The Fox River Flower Farm was born out of necessity, but really it was many years in the making. In my previous life, some 20 years ago, I was a journalism graduate of Columbia College who worked as a music writer for various Chicago publications. But as print media shifted to online and newspapers and magazines had to bow to advertorials to survive, I became less and less enchanted so I switched gears.
I got a literary agent, sold a book about the best food trucks in America and spent a year traveling the country researching, photographing and getting to know people from every walk of life bound by a common thread. Their foodways sparked a renewed interest in seed-to-plant, farm-to-table, and I decided to enroll in the U of I’s Master Gardening Extension. Meanwhile, a few Chicago restaurant friends — Graham Elliot, now of Master Chef and Stephanie Izard, Top Chef — asked if I could help them with various plant and floral projects for their restaurants. For Graham Elliot, the concept was to create tabletop terrariums of hand blown glass and seasonal botanicals that would change as the menu did. My company Bottle & Branch was born of that project.
I brought on a couple of employees and set up a design studio in the Chicago Humboldt Park neighborhood. Over the last 10 years we grew to have a full-service floral business, a ‘light landscaping’ division focusing on seasonal container design via sidewalk patios and rooftop gardens, as well as an interiors division that designs, installs and maintains interior plants. Close to 100% of our clients are restaurants and hotels. When COVID hit, we went from roughly 60 clients to four overnight (those four were hotels that kept us on to maintain plants in the now-empty hotels during the shutdown...quite eerie). I was forced to furlough all of my employees, including myself, and as I was helping the team navigate the unemployment process I started to reevaluate my business, which had grown to the point that I was essentially managing people rather than playing in the dirt. If I wanted to get back to that and wanted a more direct interaction with consumers outside of the hospitality industry, I knew I needed to grow things.
I enrolled in the UW Madison’s School for Cut Flower Growers and met Jeanie McKewan of Brightflower Farms, who would become my mentor and friend. While apprenticing at Brightflower, my husband Brandon and I converted a portion of our half-acre lot into a small flower farm and then expanded to a generous neighbor’s lot. At the Fox River Flower Farm, we grow all of our flowers from seed and practice no till and organic methods. We keep bees (who make deliciously floral honey), plant gobs of pollinator attractors and grow cut flowers in varieties that hopefully stand out in a crowd. We have a Flower Farm Club subscription service that’s available as a weekly, bi-weekly or monthly delivery so that our customers can watch the season change with us. And now as the restaurants and hotels are coming back to life, we are bringing that seasonality back to the tabletops, host stands and special event spaces. During the shutdown, we survived by building relationships with residential clients looking for a bit of brightness delivered to their doorstep and that continues to be a huge source of happiness for me personally, one that I might not have found if not for being forced to slow down and just watch things grow. These days as the city reawakens and we’re fully back in business, I’m still most at peace in the greenhouse starting seeds, thinking of how such big and beautiful things can come from something seemingly so small.
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