Q&A with Southside Blooms
Southside Blooms, based on the Southside of Chicago, is a farm-to-vase florist and project of Chicago Eco House—a nonprofit with a mission of using sustainability to alleviate poverty. For the past few years, this project has provided opportunities for inner city youth to explore urban agriculture through employment, educational development, and community service while helping the environment. The flower farm operates 100% off the grid using solar power and rain water irrigation, and without any pesticides, herbicides, or synthetic fertilizers.
We asked Hannah Bonham Blackwell, Co-Founder and Lead Creative of Southside Blooms to tell us more about their inspiring mission.
Before we get started, can you share what inspired you to start Southside Blooms?
There are many things that inspired my husband and I to start Southside Blooms, but the biggest motivator was our faith. Learning about the death of so many youth due to gun violence in our own city greatly weighed on our hearts, and in 2014 we started working toward a solution that would involve sustainability. After moving into the inner-city neighborhood of Englewood, we saw how many vacant lots were available and quickly settled on growing flowers.
What makes your flower arrangements unique? Are your special offerings widely known in and around Chicago? And beyond?
One of the unique aspects of our designs is the way that we incorporate native flowers and plants into our arrangements alongside the flowers that we grow on our farms. I love that it gives our bouquets a natural, wild look. Last year we introduced honey from our very own bees and everyone raved about the taste! We have also started producing seed paper greeting cards, made in-house using recycled paper from local schools and universities.
Sk*p products are made with ethically-sourced ingredients and free of synthetic fragrances. Similarly, we see that you describe your flowers as “beyond organic”— Can you explain? How do you keep your process as earth-friendly as possible?
We take sustainability very seriously. Our farm is completely off the grid using solar power and rainwater irrigation. Many vacant lots are unsuitable for growing food because of heavy metals found in the soil, but our flowers benefit the land by remediating the soil. Most flower farms rely heavily on herbicides and pesticides, but instead we prefer to work with nature and incorporate as many regenerative agriculture practices as possible into our model. You also won't see the large tarps and netting that you might find on other farms as we try to do everything we can to reduce our waste.
When it was time to build out our flower fulfillment center, we chose to renovate a vacant space instead of building something new. This kept one more vacant building from demolition and significantly reduced blight in an area filled with boarded up, vacant homes. In flower arranging, we avoid floral foam and Agrawool as much as possible (both products negatively affect the environment in different ways) and are always looking to find more sustainable ways to fulfill our clients’ requests. Our fulfillment center is located right in our own neighborhood, so we can walk to work! All our flower deliveries are optimized with an in-house software program to reduce travel time, with the heaviest delivery route being done in a hybrid vehicle.
Can you walk us through the process of how the arrangements are created from the farm to the vase?
Everything starts on our farms, it’s the heartbeat of our operation! Flowers are grown and harvested, then brought into our flower shop where they are immediately processed, arranged, wrapped, and delivered to customers throughout the Chicagoland area.
Sk*p is proud to call their unique packaging fully recyclable. I see that Southside Blooms also uses sustainable packaging. Can you talk about some of the creative ways you process and package your flowers? How do you handle the end of their lifecycle? Is composting important?
All our bouquets leave in a compostable wet pack, without using any plastic. They are then wrapped in upcycled newspaper from a local paper that saves leftover issues for us to use at the end of each month. All flower clippings from the flower shop are sent to our farm where they are mixed with waste from our chickens (yes, we have chickens, too!) and turned in large tumblers, after which they are spread back on our farms to feed the flowers. It truly is a complete cycle! In addition to the compost we produce ourselves, we have a great partnership with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, which allows us to use their waste-turned-compost on our farms every year.
At sk*p, we are focused on educating and empowering young people to be a force for change. Southside Blooms aligns greatly with our mission by giving back to youth as well. Can you talk about how each floral purchase benefits Chicago youth?
After moving into this neighborhood, we saw up-close that the key to changing many of the issues plaguing the inner-city needed to involve job creation in some way. Southside Blooms specifically targets young people ages 15-21 that are gang-involved or gang-adjacent, seeking to give them an alternative to the street and put money in their pockets. We have partnerships with both juvenile and adult probation departments in Chicago as well as many schools and organizations in the neighborhood that work with local at-risk youth. Every purchase made means more jobs and opportunities for the youth in our neighborhoods.
As a community leader, what advice would you give to others looking to make a positive environmental change within their communities?
We get this question a lot, but just start somewhere! Everyone can do something, and sometimes that small thing can grow into something bigger that can make great change. I’ve always loved the story of Mother Teresa, who started by helping people off the streets of Calcutta to die with dignity, and ended up inspiring the world. She once said: “Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” This tiny nun didn’t start out to be great, she started with love and it became great all on its own.
How can our sk*p community support Southside Blooms?
It’s super easy to support us - buy our products! We offer free flower delivery to the Chicagoland area and our 2022 CSA is still open for flowers grown on our farms. Our website also has a variety of products that ship nationwide. Visit us on Instagram: @southsideblooms