Mimo Davis didn’t know anything about plants when she agreed to take care of 120 backyard rose bushes and a small lean-to greenhouse attached to her mom’s house in Missouri. But within one week of plant-sitting in 1989, she “totally fell in love with horticulture.”
Davis decided to quit her job as a social worker in New York City and buy a farm in Missouri. To learn more about growing, she went back to school to study plant and soil science while working at a native plant nursery, which supplied flowers to plant on her farm.
Before long, she was making homegrown bouquets for friends, who encouraged her to sell her blooms. Under the name Wild Thang Farms, Davis started selling flowers at local farmers markets and directly to florists.
But rural life presented challenges for the budding farmer. “I was running four acres of flowers by myself and driving them two hours to florists in St. Louis — four hours round trip — before I even made a sale. It wasn’t sustainable,” says Davis, who ran Wild Thang for a decade.
She went back to school again, earning her master’s degree in horticulture on a full scholarship from North Carolina A&T State University. Then, she ended up in St. Louis, working with the University of Missouri Extension to establish urban community gardens. That’s when Davis found the perfect greenhouse: “It was condemned. It was vandalized. It had been abandoned for 10 years,” she says. “I looked at it and said, ‘Oh, we need to buy this right now.’”
Davis and her business partner, Miranda Duschack, purchased the overgrown property and began turning the fallow lot into a productive farm.
Now, 10 years since opening Urban Buds: City Grown Flowers, Davis is living her dream.
With just 1 acre of urban greenhouse space and no room to expand, Davis has to be smart about what and how she grows. “Each square foot has to produce,” she says. “We can’t get into big crops, like woody ornamentals, because everything has to be a quick turnover.”
To maximize profits with limited production space, Davis chooses “high-dollar crops like lisianthus and ranunculus” that command attention (and higher prices) as bouquet focal points, instead of lower-priced accent flowers like baby’s breath. Davis is selective about the 80 varieties of cut flowers she grows, because she knows that the florists who purchase from her also buy from wholesalers who import at lower costs. Instead of trying to compete with them, she produces what they can’t provide.
“We grow specialty crops that don’t do well shipping, so we’re adding to the palette of things that our florists can’t get from the wholesaler,” says Davis, who serves as vice president of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers. “Our flowers have never seen a box or an airplane; they’re cut and in the florist’s cooler that afternoon, without hours out of the field. You can’t get that quality or that type of flower from the wholesaler.”
At Urban Buds, this commitment to quality starts with sustainable farming practices like rotating crops and using integrated pest management (IPM) to eliminate harmful chemicals.
“We’re a no-till farm, so we use cover crops like buckwheat, oats and tillage radishes to reenergize our beds,” which are in-ground under greenhouse cover, Davis says. “On such a small acreage, we’ve really got to be careful not to overuse our soil.”
Davis also relies on beneficial insects to control greenhouse pests. “We use wasps and ladybugs to combat aphids,” she says, “and we put organza bags over our dahlias to keep off the Japanese beetles.”
While growing on such a small square footage can be challenging, Davis says, “There are more advantages to being in the city than there are disadvantages.” The biggest benefit is being closer to customers.
Urban Buds’ location is just over three miles from the farmer’s market. “When I was out in the country, I was waking up at 4 o’clock in the morning to get to market by 8,” Davis says. “Now, I’m 15 minutes away.”
Plus, the urban setting makes it convenient for florists to pick up orders directly from the farm — eliminating the long delivery routes Davis used to drive. “They just pick it up right here, which is a wonderful thing,” she says, “because they can see the crops coming on and look forward to what’s next.”
Davis says those close local ties and a convenient location kept Urban Buds growing throughout the pandemic. “Our florists shut down, our weddings got canceled and our farmer’s market closed,” she says. “So we started a contactless pickup called Petals Off Our Porch, where people could order flowers online and pick them up. It was amazing how much community support we got, and it was [more easily] done because we were engrained in the community.”
In that sense, Davis says, “flowers are just another form of social work. You get to bring joy and happiness to people through flowers, and that’s really rewarding.”