This story was originally published by Arizona Luminaria.
When Aishah Lurry makes a bouquet of fresh, desert-grown flowers for you, she wants it to look a little wild, like you just ran out back and picked it yourself.
Because that’s exactly what she did.
In the warmth of a Saturday morning, just right for sandals and summer dresses that bloom, Aishah stands in front of her pop-up flower stall outside Exo Roast Co. in Tucson. She’s wearing chunky gemstone necklaces and a floral print as vibrant as the flowers behind her, where clay vases cradle sunshiney yellow coreopsis, spindly purple Veronicas, fragrant peach roses, and dainty coral penstemon that tower above it all.
Passersby wander out from the coffee shop to marvel at the blooms. Aishah makes sure everyone stops to smell the actual roses. “They’re David Austin,” she says. “Designer roses.”
A small line forms as Aishah helps each person design a custom bouquet, offering suggestions but zero pressure. Local flowers are a gift she delights in sharing. She picked all of these fresh beauties the day before at her tiny flower farm in Patagonia, Arizona.
Located in Santa Cruz County between the Patagonia and Santa Rita mountains, the small town of Patagonia with about 800 residents, typically sees temperatures around 7 degrees cooler than Tucson. And for Aishah’s Patagonia Flower Farm, located on a wash, that gap can be even wider. In past years, she says she has woken up to frozen bird baths in the last days of May.
Aishah, now in her eighth growing season, is part of an unofficial grassroots collective of flower farmers who sow beauty in the Arizona desert. Ranging from the 18-acre Whipstone Farm near Prescott to Aishah’s plot in southeastern Arizona of just under an acre, these farmers sell fresh-cut flowers to local customers, offering a seasonal and sustainable alternative to imported bouquets.
These are hearty blooms that can handle a summer in Phoenix or the dry days preceding monsoons. The morning of Aishah’s Tucson pop-up, some of the season’s first rain clouds drift around the city’s edges, unwilling to commit.
For Aishah in the high desert of Patagonia, for the last two years, fresh-cut flower season has spanned late May through September. Though, much like fussy weather in the desert, it can change each year. Monsoons bring her blooms to life.
Flower seeds and desert farming came to Aishah when she needed to blossom.
“I felt like I needed more flowers in my life…” Aishah says. “I was feeling depressed and needed to get my hands in the soil.”
She started by selling her flowers in a health food store in Patagonia, transitioning into a subscription and delivery model at the onset of the pandemic. Now, she hosts pop-up flower bars at markets in Patagonia and Tucson, helping people build their own bouquets and selling by the stem.
People seem to pick the blossoms they need most in their lives.
Planting a dream
Aishah started Patagonia Flower Farm, to meet her own flower needs after she moved from Scottsdale to Patagonia. Suddenly, bringing beautiful flowers into her home was no longer as simple as a quick trip to a grocery store.
“In Patagonia, there were no flowers and you had to go miles for flowers,” she says. “I thought, ‘I can’t be the only one who is hungry for flowers.’”
Aishah has always loved flowers and gardening. She remembers as a child planting the carrot and radish seeds her mom gave her and the joy of sharing the harvest with friends weeks later.
“I’ve been hooked ever since then,” she says. “I never thought I would be a farmer, but I always knew I would have a garden.”
That first year of growing flowers brought abundance, and after reading a book by Floret Farm’s founder Erin Benzakein, a farmer in Washington, she realized her garden could become a business.
Her days are marked by the seasons — winter plantings, perennials blooming in the spring and finally an explosion of color during monsoon season. Patagonia Flower Farm is mostly a one-woman show, although Aishah’s husband Sebastian Lurry helps with the infrastructure, she says.
All summer long, Aishah dries the fresh flowers she does not sell, so when the season ends in the fall, she transitions to an everlasting flower bar — the same DIY bouquet experience but with dried blooms. During the winter months, she works with bulbs, fostering tulips and amaryllis.
