Ladyfern Flowers: Summer Badawi
Summer Badawi is a Minneapolis-based plantswoman, designer and educator with a particular passion for farming, food, and flowers. She has a degree in European History from University of Minnesota and is a 2011 graduate of Longwood Gardens’ Professional Horticulture Program. Until very recently Summer was running her own flowering farming business, Ladyfern Flowers, and working for Urban Roots, a non-profit based in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Last year, Summer made the decision to step away from both roles and rethink her trajectory. She spoke with WinH in an open and honest interview, sharing her path to horticulture, the practicalities, challenges, and rewards of running a business, and the importance of taking risks.
Women in Horticulture: Can you tell us a little bit about your journey and what influenced you to become involved in the horticulture world?
Summer: I gardened with my mom when I was a kid, which meant I was pulling weeds as a chore. Then when I was finishing college and working, I continued to help my mom in her garden.
My college degree was in European history and although I loved learning about that topic, I was not the type to work in academia or work inside. So, I learned just as I was graduating that the major was not a good fit, but it was too late to go back and get a different degree.
When I graduated (the day I graduated actually!) I started working with a garden/landscape design company, mainly doing maintenance. I worked with many good people, had a really fun season, and I went on to do that for a couple of years.
I did have one of the moments where I decided that this is just what I wanted to do and I was going to follow it, which felt really good because throughout high school and college I was never really focused and career driven. It felt good to get into this thing that I was genuinely interested and engaged in.
I knew I needed more experience and education in the field so I started applying to horticulture programs. Looking into paid or tuition-free programs led me to the Longwood Gardens Professional Gardener (now Professional Horticulture) program. I graduated with the class of 2011. I met so many great people, learned so many different things, and gained a lot of confidence in the field. I felt more comfortable and decisive going into the workforce after going through the program, with a foundation to grow from.
Although I wanted to stay engaged in the field after graduating, I didn’t want to live in the mid-Atlantic region after the program. I ended up coming back to Minneapolis and I started working for a public gardening program. Eventually I got a job working for a nonprofit, Urban Roots, managing an urban farming program for teens. I really dove into that. I worked at the organization for 9 years in many different capacities, and just ended my work there about a year ago.
Were there mentors or other organizational resources that supported you along the way?
I feel like I didn’t learn to take advantage of a mentor until much later in my life. While I was working at Urban Roots, a woman that worked there became a mentor to me, whereas at Longwood Gardens, I was in my mid-20’s and still getting my footing. I was focused on taking it all in, and maybe didn’t completely understand how to grasp opportunities. There is so much potential to tap into the people and resources at Longwood, but you really need to be the designer of all of that.
What drew you to Urban Roots?
I was always into farming. Growing food is something I connected with at Longwood and continued to do after graduating. It felt significant and important to me. I was fascinated with kitchen gardening and small-scale farming. At Urban Roots I designed and planned a micro farm business in the city, working in urban lots and teaching people about food. It was a super productive farm. We grew over 10,000 pounds of produce a year, sold at market, and I taught entrepreneurship.
I wanted to connect people to the outdoors and food in the public sphere. That’s why I didn’t want to work in the private gardening industry. It felt good teaching and I learned a lot from young people I worked with. There is all this growth you have together. They were super honest and observed connections in the world around them. We got to experiment with this business together. No day was the same. It was full of problem solving and I loved it.
And your own business?
While working at Urban Roots, I decided to start a cut flower and design business.
There were so many cool things I was doing at Urban Roots, and I thought, why am I just teaching entrepreneurship? I wanted to apply those teachings and take my own risks. I found a woman who let me lease one acre to farm on her beautiful land. I took on a business partner the next year. I ran the cut flower farm and design business for five years.
With my own business, the paycheck was on me, but I had the freedom to decide what I wanted to do every day, and to design our business exactly how we wanted it. However, at the end of the day, you have to run a business first. Being present in the farm with what we were growing and designing was great and the farm was beautiful. But the amount of work required on your body to sustain the business was a challenge.
Where are you today?
I quit both the business and Urban Roots at the same time last year. I had committed a lot of my life to these very intense work projects. I decided to take a year off. Other than some consulting and a few small gigs, I decided I was going to take a breath and figure out what to do next.
