An Artist's Green Thumb
A living palette, one that grows and blossoms, wilts and varies in temporal beauty is the creative outlet of painter and farmer Jessica Weatherhead, co-owner of Roots and Shoots farm in Manotick, Ont. An artist by nature, this farm girl’s flower patch began as just an artistic reprieve from the non-stop demands of vegetable farming. “It’s hard for me to hole myself up in the studio when the sun is shining and there’s work to do,” says Weatherhead. And, what is an entrepreneurial- spirited, green-thumbed, leather-working, jewellery-making, painter girl to do? It’s a bit of an unexpected combination: art and farm. Indulgence meets necessity. But Weatherhead’s eye for beauty combined with an artistic touch with basically anything that crosses her path is gracing her with a budding presence in the Ottawa flower business.
Roots and Shoots is mainly an organic vegetable farm. Now in its sixth season, it is a familiar, friendly stop at the Ottawa and Manotick farmers’ markets and a popular CSA. It was at the markets that Weatherhead began selling some of her flower bouquets and garnering attention. “People who claim to not be that interested in flowers will comment on them.” That’s because they are different. Seriously, the girl can make kale and grass look as romantic as roses. “I wanted to prove you could make beautiful arrangements from all the weird and wonderful things I was pulling from the flower patch,” she says.
This appreciation for the weird and wonderful harkens back to her past. Born in Brisbane, Australia, to a farming family, Weatherhead remembers her grandmother tending a lush flower-garden that, to her mind, “was magical” and reminiscent of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beloved tale “The Secret Garden.” When she was 10 years old, the family made the transcontinental trek to her mother’s homeland: Canada. They settled in Iroquois, Ont. and, despite the comparative challenges of farming in the Canadian climate, the family eagerly took to the soil, working the land to sell vegetables at the local farmers’ markets.
Now in her own flower patch, zinnias and snapdragons are some of her favourite flowers to use. “They are workhorses in the garden, they don’t need pampering and they bloom forever.” She uses cosmos to add a touch of elegance and is keen on bringing in more peonies. Weatherhead has a commitment to the homegrown movement and the self taught ability to make a stunning bouquet with flowers and fillers grown naturally (without the use of any pesticides) in the short flower-growing season. These are flowers you can safely put your nose into. It’s not a common train of thought when on the receiving end of a bouquet of flowers, but it’s an unfortunate reality: most of the flowers sold from Canadian florists are from South America, where pesticide laws are vastly different from Canadian standards. “Really,” says Weatherhead, “the flower industry is just so bad for the environment.” There is an obscene amount of packaging required to ship flowers globally without damaging them and maintaining the freshly picked look, not to mention the emissions produced by lengthy travel.
By contrast, Roots and Shoots picks its flowers in the morning, puts them in a bucket of water and delivers them that afternoon. Customers are always commenting on how long the flowers stay fresh in their homes — making it worth paying a little more for the local product. It makes sense that the next phase of “buy local” would move into the flower industry. The slow flower movement is beginning to catch on across the U.S. for the same reasons that Weatherhead is trying to promote it here: it is better for the environment, is great for the health of the bee pollinators and it is so much better for the worker’s health. Because her flowers don’t need to travel long distances, she can offer varieties that are a bit more unique in a floral bouquet, such as poppies, sweet peas, stock and dahlias. Her fillers are even less commonly used and include such varieties as sweet annie, bupleurum, and cerinthe, to name but a few.
While customers are thrilled at the sight of her finished bouquets, she faces a larger hurdle trying to sell these flowers to many florists who are not sure what to do with her plants. She has found some kindred spirits amongst Ottawa florists at Sparrow Floral Design, Story & Rose Floral Studio and blumenstudio, all of whom support and carry her product. Grocers, such as the West End Well and Mckeen’s Metro on Bank St., also sell her flowers. “Florists, like any business, need consistency… They have brides and event planners approaching them six months to a year in advance with colour schemes,” Weatherhead explains. Balancing demand with the short growing season and the inability to store flowers and sell in the off-season (like vegetables) presents quite a challenge. Understanding this business has been a study for her and she has successfully managed to break into the market, selling out every year.
The team at Roots and Shoots is hoping to see this side of the business continue to grow so they can invest in more perennials and additional greenhouses to be used exclusively for flowers, thereby extending the season. Weatherhead beams in gratitude as she explains how supportive her team on the farm has been. “Sometimes it feels indulgent. I am a farm girl through and through, but what’s the point in living if we can’t appreciate art and colour, smells and all those non-essential but essential things?”
Roots and Shoots Farm
1034 Manotick Station Rd., Manotick, ON
rootsandshootsfarm.com, jessweatherhead.com 613.822.4522