“For years, I pre-made bouquets, but now I display the flowers and people choose the ones they want in their bouquet,” she says. “So you’re having an interaction with the flowers … and creating an experience that here in the desert we would not get.”
Christina Blodgett is a sustainable florist in the Phoenix area and owner of Urban Desert Flora. She started her business in September 2021, designing floral arrangements for weddings, showcasing local blooms whenever possible.
During the spring, summer and even fall months when Arizona blooms, she collects flowers from about 10 farms in the Phoenix area. Often, she’s packing her car with backyard-grown blooms. Many of the growers she works with use their backyards or small plots of land alongside their homes.
Stephanie Walker is one of those flower growers, using less than one-quarter acre at her Queen Creek home. She’s a Master Gardener who sells to both florists and the public. At her micro farm The Potter’s Bench she grows everything in full sun, relying on plants that she knows will tolerate the heat.
“We really can grow 365 days here,” she says. “We just plant accordingly, and people are just so surprised when they pick up a bouquet and everything is grown here.”
December to mid-February is really the only part of the year that Walker does not grow cut flowers.
Because of the range of climates in Arizona, from Patagonia to Phoenix to Paulden, something is likely to be in bloom somewhere much of the year.
For Christina, who is still figuring out what’s in bloom and when, designing with local flowers means dialoguing with farmers and driving to farms herself. She lets her clients know that going local means releasing tight color palette expectations.
“I want people to understand that flowers in the desert are a luxury, and we need to treat them like they are,” she says. “They’re worth the price because you’re supporting sustainable farming practices in your state, sustainable floristry practices and you’re supporting people in your community.”
Debra Prinzing has a name for this thoughtfulness toward seasonality and sustainability. She calls it the Slow Flowers Movement. A Seattle-based writer and advocate for American flower farming, Debra began writing about the movement about 10 years ago, borrowing concepts from the farm-to-table trend that has popularized sourcing local foods.
“At the most visceral level, I believe that flowers are more beautiful when you pick them today and design with them tomorrow,” Debra says. Beyond that, there are significant benefits to buying flowers from a local farmer, she says, especially when the majority of cut flowers sold in the United States are imported.
The Slow Flowers Movement seeks to support U.S.-grown flowers and subsequently reduce the resources consumed by packaging, refrigerating and shipping perishable flowers — a luxury for many — internationally.
Colombia and Ecuador supply the largest share of imported flowers in the U.S., according to Fairtrade America, the U.S. arm of an international certification organization that advocates for farmers and workers around the world.
“There is a heightened awareness of that transportation footprint, that flower mile,” Debra says. Alternatively, she wants to see small-scale, family farms supported, with people accepting the beauty (and limitations) of a local, seasonal bouquet.
Outside of Arizona’s cut-flower season, Christina says she looks to source flowers that are either grown domestically or have FairTrade or Rainforest Alliance certifications.
“I think there has to be this acceptance of what beauty is and what is beautiful,” Debra says. “And it takes a while for people to not want the instant gratification of a hydrangea in a January bridal bouquet.”
Arizona’s female-led Slow Flower Movement is gaining momentum.
“When flower farmers such as Aishah and Patagonia are dishing up juicy options for people when they don’t expect it, why would you want a mum from Ecuador when you could get a lisianthus from Patagonia?” Debra says.
The soils of adversity
A flower grown in Patagonia doesn’t always come easy, though. It is the desert, after all.
“This is a hostile growing environment. It’s an arid zone,” Aishah says. “The animals are a little stressed come May. The plants are a little stressed.”
Which, naturally, means the humans are a little stressed, too.
Linda Riddle grows dahlias on her flower farm Arizona Blossom Cellar in Sonoita. Doing that successfully, and without pesticides, means she is constantly battling deer, grasshoppers and other pests, shielding each bud with organza bags.
“Every seven years it seems that we have an unbelievable infestation of grasshoppers that devastate,” Aishah says. “The javelinas want in. The gophers are out of control. It’s dry. And the soil isn’t great.”
