As if being sublimely beautiful isn't enough, Linda Doan’s floral designs simply shine with the artist’s loving heart and soul. Her joyful arrangements are created from the heirloom and “just plain pretty” cut flowers she grows with husband Roy Doan on the Tennessee farm that has been in Roy’s family since the 1700s.
Linda offers pickup-only CSA and wedding flowers, serves on the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers board, and teaches monthly arranging workshops – including the upcoming Spring Floral Centerpieces on April 18.
Read on for our Farmer-Florist Q&A with Linda, who is celebrating her 74th birthday this month. We dare you not to be charmed, even before you come away with some beautiful wisdom that heartens your daily work.
Farmer-Florist Q&A: Linda Doan of Aunt Willie's Wildflowers
How did you get your start as a floral designer?
I just wanted to grow flowers and sell at the Kingsport Farmer’s Market. I didn’t set out to be a floral designer and said I for sure would never do weddings! Then one of my early market customers told me I was going to do her daughter’s wedding. I just laughed but she added “Anne’s not even dating anyone so you’ve got time!” And actually, that was my first reluctant wedding and I loved everything about it, especially working with Anne and her mom, and I was hooked.
But the Farmers’ Market taught me the most about floral design. We grew lots of different varieties for the market so I had so many colors and textures to play with. My market routine was making 3 identical bouquets and putting them into one bucket that looked like one large beautiful bouquet. I’d make each bucket different and arrange them in different color tones and have a few buckets of specialty items like lilies and sunflowers on the main table. I learned what folks liked and who liked what, and as we developed relationships with customers I think the look of our stand developed right along with that.
Just playing with all those flowers and putting them together in so many different ways made me love floral design and taught me the basics. My hands were happiest putting stems together and even at the end of the market when I’d be throwing things away, I’d put them into a little bouquet before I’d pitch them.
When did you start farming flowers for your business?
We can’t remember for sure, but we thing we’ve been growing for about nineteen years. I used to help Roy mow hay for the cattle and I’d gather the wild flowers from the field as we were mowing and put them into containers in the shade then make bouquets and take them to church. Then we joined ASCFG and learned a little more efficient way to grow flowers (lol) and the rest is history.
Who are your current mentors, or people who inspire you?
I don’t really want to list people for fear of leaving someone out, but the people I’m with I suppose inspire me the most. I met a designer from Scotland at a workshop I just attended and her work is lovely and we actually may visit her this summer. A local florist who buys flowers from me comes to the farm and we just try something new together. We both love thinking of things we’ll do next time we get together.
What is your design philosophy?
Well, if I have a design philosophy I suppose it is just enjoy what you do and the people you do it with. I only use what I grow and I only grow what I’m comfortable designing with. I post lots of pictures of my work and tell prospective customers to choose pics from my social media, not Pinterest or someone else’s work. That lets us both know if we’re a good match and what the expectations are.
I love teaching design workshops here at the farm. Before growing flowers, I taught at a small college for over 30 years so breaking things down and teaching is important to me. When I teach, it forces me to think about why and when I do what. There’s not one right way to make a bouquet and there’s not really a wrong way but for folks who don’t get to have flowers in their hands every day a few design principles at least point them in a more comfortable direction. I’m always amazed at how pretty and different each workshop arrangement is . . . and it all begins with plenty of beautiful flowers.
What are you thinking about when you are arranging?
I am sometimes frustrated because I'm not sure where I am going next. I don't have an idea where it’s going to end. I have an idea where I'd like it to end, but it often doesn't end there. So, I just keep playing with it, until it looks right.
I'll just hate it sometimes, but then we must go to lunch. When I come back, I love it! Even really good designers don't always love their work. I stick with it, until I think the bride will like it, or the customer will like it. I'm a pleaser and I want people to be happy with their flowers.
I'm a plotter, and I'll get there - I don't sit around and design beautiful things in my head. I'm anxious to get out and get the flowers and play with them.
Who are your customers?
Life is about relationships and flowers bring the most wonderful people to our farm and into our lives. We publicize mainly through social media and our website and are amazed that people still find us each month for farm tours and workshops. Not everyone has a farm, even a run-down farm, and people enjoy just getting to visit.
We don’t leave the farm. We only do small weddings now that are picked up here and even the CSA bouquets are picked up from the cooler. We’ve tried to adjust our business as we age and have been pleased that people are willing to come to us.
We will try to host at least one design workshop each month this season and I don’t post too far ahead. I ask people to message me if they’d like to be contacted ahead of posting with workshop details and they register online. This gives me a base to work with and we’re able to usually fill our workshops fairly quickly.
I also ask folk to sign up on the first page of our website for our blog. I’m not very good at sending out a blog but always aim to do better!
What is your favorite thing about being a creative and business owner? What is your least favorite aspect?
My favorite thing is definitely the people. I get lonely on this big old farm in the winter and plan things that will bring folks to us and let us share our farm and our lives and develop relationships with others. I’m still friends with Susan, the mother of my very first bride. I did her son’s wedding, her grandkids come and play in our woods, she’s here for dinner often, and she surprises me with the most wonderful pieces of pottery. We love the folk our farm gathers.
I also enjoy the versatility of a small business. Even as a little girl I never focused in on just one thing - I liked to do it all. Being a flower farmer lets me wear so many different hats and I enjoy each hat. Besides all the nuts and bolts of flower farming I enjoy photography and designing structures and creating spaces and just looking around for what’s next.
I suppose my least favorite part of flower farming is the energy required to keep it all going. I’ll be 74 next month and as the saying goes “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak!” Every year is my last year, but somehow we keep going. We’re not making the profit we once did but we’re okay with that at this stage of life.
What is one piece of advice you would share with other aspiring farmer-florists?
Keep flowers in your hands. Learn how they behave and play with all the possibilities. Go to workshops and learn a few tricks and meet lots of folks who love the same things you do. Join ASCFG and go to conferences. The friends you make at workshops and conference will be friends for life and will encourage you just when you need it.
Take good pictures of your work! Take advantage of all the good gifts and good people flowers can bring into your life. Be grateful, relax, and just keep going.