Sarah Winward is a Salt Lake City-based floral designer and stylist whose work takes her to beautiful destinations all over the world. Sarah and her seasonally-inspired design work have been featured widely in popular magazines and websites including Traditional Home, Better Homes and Gardens, Kinfolk, Snippet and Ink, Ruffled, Martha Stewart’s The Bride Guide, Style Me Pretty and many others. I’ve personally been inspired by her beautiful, organic design style and have been an admirer of her work for some time. I’m thrilled that Sarah agreed to share more about herself and her work with our blog readers.
Erin: You are based in Salt Lake City, but offer your services all over the country—and all over the globe. Do you grow any or many of your own flowers? Or do you have a few local growers you work with in your area?
Sarah: I have an ample sized garden at home that I clip from when I see things I want, but I don’t have large quantities of anything, and it is mostly a graden I have for pleasure and not for cutting purposes. I have a zinnia-cutting garden I keep during the summer outside of my studio. But I find that I am not good at keeping a cutting garden. I am like a five year old with sticks…I don’t want to use them because then I know they will be gone. So I save them…till they die and then I regret not cutting them.
There is really only one grower in Utah (that I know of), Tom from Happy Trowels Farm. And I do buy what I can from him! We have a short season and live in an environment that can be fairly hostile to flowers so the selection can be limited. I source most of my flowers from California, directly from growers and through wholesalers. There are several other farms spread across the US that I also work with directly, I prefer working directly with farms but I like the convenience of ordering through a wholesaler because I get a large selection of things in one stop.
Erin: What percentage of work involves destination weddings (at least destinations, for you!) versus local Salt Lake-area weddings? For weddings in far-flung places, I would imagine sourcing flowers is more than half the fun. Do you rely on directories or referrals or how do you go about sourcing flowers for destination weddings?
Sarah: I travel for about 80% of my work. If I am near a market or growers that I know I will get what I can from them. I’ll pack whatever rental car I have to the gills with flowers so that I can’t even see any other passengers in the car (usually my almost two year old) or feel my legs because they have a flower box underneath them for a three hour drive if I have to. (And I do have to, this is a regular occurrence)
Otherwise, I have my flowers shipped to where I am working on the wedding. I actually work the same when traveling as I do at home. We don’t have a flower market in Utah so I have most everything shipped to me anyways. It is always a risk to have things shipped. It is certainly more nerve wracking when I travel, because I am in a foreign place and devising back-up plans is more difficult. I am also often working in remote places and so there seem to be issues with Fed Ex finding where I am working. But, I have learned all of the magic words to use with Fed Ex to make them suddenly find my boxes and get them to me in an instant. Or to reroute them if they are late, etc. etc. There is a lot of red tape in the shipping world with “guarantees” and whatnot. But I feel I could write a handbook now.
I love being able to forage when I travel for weddings. I love new environments and love using the colors and textures that are fitting in the place I am working. Since I live in a desert pretty much everywhere I go feels like a really lush oasis to me. Therefore, I forage a lot when I am on the road. I hardly ever purchase foliage.
Erin: You just started offering all kinds of design classes, plus I saw you’re offering a two-day private floral business intensive class. What was the best bit of business advice you were given as you got started? Any business-related programs, apps or books you can’t live without?
Sarah: This is hard to answer in a couple of paragraphs. In a nutshell, here is my business advice: As a creative person who didn’t actually mean to start a business, can’t do math to save anyone’s life, and still does my bookkeeping in a word document with a calculator because .xcel frustrates me….I’d tell you that you should learn everything by personal experience. I didn’t know anything about the wedding industry or designing flowers until I did it. I had never made a bouquet or a boutonniere in my life before I started doing it for people’s weddings. I just had to invent the way I did everything because that is all I knew. I wouldn’t necessarily say this is the best way to start a business…but that is how I did it. You can learn so many things by working for someone that you admire! I learned so many lessons the hard way, and know it would have been easier had I done research before I jumped in. But, some things you really do have to learn things for yourself.
The flower & wedding industry are quick paced and there are so many variables in them. You have to be ready to take any curve ball that could be thrown at you. These could be small things, or really huge things. Be ready to roll with all of them and make it work. You won’t sleep, you will work 18 hour days for half of the year, you probably won’t make any money at first, you wont see your family as much as you’d like to, sometimes your flowers will die and sometimes you will feel like you are going to too….so make sure that you love flowers enough to make all of this worth it.
If you are not good at budgeting (ha), have someone who is stricter than you are watch over you while you purchase. Hire people based on their strengths, and let them be in charge of that thing. Make good vendor relationships. Inquiries from the internet will only get you so far, you need to have lasting relationships and a good reputation to get repeat business.
Erin: You just came back from a seven day course in Beijing China. I’m so curious to hear more about it! How did the trip come about?
Sarah: The course I taught was at a school in Beijing that teaches lots of courses in interior design, fashion, visual merchandising, etc. They just opened a flower division last fall. They reached out and asked if I wanted to come out and teach! I didn’t think it was a real thing until I had a phone conference with them and it felt like a fun opportunity. So, I went! I had a great group of talented students eager to learn. It was an amazing experience, and was really the first time I had taught a proper class. I loved watching people discover how to express themselves with flowers, and it made me want to teach more.
Erin: How are flowers viewed or valued in Chinese culture? Do they grow most of their own flowers commercially or in small gardens? Is there any local flower movement to speak of?
