Gardening

Emily Heller and The Art of Edible Flowers

On Wednesdays and Saturdays, as you walk through the Uptown Farmers' Market, you will likely spot a booth named Bene Vivendo, which means "The Good Life." Dried wreaths hang from the awning, and you can smell fresh herbs like oregano and basil and admire the aromatic hibiscus tea mix packets, as well as the colorful edible flowers.

At the center of the good life is Emily Heller, a journalist turned gardener and a cultivator of edible flowers, hibiscus, vegetables, and fruit using organic methods.

She began her gardening journey in 2014 and found her calling.

"I decided to become a master gardener not for the credentials, but from a learning standpoint. It is a framework of learning that fueled me very much," Heller says.

She enrolled in the beginning training farmer program at The University of Arizona Extension, and throughout this period, she continued her work as a journalist. She found the courses quite comprehensive because they taught her something beyond gardening. The classes taught her about soil, growing, and working in the marketplace.

click to enlarge Heller grows edible flowers that she sells at market. - RUDRI BHATT PATEL
Heller grows edible flowers that she sells at market.
Rudri Bhatt Patel

And she had an epiphany. She left journalism to dedicate her attention to growing and gardening full-time.

"I realized I was enjoying my growing so much. The more I grew, the more programs I took, the more learning I did. I realized gardening appealed to me in a deep sense as if my genetic and family background was speaking to me."

Her customers will attest to Heller's zeal for growing.

"When she first started, she didn't even realize the nasturtiums were edible. She has become something magical. I have two of her wreaths from two years ago, and they have lasted. She's just done wonderful, wonderful things through her emergence. She studies everything and is knowledgeable, and she is a bright light in my life," says Phoenix resident Caren Spotnitz. Since it opened, she's visited the market and has enjoyed Heller's evolution.

Heller talks about her beginnings and how her evolution occurred. In 2015, she started bringing her vegetables and a few flowers to Community Exchange, and then she moved to the Downtown Phoenix Farmers' Market. Emily didn't bring things in at the market and dump her bounty on the table but stayed.

"You have to understand the marketplace and your customers," she says. "I stayed at the market and talked to people and learned so much about what people were interested in, and they were so responsive and interested in what I was doing because the way I approached growing activities is information and education and sharing that with people," Heller adds.

This approach pairs well with her master gardener sensibilities. "Master gardeners are teachers, and our number one job is to volunteer and share information to help them make their gardens successful." Half of her customers love talking about their gardens with her.

She emphasizes the importance of flowers in a small farm environment because they are sources of nectar and pollen, attracting national pollinators and beneficial insects. "I started regularly growing flowers. I garden like a farmer. I plant and remove crops like a farmer would and make the soil as
productive as possible," says Heller.

Adding flowers became a benefit to her ecosystem and beauty. "People are always astounded what you can grow in the desert. Nasturtium is one of the first flowers I grew, and it happens to be edible. By being at the market and talking to people, I found that there was a huge interest in edible flowers. When I offer something that is edible, it is not only beautiful and delicious but safe for someone to eat."

She also enjoys growing hibiscus. With her hibiscus, she has recipes that she displays in her booth. People can enjoy tea, but there are recipes for chutneys, tart with ginger snaps, or poached pears with hibiscus.

She leases farmland in Chandler from Greenhouse Gardens to grow the hibiscus. Hibiscus is a large plant and a row crop. In 2021, she had 180 to 200 linear feet of the hibiscus crop. She explains that it is a tropical plant and can grow in the low desert. "They grow six to seven feet tall. It is extremely heat-tolerant and needs deep water."

She plants in April or early May from seeds she saves from the previous year's crop. "It grows pretty rapidly during the summer. It accepts our summer conditions and actually thrives. It is a tropical plant that is grown around the world, and it is native to Africa," Heller says.

In terms of taste, it is very fruity and aromatic. "It is tangy, and some people might say tart. It has a cranberry, pomegranate flavor," says Heller. You can drink it as a hot or ice tea. As a drink, it goes with everything, citrus, ginger, cinnamon, and all the warm aromatic spices. Hibiscus is delicious, refreshing, and hydrating.
click to enlarge Emily grows her hibiscus on farmland she leases in Chandler. - FRAN HELLER
Emily grows her hibiscus on farmland she leases in Chandler.
Fran Heller
"My harvest for fresh hibiscus starts in October. When I offer fresh hibiscus, it goes with savory things. I created a salsa recipe with her customers. The dry hibiscus can be eaten plain or mixed with tea. You can enjoy it in lots of different ways. You can even make candied hibiscus," says Heller.

Heller has found her groove and calling with gardening. She enjoys what she does, and she doesn't view it as a job. "Growing and making things that people have never seen before that are beautiful, delicious, and meaningful. This is why I do what I do."

"I have a great amount of joy when someone walks up, even if they don't purchase something, and they say, Wow, that's beautiful. Even though they don't purchase, I know that I've done well. That is a type of payment separate from remuneration. It is so rewarding to do this. It is not just feeding people food, but it is putting joy, beauty, and gratitude in the world. This is a very powerful experience," says Heller.

Find Emily on Instagram at Bene Vivendo, or visit her at Uptown Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays.