Bloom Where You’re Planted
At her Westbrook flower shop, Petalage, Michelle Glassman combines elevated floral design with a sampling of lovely objects.
Some people’s career paths run like an allée of boxwood in a formal French garden: straight, smooth, unswerving. Others find a more meandering way, like a path in a romantic English garden that turns unexpected corners and doubles back on itself. Michelle Glassman of Westbrook flower shop Petalage would be the first to say that her path has been of the latter kind—but at least it has been strewn with flowers.
Glassman laughs as she begins telling her story. “I never had a special affinity for flowers. My mom wasn’t a gardener. I didn’t work in a flower shop for years and years, you know, sweeping the floor. But I’ve always been creative,” she says. Putting aside her artistic impulses and thinking practically, she studied pre-law in college and found herself working first in commercial property management, then real estate after graduation. But following a move for her husband’s job from Massachusetts to Portland, she says, “I felt like this was the opportunity to sort of start fresh.”
Looking for a new creative outlet in her new hometown, Glassman began putting together bouquets with the most basic of ingredients: grocery store flowers. “I was going to the grocery store, getting flowers, and doing photo shoots with my sisters,” she recalls. The fun and satisfaction she got from creating bouquets led her to her next, cautious step: “I went to MECA for a five-class program, just to learn the basics [of flower arranging]. At that time, I was still trying to figure out what I was doing. Because I was scared to leave all this security, all of a sudden, to do flowers.” Soon she found herself doing small weddings for folks who saw her photographs of arrangements on social media.
The wedding work grew the following summer, thanks to Glassman’s listing her services on Thumbtack, a website that connects people to local professionals. “I put myself on Thumbtack to try and get wedding leads with barely any experience besides doing photo shoots and things like that with my sisters. But I was genuinely booking these weddings on Thumbtack. I was obviously booking more weddings than I was house showings,” she recalls. “And I thought, Okay, I just need to let this all go.” She took the plunge, leaving real estate behind and committing to flowers. Her gamble paid off as wedding work increased, even over the pandemic summer of 2020. “I bumped up to about 15 weddings, which was a lot to me at the time. And they were full-scale, bigger budget events,” she says. Glassman also transformed the garage of her North Deering home into a floral studio. “People would pick up orders on my front porch, on my flower cart. I began to be known for my little flower cart,” she says.
But the garage could only hold so many flowers, and she began to tentatively plan for a bigger space. “My husband and I were looking for a while, although I didn’t really know if I wanted to do retail and commit to a store. I was scared to do it, because signing a lease is a real commitment.” With Portland retail out of the price range of a floral start-up, they looked up and down the southern coast for the perfect spot before settling on Westbrook.
Tucked behind the Mills Barbershop on Main Street in Westbrook, in a freshly renovated space owned by the proprietors of Roots Cafe, Petalage feels like a hidden oasis, especially on a chilly winter’s day. Fresh flowers sit in buckets on the floor, waiting to be trimmed and bundled into bouquets. The fridges at the back of the room are filled with more blooms. On the countertop, a selection of her “elevated grab-and-go” arrangements (“I’m known for them,” she notes), wrapped in plain brown paper, awaits impulse buyers. For those who want something that will last, an assortment of artfully arranged dried flower wreaths adorn a wall, while dried flower bouquets spill out of weathered wood boxes on the floor. Glassman has curated a selection of lovely add-on presents too: scented
candles from Santa Monica with cheeky sayings, botanical hand salves from Fresh Pickins of Cape Elizabeth, and T-shirts from Maine artist Ramble Row that proudly proclaim “botanical babe.” Of course, there are plenty of vases, both of glass and pottery, in which to display Glassman’s arrangements to their best advantage. She is passionate about matching the vase to the flowers, and especially about making sure that the flowers do not sit too high in the vase. (See the final tip in our sidebar about caring for cut flowers.)
And even if Glassman is a little wistful about not being right on the street with a giant window display of blooms, people do find her and her flowers. “My Instagram followers and those people who I’ve built a relationship with know I am here,” she says. “I do think that, if you can do your marketing and branding, there’s still room for you in the world as a retailer.” There are still walk-ins, too. While I linger in the warmth and sweet scent of the flower studio on that chilly day, a client from the barber shop wanders in to pick up a bouquet for his girlfriend. Glassman helps him select the perfect grab-and-go bouquet and a little something extra, and he leaves laden with presents. Glassman smiles happily. “I think I am not talking myself up or trying to sound full of myself, but I do think that I have a fresh new concept, especially for flowers,” she says.
When someone buys flowers from her in the shop, Glassman includes a beautifully illustrated card with her flower care tips. They’re useful whether you’ve got one of her handcrafted bouquets, a bunch of early spring blooms from the farmers’ market, or grocery store flowers to look after.
•Make sure the water is always fresh! Flowers will stay alive longer if you change their water every couple of days.
•Give all stems a fresh cut before putting them in water, and trim them every few days. This helps them take up that nice clean water.
•Glassman gets a bit more poetic with her next tip: “Let flowers dance!” If your bouquet has come taped together or held with a tie, remove it so that the blooms can fall in the vase more naturally.
•Keep your arrangement out of direct sunlight. Since they’re no longer growing, sunlight won’t help your flowers—and the sun’s heat may actually dry them out faster. Better to keep them in a shadier spot where they can stay cool.
•It may sound like an old wives’ tale, but putting a penny in the bottom of the vase really can extend the lifespan of your bouquet. Copper is a fungicide that helps kill the bacteria that build up on cut stems.
•Finally, be thoughtful about the height of your flowers in their vase! Glassman is emphatic that flower heads should sit slightly above the lip of the vase and have varying heights “for whimsy.” Bouquets will appear fuller and more generous when they sit lower in the vase—experiment with your next arrangement and see.