal that has evolved in a given place over a period of time sufficient to develop complex and essential relationships with the physical environment and other organisms in a given ecological community.”

Native Seed Collection and Cleaning

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Colorado native plants evolved in tough soils and climates. Even in natural areas with no supplemental water many are producing fertile seeds this year. Prior to collecting, it’s a good idea to review the Colorado Native Plant Society’s collection protocols. If collecting seeds in legitimate areas and your gardens has slipped your mind, it is time to get cracking and get ready to swap seeds at the WOFR/PPAN fall Native Seed Swap in Denver on October 4 and Fort Collins (date TBD).

Ripe Hairy False Golden Aster (Heterotheca villosa) seeds

How to collect native seeds

You will need paper bags and/or small re-sealable plastic bags and a pair of clippers or scissors. Look for fruits that are turning brown or fluffy.  Some will split at a seam (or two) or gape open at the tip. Some may have holes like those of a salt shaker. Aster family plants have seed heads that get poufy (think dandelion) when they are ripe. This is a large family that includes aster, goldenrod, gayfeather or blazing star, daisies, black-eyed-Susan, coneflowers and even thistles (yes, there are many native thistles). If you can monitor collection time, collect when you can easily pluck the seeds from the receptacle and do not have to cut the entire head. If you do clip heads into the paper bag, let the collection sit for about a week to continue ripening and drying. Many seeds should fall into the bag naturally.

A caution about aster family plants. If you are collecting in a garden, you need more than one seed-grown plant to produce fertile seeds. And if you have more than one plant but they are all clonal, i.e., grown from vegetative cuttings, they cannot produce fertile seeds. Plants with a cultivar name may or may not produce fertile seeds. For instance, the grass ‘Blond Ambition’ will only produce fertile seeds if there are other Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis) plants in the area. The resulting seedlings may or may not have the special characteristics of “Blond Ambition.’ Other fruit arrangements such as the spikes of penstemon capsules encourage clipping all or part of the spike and inverting it into the bag. If the capsule has not opened at the top, you may need to crush the woody capsule with a rolling pin.

To collect grass seeds, run your hand along the entire inflorescence and put the handful of seeds into the bag.

How to store and clean native seeds

Blanket Flower (Gaillarida aristata) seeds

Seeds can sit in the bags for a fair amount of time unless you have noticed weevil holes in the fruit (often a problem with legumes). Any fruits/seeds with critters should be cleaned promptly and put in the freezer for two weeks. Be sure they are thoroughly dried before freezing.

To start the cleaning process, use sieves with various hole sizes to clean the seeds. Kitchen colanders and strainers work well. Proper soil sieves are great because they are sturdy and you can rub the seeds vigorously against the screen. Once you have only chaff remaining, you can use a hair dryer on low heat and air flow to blow away the chaff (you will want to run an extension cord outdoors to do this). Hold the hair dryer at arm’s length below the sieve and gradually move it closer while you gently move the sieve with the other hand. If the seeds are very small they will fly away with the chaff so experiment with the hair dryer slowly. Remove as much extraneous vegetative material as you can; cleaning seeds by hand defies perfection. 

Place the cleaned seeds into containers that can be stored in a refrigerator. Coin envelopes can be organized into a plastic or glass storage container, which will occupy minimal space. Paper allows you to write the species name, collection date and location and elevation on the envelope.

How to label native seeds

Ideally, you want to label seed packets or containers with the scientific name (Genus, species), collection date, location and approximate elevation. If you are unsure of the species name, put a common name on the envelope. Take pictures of the plant focusing on the entire plant, the flower or fruit and the leaf and the leaf attachment. Volunteers at the Seed Swap may be able to help identify your plant. We want the Native Seed Swap to be fun and educational.

by Jan Midgley

Join us for our first 2018 Seed Propagation Event!!

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Please Join Wild Ones and Audubon Rockies for our first 2018 Seed Propagation Event on February 28th from 5:00-7:00PM at REI Denver.

Native landscaping is so beneficial in many ways, but it is also a very special (and easy!) way of gardening itself! In this talk, you will learn how to propagate your native seeds, either in a controlled environment to later transplant out in the field, or sow directly in your soil to see all the new surprises coming up in the growing season. Attend this talk to learn more about the lives of seeds themselves from when plants set seed, to when and how to collect, as well as the different methods to break dormancy whether they are in containers or in the ground. You will experiment with what materials you will need and examine what kind of prep and maintenance is necessary to pull together the garden of your dreams that you helped nurture and create. Remember, it is never too early to think spring!

