It's My Nature: Beauty and the Buzz

Flower farmer Dee Hall is growing a neighborhood haven for wildlife— and inspiring other Black floral entrepreneurs

  • Lynne Warren
  • Gardening
  • Mar 31, 2023

At peace in her garden—an NWF Certified Wildlife Habitat—flower farmer Dee Hall tends to dahlias (above and below), one of many favorite blooms she arranges (bottom) for clients.

DEE HALL WAS BORN TO BE A CULTIVATOR. From childhood visits with her gardening family amid the floral opulence of tropical St. Lucia to growing up across the street from New York’s Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the power of plants to nourish body and soul has always been a part of her life.

When she moved to Norfolk, Virginia, in 2018, she wanted to offer that nourishment to some of her new hometown’s most popular visitors, too—goldfinches and monarch butterflies. “I set out to create a pollinator patch, and I went online to do research,” Hall says. “That’s when I found the National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife™ program and all the resources it offers.” The project quickly took over her corner lot and inspired her to launch Mermaid City Flowers, an “urban microfarm” whose abundance of native and nonnative blooms she shares at local farmers’ markets and through seasonal bouquet subscriptions.

An image of dahlia flowers.

Invitation to a feast

In Hall’s sprawling front-yard garden, North American native perennials like coneflower, guara and yarrow flourish along with a buffet of other nectar and pollen plants relished by pollinators and other wildlife. She uses supplemental water from rain barrels and applies mulch and ground covers to control weeds. “Spraying isn’t in my business model, and I’m not a fan of monoculture,” says Hall, who relies on a diversity of flora and fauna—rather than on chemicals—to limit losses to pests and disease.

In 2020, Hall put a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat® sign in her garden, signaling her intention to grow her garden and her business in ways that make a positive difference. “I wanted to make a statement right up front that my neighbors could see that something special is happening here, and you can do it, too,” she says.

Goldfinches quickly accepted her tasty welcome, along with a host of other birds, butterflies and “I don’t know how many different kinds of bees,” Hall says. “Monarchs and swallowtails and hummingbird moths—those are my kind of celebrity sightings.”

As demand for her bouquets outstripped the capacity of her own yard, she took a local approach to augmenting her harvests rather than renting farmland outside of town. “I asked my neighbors if anybody had an empty flowerbed or a sunny patch of ground they’d let me work,” she says. Hall started with three such spaces and now plans to expand. One of her first satellite plots is a raised bed so lavish with colors and shapes—including zinnias, foamflowers and mountain mint—that it’s like a seed catalog come to life. To the local critters that buzz, hum and skitter among the blooms, the exuberant mix offers a crucial menu of nectar, pollen and seeds. “That’s part of why I grow so much,” Hall says. “Some for me, some for them.”

An image of Dee Hall arranging flowers.

Cultivating connection

Mary Phillips, longtime head of the Federation’s Garden for Wildlife program, admires Hall’s creative land use. “By reaching out to engage her neighbors in her work, Dee is creating multiple pit stops for wildlife and reducing fragmentation of habitat,” she says. “And by identifying the plants in her garden and her bouquets by what creatures they support and how, she creates opportunities for her customers to become champions for wildlife, too.”

Nurturing such human relationships is as important to Hall as tending plants. In 2021, she founded the Tidewater Flower Collective, a group of about 25 growers who share supply costs and provide locally grown flowers for big jobs no one could handle alone. “We work with area floral designers and event planners to promote local flowers,” she says. “Most clients don’t even realize they’re an option” since imports dominate the domestic market. To further build and support her community, Hall also founded Black Flower Farmers, an international online collective of 30 growers from four countries. “We share knowledge and ideas about everything from entomology to marketing, and we celebrate the legacy of Black hands in the soil.”

Such supportive networks can be transformative. In researching her 2022 book Black Flora: Profiles of Inspiring Black Flower Farmers + Florists, gardening expert Teresa Speight found many entrepreneurs reluctant to promote their floral businesses as Black-owned out of fear of losing clients. Hall, she says, “is an example of the enthusiasm and expertise that many African American flower farmers have—but we just weren’t seen, we weren’t heard. Dee is all about making sure we are seen, we are heard.”

Writer Lynne Warren is based in Maryland.

More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

Making My World »
Garden Champion »
Breaking Ground: Pioneering Women in Botany & Public Horticulture »

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