A movement is underway to fill some of Baltimore's 14,000 vacant lots with flower farms, where residents could grow zinnias and toad lilies and hyacinths to sell to local florists or invite the public to come pick their own bouquets.
The city's spending panel agreed Wednesday to contribute $5,000 for a consultant's study of the potential for leasing empty lots to flower farmers as an outgrowth of the farm-to-table push.
Ellen Frost, who owns Local Color Flowers in Charles Village, said she's looking for nearby growers to fill her orders and help shrink the industry's environmental footprint by using blooms that have been treated with fewer chemicals and traveled fewer miles.
"Flowers are a good option for people who are interested in farming but want to try something different or have a niche that sets them apart from food growers," Frost said. "For us, it's exciting as a viable entrepreneurial option for farmers, and to eliminate blight."
Flowers can be a good use for vacant lots that may contain pollutants from a former life and may not be suitable for growing food, advocates say. And some flowering plants can draw pollution out of the soil, helping to cleanse it for later use, said Mary Hendrickson, an assistant professor of rural sociology at the University of Missouri.
"Flowers make more money per acre than vegetable production," Hendrickson added. "I see this as a great use of space in Baltimore." She said St. Louis, Detroit and Minneapolis are among cities where abandoned spaces are being turned into flower farms.
While some vacant land is targeted for redevelopment as housing or for commercial use, the city started a push for more community gardens in 2011, said Jenny Guillaume, coordinator of the city's Growing Green Initiative. The idea is to improve blighted neighborhoods, give families access to more healthful food options and help unemployed residents earn money, she said. About a dozen fruit and vegetable farms are operating in Baltimore.
Now, Guillaume said, the city wants to figure out whether market forces are strong enough to support flower farms, which could also produce petals for perfumes, cooking and essential oils. Another option could be to allow people to stop by and pick their own bunches, the way some orchards sell hand-picked apples.
"More and more people are interested in using more local products, and that has encouraged flower farming," Guillaume said.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she's excited by the possibilities, based on reports from other cities. Chicago, she said, has a program "where they teach people how to cultivate flowers to create a fragrance. They created two or three perfumes that are very Chicago. I feel like Baltimore smells better than Chicago, and I would love for us to do that."
The Board of Estimates approved a $10,000 contract with Kristin Dawson, a former city policy analyst who runs a consulting firm that specializes in urban agriculture. The firm provides operations and project management support to a variety of businesses, Dawson said later. Half of the money for the study will come from an Abell Foundation grant.
The consultant is charged with investigating local supply and demand, establishing a working group of local stakeholders, charting lot availability, researching how to process flowers into products and identifying industry best practices, according to information presented to the Board of Estimates.
Guillaume said the consultant is expected to report back to the city by early March. The idea to explore flower farming came, in part, from an entry in a city contest to propose uses for vacant property. Walker Marsh, who works as a field manager for Baltimore's Real Food Farm, was a winner of the Growing Green Design Competition for his plan to create such a farm on a city-owned lot in the Broadway East neighborhood. Marsh, who won about $64,000 in the city contest, will lease the half-acre tract from the city.
He said he hopes the space at North Gay and North Washington streets will eventually feature benches for community gatherings, a rain garden, composting, a storage shed and flower beds blooming with marigolds and tulips and snapdragons.
"It is deeper than flowers for me," Marsh said of his passion for growing. "Once I was into it, I found I could calm myself. You have to have patience and be gentle, all the things that come with farming and gardening."
Marsh said he wants to sell bouquets at the site, provide arrangements for weddings and special occasions, wholesale his flowers to local florists and partner with farmers' market vendors.
Baltimore has at least one flower farm. Maya Kosok, coordinator for the Farm Alliance of Baltimore City, started Hillen Homestead near Clifton Park in Northeast Baltimore about 21/2 years ago. The city's decision to explore flower farms on a larger scale only makes sense, she said.
"Sustainable agriculture and urban agriculture have been gaining momentum in the last decade or two, and I have certainly been inspired by a lot of great examples in Baltimore and elsewhere," Kosok said.
Kosok said she will make about $10,000 this year on her flower farm. Most of the sales are to Frost's Local Color Flowers, she said.
Frost, who buys all her flowers within a 100-mile radius of Baltimore, opened her flower shop in 2008. This year, she's made arrangements for 85 weddings and dozens of special events, she said.
She recently started convening a small group of potential flower farmers to talk about techniques, share stories and network.
"We started to understand for us to have a sustainable business model, we needed to have more flower farms in our pool and more closer to home," she said.
Kosok said what she doesn't sell, she gives away, dropping off bouquets to neighbors and handing them out to people walking by.
"For me, urban agriculture is partly about growing things and producing things," she said. "But it's partly about building community and using vacant spaces and empowering people to feel invested in their neighborhood."
Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.