In the flower trade they call him “Thierry the Firecracker” or “The Colourist”. Two nicknames that suit Thierry Féret down to the ground and which could apply equally well to his floral creations. Bouquets that are...
Like a flower breaking through the asphalt, the green space that is Plein Air has sprung up unexpectedly between the apartment blocks in the 20th arrondissement of Paris. Long dreamed of, then brought to life in 2017 by the expert hands of Masami Charlotte Lavault, this flower farm is the first to see the light of day in the megalopolis. The project of a lifetime for this enthusiast who has trained all over the world in the innovative biodynamic method of floriculture. Africa, Asia: the former industrial designer-turned-grower scoured the continents in search of lessons in line with her values. Several years of learning about the world of plants and nature abroad are now reflected in a 1200m2 field in Paris. Together with her partner Anna Bauer, the flower grower produces hundreds of species of flowers on this plot, all of them following the seasonal pattern. Because here, we only cultivate what grows in the course of each month! An anthology of plant types that brings the pinnacle of French production up to date. So many plants, all carefully collected by Masami, make up the wealth of Plein Air. Ecologically sound treatment of the soil with a system of bacteria used as probiotics, distribution via a short supply chain to local florists: from cultivation to harvesting, right up to the arrival of the produce on the shelves, the entrepreneur is breathing new life into the profession, something which many welcome with pleasure. Starting with the happy neighbours who live surrounding the field. Constantly driven by the desire to discover new species of plants and to pass on their secrets during workshops held on the farm, the founder of Plein Air is noted for her taste for passing on her knowledge. A new player in the world of floriculture who is successfully shaking up a polluting industry that is struggling to question itself.
40 rue du Télégraphe, 75020 Paris. Guided tour of the flower farm and outdoor workshop programme. Find all the information on their website www.pleinair.paris
Masami: Can you introduce yourself, please?
I am Masami Charlotte Lavault, 33 years old and Franco-Japanese. In 2017, I established Plein Air, the first flower farm in Paris.
What is your background?
I was an industrial designer in London before turning to agriculture eight years ago. After several agricultural trips to Morocco, England and Japan to train specifically in biodynamic farming and the agricultural use of micro-organisms, I decided to return to France, to Paris. I set up my own farm in my home town. This new life ended a decade of expatriate living, which began with my move to Austria and then England for my studies. As soon as I returned, I started looking for an urban plot of land in Paris or the Ile-de-France region where I could plant my flower field project. It’s been a long and lonely road, but in the autumn of 2017, I planted my first seedlings at Plein Air, a 1200m2 plot tucked away behind the Belleville Cemetery in the 20th arrondissement of Paris.
Tell us about your interest in the living world.
I was born in Paris and have always lived in metropolises, particularly European capitals. Etymologically, the urban and the rural are closely linked: the word city comes from the Latin villa, “country house”. The collective imagination sees life in a very bucolic way, yet cities are teeming with life. This is often the criticism: the city is teeming with human life, but we forget all the fauna and flora that are very specific to it. This is the life I grew up with and to which I am very attached.
Masami, your life change has also led you to pursue your training as a flower grower well off the beaten track. What lessons have you learned from your change in career?
I was indeed trained “on the job” and, as I like to put it, “on the compost heap”. I’ve digested many influences: the opinions and methods of the people running the farms where I’ve worked, the books, articles and studies I’ve read, the advice of individuals who have carried out projects that I admire. And, finally, the sometimes harsh lessons learned from my own farming experience have informed my learning. I didn’t have an academic agricultural education, but I educated myself by going out and practising early on. This approach seemed to me to be crucial from the very beginning of a project: I dreamed of my flower farm while I was doing it, thought about it while I was building it, and this is still the case today. A career change that – for the past fifteen years or so – has led me to embrace a rather precarious lifestyle, encouraging me to dare to go and work on a variety of farms. I had absolutely nothing to lose; I didn’t leave comfort for simplicity, quite the opposite. The negative, the discomfort have very often been the driving force for me.
I was indeed trained "on the job" and, as I like to put it, "on the compost heap". I've digested many influence.
Plein Air is an urban flower farm distinguished by its innovative biodynamic farming method. Why did you make this choice?
