Today I am so excited to welcome a very, very special guest to the blog. The one and only Ariella Chezar!
Ariella has inspired thousands of designers around the world to seek out seasonal material and approach the art of floral design in a natural, loose and truly beautiful way. It was Ariella who helped inspire my own floral journey and she has been a constant source of inspiration and encouragement along the way. I was lucky enough to attend one of her INCREDIBLE floral design workshops last spring at Chalk Hill Clematis and it was a total game changer for me. If you ever have the opportunity to study with Ariella, jump on it! I can’t recommend the experience highly enough.
So, without further delay let’s dive into the interview, shall we?
Erin: You’ve been involved in the floral design industry for a while now. How has the industry changed? What are some of the trends you’re seeing recently?
Ariella: Though easily in it’s 10th year by now, the wild, abundant, foraged approach to designing is still going strong. As well, the “farmer florist” trend, for which we have yourself, Jennie Love, Debra Prinzing and a handful of others to thank is by far the most interesting. To be sure there is an undisputed connection between the two. As designers began to open their eyes and begin to create their own garden style arrangements, their thirst for unusual materials brought them to begin growing what the wanted. 10, 15 years ago all the amazing elements we have access to now were seldom to be seen at the wholesale markets. It’s all quite thrilling.
Erin: As you know, I’m a huge local, seasonal flower advocate. I’m definitely seeing some serious momentum with the local flower movement, are you? What is your perception? Do you think it has lasting power?
Ariella: Absolutely, and we all owe you and the aforementioned others so much gratitude for initiating this movement. For anyone who loves flowers or has their eyes open at all there is nothing more logical than using what is in season and grown in close proximity. Flowers grown in season are bursting with life force in a way that the others just aren’t. I was in Holland in April with the New York Flower School and honestly, all I had eyes for were the tulips, the fritillarias, the hyacinths, the muscari- I didn’t even want to look at a rose! Honestly, it’s thanks to the seasons that we get to totally revel in a flower for a few weeks and then move on to the next.
I was speaking with another floral designer friend the other day at the NY market, Jeff Pennington about this. We were both in this rabid peony frenzy, couldn’t get enough. And then by the time peony season is over, we’re over peonies! Just because you can get most anything all the time, doesn’t mean you should. And local seems so obvious too. Freshness is everything. That being said, when it’s spring and we’re still twiddling our thumbs in the Northeast waiting for the snow to melt, I do get my flowers from Holland, and they are, for better or worse, magnificent.
Erin: You’ve recently opened a new retail store in Manhattan and bought a 90-acre farm in upstate New York to grow your own flowers— and you’ve done all this while maintaining your schedule of teaching your phenomenal sold-out workshops plus doing floral design work for weddings all over the country. Holy smokes! Tell me more about the path and your decision to buy a 90-acre farm to grow your own flowers.
Ariella: I have always grown my own flowers on a small scale on the land that I grew up on. My mother had beautiful gardens, and I’ve added to them as the years have passed. Pretty much without fail, if I’m working through a bridal bouquet (the most rewarding, but often also the most excruciating at times!) I will always wander outside for inspiration. There will always be a sprig of something, or an unexpected bloom that makes all the difference, and is exactly what I needed.
I have always wanted to be able to grow everything that I love to use, and the specific varieties that are harder to come by. It’s flower greed really- (something you clearly don’t know anything about!) this insatiable appetite for beauty, for color, for magical flowers in all their many forms. That was the starting place, lust I suppose. Add to this the unsavory truth about the majority of the growing practices of this industry. The idea that I can make a difference, even a small one, even as I continue to support the dark side of that industry, gives me some solace.
My husband Chris’ and my intention with Zonneveld Farm, (named after my mother’s maiden name which translates to “Sunny Field” ) is to supply my shop within season, supply my events and supply my fellow flower designers whenever possible. Eventually, my plan is to create a place where people can come, harvest from the land and learn to design with what we’ve just harvested.
Erin: What have you been planting on your farm? What varieties are you particularly excited about growing?
Peonies- the singles particularly
Hydrangea Little LIme
Japanese Anemones (several colors)
Fritillaria (several varieties)
Helleborous (several varieties)
Edible peas on the vine
Chinese Forget me nots (though I killed those starts!)
Love in a puff
Dahlias, and I dare say the ones you sent me are coming along marvelously!
Erin: What’s been the biggest surprise about the process of flower farming so far?
Ariella: How anxious it makes me! Perhaps I should cut myself a little slack, but I want every crop to be a huge success and I’m terrified that none of them will be! When I discovered hundreds of happily blooming fritillaria meleagris upon my return from Holland it made me unspeakably happy. If nothing else produces anything, I will be able to take great satisfaction in that moment of discovery. The tulips have been glorious, and the narcissus too. And in truth, it’s really Chris who took this on with unparalleled gusto and skill, from scoring a few abandoned greenhouses, to making gigantic glorious piles of compost, to milling the locust fence posts, researching all the equipment and implements. I may have had the vision and chosen the particular varieties, but without him and the people that have helped us, there would be no farm. It is an awe inspiring amount of work to keep up with, and I have the deepest respect for everyone who has chosen to do this.
