Flower Farming

Sustainable Floral Design & Mechanics

Sustainable Floral Design

Better-Choice Mechanics & Techniques for Foam-Free Floristry

Above: Sustainable Flowers Workshop taught by Tobey Nelson • Produced by Prairie Girl Flowers • Image by Ian M Gregory
(Click through to get the full picture!)

Green floral design is gaining wider adoption as influential florists engineer better solutions, shape alternative design techniques, and add their voices to the #foamfree and #sustainablefloristry conversation.

Sustainable Floral Design
Better-Choice Mechanics & Techniques for Foam-Free Floristry
Images used with permission. All rights reserved.
Are You an Eco-Florist?

"Eco and nontoxic" floral design was the very first topic I covered in the very first Slow Flowers Floral Insights and Industry Forecast, published in 2015. I noted that many Slow Flowers designers and farmer-florists were actively rejecting floral foam while seeking new methods, techniques, and mechanics for arranging flower stems. Three years later we returned to the theme, highlighting new "chemical-free" mechanics for floral design in the 2018 Forecast.

The movement continues to spread apace. As more and more florists hearken back to the days of foam-free mechanics predating the 20th Century, they are taking chicken wire, moss, and branches to brand new heights, while at the same time rolling out their own new materials, methods, and products.

Why does sustainability in floristry matter?

Foam-free installation at the 2019 Whidbey Flower Workshop
The group hung a 20' x 3' wire grid frame, then used recyclable floral tubes and Bouquet Eco-Wraps as the water source. Ferns were used dry, and their foliage helped to disguise the wraps and some of the tubes — other tubes were electively left exposed. All flowers were West-Coast grown, with most of them coming from Oregon and Washington.

Because we can: we have the technology as well as better options. Much of the recent initiative is focused on finding a replacement for floral foam, a product used for decades by florists, retailers, wire services, and wedding/event companies. Concern about this ubiquitous "tool" of conventional and mainstream floristry has been growing over the past decade. In its most common form it resembles a green, spongy, foam-shaped brick. Soaked in water before it's placed in a vessel or attached to a structure, the brick holds water for a period of time; thus, it is believed to hydrate cut flower stems while also holding them in place in everything from a centerpiece to a casket spray.

Production of this product shows little to no sign of slowing down. There are numerous companies manufacturing and distributing variations on this product to professional florists and flower shops worldwide. Formulations are proprietary, and it can be difficult to locate and decipher Safety Data Sheets for the products in use today. Patents for earlier floral foam products, however, reveal phenol-formaldehyde or urea-formaldehyde as key ingredients in their manufacture. One company's disclosure from 2009 contains this description: "Green fine-celled thermoset phenolic plastic foam. May be irritating to eyes, skin, and respiratory tract. May contain formaldehyde and/or carbon black. Prolonged exposure may cause cancer."

Concern about exposure to the humans who handle and breathe the dust from these products as well as as its disposal in landfills has escalated. After reviewing one company's website, experts at Seattle Public Utilities advised: "Foam products are not compostable, are not recyclable, and once the material is in the garbage and headed to the landfill, there is no intrinsic value of any sort to a degrading characteristic."

A number of influential floral designers are now speaking up about green and sustainable alternatives to floral foam, recommending new design methods that do not employ its use. You can track some of these voices and the techniques they are promoting on social media. Check out hashtags like #foamfree, #nofloralfoam and #sustainablefloristry to find the influencers and see their work — it's enlightening.

Greener Options

Video courtesy of Debra Prinzing & Tobey Nelson. All rights reserved.

One influencer is Tobey Nelson, founder of the Whidbey Flower Workshop and owner of Tobey Nelson Events + Design, based in Langley, Washington. A longtime Slow Flowers member, she is actively shedding light on the environmental and health concerns of floral foam. With others, Tobey is embracing greener tools and techniques as this topic moves from the fringe to the mainstream. She teaches large-scale event design techniques to florists, farmers, and farmer-florists at her own workshops, as well as at the Slow Flowers Summit in St. Paul, Minnesota, and at the Sustainable Flower Workshop in Calgary, Alberta, held in 2019.

According to Tobey, large-scale installations require different design and construction skills than centerpieces or bouquets. Arches, arbors, chuppahs, hanging floral chandeliers, vertical florals that frame a doorway or climb a wall, and freestanding sculptural pieces all have in the past relied on a hidden foam "base."

Green mechanics are part of "sustainable floristry," she says. "Sometimes florists have to be engineers and 'MacGyver' their designs. I love to make big, crazy stuff without foam and play around with all the engineering that's required — using everything from floral mechanics to structural components and rigging methodology."

Watch the video of Tobey's Slow Flowers Summit presentation to learn more about these techniques…

Q&A with Tobey Nelson
Foam-free installation at the 2017 Whidbey Flower Workshop
Tobey Nelson with "Mr. Gorgeous Monster," the centerpiece creation of the 2018 Whidbey Flower Workshop, led by Joseph Massie.
All the flowers and greens were American-grown, principally in Washington and Oregon, with some roses from California. Tobey notes she is still reusing the chicken wire from this workshop: it found its way into all the 2019 workshop creations, participated in numerous weddings and events in between, and there's even some left to carry her into 2020 and beyond!

