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Eileen Tongson of FarmGal Flowers has taken her love of gardening and turned it into a profitable business. In an almost serendipity way, she found herself planted at East End Market growing flowers and teaching classes to everyone looking to improve their green thumb. We sat down with Eileen and asked her how growing at East End has shaped her business and found out what we can expect from FarmGal Flowers in the future!
Can you tell us a little bit about the face behind FarmGal Flowers and where the idea came from to start your own business? I come from a family of gardeners. No one did it professionally (until now!) but we all have a love and appreciation for growing flowers and vegetables. I actually have a Master’s degree in Nursing from Johns Hopkins University. But even as a graduate student in Baltimore, I spent my spare time taking walks to admire the peonies along the way and cultivated plants in my apartment. I moved to the west coast with my husband and fell in love with all of the flowers I was surrounded by in the San Francisco area. I began studying floral design at the City College of San Francisco and volunteering at Filoli Gardens. I have taken numerous classes since then and most recently have had the opportunities to learn from Erin Benzakein, Jennie Love, Mandy O’Shea and Debra Prinzing. I returned to the Orlando area, where I grew up, in 2008 and completed the University of Florida IFAS Master Gardener Program. I began growing almost all of our family’s vegetables. One day, I threw some flower seeds into one of our raised beds. The most amazing flowers grew! I cut them and had an epiphany: “I could grow my own flowers and design with them!” I decided to learn more about flower farming specifically so I set off to Floret Flower Farm in Mt Vernon, WA last year. When I returned, a conversation with John Rife turned into the beginning of FarmGal Flowers and our collaboration with the East End Market.
What kind of things have you learned from the process? Where to start? I have learned to work and collaborate with other East End business owners and our local community. I admit I have been a bit of a control freak in the past but the sense of community at East End is immeasurable. It has been extremely rewarding to work with other business owners and local organizations. The vendors at East End are artists and passionate about their products. Collaborating with them has made my flowers even better and provided me with opportunities I had not dreamed of. Not to mention, I have so many new friends too!
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced with your startup? Compared to other jobs I have had in the past, owning your own business is all encompassing. I find myself always thinking about what I’ve done, what I’m currently doing, and what I need to do in the future. It has been a challenge “turning off” work during my downtime. I continue to work on this and I’ve come to realize that taking time off leaves me refreshed and ready to face new challenges. And most often, there are new blooms ready to greet me in the garden when I return – that is always encouraging!
Do you have any advice for anyone looking to turn their passion for growing flowers into a profitable business? We live in Zone 9b (USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map) in the Orlando area. This presents many challenges to local gardeners especially those more familiar with the traditional growing season. We actually have two growing seasons here. I would recommend learning the basics about farming. This includes altering recommended planting schedules to accommodate 9b, learning about common pests and how to manage them organically, and most importantly, identifying which flowers grow best here. These essentials will lay the groundwork for fresh, beautiful locally grown flowers!
We love all of the beautiful flowers growing in the garden, the sunflowers seemed to be especially popular with the market-goers this season. Besides the garden here at East End Market, do you grow flowers anywhere else for FarmGal Flowers? Aside from East End Market, I also grow at the Winter Park Urban Farm. These two locations have allowed me to learn from my first season of growing for FarmGal Flowers before I move on to a larger space (which we are currently looking for!).
Any plans on future classes or what we can expect growing in the garden next? Yes, we hope to provide more floral design classes (hand-tied bouquets, centerpieces, flower crowns, etc.) at East End. I’ve also had recent inquiries for Girls’ Night Outs and playgroups. I’d love to continue to collaborate with other East End vendors on classes like these or do demonstrations. Customers have also been asking me about growing cut flowers in their home gardens so that’s a potential topic too.
As I mentioned earlier, growing in the summer is challenging in 9b but FarmGal Flowers will focus on flowers that can tolerate the heat and moisture. These include various varieties of sunflowers, zinnias, amaranth, gomphrena, cosmos and celosia – lots of color!
“FarmGal Flowers shares East End Market’s values of living locally and sustainably. We organically grow seasonal cut and edible flowers to enhance the beauty of our community and the food we eat. Flowers are not only attractive and fragrant, they draw important pollinators essential to vegetable production in the market garden and beneficial insects that deter pests. You will find our flowers in fresh bouquets and food at the market – all grown with passion, hard work, and love.”