What freelance floral designing has taught me about Flowers, People and Growing up

Mary Schaefbauer of Sonnenblume Flower Farm & Design

NOTE: We first met Mary Schaefbauer at a Slow Flowers meet-up in St. Paul, Minnesota hosted by Twin Cities Flower Exchange in 2018. The following year, Mary and her business Sonnenblume Flowers joined Slow Flowers as a member and she volunteered to help at the Slow Flowers Summit. She still has the distinction of being our “youngest member.” We are so happy she contributed this essay — Debra Prinzing

The first time I got on a plane by myself was last October, I was 18, and I was flying across the country to do floral design work for someone I had never met.

Over the past year I have worked with five different designers, each in a different state. For a kid who grew up in a rural Midwest town of 13,000, it’s been a pretty big deal for me!

At the Slow Flowers Summit 2019, I learned about freelance floral design—doing contract work for a designer for one busy weekend. It seemed like a perfect blend of travelling, which I’ve never really done before, working with flowers, and meeting new people. Minnesota’s floral off-season, when my own flower farm and design studio are inactive, is long and frigid, spanning between October and April,. It’s the perfect time for me to frolic in warmer climates where there is work available.

One of three weddings in Charleston, S.C., when Mary (far left) freelanced for Slow Flowers member Toni Reale of Roadside Blooms (fourth from left) in October 2019.
(c) Roadside Blooms

Eighteen years old and ready to fly the nest, but bound to it by one more year of flower farming, it was the perfect opportunity to get out into the big, wide world, and I was going to seize it.

My first two jobs were with people that I had met at the Slow Flowers Summit, after which I felt confident enough to fight off the imposter syndrome and scroll through the list of hundreds of people I followed on Instagram. I personally cold-emailed most of them with a resume, asking if they needed any help. Before I knew it I had scheduled myself about one work-weekend per month during my off-season.

Not to sound too cheesy or anything, but every single weekend that I worked was a life-changing experience.

The fountain in Hacienda del Sol, Tucson, Arizona, decked out in flowers for a November 2019 wedding by Posh Petals, also a Slow Flowers member studio.

Of course I learned so much about flowers. When you work on a wedding with someone else, you learn not only about how they design flowers, but also what their workflow is, where they source flowers, how they construct installations, which flowers they love and which flowers they hate with a fiery passion. If you’re inquisitive, you can also learn about how they market their business, how they organize contracts, and how they got started. I now have the absolute privilege to be able to pick out my favorite things that designers do in all those areas—because every single person is different—and bring home those insights and lessons to make my own business so much better.

Mary (left), poses next to Slow Flowers member Kelly Shore of Petals by the Shore. This was her first big arch installation in Leesburg, Virginia in January 2020.

I’ve worked in South Carolina at Roadside Blooms, which was the first time I had ever worked with designers who actually cared about sustainability and local sourcing. In Arizona at Posh Petals, I learned about how florists design for the heat and dryness of the desert. In Maryland with Petals by the Shore, I learned more about sourcing American grown flowers and about the industry as a whole. In Texas with Clementine Botanical Art I helped put on the biggest wedding I have ever seen. In Georgia at Urban Poppy, I gathered tips about efficient retail workflow.

The biggest wedding Mary has ever worked on, with Clemantine Botanical Art in San Antonio, Texas in February 2020

What I also learned is that although every designer and every studio is different, there are so many things that are universal to all florists that make me feel instantly at home with nearly every studio or design crew. One of my favorite parts of freelancing is that in every corner of this country, nothing is quite like a florist’s love for beauty and for flowers. Everyone has a different story about how they got started, but every story starts with that love, and the best part is seeing the unique ways it shows through in each person on the team. Everyone who has worked in floral knows how soul-crushingly difficult it is to pull off the performance that is a big wedding, and they know how satisfying it is to see it all finally assembled, or the face of the bride as she receives her bouquet. There’s a universal thread of understanding with everyone who’s worked with flowers that makes it easy to connect with total strangers.

Attaching 1,400 tulips onto a hanging installation in San Antonio. Unable to lower the frame, the team had to design on ladders.

I guess that’s why I’m so willing to put my fate into the hands of such total strangers. When I tell friends at home that I counted on people I’ve never met to make sure I get picked up from the airport, to pay me, to let me stay in their house with them for the week, to even show me around the area if there’s free time… and doing it all at 18-19 years old, they think I’m crazy. I do my research before I go, and I have had difficult experiences and I’ve made mistakes that I’ve learned from. Maybe I’m naïve, but frankly I’ve never felt that it’s too unusual. There’s something about flowers that make us a family.

And, may I say, the generosity of floral designers with their time, their knowledge, and even their own homes is unmatched.

Mary’s first time seeing the Atlantic Ocean, with leftover wedding flowers in Charleston, S.C.

I’ve learned so much about people as I’ve ventured out of my familiar age and peer group and small town, and worked alongside people of all sorts of backgrounds all over the country. My flower family continues to expand and support me as I grow up and come into my own in this industry, and for that I am truly grateful.

I’ve been chronicling some of my adventures on my YouTube channel, so if you’re interested in a closer look at the craziness and beauty, I recommend you check it out!

I am also available for freelance work starting from this October onward. I can’t wait to see what else the world has in store for me, and I would love to work with you! You can reach me at sonnenblumeflowers@gmail.com.

BONUS: Listen to Mary Schaefbauer on the Slow Flowers Podcast (Episode 419)

Mary Schaefbauer
Mary Schaefbauer

Mary started her first floral business in 2016, at the age of 14. It wasn’t much then, but she kept building it through high school and a college program. Now at 19, with a fresh high school diploma and an AAS Degree in Business Management, she am working full time as a farmer-florist and loving it. Mary has always loved flowers, as well as design and color, and agriculture, and business… so this line of work is a perfect fit. She has been working in professional floral design for over four years and has trained with some of the best designers in Minnesota and across the U.S. Mary farms, designs, and lives in her family home during the growing season, and she freelances in other states during the winter months.

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Slow Flowers Journal is brought to you by SlowFlowers.com. Slow Flowers is an award-winning online directory created to help consumers find florists, studio designers, wedding and event planners, supermarket flower departments and flower farmers that supply American grown flowers. Founded in 2014, the site has grown to 700 members across the U.S.

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