Danusia Osiowy meets two ladies whose creative flair and business nous to push British-grown flowers to the fore in their floristry enterprise
British flowers are back in bloom and a new generation of florists are championing varieties grown on home soil.
Clare Ashcroft established The Flower Farm in 2007, not as a flower shop, but from a chilly brick building on her parents’ arable farm in Burscough, West Lancashire.
From there she moved down the farm track to a purpose-built log cabin workshop based outside her cottage, alongside her friend, and now business partner, Alison Matthews.
A trained florist, Clare spent 10 years teaching the craft to budding students at Myerscough College before leaving to spend more time with her growing family.
She says: “My love for flowers never wavered and I began creating arrangements for weddings to generate an income and work round my children.”
Realising there was a lack of British flowers available to buy in the area, research led her to discover Flowers on the Farm, a nationwide network of cut flower growers founded by farmer’s wife Gill Hodgson.
At the time, Gill was just starting out in Yorkshire, but Clare attended a one-day, how-to course and, inspired by what she saw, planted her first seeds towards the end of December 2011.
“I bought six annual seed packets and planted them in my greenhouse. I used successional sowing to keep the season going for as long as I could.”
In the following spring, Clare had her first appearance of Sweet Peas, Larkspur, Love in the Mist, Sunflowers, Snapdragons and Cosmos and by June they had flowered.
“The summer was so wet. It literally rained the whole time, but the flowers were great. I was so surprised at how much I saved from not using a wholesaler and it was great to go out and cut whatever flowers I needed when I ran out.”
The first year in sales paid for new perennials and shrubs which took a further two years to establish themselves. A polytunnel was also bought to grow early and fragile varieties before the shed arrived in 2014, which fast became a hub of activity, packed full of floristry gadgets and materials.
The business has never required heavy investment and this absence of pressure ensured the whole process has grown gradually.
“There was never any big financial outlay, so if it hadn’t worked then it would not have proved costly. It was just what we paid for the packets of seeds.”
However, the work was labour intensive, involving a lot of trial and error, weeding, and adapting according to the weather.
In the meantime, Alison Matthews joined the business in 2012 after meeting Clare at a toddler group when she moved to the village.
Alison says: “I have always loved flowers and had taken evening classes before having children. When Clare asked me to help with a wedding, I was so excited.”
Four years later, Alison is still there and, under Clare’s guidance, trained as a full-time florist – a far cry away from her degree in sociology from Manchester Metropolitan University.
As the friendship and business has grown the pair now specialise in weddings across the North West, using their home-grown flowers and foliage during summer and topping up with imports as and when requested.
Clare says: “Most customers like British flowers and the fact we grow them, but they are also adamant they want other flowers, some of which are just not grown in the UK.”
As a member of Flowers From the Farm they are able to access other British-grown flowers from fellow members and also use a wholesaler for imports.
“Because I have come from a floristry background, I see the potential commercial side of the business.”
With an average of two weddings a weekend, the ladies agree it can be a stressful experience.
Alison says: “I often have a dream in which I walk into the shed and the flower tops are gone and we are just left with a load of green stalks. But the stress is worth it when you see their faces as we deliver and you receive their feedback.”
Clare adds: “There aren’t many jobs you get so much positive feedback from and through our social media our customers stay with us, which is nice.”
A consumer return to the craft making trend has meant their Christmas wreath-making workshops have been met with much enthusiasm and an increase in sales.
Running until mid-December, the pair will welcome 60 people over the four workshops this month in a rented classroom in the local village.
Alison says: “We started them last year in the shed, but we were inundated with requests from people wanting to attend, so we had to find somewhere bigger.”
Customers can expect to learn the skills and techniques applicable to wreath making as they create a Christmas decoration to hang on their door.
As part of the workshop, which costs £35, there is a large selection of festive ribbons, cones and other decorations to choose from, alongside festive treats, cake and tea.
“It seems to be the ‘in’ thing to do. I think more and more colleges do not tend do courses like this these days and so it is a good opportunity,” says Alison.
“With us, people receive a personal service. We drink tea and there is always cake involved.
“It is a wide age range, from mid 20s up to 60. We have quite a few mums with daughters, no men yet though.”
There is also an option to choose from seasonal flower arranging and wedding workshops, which is also a growing trend.
In 2007 they received just two wedding requests, but this year there have taken on 49, and 16 are already booked in for 2017. And with an average spend of £700 for wedding flowers, it is clear the business is set to grow.
Full-day workshops cost £100 and include flowers, one-to-one tuition and afternoon tea.
The pair are adamant there is never any more than four at one time as they believe to do so would compromise the quality of their teaching.
Clare says: “Brides who want to do their own flowers come along to see how it works and what they need to be thinking about.
“The hope is they will then buy their flowers from us but there are all kinds of packages available where they might make their own bouquet. We also supply buttonholes or buckets of flowers for their own arrangements.
The website, which Clare launched herself, has been instrumental in helping grow the business, along with social media and word of mouth as customers see their work on the day and want to book them.
It is only recently they enlisted the help of a professional designer to overhaul their website and help them stand out from the crowd.
The flowers are now grown across 0.4 hectares (one acre) which is divided equally between annuals, perennials and shrubs.
Two years ago the ladies enlisted the help of Graeme Iddon, a grower based 10 miles away.
Meeting him through another member of the Flowers from the Farm network he offered to start the seedlings off for them and, with a bigger and better greenhouse and heated benches, he is able to get them to a bigger growth. In 2016 he grew more than 1,000 seeds, double what he achieved the year before.
Back on-farm, their perrenial collection includes rosemary, roses, hydrangeas, peonies, dahlias and lupins, while their bulbs encompass daffodils, tulips, anemones and ranunculus.
You’d be forgiven for thinking the flowers would be challenged due to wet climate which is synonymous with the Lancashire climate but, on the contrary, they continue to thrive.
Despite some mildew and rust, their biggest task is when it becomes too dry.
Clare says: “We don’t have an irrigation system so we have to water by hand. We don’t want to wet the flower petals, we just want to get to the root.
“There was a time Dad fetched a water tanker and we got through 50 buckets.
“In our attempt to get organised, we filled everything ready for the next time, then it didn’t stop raining for days afterwards.”
When asked about their predictions for the future of the British flower sector, they are unanimous in decision.
Alison says: “British flowers have gone full circle. It used to be a big industry, but then the novelty of exporting came and using more exotic varieties. This now seems to be tailing off and attention is turning to home-grown.
“It is a fashion thing and an ethical choice. Many restaurants, cafes and markets are all promoting the locally sourced, home-reared produce.
“Flowers are starting to catch up with this and it will continue to grow.”
Looking to their own future, Clare and Alison are now full-time working mums.
Clare is mum to Ben, 10; Daniel, eight; and has another one on the way, while Alison has Dylan, 11; Noah, nine; and Seth, three.
Clare says: “We have created a business which works round our children. It is profitable and this is how we want it to stay.”
Reel of wire
Accessories or fresh flowers
Wire-edged ribbon – about 1.8 metres (6ft)
For extra help, please take a look at Clare and Alison’s Youtube video at