Adventures of a Flower Designer
Canadian flower grower and floral designer Christin Geall has an exquisite taste that has been able to carry around the world. She cultivated a garden at age 24 and she was "resident florist" at Cambo State House, Scotland, last Fall
Christin Geall is not the typical flower designer. She was a young woman who was protected by a famous herbalist and cultivated her first garden on a remote island. Then she left the floriculture for another passion: non-fiction literature. Over the years she returned to the field to grow flowers and has a studio in the city of Victoria, British Columbia. Cultivated by Christin is the blog where she tells of his latest adventures.
The Luxonomist: You are a master of color and design. Did this come to you instinctively or through persistence?
Christin Geall: Thank you! A few years ago I signed up for a colour theory course, and for three months blended colours and painted tiny pieces of paper. It was incredibly challenging, like yoga for the senses, stretching me to actually ‘see’. I tend to be drawn to analogous schemes in my floral work and aim for harmony, not disruption. But when I look at pictures of interiors, playful wallpapers, and dramatic historic spaces, I’m drawn to bravado. Today I met with a bride who wants to hang fake peacocks in trees. To paraphrase Ariella Chezar, “take the work you don’t think you’ll like. It will push you creatively.” As for my designs, I do believe in persistence, in practice. I have flowers available in my garden, so I can run out and snip the right thing, colour or shape as I work. That’s certainly a luxury. I try to create something beautiful every day—be it a sentence, a photograph, or an arrangement.
TL: You worked with herbalist Heidi Schmidt in Massachusetts when you were young. What was so special about your work there?
CG: Our relationship was (and is) still special to me. Heidi took me under her wing when I was nineteen and mentored me in the long tradition women’s healing. Plus Martha’s Vineyard—an island off the coast of Massachusetts—is simply idyllic. Every summer throughout college, I’d garden all day, do the flowers, make potions, cook with herbs, and skinny dip at night.
TL: What led you to a remote island in British Columbia at age 24 to develop your first garden?
CG: Big question! Knowing one’s desire, the perennial yank of heart. I did not possess this skill when I was younger, when I was still navigating life on instinct. Which is precisely how, at age twenty-four, with more air miles than sense, I found myself looking at real estate on a tiny island with a winter population of sixty. I believed that my mother would have approved of me using her money for a back-to-the-land experience. The newspaper ad described the place as ‘Canada’s Caribbean’. The island was rustic, if not romantic; it had no electricity or running water. I wanted a big bright sky like Martha´s Vineyard, a vast beach, and here it was—a broad swath of south-facing white sand, a bay of silver, beige and blue. Ohh, I thought. Beauty can justify whatever you’re going to do next. Justification was required: In the five years since my mom had died, I’d spent most of my inheritance travelling. I had to stop myself from spending it all by spending it all—on land.
TL: Name three principles learned from Zita Elze?
CG: At Zita Elze in London, I learned: 1. Live in a major city if you want to work with architecture and art in a serious way; 2. No detail is too small; 3. Connect the dots—art does not exist without context and floral design is shaped by political, economic and environmental forces.
TL: And from Erin Benzakein (Floret)?
CG: Erin is a wonderful teacher and her passion for growing inspiring. The three days I spent at Floret changed me. I learned firstly to honour the gifts I had and shape my business towards those talents; how important marketing is and how to use social media to create community and reach customers; and the importance of not underselling myself or the flowers I grow.
TL: You are a flower farmer and a florist. Which is the best and the worst of both professions?
CG: The best part of flower farming is watching a flower you have sown and tended finally bloom. Double that joy if it’s a plant new to you. I will never tire of that magic: it’s soulful work. The trickiest part of flower farming has been pricing my product, ensuring I’m making a fair rate per stem. As a florist, best part is being called upon to convey emotion with plants. The worst part is being an actual florist. I don’t think people have much respect for the profession, consider it trite, feminine, or somehow lacking intelligence and therefore diminish the work. I try to use the term ‘floral design’ over floristry as a result. These views are changing, but it’s slow going.
TL: How was your experience being a ‘florist in residence’ in Scotland? Did you just knock the door?
CG: I wrote a great proposal letter. Long have writers and artists been supported by creative residencies to develop new work. Cambo State hosts visiting gardeners, so I thought floral design might fit, straddle that space between interiors and exteriors, bridge the domestic to the wild. I made something new every day, explored and identified plants, stretched myself creatively to design historically, helped in the garden a bit, and scouted locations around the estate daily. The work I do requires a sophisticated gardener, a designer, and a photographer. (I don’t count the writer but I should, I suppose). Having those professions perform at optimum levels for five days straight was harder than I thought.
TL: Do you know any other place in the world where you can be a ‘florist in residence’?
CG: Yes, the Villa Lena in Tuscany.
TL: Which garden or park you would you like to visit?
CG: This is entirely ecologically irresponsible but I’d like to do floral/botanical tours of Japan, Morocco, and South Africa, looking at both wild and cultivated places. (In fact, I’d love to lead/plan/organize such trips. So send me an email if you’re inclined!).
TL: If you could visit one garden in history, what would it be?
CG: I’d love to have been at The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew during the great age of botanical exploration in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Not many women were of course, but it must have been a tremendously exciting time.
TL: Which garden and flower books you recommend?
CG: I love (and teach) narrative nonfiction so with that in mind: Beverley Nichols, an amusing English writer who wrote gardening books in the 1940s; Molly Peacock’s The Paper Garden, an exceptional book about an 18th century woman in her 70s discovering the art of botanical collage; Still Life With Oysters and Lemon by Mark Doty which isn’t about flowers but is about seeing. If I had to pick one great how-to flower book it would be Sarah Raven’s The Cutting Garden. I met her recently at Perch Hill and she is still discovering new flowers for use in design.
TL: What would be your advice to a florist-to-be?
CG: Do the math. Can you afford to be an artist? If you can, then specialize, find a niche, aim high with your education, and really go for it. Don’t settle. Take classes on business. If you can’t afford to be a florist now, find a second job to support yourself while you grow into the trade. And garden or volunteer at a botanical garden. Learn about plants. The worldwide WWOOF program (Workers on Organic Farms) is fantastically accessible.
TL: You have botanical knowledge, a gift with words and photographer’s eye. When is your flower book coming out?
CG: Hah! I did make a deal with myself that if I hit 10K followers on Instagram I’d approach a Canadian agent with a proposal. But I’m not there yet, and frankly I probably need 100K followers these days.
*Photographs by Christin Geall.