4:30  Doors Open & Sign-In
5:00  Opening Remarks Introduction of organizations and speakers.
Anna Puchalskis Presentation
Introduction: Plant Seed Production Learn about different kinds of seeds and when they are produced.
Seed Collection When are seeds produced, and how are they collected depending on where they are found?
Seed Propagation Learn how to properly clean, store, and break seed with use of different equipment and methods.
Transplanting Learn the best methods on how-to properly transplant your plants into larger containers or into the ground.
Sowing Seed Directly
Combine seed and climate knowledge to learn what, when and how to sow seeds directly into the ground.
Where to Find & Purchase Seeds
7:00  Wrap Up/Final Remarks Distribute evaluation forms and handouts.

Anna Puchalski’s love for the plants and the outdoors brought her to study Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences with a concentration in Botany at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where she graduated with a Bachelor of Science. She ventured into ecological restoration participating in various field crews where she spent her time learning the dynamics between the fauna, flora, water, and land by applying various restoration techniques from pesticide applications to prescribed burns while creating and helping maintain native habitats ranging that included wetlands, woodlands, and prairies. Most of her work was spent working at a native plant nursery where she was solely responsible for inventory control as well as assisted with sales and production activities. Her move out to beautiful Colorado gave her the opportunity to practice restoration once again as well as garden in Colorado’s unique climate before returning to the landscaping industry where she currently manages the flower beds for a landscaping company.

Join Us at Our Introductory Meeting!

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Hello Wild Ones!
Thank you for stopping by our exhibit at the Landscaping with Colorado Native Plants Conference and signing up to hear more about our Front Range Wild Ones Introductory Meeting. We are excited to have you as part of our community!

You are receiving this email because you have specifically expressed interest in attending our first 2017 meeting! The goal of this meeting is to introduce ourselves and what we do as a Wild Ones chapter.
Come find out what great ideas we have to help you with your native plant garden. We are also interested to know what events, speakers, workshops, and more you would like to see on the calendar. What do you feel passionate about? How can you contribute your time and expertise?

The Details:

  • Date: Wednesday March 29, 2017
  • Location: Green Spaces (2590 Walnut Street, Denver, CO, 80205)
  • Time: 6:30 pm
  • Other Details: Street parking is available and should be fairly easy. Snacks will be available.

Visit our Calendar of Events Page for more information on other events throughout the year. We will be hosting events of our own as well as partnering with and attending other regional organizational events.

IMPORTANT: If you are interested in attending the meeting please RSVP by emailing us [email protected] letting us know you will be able to come!
Join the Movement!


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Landscaping with Colorado Native Plants Conference
Saturday, March 12, 2016
at The Ranch Events Complex, McKee Building
(5280 Arena Circle, Loveland, CO  80538)
More details to follow!
This conference is presented by a partnership of:

  • Wild Ones – Front Range Chapter
  • Butterfly Pavilion
  • Colorado Native Plant Society
  • Colorado State University Extension
  • Denver Botanic Gardens
  • Front Range Sustainable Landscaping Coalition
  • High Plains Environmental Center

When should we meet?

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I talked to a couple people today that said, “Gee, I’d really like to get involved in Wild Ones but with my schedule I don’t know if I could ever make the meetings.”  It was followed up with comments about working weekends and such. This is curious to me because we haven’t even set any dates yet.
My theory is that the people who show up or speak up get to make the decisions (like meeting days & times & locations) in organizations. Of course, it is not realistic to believe that we can pick dates that will work for everyone every time. But we will work hard to find dates that work for the majority. Maybe we will decide on a ‘regular’ meeting time on weekday evenings for lecture style programs with guest speakers. Or maybe it should be weekday lunches? Maybe special garden tours or garden meetings will be on a weekend morning or afternoon so that we can enjoy the landscape and study the plants. Or should we meet at a private garden in the evening to watch the sunset?  Maybe we will alternate meeting times during the first year or two and partner with other organizations to reach more people. I don’t know.
This leads me to my next question – What meeting days & times would work best for you? And, while we are at it what part of town (meaning the Denver-metro area) is easiest to meet? Just leave a comment on this blog and make your voice heard. The more people we hear from the better our chances of sprouting an active, successful Wild Ones chapter.

Growing a Wild Ones Website

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One of the first “official” things we did to launch our new chapter was to set up this website for Front Range Wild Ones. We are in the process of sorting through our notes and materials for the resources that we think would be valuable to anyone interested in native landscaping. Ideas have included: lists of public gardens that showcase natives, links to other related regional websites, grant opportunities for schools, plant recommendations and, of course, information on chapter activities.
But we need to hear from you to make this website grow and become an important tool to promote native landscaping. What would you like to see added to our website? What questions do you have about native plants and gardening?