Sustainable Floral Design with Rhea Calpeno

Sustainable Floral Design with Rhea Calpeno

Rhea Calpeno is the talented owner of Photosynthesis Floral Design with years of experience creating in the wedding industry. We both share a passion for sustainability so I am thrilled she was willing to share her environmentally friendly practices when working with flowers. 

Living through the pandemic has given me more time to reflect on how to make positive change in my personal and professional life. I believe we are at an ecological crossroads and that each of us can help by taking steps to lighten our impact.  

At Photosynthesis, we are committed to doing what we can to be environmentally responsible by being 100% floral foam free, sourcing many of our flowers from local growers, composting our cuttings, recycling our flower packaging, and finally breaking down events to reuse materials and reduce our waste. 

Floral foam

Floral foam is widely used even though it is ecologically harmful. I think that some of this is because there is a floral foam that is biodegradable and falsely marketed as “eco-friendly.”

All floral foam is a single use plastic made from formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.  It breaks down into microplastics that pollute our waterways, harming marine life.  When looking at this issue, it is important to consider the difference between “compostable” and “biodegradable”.  Compostable materials disintegrate into non-toxic natural elements.  When something it biodegradable, it doesn’t necessarily mean it degrades into something non-toxic.  Biodegradable plastics, such as floral foam can break down to smaller pieces in the right conditions, but they remain plastics and toxic.  In addition, landfills generally do not provide the proper conditions to for items biodegrade.  Leaving many things that are labeled biodegradable intact and taking up precious landfill space.

Photosynthesis has been foam free since 2017.  Initially it was challenging to create pieces for which previously we would have used foam such as elevated arrangements and arbors.  We had to rethink our mechanics and try out new techniques.  Change can be scary.  But like a lot of things, sometimes you have to be brave and embrace the unknown in order to evolve and grow. 

One of the first steps we took in eradicating foam from our designs was getting rid of all of the vases in our rental collection that were too shallow to hold enough water to design in without foam.  When we still had them in our inventory, inevitably, a client would see them and request them for their event, so by removing them from the mix entirely it insured that we wouldn’t be tempted to slip.  Now, when I shop for vases, I only purchase water friendly vessels.  This really isn’t a compromise in design as there are plenty of great water only options that are gorgeous. 

Starting with a water appropriate vase is half the battle particularly with elevated arrangements.  For arrangements on something like the popular Harlow Stand, we have bowls that, with the help of floral goo, fit into the top of the stand securely so that we can simply fill the bowl with chicken wire and water to design.  We make sure that our foliage and florals spill over and hide the bowl.  If we are designing in a clear vase, we have found the Holly Chapple Pillows to be really helpful.  The pillow acts as an armature that sits on top of the vase and makes transporting the arrangements particularly easy.  Pillows are made of plastic, which isn’t ideal, but they can be reused.

Arbors and similar large scale installation work was also where we had to rethink how to achieve the same results without foam.  For these installations we use a combination of chicken wire, water tubes, and moss wrapped buckets and containers that hold water.  All of these items can be reclaimed when you breakdown an event and used over and over again.

The buckets and containers can be strategically attached to the structure based on your design and filled with water.  You can then add florals and greenery to eventually hide the buckets as you install your materials.  Water tubes can be used where needed to fill in the gaps.  It is also really helpful with installation work to choose a majority of materials that do well out of water for the duration of the event.  That way, it saves you from having to worry about a water source.  Getting the mechanics set up in particular the buckets, for these installations definitely takes some practice, but once you get the hang of it, it becomes like second nature. 

Sourcing local

In addition to not using foam, we are focusing our efforts on working with sustainably grown, local flowers with the goal of sourcing 100% local blooms by 2022. This way, we can avoid the heavy carbon footprint associated with flying flowers in from around the world while working with flowers that are grown without the use of pesticides.  In Richmond, Virginia where we are located,  we are lucky to have around 15-20 farms within a 75 mile radius.

This goal of sourcing 100% local is a shift for us at Photosynthesis.  While we have always incorporated a lot of local flowers into our work, we have also ordered flowers in to help meet the demand for some of our wedding work.  For me, the pandemic has really brought home the importance of stepping this effort up and in doing so helped me personally confront some of my fears related to going completely local. That is to say, this goal is a work in progress, but it’s one that I feel like it’s time to take on. 

As a designer, the allure of using flowers from all over the world is potent.  It is hard to pass up the opportunity to use some of the amazing varieties grown in Holland, Japan, and elsewhere.  As a wedding and events professional and a people pleaser, there are a lot of expectations to fulfill a couple’s floral dreams.  It can be really tough to find the right way to tell a client that we can’t get peony in late June because they aren’t growing locally even if you can get it flown in at that time. 

Most people love that we work sustainably, embrace the idea of using local and want to support that effort.  They just might not know or understand all that this entails.  They come to us because we are experts in flowers.  A big part of our job as designers is educating clients along the way about what is possible and available.  Flowers are gorgeous, so while you may not be able to get peony in for a client there are so many other blooms that could be used instead.  Most of our clients come to us because they like our design aesthetic and trust that we will create something beautiful for them. 

With this model, we do not promise particular blooms when meeting with a client.  Instead, we focus more on design intent, the overall feel they are going for and the general colors that they are drawn to.  With color palettes, it really helps if you can guide them towards being flexible with their palettes.  I usually try to ask about their favorite and least favorite colors to get a feel for their preferences.  From these preferences, we come up with a palette that is unique and also gives us some design flexibly.  For example, rather than a blush a white scheme, maybe we do something in soft neutrals. 

The 100% local approach might not be the best fit for some clients.  However, most clients are happy to have at least some local flowers incorporated into their events.  So, if you trying to figure out how to start dipping your toe into local sourcing, you can start by reserving a percentage of your flower budget for every event to local blooms-perhaps 20%.  When the time comes, reach out to your growers and see what they have that works with the feel and color palette for the event.  These items often add unique touches to designs and you may be surprised how much is available.  As you get more comfortable with local product, you can start increasing the amount you order.

Composting

Taking the step to compost our cuttings was a fast and easy way to immediately do good.  We have separate buckets for cuttings in the studio and have contracted a compost company that comes regularly to pick up our bins. The added expense is minimal and it feels good not to be contributing more to the landfills. 

Reuse

Finally, we take the time to break down our events so that we can separate out any compostable items from reusable items such as water tubes, chicken wire and buckets.  If we didn’t go back after each event to do so, most of the time, everything would just be tossed directly in the trash.  Water pics, chicken wire and buckets just need to be sanitized afterwards and can be reused for other events. 

Change doesn’t happen overnight. It always involves letting go of one thing to make space for another.  My hope is that future generations will continue to enjoy a world full of flowers. I invite you to join me in our shared effort to make that future a reality.

Resource List

1. Tobey Nelson is a leader is sustainability and her site has a lot of great information particularly about foam. 

2. Sue McCleary has a lot of online educational resources and is great for foam free tutorials. 

3. @nofloralfoam is my favorite Instagram account to follow that has a lot of information and often shows the mechanics behind foam free installations.

4. Floridbunda just released a book called “A Guide to Floral Mechanics” 

5. Holly Chappell Pillow 

You can find Rhea's work on at Photosynthesis.bz and on social media platforms @photosynthesisflorals