District Boss Interview: Maria Young of Darling and Daughters
Meet Maria Young, the founder of Darling and Daughters Floral
A stunning bouquet can brighten any space, and anyone can appreciate its beauty. But no two floral arrangements, like the flowers themselves, are alike and it takes a trained eye and able hand to recognize it. Maria Young of Darling and Daughters treats each element of her floral arrangements with unique care and a special touch. Each photo we see of her work appears more beautiful than the next, and each piece feels custom made because she takes the time to get to know her client and her medium so well. Her dedication to arranging in-season blooms proves her love of flowers and skill in creating the perfect arrangement. Beyond her creativity, we love her warmth and kind energy that every bouquet exhumes.
1. Tell us about your business!
Darling & Daughters was more or less a side-dream my sister Catherine and I developed when I moved back here from the Midwest just over five years ago. I design primarily, and run the behind-the-scenes communication end, and my sister assists, preps, keeps the studio trim and pretty, and as of this spring, will be previewing her commissioned watercolor paintings of bridal bouquets and other elements. We take on freelance designers and assistants for event work in the spring, summer, and fall, and all year round deliver flowers to standing order clients as well. We try to source well, using farmers we love (Laura Beth at Butterbee and Carol at Plantmasters, to start!) as well as trusted wholesalers, and in the warmer months, our own cutting gardens. We forage constantly so that our designs reflect the season at hand, and we take on limited events so that we can fully focus on each.
Background: My mother, Robin Anne Darling, is the Matriarch of our family (at dinner she would sit in her Matriarchal chair and I thought this was perfectly normal as a kid). She and my dad made the five of us live outside every day before dinner - we were just up the hill from the Potomac in Glen Echo, and I remember loving how my mom and then my older sisters would collect dried things, beautiful weeds, stones and tie them together and leave them in the house as shrines of a sort. My sisters were both artists and I loved the way they used their oil paints to make colors change; more on that development is kind of answered in the next question, because I spent a decade in the Midwest and I will always attribute how I work now to that era.
Anyway! the stars were aligned in certain ways for D&D - I was kind of in a free-fall with no set career path (training with a florist, which paid nothing, and also waiting tables) but loving flowers and the calm I felt around them, and Catherine, who stayed home with her kids when they were little and then spearheaded an anti-pesticide campaign in Montgomery County, thought we could take on events with a sustainable edge. My daughter's birth brought another gift with it: the most intense drive to succeed and create a good life for my little family. We began taking on more events. It was nuts - tiny-but-growing infant, tiny-but-growing business. I know now that human beings - women in particular - can go without sleep for freakishly longer than any scientific journal could show with the right motivation.
I want to be very careful to underscore that with all the hard work and hard lessons, we have been beyond lucky to have met incredible women in the event industry here who have encouraged and pushed D&D forward - not least of all Tiffany MacIsaac of Buttercream Bakeshop, who gave our name to planners before we had any weddings or large events in the books.
As we've found success with events, I've also used the experience from working in a full flower shop to make sure that we supplement with standing orders for corporate and residential clients, which not only helps to spread our name, but also makes booking events far less stressful since we don't have to have x many weddings per month to survive. I would underline-bold-italicize my gratitude that we have the best clients - we expect trust and in return always want to blow them away with the unexpected in the designs they commission.
2. What led you to where you are today?
Other than the above, a woman named Erika Yochum and her beautiful farm-to-table restaurant I managed in the Midwest. She taught me about love for a true Feast, the look of a table adorned with food and flowers, whiskey and wine - she is the most graceful artist (with food and life) I've ever met, and I'll be in love with her forever. Her beloved farmers would bring her odd produce, and she'd use it on the fly. If you stepped into her cafe, you'd never want to leave. It's full of divine pastries, funky wines, and her mother's flowers and foraged/dry designs adorning every surface. She finds joy in the hardest stressful moments, she works more than any human I've met and gets more beautiful with age, and she loves the art of temporal pleasure. When I left the Midwest, I think I left part of my heart there, and I want to bring the wild and sumptuous feelings I somehow was lucky enough to experience into each design I present.
3. What brings you the most joy when designing floral arrangements?
The unexpected elements - right now I have three buckets of foraged wild rose vines waiting to be added, and some kind of beautiful burgundy blossoming branches from a tree in an abandoned lot. I love lush focal flowers (dahlias, garden roses), but I also love a flower that you have to really stare at, like nigella/love-in-a-mist, and cosmos, and phlox, to understand that if there is a divine spirit, She is so present in the shape of odd flowers.