With my business, the decision to stop was based on multiple things. It was somewhat COVID-related. My business partner had a baby and wanted to take a step back from responsibilities. There were many things telling me that maybe it was time to do something else. Farming is a tough business to make money and sustain yourself. I also want to use my body for the rest of my life, and I’ve been farming for 10 years. It is a lot on you. We worked the farm by hand.
While running the business, I had stepped out of the farming role at Urban Roots but still worked part-time there doing event planning and marketing, for some additional income and stability. I was exhausted.
What is on your radar for the future?
I’ve found a way to lean into not knowing. I’m trying to be really intentional about what I’m going to do next and how I will spend my time, because time is precious, and it’s important to do something that fills you up. I also think we aren’t defined by the work we are paid for.
Is there a particular issue you’ve become passionate about?
I still want to work in the field of food, land stewardship, and plants. In terms of how humans are dealing with the world around them, we are not in good shape, and it is getting worse. I think about being a bridge between the public and people who are doing the research and the work, delivering resources and information in a digestible way, whether it is through advocacy programs, events, consulting, or teaching.
I have been thinking about planning a workshop series at some local farms, that give real practical resources people can take with them regarding decisions around climate change, and how to put their money into the local economy.
During this break, have you been able to garden for play? Have you been able to experience horticulture differently, without it being work?
I did consult at a farm this year, where I had previously worked, to help transition them to a market garden. So I got to be involved in a less consequential way, still having access to these spaces and feeling rooted, but not having plants that were relying on me this year, just being able to look at them!
What suggestions do you have for women in the horticulture field to make their careers more fulfilling?
A lot of people are interested in being entrepreneurs and having their own business. I would never tell someone not to do that, but I think it’s important to really take time, especially earlier in your career, to really get some work experience in that field before starting your own business. I see a lot of that happening in farming, people not taking the time to get the work experience to know if that is something they really want to be doing, and if it is something that really speaks to them. Everyone should feel okay to take their time.
You don’t need to make money off of something you love. We don’t all have to be florists to do floral design. That was something that felt like a relief to me, to step back.
You can step back from the physical side of the work, and still support the field in other ways too.
Is there a topic in your field that you’d like to see discussed or addressed more?
When I had my business, I didn’t have a second income to rely on at home. I didn’t have other support, and I lived alone. With the emotional and financial burdens of everything at home and everything at work, you still have to give so much to your business.
It would be good to talk more openly about how we are all able to support ourselves, because we know that this is often not a high earning field. How to sustain yourself as a woman that is making it on your own. Being more aware and supportive of peoples’ different circumstances. How can we be supportive of single ladies out there trying to do that?
What’s your favorite annual or perennial or plant?
We grew scented-foliage geraniums and I just thought they were so cool and special. They smelled great and they were fun to grow with scents like apricot, lime, orange. We grew Shiso and Basil for foliage. My initial dream for the cut flower farm was to grow very hard to find perennials as cut flowers so I also dreamed of growing really weird foxgloves and campanulas.
What’s your most treasured tool or piece of clothing?
There’s a company in Philly called Fabric Horse that makes waxed canvas pouches. Their belts are made of seat belts so they are super durable. I used one of their pouches every day for my cell phone, snips, and other little things like chapstick, rubber bands, and seed packets.
What’s your go-to mid-day snack?
With many people I’ve worked with, from morning until lunch we talked about what we were going to eat for lunch. In desperation, maybe we’d snack on fruit, but we just usually tried to finish up what we were doing, so we could go to lunch. Snack time was more “let’s work super fast so we can have lunch!”
Any other advice for women in horticulture?
On starting a business: work in the field, talk to people, figure out your support network.
On any job you want that’s with an organization: really key into the culture. Explore the culture of where you want to work before taking a job. It has such an impact on your wellbeing, and it is so important to me to work with people that are supportive and create a good community.
Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself in a good, positive work environment wherever you are. Cultivate a rich work environment. Sometimes you see the people you work with more than your partners.
Life is short, don’t be afraid to take risks.
You can check out Summer’s work on instagram @ladyfernflowers