Anne LeSenne is an assistant horticulture extension agent with the University of Arizona in Pinal County. She says that one of the main challenges growers face is hard and alkaline soil.
“A lot of organic matter needs to be put back into the soil…” she says. “That’s even more important with flowers. If you’re asking a plant to produce flowers, seeds and fruit, you have to really feed that soil, because the plants take nutrients out of it.”
Watering in the right place with the right quantity also matters, she says, adding that many plants here are often overwatered by their caretakers.
To conserve water, Aishah mulches with landscape fabric, prolonging soil moisture even during the summer. And with her location in Patagonia, a pollinator hub, she avoids harsh chemicals.
“This land isn’t land that I own,” she says. “I’m using this land and I want to leave it better than it was when I got here. … We plant enough that the pollinators can enjoy the flowers, too.”
LeSenne points out that cultivating plants and flowers promotes mental and physical health for people while simultaneously creating a food source for pollinators. Bats, hummingbirds, butterflies and bees all make stops at Aishah’s flower farm.
And that’s important since Patagonia has about 500 species of different native bees and acts as a “nectar corridor,” says Francesca Claverie, native plant program manager for Borderlands Restoration Network, a Patagonia-based nonprofit that does ecological restoration on both sides of the border. Aishah is a senior fellow for Borderlands and a former employee.
“Early on, I wanted to know what native plants to incorporate into my bouquets, and I worked with them to learn that and learn how to collect seeds and clean seeds,” Aishah says.
Francesca recalls when Aishah was surveying native flowers in bloom in Borderlands’ nursery, taking photos of cut native flowers in vases.
“By far the most photos we took of her were with her favorite native plant, the little common yellow monkeyflower…” Francesca says. “It would grow as a weed in the nursery, and she would be like, ‘Take my picture next to this yellow flower!’”
Because Aishah started Patagonia Flower Farm in part as a response to depression and burnout from working long hours at a retreat center sprout house, her work in the soil has been emotional as much as it is physical.
“It was a selfish act,” she says with a laugh. “It was all about me. It was the idea of stepping out the front door and seeing a sea of color.”
And yet Aishah’s care for her own mental health positioned her to help others during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. During those uncertain months, Aishah delivered flowers to subscribers, leaving pops of color on doorsteps.
“There are people like Aishah who are creating community and meaningful connections to nature for their customers,” says Debra, founder of the Slow Flowers Society. “We saw this during COVID so much. People were cooped up in apartments and homes and couldn’t go anywhere and yearned for a connection to nature. And that might just be a bouquet.”
Shanti Rade, the owner of Whipstone Farm, an 18-acre vegetable and flower farm in Paulden near Prescott, saw this on an extreme level, when the pandemic interrupted international flower shipping.
“And simultaneously, people were trying to send flowers to people because they were sick or shut in,” she says. “It was a way to express emotion in a way you couldn’t do in person. It was a weird time. We got so many inquiries from people trying to source flowers.”
For Aishah, COVID-19 and the transition to flower deliveries brought additional worries.
“As a Black person, I didn’t want to stumble onto someone’s property who is going to be outraged that I’m there,” she says. “That’s the worst nightmare; I stand out. They’re not used to seeing me. That has been the most uncomfortable thing. And that’s only because of my fear. I haven’t had a bad experience, but it’s the fear and being cautious of going onto someone’s property who doesn’t know I’m going to be there.”
Aishah was one of 35 floral professionals from around the country featured in “Black Flora: Inspiring Black Flower Farmers + Florists” a book published earlier this year by Debra’s Bloom Imprint.
When she received the book and began reading the stories, she found community and self-compassion. She thought she was the only Black farmer-florist doing this work.
“It looks as though all the flower farmers are White, but this is in my bones, historically speaking,” Aishah says. “Even before we got to this country, we were growing in agriculture. So to hear stories from other people who are flower farmers and flower designers being in spaces and being respected, and usually the people buying from them are White, I just thought that was me. I was literally in tears. It’s not just me.”
