Wunderkind floral designer going for gold at the world’s “floral Olympics”
By Kristi Kates | April 7, 2018
Grand Traverse flower fans know Derek Woodruff well. His Traverse City business, Floral Underground, is well-known for its gorgeous floral arrangements, and for Woodruff’s propensity to settle for nothing less than the best.
While Woodruff regularly competes in more modest flower arranging events, he’s now entering what he called “the big kahuna” of florist competitions — the FTD America’s Cup, which could make his career blossom like never before.
While he’s been a Traverse City resident for a dozen years now, Woodruff actually grew up in Jackson, Michigan, where his interest in floral design started in a roundabout way.
“When I was in high school — vocational school, actually, at the Jackson Area Career Center — I had to do the career-aptitude testing thing. I was interested in botany, so plant sciences drew me in,” he said.
He applied to the plant sciences program, but that turned out to offer exactly two choices: landscape architecture or floral design.
“I didn’t want to be doing heavy lifting, so I chose floral design. Little did I know there’s heavy lifting in floral design, too,” Woodruff added with a laugh.
His teachers at the time were involved with the Michigan Floral Association, and they brought Woodruff to an association convention in Lansing.
“That’s where I competed in my first competition, at 16 years old, in the student division,” Woodruff said.
He had to bring in a themed flower arrangement that he’d created himself, following the competition theme of “Evasive Love.” Part of the appeal of floral design for Woodruff is that it involves similar qualities as “classic” art — using color, harmony, and balance. He said he found he was good at floral design right from the start.
“I used analogous colors (three colors that reside next to each other on the color wheel) — blue, green, and purple — and I won,” he said. “That’s when my obsession began.”
While still in high school, he began working at a local flower shop, later attending the horticulture program at Lansing Community College. After a road trip with a friend brought him up north (“I fell in love with it here, and had to come back,” Woodruff said), he moved to Traverse City and completed his degree at NMC. He started Floral Underground in 2008, when he was just 22 years old.
MOVING ON UP
“Starting Floral Underground was a pivotal moment for me in reaching adulthood,” he said, “Sitting there thinking, ‘What’s the next step in my career?’”
At first, he focused on flower arranging for weddings and special events.
“The hardest part was finances,” he said. “I didn’t have a place to work out of, really, so I’d just temporarily rent studio space as I needed it per event. I finally saved up and got my own longer-term space in 2009.”
Since then, Floral Underground has moved “almost every year,” Woodruff said with a chuckle.
“My business has gone through a lot of metamorphosis. I’ve alternated between having a storefront and focusing on retail florals, wedding florals, and corporate events. Now I’m doing a floral subscription box exclusively, which is going very well.”
Woodruff’s service is simple to use — you choose how often you would like flowers delivered — and it also allows his clients to add in a little creativity of their own.
“I definitely based my floral subscription box idea on food subscription services like Blue Apron,” he said.
But instead of culinary ingredients, you get a box of floral “ingredients” — flowers, greens, and a container to arrange them in. Along with those items, you also get an instructional video from Woodruff that explains how to arrange your flowers.
Additional videos on his website showcase even more D.I.Y techniques, helping you craft diverse floral arrangements like the “Regal Garden,” “Antique Autumn,” the “Peachy Keen,” and the “Chartreuse with Envy.”
“We’ve only got a day or so delivery range, though, so that the floral ingredients always arrive fresh,” explained Woodruff. “So by FedEx, right now we send as far west as Missouri, out to the majority of the East Coast, and as far south as Kentucky.”
Even with all of the above happening, Woodruff’s competitive spirit is very much active. Which is why he still pursues floral competitions every year, sometimes up to three in one year. Honors he’s won most recently include second place in the 2015 Sylvia Cup Competition (Society of American Florists) on Marco Island; second place in the Academy Division of the 2016 Michigan Floral Association competition; and first place in the 2016 Sylvia Cup Competition (Society of American Florists) in Maui, Hawaii.
“And every four years is the FTD World Cup, which is held in a different country [each time],” he explained. “In 2015, it was held in Berlin; in 2019 it will take place in Philadelphia. Everyone in our industry considers that competition the ‘floral Olympics.’”
The (florists’) America’s Cup, which takes place this year, June 30–July 4 in Washington DC., is the qualifier for the 2019 World Cup. Woodruff has already been accepted as one of the 10 competitors for the America’s Cup, which will set him up to go to the World Cup if he wins first place.
To become one of the chosen ten, Woodruff had to submit what he called a “rigorous application.”
“You have to include all of your competition history and a lot of additional information,” he said, “and you also have to send in a portfolio of work based on their parameters. They sent us a PowerPoint presentation, and we had to plug in photos of our own creations. You also have to be an FTD member, which I wasn’t because I was more of an independent creative designer — but I am now!”