Sarah: I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of flowers at the Beijing market! I am probably not too hard to please because I don’t have a market at home, but I had a great time choosing flowers to use. They grow A LOT of roses, lilies, and carnations. About 2/3 of the market is filled with these flowers. But while I was there in April it was the perfect season for flowers so I bought a lot of local ranunculus, Solomon seal leaves, garden roses, lilac, peonies, blooming branches, delphinium, nigella, tulips, and more! They have a fair amount of product imported from Holland too, so you can get a lot of really wonderful things there if you order a head of time.
Erin: What floral design supplies are in your suitcase for every trip you take? Anything you can’t leave home without?
Sarah: Felco clippers, a victorinox knife, chrysal flower food, chicken wire, a staple gun, fishing line, and zip ties.
Erin: You incorporate a lot of seasonal materials and into your work. Do you do a lot of foraging? Or– as fellow destination floral designer Ariella Chezar calls it –“civic pruning”? I recently confessed to “rescuing” a few lonely lilacs. Any great capers you’d care to confess to or share?
Sarah: I forage a lot. I dress in all black and take my cargo van at night, and I usually call it hunting. “I am going hunting”. I rarely buy foliage, I just forage it from places where no one will notice. Usually I forage from things that don’t “belong” to someone, they are trees off the side of the road in wide open spaces, rose bushes hanging over the freeway walls, or the grasses out in the utah deserts. If it is something I know no one will care about I will shamelessly clip in broad daylight on the side of the road.
A lady scolded me once when I clipped a zinnia from a shopping center parking lot. I don’t usually do that, but I did, and she yelled at me about it.
My favorite foraging story from my first year of doing flowers where I took more risks than I do now and got really nervous to clip anything:
Once I went on a two-hour hike in the mountains to get some blooming vine I had seen there a few days previous. It is illegal to cut wildflowers in the mountains here. I was really nervous, because the fines if I were caught would be astronomical because they supposedly charge per stem. I hiked to the vines, made sure no one was crossing the path, and then frantically cut what I wanted. I shoved them in my backpack and then nervously walked down the trail. I got scared every time I passed another hiker because the vines were hanging out of my backpack. I doubt they cared but I swear every one of them was glaring at me. I got to my car parked at the trailhead and there was a ranger parked next to my car. I waited ‘til he wasn’t looking and shoved the backpack onto the floor in the car. Then I drove away and put the flowers into the bucket I had on the floor in front of the passenger seat. On my drive down the canyon I saw another ranger driving up the canyon and we made eye contact, I swear he slowed down as we were making eye contact and my heart started beating really fast. Did they know?! Was I going to get caught?! I passed another police officer on his way up the canyon, and he actually immediately pulled over to the side of the road after he saw me and said something into his walkie. It was very obvious that he was looking for me and had pulled over because I passed him. I was completely freaked out. There are never rangers or police in the canyon, I had seen three, and all were acting strange.
I pulled over and clipped some grasses. (These ones were just regular grasses, no one cares about them, but in hindsight I am shocked that I did it while I was worried about being caught for the other flowers I had clipped). I was still really nervous, I could tell that my face was flushed and my heart was working at double speed. One more ranger passed me. I finally got to the gate where you pay your fee for going through the canyon, and there was an officer standing outside of it waving me down. This was it. I was going to get fined or jailed and my career was over. I could hardly breath as I threw my jacket the flower bucket in a futile attempt to cover any evidence. I pulled up to the officer and rolled down my window. He looked around in the car, looked at me.
Officer: “Did you just come from the trail?”
Me: “Yes, the Mt. Aire trail”
My mind was racing. I was just trying to think of excuses I could use, lies I could tell about how I didn’t cut them, or calculate how much the fine would be for cutting thirty stems.
Officer: “Ok.” (He paused, awkwardly looked to the right) “Well we are looking for a flasher.”
Me: (long pause). “I don’t know what that is….?” In that moment my brain was clearly fried. I had no idea what he was talking about. A flasher? Like a construction thing with a light on it? Someone stole one and they are looking for it? No, that can’t be what he means…a flasher?
Officer: (with a smirk on his face). You know, a flasher? We had reports that there was a female flasher on the trail. (And he made the motion of a female lifting up her shirt)
Me: (very seriously) “Oh, it wasn’t me.”
Then I drove away.
I had to wait for a few minutes to let my adrenaline calm down. And then I realized how ridiculous I was, and couldn’t stop laughing for the rest of the day. Actually, it’s been three years and I am still laughing about it. I can’t believe that I asked an officer what a flasher was.
EB: I’m curious, are there any flowers you absolutely won’t use?
Sarah: There are flowers I don’t like, and will probably never use. But, Not sure that there is anything I absolutely won’t ever ever use in a certain circumstance.
Erin: What about any flowers that other designers or brides are gaga over, but you’re kind of like, “meh” ? ( I’m kind of that way about orchids. I don’t get why people are so excited about them. Why can’t they get excited about flowering basil or heirloom chrysanthemums instead?!)
Sarah: I really don’t like pincushion protea. I just don’t get them. They always look misplaced in arrangements. But I visited a protea farm in New Zealand and thought that they looked beautiful on the bush!
Erin: What’s next on the horizon for you? Any exciting new projects or final thoughts you’d care to share?
Sarah: After this weekend I start a mid-season break that I gave myself. 7 weeks with no weddings! I need to reboot, get creatively inspired, and enjoy the most beautiful time in the Utah mountains with my family before I jump back into the wedding madness again.