When Jessica Gale moved to Toronto from upstate New York last summer she began volunteering at Fresh City and knew that gardening/farming had to play a bigger role in her life. This spring, she joined our member farmer program and began her flower business, Sweet Gale Gardens . We asked Jessica to share some of her story, and experiences with growing flowers and farming in the city...
When did you first become interested in gardening?
I have loved gardening since I can remember really. I loved looking through seed catalogues, making bouquets, and going to nurseries. However, it wasn't until university that I began to appreciate and enjoy the physical work in gardening.
How did you get started?
I moved to Toronto last summer from upstate New York. My husband is Canadian and we decided to start out together in Toronto. I volunteered at Fresh City and I knew gardening/farming had to play a bigger role in my life. I took the plunge by joining the member farmer program this spring. Prior to that, I had apprenticed on an organic farm, worked at a botanical garden, and at university greenhouses.
What do you love most about what growing flowers?
I love the beauty of it. I love walking into my plot and feeling my heart twisting to see another new bloom opening. I love the look on people's faces when they see my flowers. I love that it's beautiful, but serves an ecological purpose: my plot is full of bees, bumblebees, butterflies, and other insects.
What are some mistakes you've made as a gardener, and what have you learned?
This first season has had a very steep learning curve, especially in the spring. There's been a lot of mistakes and corrections made (or decisions to live with). I'll be doing things differently next season for certain.

I think from a non-growing perspective, time management is an ongoing struggle. When I was finishing my graduate degree, I was at the peak of working efficiently. Farming is so different. It's very physical: I have only so much energy and there's only so many hours in the day. Weirdly enough, I have never been a perfectionist, but evidently, farming brings it out. I want so much to succeed, but part of that is letting go and knowing when to stop and go home.
How do you decide what to grow?
There's a great book called The Flower Farmer , which is an intro to growing organic cut flowers. I started with that. I also talked to experienced growers in the northeast and asked them what varieties they grew. Lastly, I grew what I thought was beautiful.

For cut flowers, it's all about vase life: how flowers hold up over time after they've been cut and put in water. Also, at Fresh City because its leased land, I knew I had to grow mainly annuals (non-hardy flowers that have to be replanted every year). Because of the uncertainty of the land and what I was doing in my first year I did not want to invest too much. This coming year though, I'm pumped to grow some bulbs and perennials.

What's your secret to flower arranging?
Flower arranging is based upon all the same principles that other arts use. Balance, proportion, colour, texture, etc. I have been arranging flowers since I could pick flowers and have studied art in various forms since I was a child. I also took a class at Toronto Botanical Gardens to learn the basics.

Also, when you're starting out in an artistic/design focused profession, you start with emulation. Eventually you develop your own sense of style, but it takes time. I love Floret Flower Farm , Love 'n Fresh , and Saipua , all young and extremely talented floral designers and farmers.

Lastly, the trick to getting arrangements to last is hygiene: clean clippers, clean vases, clean water. I use only an organic preserver for the flowers, but tell customers the best thing to do is to recut the stems every day and change the water.

What's your favourite flower?
Tough one! I think poppies will always have a firm place in my heart. They are so bold, yet delicate and ephemeral.
What are your top 5 tips for someone who is just starting out with organic flower growing?

1) Start small. Do only what you can manage. When in doubt, do less. You can always add more, but it's easy to get overwhelmed.
2) Look up flowers/varieties that are easy to grow and manage. Some are trickier than you'd think!
3) Try one difficult or unique plant, just to experiment.
4) Plan and choose plants so that you have a range of bloom times over the entire season. If you spend all your time and money on bulbs, you'll have only a very short window to enjoy them. Also remember that not all flowers work as cut flowers.
5) Include your native plants and flowers that pollinators need! They are essential to a balanced ecology. There's loads of information online and some organizations in the city give away seeds for free!

Click here to follow Jessica's gardening and farming journey!