I recently caught up with Tobey to talk further about her approach to foam-free mechanics.

Q: How do you define "sustainable floristry"?

A. "Foam-free" is only one piece of the larger practice of sustainable or eco-floristry. We can think of ecofloristry as a 3-pronged movement: first, rethinking the mechanics we use; second, reducing our waste stream, and third, how we source and distribute locally-grown flowers.

Wholistically, however, ecofloristry is part and parcel of sustainable agriculture. Think of water conservation, soil health, and the way you're feeding your flowers, interacting with the birds and the bees, and so forth. Equally fundamental to the concept of "sustainability" is how you treat employees and customers, as well as ensuring that you make a sustainable living for yourself and your business, be it a farm, floral studio, or retail flower shop.

Q: What are the common forms of floral foam?

A. Due to proprietary formulas, manufacturers are not forthcoming with information; they want to protect their recipes. We do know that formulations are petrochemical-derived and include formaldehydes, among other ingredients. In all its forms, floral foam is a single-use plastic. It creates a dust that we breathe in. It is not compostable and there is no good information on safely disposing of it. Ultimately, it becomes a microplastic, which is one of the most problematic forms of plastic waste in our environment.

Q. Why have florists traditionally used floral foam?

A. It's a convenience product designed to provide stability and hydration. I don't think it is a great water source solution for stems, and there are other mechanics available to hold stems in place. For an overhead installation, I have seen stems inserted in foam that later fall out as the product dries or the flower stems shrink.

I don't want to belittle anyone for the choices they make, but I encourage designers to think through their choices. I always ask: "How am I going to design this without foam?"

Tobey with various foam-free mechanics.
Tobey Nelson at the 2019 Slow Flowers Summit
Tobey shares her expertise on the use of variety of useful foam-free mechanics, including Eco-Fresh Bouquet Eco-Wraps, Holly Chapple Pillows, moss-filled-roulades, freestanding wooden frames with chicken wire forms, branches and twigs.

Q. How are things changing?

A. As residents of this planet, we have realized that we need to come to grips with our plastic problem. Largely, efforts are geared toward alternative packaging for food, cosmetic goods, and medical products — but many recognize those are just three of the tributaries contributing to a river of plastics now filling the seas. Just as there are people denouncing plastic bags, there are people denouncing floral foam.

Q. What is the first and easiest way to get started with a sustainable design approach?

A. You could roll up some chicken wire in a loose ball, insert it into a vase and start playing around with your own flowers. If you've booked a wedding with personal flowers plus 10 centerpieces, it's a perfect time to try the chicken wire option over foam. If it's not possible to salvage or recycle the chicken wire after your event, use something compostable — try creating a tangle of twigs, or using a handful of curly willow (Salix matsudana) or wood wool (aka “excelsior,” shredded wood fiber in a range of thicknesses).

Q. What are some other useful foam-free mechanics?

Eco-Fresh Bouquet Hydrating Floral Eco-Wraps
An ecofriendly choice for the professional market cut-flower grower or for creating flower installations without foam.
Simply wet the wrap, swaddle the end of your bouquet tightly, and cover with an impermeable bag or film and rubber band for transport.
100% plant-based wraps are reusable, compostable, and biodegradable.

A. I use the following mechanics and teach the specifics of their use in my workshops:

  • Hidden water sources
  • Chicken wire
  • Eco-Fresh Bouquet Eco-Wraps, a floral sponge-wrap system designed by former florist Debbie DeMarse. The recyclable and compostable product is moistened and wrapped around the cut stems of a bunch or a bouquet of flowers, to keep them hydrated.
  • Holly Chapple x Syndicate Sales pillows and eggs (USA-made). The shapes mimic more rustic chicken wire forms and can be reused/recycled.
  • Moss-filled "roulade," a crescent-shaped form made of chicken wire-bound moss centers. When soaked in water, it will hold and hydrate flower stems and can be mounted on an arbor or structure.
  • "Stakes-in-concrete," a vertical structure comprised of branches secured in a bucket filled with Quickrete. All sorts of foam-free mechanics can be attached to the piece for positioning flowers, foliage, and other botanicals.
  • Freestanding wooden frame with chicken wire forms.
  • Reuseable floral tubes/water picks.
More Resources
  • Learn more about foam-free mechanics and see photos on Tobey's website. Visit tobeynelson.com and find out when classes, videos, and webinars are happening, as well!
  • Learn more about packaging sustainability from Debra Prinzing's Slow Flower Journal in Florists' Review: Beyond Plastic.
  • Join the American-grown flowers movement — become a member of the Slow Flowers Society and sign up for the Slow Flowers Podcast.
  • Sign up for the Flower Podcast with Scott Shepherd, aka Cutflower Scott, for engaging and educational episodes on leading-edge topics in floristry. Listen to Scott's interview of guest Susan McLeary, Floral Artist & Educator, and author of the List of Reliables, noted above by Tobey. You can sign up for a course with Susan, aka PassionFlower Sue, at her website, susanmcleary.com.