Midtown flower farmer relies on relationships to build her business on borrowed land
Photographs by Kim Thomas
Plants have been at the center of Marisa Mender-Franklin’s life since she was a child. Her mother grew zinnias, and Marisa has always loved their zany colors and long blooming season.
A few years ago, Marisa—founder of Midtown Bramble and Bloom—moved to Memphis with no family here and no land for growing things. So she took up macrame, “mostly so that I could hang more plants in the windows,” she says. Teaching macrame classes resulted in new friendships too. She soon met her future husband (not in a macrame class, unfortunately) and they bought a house in the Cooper-Young neighborhood. Her favorite wedding preparation was growing her own flowers for the celebration.
But sunny patches of land in heavily treed Midtown are hard to come by. Last winter, Marisa joined the Buy Nothing – Midtown/Downtown Facebook group and decided to ask the group for something she really wanted but couldn’t afford: sunny plots of land to grow cut flowers to sell.
“I was so nervous after posting my request that I had to take the dog for a brisk walk around the block,” Marisa says.
Within minutes, her phone started buzzing with replies.
Dozens of people offered their yards for her urban flower farm.
One plot that Marisa chose is just down the street from her house. Five others are a bit further, but all are in Midtown. One is an established perennial garden that Marisa tends for the owners who are no longer able to care for it. For all land partners, Marisa offers a bouquet per week during growing season, all flower garden work (their yards look fantastic!), and the side benefits that accompany her plants, such as additional pollinators and scents.
Sustainability, both environmental and financial, is an integral part of Marisa’s business model. Flowers contribute to our environment and therefore our food system.
Without flowers, we have no pollinators, and without pollinators, we don’t have food.
Marisa thinks native flowers are great, since local fauna have had hundreds of years to get used to them, but she includes some non-natives as well. Her methods are free from artificial chemicals and are labor-intensive up front. She “lasagna gardens,” or layers cardboard over the land to suppress weeds, then adds compost on top, and then plants seeds and bulbs in that compost. Spreading cardboard is a lot of work, but it saves on the weeding. Financial sustainability is supported through sharing land and skills. This sharing means Marisa avoided a huge bank loan that many new business owners must take out.
Instead, she is investing social capital: building relationships and beautiful outdoor spaces.
While growing flowers in neighbors’ yards may sound idyllic—and Marisa confirms that it makes her very happy to live her flower dream—it’s also a lot of hard work. In addition to running Midtown Bramble and Bloom, she works full-time in education administration.
“I finish my education work and flower farm until dark or after dark, come home, eat some food, talk to my husband for a few minutes, and then fall asleep. Fortunately, my husband does almost all of the cooking,” says Marisa.
As this first season of flowers reaches maturity, Marisa is cutting and selling them. Most are sold through a subscription, like a CSA for local vegetables. Customers purchase a set number of bouquets in advance via her website. She’s also selling at the Cooper-Young Community Farmers Market every other Saturday this summer. Adding to her botanical know-how, Marisa will bring her sense of design to the bouquets.
“Every bouquet should smell fantastic,” she says. “And each one should have at least one weird thing in it.”
These design elements are not what one finds in the typical grocery store bouquet, where longevity is the most desired trait. Marisa invites us to think a little more like the pollinators she supports. They are drawn to scent and flashy petals, and definitely don’t look for items wrapped in cellophane.
Ultimately, purchasing locally grown flowers is another choice to support local biodiversity, much like supporting local vegetable farmers.
These flowers are part of the soil and the insect life of Memphis, and they are quite literally creating new friendships.
“Not being from Memphis, I didn’t feel super connected here at first,” says Marisa. “The macrame classes, the Buy Nothing page, and Midtown Bramble and Bloom help me feel more rooted. I couldn’t do what I do without neighbors who have been exceptionally generous with their land, time, and supplies.”
Marisa’s flower farms are spreading color, scent, and joy in Midtown Memphis. In the fertile soil of neighborliness and care for the earth, one wonders what will grow next.
Shady areas: hellebores (also known as Lenten roses)
New gardeners: a handful of zinnia seeds in a sunny area
Spring favorites: daffodils, cherry blossoms, peonies
Summer favorites: lilies, yarrow, hydrangeas
Fall favorites: dahlias, sunflowers, zinnias
To try something weird: thistle with a blue bloom
Rewarding challenge flower: dahlias
If you can only do indoor plants: philodendron
At the Cooper-Young Community Farmers Market every other Saturday
FB: Midtown Bramble and Bloom
Heidi Rupke finds pleasure in maintaining the practical skills her grandmothers loved: quilting, gardening, keeping chickens and cooking from scratch. She enjoys biking around Midtown with her family and will drop everything for a good plate of Japanese-style pickled vegetables. @rupkeheidi
Kim Thomas is a lifestyle blogger and photographer based in Memphis. Launched in September 2010, her blog KP Fusion provides of-the-moment fashion, style and beauty tips and trends with a little Memphis flavor thrown in. @kpfusion