Florist Serves Her Industry as Showman, Cheerleader, and Social Worker
Sixteen years into her career, Jennifer Harvey loves doing freelance event work one day, and on the next, either helping a shop customer choose just the right sympathy arrangement or demonstrating a technique to a crowd.That desire to enjoy and share all her job has to offer makes her an enthusiastic champion for the floral and horticultural industries.
Harvey, CFD, CAFA, divides her time between Jennifer Harvey Designs, which she started in 2012, and Gatto Flowers in Mississauga, Ontario, which she joined in 2015 as sales and design manager. Yet she still fits in opportunities to speak and teach floral design to expo audiences, children, women’s groups, and people with disabilities. Gatto Flowers, which has been in business for more than 30 years, is like a home base with a solid team that gives her the freedom to represent both herself and its brand, she said.
“I never wanted to be umbilical-corded to a bench,” unable to get out and see what others create, said Harvey, who also owns BeLeafs Home and Garden Care.
That wanderlust may stem from when Harvey was in high school, and thought she would go into theatre and dance, having been heavily involved in those worlds. Her dream was sidelined when she ripped a tendon at a dance competition. While recovering from reconstructive ankle surgery, she started studying in the floral design program at Algonquin College in Ottawa.
“I had to figure out another art path,” Harvey said. Though she expected, at the time, to return to performing arts and perhaps, one day, teach dance, she fell in love with floral design. “It changed my life and I never went back,” she said. Seeing her theatre friends struggle in their chosen profession also contributed to her decision.
Her floral design class attended Canada Blooms in 2001, where she discovered the “craziest designs” featuring motorcycles cascading with orchids, and others towering 20 feet. “I didn’t think anything like that was possible,” she said, because they were so unlike the majority of traditional vase arrangements found online.
Canada Blooms, an annual festival in Toronto that ran March 11-20 this year, promotes horticulture awareness, and includes the Toronto Flower Show, acres of fantasy garden displays, educational speakers and demonstrations, a plant and product showcase, and flower market. More than 200,000 visitors attest to the “huge number of Canadians with green thumbs,” the festival’s website says.
Over the next decade, Harvey learned the trade working in various flower shops in Brockville and Ottawa, Ontario, and Strathmore, Alberta; got married; and had a daughter, now 11, and a son, who is 9. When she returned to Canada Blooms on her own in 2011, she told Artistic Director Colomba Fuller: “I’ve got to be part of this.” She got her wish the following year, and took four months, working with a team, to create a well-received hot pink gown.
“I just wanted to blow them out of the water.” It was a great feeling taking her place among high-calibre professionals, she said, and it also become her entrée to begin freelancing with internationally renowned designers such as Preston Bailey. She has also helped design for the prime minister of Canada, the prince and princess of the Netherlands, Elton John, Hillary Clinton and others she can’t name because of confidentiality agreements.
Harvey was inducted into the Canadian Academy of Floral Art in 2014. Canadian Florist magazine chose her as one of our “Top 10 under 40” after the inaugural contest that same year. For this year’s Canada Blooms, Harvey designed a 30-foot by 15-foot arch covered in blooms, a booth, a mini garden, and funeral-themed floral display. She also participated in pick Ontario’s Floral Superstars’ bouquet battle, during which panelists design bouquets in 45 minutes and give them away to audience members.
Such stage shows give Harvey ways to integrate dance and theatre into her career, such as performing a few steps on stage to get the crowd moving. She believes all arts are interconnected. “If you have it in your blood, you just can’t get rid of it,” she said. “I don’t think I could go a day without dance. It’s part of my soul.”
“The theatre thing comes out when you’re doing event design,” she said. “You’re creating space and a whole different atmosphere for people.” Her actor’s intuition about how to portray emotions translates into helping customers choose appropriate sympathy arrangements, for example. “I love to see people express their emotions through my art.”
As much as Harvey loves the artistic side of the business, she also likes the scientific and mathematical aspects. She enjoys learning and applying botany and chemistry so that plants and flowers live longer, or studying the optimal margins for successful sales, or memorizing Latin to order flowers from growers in other countries. It’s much more than just knowing your colours, she said. “You have to learn how to take care of them, conditioning and light levels, water pH balances.”
Harvey thrives whether working on weddings that cost anywhere from $150 to $7 million, or showing her daughter’s class a Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day project. She recently recorded an episode to air in June for the second season of “Blind Sighted,” a television show hosted by Kelly MacDonald, a blind reporter with Accessible Media Inc. While previous episodes have found him learning to surf, trying indoor skydiving or interviewing actors, he took a stab at floral design with Harvey.
“It’s all about texture and scent” and communication when you can’t see, said Harvey, who has worked before with blind and deaf people and also with autistic students. It helps to show you have a sense of humour because people with disabilities too often encounter those who are uncomfortable with their differences, she said. “It’s not about perfection. It’s about the
therapy that goes with it.”
For example, when Harvey worked with battered women, handling flowers was mostly about creating something beautiful at an ugly time in their lives. “I like to use this medium to do that for people,” she said. “I think everybody should do floral design.”