Just two weeks after visiting Frederick for the first time, Anne Warnock packed up her life in New York City and moved south. About a decade later, Django Voris and Mark Gagnon followed her.
The three friends sat on a Market Street patio last weekend, their surroundings a jungle-like oasis in the heart of the much-smaller city they now call home. Rows of flowers peeked through pots of rich soil, and scores of leafy plants spilled over the edges of their containers.
“Watering alone is an endless, frustratingly complicated task,” Voris said, gesturing toward the teeming garden behind him. A fountain bubbled as the spring breeze nudged a gentle chorus of windchimes into action, and a small dog named Oogie jumped into his lap.
Voris, Warnock and Gagnon are the owners of Big Lush Plants & Flowers, an eclectic downtown garden shop offering potted plants, vintage knick-knacks and custom design services. Since its quiet opening in 2019, the store has built a steady base of customers who are drawn to its unique approach.
For the three owners, the project is an artistic outlet, as well as a community service.
Warnock, Voris and Gagnon, raised in Northern England, Arizona and Ohio, respectively, each eventually found themselves immersed in the world of New York City art and fashion. Warnock got her start as a fashion assistant at Vogue (after being a live-in nanny for the children of Anna Wintour, Vogue’s editor-in-chief and the supposed inspiration for Meryl Streep’s character in “The Devil Wears Prada”). Gagnon, a painter and sculptor, worked as an illustrator and created window displays while in Manhattan.
Big Lush, though, was born out of Voris’ experience. Working for a Manhattan florist, he began to fall in love with plants. He’d been an event planner before but had no real familiarity with horticulture or arrangements.
Now, he mixes his own soil and tends a greenhouse he built out back. He said his skills, coupled with Gagnon’s artistic creativity and Warnock’s passion for the abstract — textures, colors, shapes — are what make the shop a cohesive space.
The store, on the 300 block of North Market Street, is colorful and airy, dotted with vintage oddities and Gagnon’s ornate papier-mache sculptures. After walking through a main room that bursts with greenery, customers can peruse an open-air market space and a patio garden that doubles as Voris and Gagnon’s backyard (their apartment is adjacent to the shop).
Big Lush offers a wide array of house and garden plants, many of which the owners grow themselves from seeds. They want their offerings to be accessible, Warnock said — mostly affordable varieties that amateur growers can keep alive.
And while flowers are a significant part of their business model, you won’t see any bouquets in the store. Fresh flowers begin to wilt if they’re not sold within a few days of picking, often resulting in wasted resources and missed revenue, Voris said. Instead, he makes his arrangements “to order,” asking customers to call a few days in advance. Then, Voris can head out to one of the local farms Big Lush is partnered with, pick in-season flowers, and arrange them.
“We don’t want to be that place that you call at the last minute and get some roses,” Voris said. It’s an art form, Warnock added; it’s not just about making Valentine’s Day deliveries.
The shop also offers in-home services for customers looking to develop a garden or planters that fit their space. When coronavirus worries ease, the owners hope to host community events and activities on their patio space.
Warnock, who owns the organic hair salon Sam Wong Salon with her husband just across the lot from Big Lush, said the Big Lush team uses organic products whenever possible and works hard to reduce waste. All three owners are dead-set on running a sustainable business.
People have been responsive to that mission, Warnock said. Though the pandemic was devastating for many small businesses, Big Lush stayed steady, as quarantined customers turned to gardening as a way to stay sane, Voris said, although the store doesn’t get much foot traffic. Still, all three owners are happy with their location. They wanted to do business in the area of town where they live, not just the one with the most pedestrians, Warnock said. They hope to gradually help expand the epicenter of downtown and draw customers who live north of the city’s center.
Leaving Manhattan for Frederick was something of a leap of faith, Gagnon said. And while the store isn’t paying any of them a profit yet, he’s proud to have built a self-sustaining business that he hopes brings nature, art and beauty to his new home.
“We came out here with no capital — just ideas,” he said. “And we’re literally making it happen.”
Follow Jillian Atelsek on Twitter: @jillian_atelsek