Change Makers: Olla Urban Flower Project

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Nestled in the corner of a clothing shop on Water St., Megan Branson of Olla Urban Flower Project was working away in preparation for the Superbowl of the flower industry (Valentine’s Day), when I walked in. Her pop-up shop for the week was filled with colourful, eye-catching arrangements, and I noticed that those who were passing by the store couldn’t help but take a second look through the glass.

Despite not having a conventional retail space, the shop has been in business since 2010 and has garnered a lot of praises in the community for its unique and sustainable approach.

Megan explained to me that 100% of their cut flower stems and greenery are sourced from either local (medium to large scale farms in the lower mainland), urban (small scale gardens in people’s backyards) or fair trade certified farmers. The Urban Flower Project is, in a way, her attempt to urbanize flower production.

“If you think of the benefits of urban farming, generally the same things apply to flowers. So less pesticide use, less transportation due to closer proximity to the end user, and more variety,” she said. “So like the local foodie movement, it’s the same concept here.”

Megan pointed out that when harvesting from urban gardens, she can get more unique and unconventional flowers or foliage, because they tend to be small scale harvest of things you don’t typically find at the markets.

“And most, if not 100% of our urban gardens are organic, so they would not be sprayed, and just organic fertilizer is used,” she added.

Olla also seems to follow a similar ethical approach by providing job opportunities to people in the community. Since the inauguration of the flower shop, they have given work to disadvantaged people who have dealt with issues such as homelessness, drug addictions and mental health.

  I asked Megan why this is so important to her.

“There is an amazing sense of community and lots of amazing [support] services, but there’s not a lot of jobs. And when you’re on social assistance and disability, it’s really not enough to get by,” she said. “So it’s important to be able to work and to have ‘legitimate’ work, where they can use you as a reference and maybe build up their resume, build up their skills, and possibly go on to other work, which has happened.”

Megan explained that currently, work at Olla is provided on an as-needed basis and that they have a roster of people, from trained florists to people recommended by Raincity Housing, a support group that provides shelter to those battling challenges in their lives, to choose from.

As people began to trickle in and I sensed that it was time for me to usher myself out, I asked Megan one final question of paramount importance, “Why flowers?”

She looked at me with an amused yet quizzical look and thought for a minute.

“I think there’s almost a universal appreciation for plants and specifically, flowers,” Megan replied. “I do find that they represent the best of what the world has to offer. It’s beautiful, it’s often scented, and it sort of lifts the spirit.”

“I’ve always been a plant nerd. I’m the daughter of a master gardener, so it’s kind of been part of my DNA, I guess,” she added with a smile.

Olla Urban Flower Project will be setting up its Valentine’s Week pop-up shop at Nicole Bridger, 14 Water Street in Gastown, until February 14. You can also visit www.ollaflowers.ca to learn more.

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