Flower Power: Farm-to-Vase Movement Takes Root on Chicago’s South and West Sides
Eco House’s Englewood farm site. (Patty Wetli / WTTW News) Have you ever given much thought to where flowers come from?
We don’t mean “come from” in the biological sense — that’s a birds-and-bees discussion for another day. We’re talking geographically, as in: “Where in the world?”
The answer, in terms of cut flowers sold in the U.S., is more often than not Colombia or possibly Ecuador . The small slice of the market not dominated by imports is, in turn, almost entirely monopolized by California growers .
Before they reach Chicago, the blooms, most of which are cultivated in greenhouses, will have traveled thousands of miles via energy-guzzling refrigerated planes, cargo ships and trucks, passing from farmer to exporter to wholesaler to retailer. Plenty won’t survive. What you wind up holding in your hand is less a natural wonder than a marvel of logistics and the modern global supply chain.
All of which serves as a prologue to the story of Eco House . Eco House founder Quilen Blackwell. (Patty Wetli / WTTW News)
Eco House upends pretty much everything we just told you about the flower industry. Here’s a farm with land located not in South America but the South and West sides of Chicago. Flowers are grown outdoors in the dirt on formerly vacant lots in Englewood, Woodlawn and West Garfield Park, and then sold directly to consumers.
That’s not just one but a series of seemingly quixotic choices.
Yet Eco House founder Quilen Blackwell looks at his fraction of acreage and sees not a fool’s errand but the seeds of what could be Chicago’s own Napa Valley, a thriving homegrown industry built from the ground up, one stem at a time.
“We hope we can scale this up, that one day the ghetto as we know it is gone and it becomes a place of abundance and prosperity and peace,” Blackwell said.
Here’s why the idea could actually succeed.
Eco House is part of the blossoming slow flowers movement, which sprung up in the last decade as the farm-to-vase equivalent of the farm-to-table concept. Across the country, intrepid farmers are reviving the long dormant traditions of growing flowers locally and seasonally, bringing back practices abandoned decades (and in some cases centuries) ago.
Visit one of the Eco House farms in early spring, and daffodils, hyacinths and tulips will be flowering, just as in residential gardens across Chicago, because that’s what grows well here, not hothouse exotics. Zinnias, sunflowers, lilies, dahlias and gladiolas will come later, tied to the natural rhythms of the sun and earth, not forced.
The plots are planted successively to stagger the harvest and minimize the amount of time when nothing’s in bloom — a very real downside to slow flowers in the Midwest.Blackwell calls this physical separation of farm sites “geo-diversity,” and views it as an advantage. An example is the freeze that occurred this past May. The late frost killed off all the peonies at Eco House’s Englewood lot, but Woodlawn’s survived, thanks to an ever so slightly different microclimate.“The […]