He found out he was one of the elite 10 in November 2017, and he’s been … well, not really preparing for the competition ever since.
“I’m very excited about it, but I’m also trying to not think about it,” he said. “I tend to overthink and mess things up!”
The 10 competitors pay for their own transportation to the event as well as their own hotel, but FTD covers all of the additional expenses, such as conference and entry fees and floral supplies.
“It can get expensive, but FTD’s support helps, and I also have a private sponsor,” Woodruff said.
For the four-round America’s Cup competition in DC, the 10 competitors will start the first round by building a floral piece on site, bringing their own plan and all of their own floral ingredients.
“Then, the second, third, and fourth rounds are more in the style of the Chopped TV show, where everybody gets a box of mystery floral ingredients, and you have to craft your arrangement live and in a predetermined amount of time,” Woodruff said. “I actually do better at those kind of competitions — the fast decisions — than I do when you have to plan everything out ahead.”
One of Woodruff’s particular floral design strengths is his attention to detail. While the different competitions all offer varying levels of pressure, he said he takes his time and focuses on the things he needs to do to make his work stand out.
“I like doing the detail work first — sometimes I’ll braid foliage, or use petal techniques to fold or roll the petals on the flowers to make them look different,” he said.
“The last competition I was in, I used peach and orange roses, plus some branches, pods, and seeds, and I spent the first 10 minutes of the 30 minutes allotted folding all of the leaves on my foliage accordion-style. The audience was probably wondering what on earth I was doing, and I was the last competitor to actually get flowers in my vase – but I won.”
Woodruff surmises that the reason he typically does well in competitions is that he always, in spite of his earlier protestations about not thinking too far ahead, does make a plan.
“I make sure I know and study the parameters on which I’ll be judged,” he said. “And I keep things clean and simple. They’ll often give you too many floral ingredients on purpose, to see what kind of decisions you make under pressure. Some people try to use all of it; I only use exactly what I need.”
Winning the America’s Cup qualifier and moving on to the FTD World Cup is something that’s been on Woodruff’s bucket list; but he said either way, he’ll be glad he got to participate – and either way, he’s already got plenty of ideas for his future potential.
“If I don’t win, I’ll just be grateful for whichever place I get, because this will be the biggest competition that I’ve done yet. And of course I’ll just continue trying to grow my business here in Traverse City. But you know, there’s also this running joke between me and all of the people who know me — that I ‘just wanna be famous,’” he said.
“When I was in high school, I thought maybe I’d be an actor. Then, I was on a TV show about florists called The Arrangement (previously on LOGO, now available on iTunes), and I was the second runner-up on that show, although that was eight years ago. I do love the actual competition part — people engaged and watching what’s happening.”
“But I love the attention and the pressure and the fame the most. So if there’s ever another lifestyle TV show that needs a florist — well, let me be on it, because I’d love to be that florist!”
For more information, visit Floral Underground at floralunderground.com.
Top Tips from Derek Woodruff
Want to arrange flowers like a pro? These tips from Woodruff will help you get the right look right at home!
GROCERY STORE UPGRADE
“When you bring home a bouquet from the market, separate each individual stem and lay them on your kitchen counter. Next, remove all of the foliage that will be below the waterline in your vase. Mix the flower food packet into cold water in the vase. Then arrange the flowers in your hand like a hand-held bouquet, give the flowers a fresh cut, and set the finished arrangement into the vase.”
MAKE LILACS LAST
“Spring lilacs will soon be in bloom. To get the longest vase life out of your lilacs, all they need is a fresh cut, and very cold water. There is no need for floral food in the vase — this doesn't help lilacs last any longer. Unlike ‘regular’ bouquets, the true secret to getting cut lilacs to last the longest is to leave as many leaves on the stems as possible; this helps with water uptake in the stems to keep the flowers hydrated and prevent premature wilt.”
CHECK FOR ‘CHOKE POINT’
“Some people think that they just can't make a bouquet look pretty, and one hurdle with that may be your choice of vase. A vase that has a good choke point (an area in the vase that is cinched — think hourglass shaped) makes for easy arranging. This is because the choke of a vase helps keep stems where you want them, and allows you to naturally crisscross stems when arranging.”
“One summer floral trend that I see coming our way is a combination of nude/neutral colors mixed with darker, bolder colors, such as plum purple and rich burgundy. This, in combination with lots of lush greenery, makes for a wild, contrasting, and exciting look that will spruce up any table or event in the coming season.”
Northern Michigan produces some of the most gorgeous blooms in the country. Though our growing season may be short, our crop production is lavish. Peonies the size of softballs and sunflowers as big as your head are some of the great blooms you can find at local farmers markets. Of course it’s easy to just grab a grocery store bouquet when you’re buying that evening's meal, but keep in mind that a trip to the weekly farmers market can get you some of the best and freshest cut flowers in the nation!