A budding movement of mentorship and community
In Aishah’s experience, the informal network of Arizona flower farmers has been one that uplifts and supports.
Shanti Rade at Whipstone Farm has been growing flowers in Arizona since around 2002, and since then she has seen an increase in flower farms across the state, many of them small micro farms similar to Aishah’s. She keeps track of them on a spreadsheet and has documented almost 30 so far.
“I’m super supportive of trying to help new flower farmers,” says Shanti, who is also a board member for the national Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers. “We’re a very underrepresented state.”
And yet growing flowers in Arizona is nothing new. Starting in the late 1930s and early 1940s all the way until 2006, Japanese farmers and their families cultivated fields of cut flowers at the base of South Mountain in Phoenix, according to the Arizona Historical Society.
And in 2018, the Arizona Department of Agriculture reported that the state would soon produce 75 percent of the rose bushes purchased in stores across the country.
For cut flower growers, growing successfully means knowing what to plant and when — and often those planting schedules will not match the rest of the country. Sunflowers, zinnias and cosmos, for example, don’t mind the heat, Aishah says.
Finding a niche can also mean capitalizing on blooms that don’t ship well, such as poppies or zinnias, says Stephanie with The Potter’s Bench in Queen Creek.
“Wholesalers won’t carry those because they are just too delicate,” she says of poppies. “And by the time they have gone from the field to the customer, it has been way too long.”
Linda of Arizona Blossom Cellar in Sonoita mostly grows dahlias for this reason. They require a lot of work, but they also shine as a local crop.
“Flower farmers are very helpful to each other because we know that we have to help each other if we want flowers grown in the United States instead of people importing flowers,” says Linda who started growing in 2019. “We want people to know we are here, we have flowers and a lot of people do it organically or without pesticides.”
Although both Aishah and Linda grow and sell in southern Arizona, their relationship is collaborative not competitive. In fact, that seems to be the norm across the state.
Aishah considers Shanti at Whipstone Farm a mentor, while Linda feels the same way about Aishah. And while significant distance stretches between many of these farms, they connect regularly through the Instagram chat and the hashtag Arizona Cut Flower Growers, offering advice and support.
Aishah even invited Linda to sell blooms alongside her at a monthly artisan and farmers market she started in Patagonia.
“She just invites people,” Linda says of Aishah. “She is just very helpful to all businesses and very supportive.”
Francesca, native plant program manager at Borderlands Restoration Network, is also a member of the Patagonia Town Council. In Patagonia everyone knows everyone, Francesca says.
“It has been amazing to see the flower farm take off so beautifully and become one of the best advertisements and promotions for our little town…” Francesca says. “Aishah is this beacon of hope with her flowers. She has this very small micro farm that, because she doesn’t have visitors and do tours, the scale of how small and efficient the space is is lost to people.”
In full bloom
What’s impossible to miss is Aishah’s joy as her colorful stand draws attention on that Saturday morning in Tucson.
She is delighted to point out that lamb’s ear is fuzzy, just like you would expect, and the bee balms over there? Those are native.
One woman, enroute to another destination, spontaneously parks her car when she sees the flowers. Summer in Tucson is already in full swing. It’s hard to pass by this lush spray of flowers without lingering for a moment.
It surprises Aishah how much she enjoys helping people make their own bouquets at markets and pop-ups. She’s an introvert, but the flowers make it worth it.
“So often these micro flower farms are run by women,” Aishah says. “So it’s supporting other women in their business. And by supporting a local flower farm, you’re also supporting pollinators.”
Fresh cut flowers in the desert are an unexpected indulgence that also do some good. For Aishah, they have sown wellness, joy and a beautiful living. She hopes those who take her flowers home have those experiences, too. After all, many flowers do reseed.
“Everybody has memories of flowers…” Aishah says. “Flowers really make people happy. … I do believe flowers are very magical in that way.”