Cut flowers are becoming an increasingly attractive diversification for farm businesses and the finest will be showcased at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show. Sue Scott reports.
UP to 10,000 British blooms will make an extraordinary journey this month as growers across the country seize their biggest opportunity yet to put ‘local flowers’ on the map.
Members of Flowers from the Farm, established by Yorkshire arable farmer Gill Hodgson in 2011, will take their place at the Chelsea Flower Show, occupying a central spot in the Grand Pavilion where nearly 160,000 visitors are expected to stop and stare at the breathtaking variety of cut flowers grown on our shores.
Gill says: “Chelsea is the most famous flower show in the world and there has been a dearth of British flowers there in recent years.
“We are not going for the medals, we are going for the publicity – although medals would be nice, too.”
The exhibit, a ‘tableau’ tracing a flower’s journey from farm to vase, is unusual in many respects.
Not least, the florists building it have no idea what to expect until the van doors open on the Saturday before the show.
Only then will they see the harvest of blooms picked late on Friday and despatched via a network of volunteers who have met in lay-bys and motorway services stations to pass their precious stems onto the next stage of their journey to SW3.
“We have growers sending flowers from north of Inverness, from West Sussex, the Isles of Scilly and all points in between. I think this is quite something,” says Gill.
She has seen Flowers from the Farm’s membership increase almost threefold in the last year to 560, driven by a growing sense the provenance, quality and sustainability of cut flowers could and should be as important to consumers as that of the food they eat.
The synergies with the local food movement are obvious, says Gill. But growers have a long way to catch up.
Of the £2 billion in annual retail sales of cut flowers in the UK, about 90 per cent are imported and 60 per cent are sold through supermarkets.
Gill says: “I have come to realise how close we are to the local food movement.
“I think there is even scope for growers to get together with local food groups to access high-end restaurants and hotels. Our market is and should be the top 20 per cent.”
Small growers in the North West have struck a deal with regional supermarket Booths to supply premium bouquets. And in Scotland, Flowers from the Farm is working with Scottish Enterprise on developing a distribution network to access wider markets.
Paula Baxter, who represents 60 growers in Scotland, says: “The issues we have are the same as in England and Wales, but they are exaggerated by the geography and the distances.
“We want to grow the market, but scaling up individually is not the way the way flower farming works. We want to grow ‘width-wise’, with more growers covering all of Scotland.”
Gill Hodgson agrees small and beautiful is the essence of the industry.
“Our members are growing the kind of flowers which bigger growers cannot adapt to their systems,” she says.
This does not mean the micro markets they serve are not profitable.
“Several of our members are based on farms and flowers have made a big difference to the family farm income for a number of them,” says Gill.
‘Cut flowers are proving a very useful way of making the most of our land’
Michelle Wilson’s own wedding helped sow the seed for Cordon Farm Flowers – the most colourful of several diversified enterprises on the family’s 400-hectare (1,000-acre) arable farm, near Abernethy in Perthshire.
Online photos of her and Mike’s big day in 2016 began prompting inquiries for similar flowers from brides who were bored with the standard bouquets and displays offered by high street florists. And the couple have been expanding the farm’s cut flower area ever since.
“I had been running floral art courses from the farm for a number of years when I was not painting in the art studio here,” explains Michelle.
“When it came to my own wedding, there seemed to be a gap in the market for the flowers I had in mind. What I did not want was beautifully straight stems and perfect heads, but something more natural and romantic with plenty of movement and scent, so I started growing them here.”
Encouraged by the response to her social media posts, she and Mike began filling the garden with ‘old-fashioned’ varieties, including sweet peas, cornflowers and sweet Williams.
As orders increased to decorate local wedding venues and shop displays and sales grew through the farm’s pop-up roadside flower box, they identified small areas of arable land which were proving difficult to cultivate with modern farm machinery.
Patches of colour were soon appearing between the wheat, barley, oilseed rape, potatoes and oats.
Most annuals are started from seeds under cover and Michelle uses polytunnels to ensure blooms are available from April.
Even this far north, her cut flower season continues until the end of October, when the focus changes to Christmas wreaths and arrangements using foliage harvested from the farm.
With 32,000 hens arriving in July for a new free-range egg unit, Michelle has selected hedging varieties which not only screen the sheds but provide her, and the florists she sells to, with year-round leaves and stems.
“British foliage is definitely an area we are focusing on for the future,” she says.
The order book for wedding flowers is now filling up to 2020 and they have not ruled out further expansion.
Mike says: “Cut flowers are proving to be a useful way of making the most of our land.”
‘It has to be an asset to the farm, not a labour of love’
“MY earliest memory at the age of five was having my own garden at my parents’ farm in the Midlands with veg on one side, flowers on the other, a path down the middle and a lilac tree,” says Rosie Insley.
“When I was not with the animals, I spent most of my time in the greenhouse with my mother, pricking out, planting or sowing seeds. But I went to an academic school and horticulture was not on their radar.”
It remained on hers, though. And, armed with nothing more than a Royal Horticultural Society Level 2 certificate and bags of enthusiasm, 30 years later she gave up full-time events management to establish The Wild Rose Company in 2016.
She and her partner Steve Baylis, a fifth-generation tenant farmer managing 800 hectares (2,000 acres) near Winslow, Buckinghamshire, dug up the lawn in their 400-year-old walled garden and planted 2,000 tulips, sowing sweet peas in a greenhouse. The business strategy was simple; to grow high impact, chemical-free, top-quality blooms for people who really appreciated their beauty and did not want to compromise on price.
Local florists ‘did not want to know’, so she built up a direct local customer base and targeted high-end retail outlets, including farm shops and delis.
“Tulips and sweet peas were a great way to start because it got people going ‘wow’,” says Rosie.
“The tulip bulbs were more expensive for me to plant than a florist can pay for a tulip stem from a Dutch supplier. But Dutch tulips have small heads, not a huge variety of colour and, importantly, they are not scented.”
Having sold £10,000 worth of cut flowers in her first full year of operation, she is in no doubt there is a market for premium-priced, British blooms.
In fact, taking her cue from popular ‘bloom-in-a-box’ online subscription services, she is about to launch a regular ‘blooms in a bucket’ delivery service for locals who never want to be without.
Another 3,500 tulips were planted this season and Rosie introduced two more colourful favourites – ranunculus and anemone.
She believes cut flowers provide a useful stepping stone to other diversified enterprises for farms like theirs, where spin-offs have included Christmas trees, workshops, art and craft sales and hiring out the garden for photography shoots.