Thursday, June 5, 2014

Bay Area Visit 2014: FLORA GRUBB

If there's a name that's stood out in the last few years in terms of innovative garden trends, Flora Grubb is probably on top my list.

A few years ago, I remember sitting down for lunch with a landscape architect friend who was starting up his own design-build business and told me about a vertical garden project he was working on utilizing succulents. Part of me sort of rolled my eyes as I began to see EVERYONE growing succulents and purchasing all these new (and expensive!) products like Wooly Pockets ( felt-like bags filled with soil and plants that can hang along a railing or placed up against a wall). The early plantings I saw in garden centers were very ugly as if people simply just shoved whatever plant they were told could grow in them.

Then I began to notice garden centers carrying more air plants (Tillandsias). Next to them were these glass orbs (some hanging on a fishing line) with a large hole in them and inside was a Tillandsia and a piece of moss or lichen and a few twigs. These were dubbed as "Aeriums" like "Terrarium", but without the "terra" or "earth" part of it. I thought they were kind of neat, but seemed to be somewhat of a temporary composition as air plants can be somewhat finicky in the home if they don't get enough warmth and humidity, but enclosing them in a terrarium-like glass vessel was suppose to just do the trick!

So, during our chat, we discussed our businesses and he introduced me to the name Flora Grubb as a model of success in our line of work and that in order to thrive as a landscape business, we had to really find a need in the market and really push for that ever illusive "niche". Being somewhat reluctant to follow any sort of trend while simply focusing on the work I had before me, the name just kept coming up as I chat with fellow gardeners and designers.

The name is actually the name of a very talented and innovative young woman who teamed up with a business partner, Saul Nadler, to first start a palm nursery and they decided to take her name and start a venture that would change the course of how people looked at plants in their lives.

So, there's a floral design component to this blog post as well. Susie Nadler, Saul's wife, runs the floral component of Flora Grubb and, once again, the clever and beautiful use of succulents and Tillandsia are evident and actually inspired my design work quite a bit.

Michelle's wedding featuring Tillandsias in a really sophisticated bouquet inspired by Susie's work!

After all the hoopla and press I've heard about this business venture, I truly wanted to experience the phenomenon that is Flora Grubb for myself and MAYBE meet her in person to better understand the model she has created and, perhaps, discover elements of her business structure that attracts the next generation of gardeners.

Here are some highlights from my visit this past April:

A popular destination in an industrial part of San Francisco, Flora Grubb provides an oasis for city dwellers to relax and take in a bit of nature

Ideas and inspiration can be found everywhere you turn

Amazing what can be accomplished in such a small space. It feels huge!

Rotating displays of plants and containers keep things looking fresh and the wide paths invite you to explore

F L O R A spelled out in succulents!

"Rustic chic" with a living centerpiece....

...of succulents!

A colorful and modern sitting area

...with the best succulent wall I've ever seen!

Flora Grubb has DIY benches for customers to pot up containers and create aeriums! Love this idea!

The wonderful Tillandsia selection. I had a chance to meet Zenaida Sengo who works for FG and also has a book coming up on air plants!

Tillandsia concolor looking stunning up against a purple panel!

FG has everything an urban gardener needs! Even old bicycles for floating!

Now this is how you plant up those Wooly Pockets! Make it look like it's been growing there forever!

It's not all just succulents and air plants. Perennials, trees and shrubs and edibles can be found!

Todd Holloway of Pot Inc. in Vancouver, BC introduced these hover dishes this year and are perfect for succulents

 Overall impression of the place? Pretty cool!

I think Flora Grubb satisfies a pretty broad customer base that's really geared to be simple, sophisticated, creative and most importantly, accessible. I often am critical of small "Boutiquey" shops that have very high mark-ups claiming a "work of art" for something so simple and straightforward, but that's coming from a experienced plant-person point of view who's also a tightwad when it comes to things that are considered "luxury items". I was a bit sticker-shocked at some of the prices on materials that were simply "sanded down twigs for $25), but that's retail for you; they understand that there are those who are more than willing to pay for such items.

The space and layout is the best part of Flora Grubb. Wonderful plants all around, but there are distinct garden rooms and places to sit and really be immersed in the vegetated space.

Knowing Flora is probably near impossible to track down for a chat given the celebrity status a lot of us have given her, I got in touch with their PR and also palm specialist (AGAIN, WITH A BOOK IN THE WORKS ON THE TOPIC!), Jason Dewees, who kindly set up a short meet and greet and took this picture!

Being on a tight schedule, I was bummed not to get a sit-down interview with her to ask about her design aesthetic, business model and what she foresees as the future of gardening, but I sort of let that go. Part of me felt like she's been asked this a million times and I didn't come prepared with more interesting insights and inquiries. She also didn't have much time so, I thought, I just need the experience of just being there, making my own observations and this meet and green was just an icing on the cake! 

Then I began to wonder if a model like Flora's could exist here in Seattle. It sort of does, in a way, with a few businesses deriving elements of her set up and offering products similar to hers, but one has to consider location and also the CLIMATE! They're blessed with a true Mediterranean climate so the plant palette is quite different, but the overall goals are the same: make plants and gardening accessible at many different levels and offer a space for refuge, relaxation and ongoing inspiration. Also a place where visitors can be engaged by being able to create for themselves instills confidence in growing! I loved that aspect of Flora Grubb.

What was also impressive was the number of staff on hand tending the plants and helping customers. Flora has hired experts with specialties, like Jason and Zenaida, to be on hand and not only do they have their fortes, they are also multi-talented individuals with a broad range of stills they bring to the table! That was mighty impressive because even the uber plant geeks like myself can feel engaged at Flora Grubb!

I hope to return in the near future to see how things are evolving and see what new and inspired ideas emerge because I'm certain it will be executed beautifully!