4. What’s the best part of being an entrepreneur? The most difficult part?
Hard part first: the letdowns you inevitably face - sending a proposal that you've poured hours and so much thought and excitement into, and losing the client for one reason or another. It happens, but it's disappointing and makes me question each step in the process and obsess over what I could have done differently. Losing hours that can't be regained on a project that dead-ends is frustrating, especially when in retrospect, it could've been avoided.
The best part is that moment that you realize, and I mean that stop-in-your-tracks-moment, after not realizing even when people you trust tell you over and over, after designing flowers for people you really admire in this city, that you are making a good business work and that you are sustaining yourself and your little family. The better-than-best part is sometimes even thinking that you earned it, even with lucky breaks configured.
I've poured blood, sweat, and tears into Darling & Daughters, lost so much sleep, and I wouldn't trade this for any other job. I don't answer to anybody but the client, am much less frustrated by male ineptitude because I don't have to deal with it (professionally anyway) and I can put my work down and squeeze my daughter when I want to. Beyond that, I want Isla to feel strong with whatever she decides to do in life. I want her to grow up knowing that we had a good life because I worked hard to make it so and pride comes with business ownership - it has to! So much else gets sacrificed.
5. How do you stay motivated and continue to grow, personally and professionally?
I'm going to mention my sweet girl again. I really don't know that I would've worked as hard on this as I have without having her in my mind always (maybe it's not a coincidence that having an infant and growing a business both challenge your human desire to sleep normally - you become an alien in this way). I want Isla to grow up knowing that women work hard and good things happen because of that. My mother (a scholar who I couldn't be more proud of) and sisters, my dear friends who live far away, and those I've made here in the industry (hello, Elise!) motivate me to do better.
I am lucky to be in an industry that welcomes nature-based infusion. That sounds like jargon but I mean it: I actually have to go outside and garden, forage on the side of the road, and learn more every year about the seasons that host the plants we harvest for temporary art. It is a beautiful thing to simultaneously work outside and clear my head from the worries that plague any business owner. I constantly re-develop long-term goals: a bigger, more open studio that is large enough to teach inside of, more cutting gardens and an open property of my own to forage on, and future partnerships with artist friends I love and admire. Social media can be kind of numbing, so I try to follow accounts that are more in line with what I love - flower farming and floral designing that I aspire to.
I also - and maybe this is sacrilege in DC, where networking is the name of the game - don't go out much to industry/social events, because I don't love to. Pisces, you see. If I actually have an evening with nothing to do (99% never, see: the life of a single mom and business owner), I want to have a glass of wine and get cozy with my daughter and dogs. That is life right now and maybe for a while, and for the most part, I savor it. Darling & Daughters is run by a curmudgeon - you read it here first.
6. What’s your nighttime routine?
Ha. I'm working on being better about that - I've finally gotten to the point where I'm not up until 2 or 3 finishing up proposals or touching up centerpieces. Adjusting to this business growing and single motherhood were simultaneously exciting and scarily exhausting challenges last year, but I think I've found a balance... some days are very long, but knowing myself to be a very early bird, it's so much better for me to stop what I'm doing after picking up Isla from her little school and just relish in the mundane - cooking dinner, having a glass of wine, getting the dogs out and playing with my daughter and putting us all to sleep without having to wake up at 3 am to finish designs. It's these minor accomplishments right now that are most satisfying.
I've also tried to avoid scheduling calls and meetings after business hours, which has been more helpful than I expected, and allows me to step away from work for a few hours.
7. What’s one piece of advice you would give to other entrepreneurs in your industry?
Do no harm but take no shit- don't give yourself away for free - clients, planners, and sometimes even other event vendors will ask for designs for a discount all the time. Sometimes, it's an even trade, and you get better and better each year identifying when this is the case. Other times - and particularly part of doing business in DC - your discounted/free labor/product does not yield any benefit other than that client/vendor looking reallllly good without paying you for your service.
Real clients are in fact, patrons. Flowers are a luxury and if the client is a good one, they understand that product, expertise, and labor cost actual money, not just a promise to refer your business for the next big project. Yes, when you're getting started, you will need to work to book projects, and you will 'donate' lots of pieces and time to styled shoots and events, but be picky! Think about the aesthetic you love and offer yourself up to projects that excite you.
Keep people (or animals!) close who know what you're building, who are kind about phone calls not returned for days because of events. Keep them close and remember your human needs. Remember that people have sacrificed time and energy before, and it's always been hard to do, and the fact that you're doing it so much now is not forever.