Mermaid City Flowers was first seeded in floriculturist Dee Hall's Norfolk, Virginia front yard in early 2020, and quickly generated buzz in her neighborhood of Colonial Place. "The lot is actually street facing with a weird triangle, so the growing space is in the front and it's quite public! People can see everything, and people out walking will stop by to talk about [the garden] all of the time," she says.
As Dee expanded her garden to serve weddings, bouquet subscriptions, events and workshops, her neighbor was cultivating only frustration in his own yard. Though he had installed raised beds with built-in rain barrel irrigation, nothing thrived.
So he offered his yard to Dee, who immediately said yes. Other neighbors followed his lead, volunteering their empty, sunny spaces to Mermaid City Flowers. By the 2022 season, Dee was farming four scattered plots in addition to her own property. She is currently scouting six new potential plots for the 2023 season. In addition to a beautified yard, neighbors who host Mermaid City Flowers receive gifts of flowers and herbs.
"Things have just evolved this way," she says. "It's a very friendly neighborhood. We have a community garden, it's along the river, and a community shoreline restoration project. Old Dominion University is about a ten minute walk from the house. People who live here generally care about the environment. They are more thoughtful about it."
Community building is central to Dee's work in both Mermaid City Flowers and the two nonprofits she has founded. Tidewater Flower Collective, an alliance of specialty cut flower growers in the Tidewater region of Virginia, promotes local flowers and growers. Black Flower Farmers is a group of Black specialty cut flower growers from around the world who gather for mutual support, community, and networking.
"I often have opportunities to give away flowers for charity work, and I love that," says Dee. "This is where I live and I want to show people I value the things that they do. Sharing plants builds community and memories."
Dee enthusiastically suggests other flower farmers get curious about community land sourcing. "Get out there! Be an environmentalist, meet your neighbor!" Dee encourages. "This is a way to get out there and do all the things we say we want to do in our community, but often have trouble starting."
Read on to learn about Dee's experience expanding her business and making community through neighborhood-sourced land.
Put Out the Call
Dee uses her business Facebook and Instagram accounts to put out a call for unused, sunny spaces in Norfolk, but yard space is not the only thing neighbors share. "People have been supportive in any way they can," she says. "Milk jugs for winter sowing show up at my door when I put out that call. I make leaf mold, so people will leave me their raked, bagged leaves. I make a soil conditioner from things that are already around, and might go to waste." Repurposing and upcycling are priorities that carry through to Dee's planting and watering strategies.
Work With the Space
Rain barrels play a key role in Dee's distributed garden spaces, though not every homeowner has them. "I'm exploring IBC totes or larger rainwater catchment systems," she reports. "I try to minimize the amount of city water that I use, but each space has different needs. Not everyone is going to have a rain barrel with a pump and irrigation like my neighbor! Watering requires a combination of things. I rely heavily on the rain that we get."
Dee intercrops heat tolerant plants with shade tolerant plants whenever possible. "I utilize the location of plants to make things work," she says. "I have a new hellebore forest under a Japanese maple, with anemones and hydrangeas."
"The natives can take more heat than a standard annual. I love mountain mint; I grow that everywhere," says Dee. "I love to grow late-season stuff, like ageratum. We have a native variety here; even though it's not perennial, it self-sows so prolifically, you can have it forever. Perennial sunflowers as well! Lots of those late bloomers need less work. If the space is fairly landscaped, I will put in shrublike natives like baptisia or hypericum, that can be there for awhile. These fit from a visual perspective, and make sense."
Build Your Business Community
Nicole Knudson's nursery, Lady Fern's Native Plants, is also a young business nearby Mermaid City Flowers. "Nicole is the most knowledgable plantslady I know," says Dee. "She will call me and say, I have this, it will be good for cuts." Getting to know other small business owners builds community and opportunity. "It's a jumping-off point for other partnerships," adds Dee. Local radical bookshop Eleanor's first provided a pickup point for Mermaid City Flowers subscription customers, and over time, the owners developed a friendship. Dee now provides thank-you bouquets to donors of a nonprofit she encountered through that friendship.
Through reaching out and giving back, Dee Hall has grown her business purely on word of mouth. "I don't do any marketing," she says. "It's been cool to have people put their faith in my abilities and see how it's gone from there."