Erin: Tell me a little more about your retail store in Manhattan. How is it different than a traditional florist shop?
Ariella: It’s not really that different at all. It IS a traditional florist shop! It is located in Tudor City which is this quiet little verdant enclave tucked away between first and second avenues in Midtown Manhattan on a cul de sac with a beautiful park across the way. The space is lovely- small but so pretty. A corner shop with beautiful leaded windows. We have walk ins, do daily deliveries and events. I love the pace and the flurry. After being deep in mom mode for the past six years, it’s a pleasure to step out into the world again in this way.
Erin: You spent part of your childhood in Holland, am I right? Has your exposure to Europe’s rich flower culture influenced your design aesthetic and approach to your business?
Ariella: Yes, off and on. Dutch was my first language and I spent all my life surrounded by my mother and her art school friends and the marvelous things they made- the colorful, way they lived their lives. My godfather was a gifted painter and super aesthete. From all of them, and my mother particularly, I learned that to surround yourself with beauty is essential. Not elitist, not superficial, but essential. Perhaps this isn’t the case for everyone, but for better or worse, it is essential for me.
Being in Holland and seeing the vast scope of the floral industry is staggering. The Dutch have growing down, to be sure, and flowers are a daily part of everyone’s life. You would never visit a friend without a bundle of flowers. They are everywhere, and not expensive. Likely even taken for granted. I’ve noticed that Dutch floral design can be a bit odd. Art is held in such high esteem in Holland (for years artists have been generously supported by the government though less so now) and perhaps because flowers are so ubiquitous, juicy abundant “Dutch Masters” arrangements seem to be sort of passe. Instead you see lots of “flower art” which always feels a bit self conscious and tortured to me. That being said, the flower shops themselves are magnificent. The plants, are particularly amazing, and instill all sorts of envy as I would so love to be able to have access to them.
Erin: Any new floral materials you’ve discovered recently that made you gasp and say “I MUST grow this at the farm!”
Ariella: Always hungry for the new, I am noticing Martagon lilies for the first time this year. Also, a mauvy green lilac that took my breath away. There are also these frizzly frazzly blush carnations that I saw the other day at the Dutch Flower Line that I thought were fabulous.
Erin: You do floral design work on both coasts, which I imagine is quite the logistical feat! What supplies or tools of the trade always make their way in your suitcase so that you never leave home without them? How do you go about flower sourcing when doing destination events? Do you have a particular philosophy or strategy?
Ariella: I pride myself in being able to source fabulous materials no matter where I am. My first rule of thumb is to reach out to local growers and farms. For things to look right, they should come “of the place”. I’ve also become very comfortable with going up to people’s houses, knocking on the door and asking to buy whatever beautiful something they may have blooming in their front yard. It’s surprising how friendly and enthusiast most people are when asked. Generally though, it’s always a combination of shipping a few things in and sourcing what I can from the destination.
Erin: I love following you on Instagram. I particularly love some of the hashtags you’ve used, like #flowerlustknowsnobounds and #civicpruning. If I remember right, the latter was in the caption of a photo of a massive armload of breathtakingly beautiful camellias. I’ve been known to do some foraging for floral materials from time to time. Care to share any of your most memorable foraging expeditions?
Ariella: About 18 years ago I needed clematis armandii. There was none to be had at the SF market. I’d seen loads of it at Golden Gate park, and so to Golden Gate park I went at 4:30 in the morning and foraged to my hearts content. Totally illegal, totally dangerous! as there are so many homeless people living in that park, but there it was, #flowerlustknowingnobounds and I was not thinking sanely.
My favorite memory though, and clearly an early indication of my nascent flower fever- my sister and I were driving along the Taconic parkway. I was a teenager then. There was a field of something blooming, though I don’t remember what it was, only that it was so beautiful we had to stop and pick some. A state trooper pulled over, large, hulking, and began shouting “There’s no… picking… flowers!” and by the time he got to the word “flowers” his voice softened and he began to smile at how ridiculously blustery he sounded. Then he quietly admonished us about it being dangerous to pull back onto the road. I treasure that memory.
Erin: Lastly, what’s your vision for the future of the floral design industry and the rise of the farmer-florists?
Ariella: My hope is that it grows, and grows. To see all the designers out there who are creating such glorious work is an indication to me that the future will only become brighter and brighter. It’s thrilling really. And while styles come and go, I suspect this one will be around for a while yet.
Erin: Thank you again so much for so generously giving of your time and your expertise. And thank you for supporting the local flower movement by leading by example. You have been a tremendous influence on my own career and I so appreciate you as a teacher, mentor and friend.
Ariella: And I appreciate the role that you have played Erin. You are such an inspiration, and truly a huge part of me feeling that I could also grow my own flowers. You amaze us all. Thank you for all that you do.