I worked on two biodynamic farms, which simply convinced me by the way they worked. They were absolutely beautiful, like the ones you see in children’s books. Before that, I had also lived for five years in Vienna, Austria, the home of Rudolf Steiner, the theorist behind this innovative form of culture. His precepts were more visible in everyday life – through Steiner schools, Montessori nurseries and so on.
Which figures and personalities have influenced your work in floriculture?
As I mentioned earlier, Rudolf Steiner and his Course for Farmers (1924) have nourished my work as a flower grower. Maria Thun, who has studied and practised Steiner’s theories for decades, inspires me too. The traditional Japanese floral art, ikebana, also informs my work in the field as this form of agriculture invites us to consider and celebrate each flower stem. It is a vision of flora that implies immense respect for living things, which is fundamental to my daily life. Finally, I am grateful to Erin Benzakein of Floret Flowers Farm in the United States, who was kind enough to believe in me and offer me a scholarship for her floriculture training.
What kind of flowers do you grow here?
Several hundred different flowers. From an economic point of view, this huge diversity is nonsense because it makes the farm and its management extremely complex. Nevertheless, it is a real joy for me to be around so many different varieties. And then, a farming life flies by: let’s say I continue to do this job until I’m 70, that will only leave me 37 seasons, 37 trials, because each year is completely unique. So I feel a great sense of urgency to learn quickly and a lot about plants, which leads me to cultivate a very wide range.
Your project also reintegrates vegetation into urban areas. What is your relationship with the city?
There is a real dissonance between the rhythm of the field, which is basically long term: species that take nine months on average to flower, and some plants planted two or three years ago that still haven’t bloomed. The city, on the other hand, is characterised by a certain abundance, rapid availability everywhere and all the time. It is this time lag that seems to me to be the greatest challenge for Plein Air, and it’s what I find most frustrating on a daily basis.
Your flower field is located in the 20th arrondissement of Paris. How has the project been received by the neighbourhood?
Quite well, I think! One day I went to present my farm at the condominium meeting of the big block of apartments that overlooks the field. I took the opportunity to apologise to those neighbours who had an unobstructed view of… a huge 400m2 black plastic tarpaulin that I had deployed to defeat a dreaded invasive weed, couch grass. One of the women present at the meeting kindly and poetically replied that she could hear the sound of the rain better since it was put in place.
The traditional Japanese floral art, ikebana, also informs my work in the field. This form of agriculture invites us to consider and celebrate each flower stem.
How do you organise the flower production in your field, and how do you distribute the flowers?
Plein Air’s flower production is now complemented by a second 2000m2 organic flower plot that I am cultivating for the second year running in a market garden in the Perche region of Lower Normandy. The Paris and Perche harvests are routinely sold by click&collect on our website www.pleinair.paris, and at the flower markets that we organise in the field, usually on Saturday afternoons. All our openings, sales, workshops and events are posted on our website and via social networks.
Which season is your favourite?
I really enjoy the beginning and end of each season. On the farm, each cycle brings us closer to or further away from something difficult – frost, hail, scarcity, heatwave, drought, heavy thunderstorms, continuous rain, slugs, scouring… – and something pleasurable – a new bloom, beautiful light, an abundance of flowers, even the prospect of a little rest.
If you were to give us five tips for creating/maintaining a terrace in the city, what would they be?
I would advise you to choose plants adapted to a climate that is becoming more and more extreme. When you search on the internet, be sure to check the plant’s hardiness, its ability to withstand both hot and cold temperatures. It is also important that these species are suitable for the orientation of your home: putting Mediterranean plants in north-facing planters will doom them. Remember that they are living beings and not inert decorative objects. If you know that you will be away, you must obviously think about access to water so that your plants don’t run out. I also suggest you try to buy responsibly produced plants: by the LA SAUGE associations in Paris and Nantes, or Pépins Production in Paris and Marseille, for example. If your body allows you to, try to cultivate and maintain them yourself every day. It’s a great joy and a very positive kind of fatigue!
Where will we find you in the coming months?
In the field!
Photographies : Valerio Geraci – Text : Juliette Bruneau @thesocialitefamily