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The growth of flower farms: 3 in Herts we are loving

PUBLISHED: 11:57 13 June 2017 | UPDATED: 08:17 13 July 2017

Baldock Flower Farm - supplying weddings, florists and customers to the Baldock site, as well as home to flower workshops (photo: Sandra Deeble)

Baldock Flower Farm - supplying weddings, florists and customers to the Baldock site, as well as home to flower workshops (photo: Sandra Deeble)

sandra deeble

With British Flowers Week this month Sandra Deeble unearths three up-and-coming flower farms in Herts specialising in local, seasonal blooms

Bouquet by Johanna Brown of Baldock Flower Farm (photo: Sandra Deeble)Bouquet by Johanna Brown of Baldock Flower Farm (photo: Sandra Deeble)

If you’re an advocate of locally grown, seasonal food, you might also be interested in the slow flowers movement gradually gaining ground in Herts. In Baldock, Barnet and Berkhamsted, three floral designers are nurturing their own micro flower farms, and business is blossoming.

‘Not everyone gets the seasonal thing,’ says Johanna Brown, whose Baldock Flower Farm is in its third year. ‘We live in a throwaway culture and people think nothing of going to the supermarket and buying flowers. But some of my customers don’t buy flowers in the winter. Then spring comes and they buy tulips from me.’

Until as recently as the 1970s, most flowers sold in the UK were grown here. Today, the majority at florists and supermarkets are grown abroad and come to us via Dutch auctions. Currently, only 15 per cent of the £2bn UK flower industry are British grown. Yet slowly but surely, the number of British flower farmers is increasing.

Flowers from the Farm is a national organisation started by Gill Hodgson in 2011 to support individual growers. Today there are 460 members, mainly sole traders. The cutely-named ‘seedlings’ are growers who are just starting out but not yet selling produce.

Some top UK floral designers are now using British flowers, helping to increase the profile of the industry. Social media is a key player here, with some designers having over half a million Instagram followers. Small growers are also using social media to build fledgling businesses. Can a camera lie? ‘It can look like a life where the sun always shines and you keep chickens and a Labrador,’ says Gill. And the reality? ‘It’s hard graft,’ she says. ‘This is farming, not gardening. And it’s not a fad, it’s here to stay.’

So what is making people dig up their gardens to create flower farms? For Johanna, it was watching gardener Rachel de Thame on television. Johanna had been made redundant from her job at a children’s charity and she felt Rachel was speaking directly to her. Largely on her own, but with help from her husband and two young daughters – she also has chickens and two dogs – she is now a full-time flower farmer, ‘working daylight hours’. 
Apart from doing the odd one-day course, she is completely self-taught. She sells direct to customers on Saturday mornings from a little shed at the front gate of her Letchworth Road home, does floral design for weddings and other occasions, runs workshops from her garden studio and also sells to florists.

Bettina and Trevor Davies of Gillyflower on their Berkhamsted plot (photo: Sandra Deeble)Bettina and Trevor Davies of Gillyflower on their Berkhamsted plot (photo: Sandra Deeble)

‘What we’re offering is different,’ she says. ‘The flowers look different and they’re scented.’ 
 Home-grown flowers are also likely to last longer than those that have travelled from abroad. The reason? ‘They’re grown outside naturally and they’re not forced in a greenhouse and then cooled,’ explains Johanna. ‘Our ground is chalky and very dry. I don’t water the perennials. They’re really tough.’

They might be tough, but they’re also beautiful. When I meet Johanna she has anemones, tulips, ranunculus, nepeta, mint and peonies and dozens of other flowers and foliage will be soon on their way. ‘In the winter you look through the seed catalogues and it’s like being a child in a sweet shop’, she says.

Another Flowers from the Farm member is Emma Sousa, aka the Urban Flower Farmer, based in East Barnet. After a career as a fashion buyer, redundancy in 2007 led her to taking a job in a flower shop. She then did the flower arrangements for her sister’s wedding and took a course at Capel Manor horticultural college in Enfield. She’s been in the flower business ever since and gradually began to think about provenance.

‘I started to ask myself questions about where my flowers came from,’ she says. ‘Why would I base a business on imported flowers?’ Reading The 50 Mile Bouquet by Debra Prinzing about the slow flower movemet was a turning point. Emma now grows her own flowers on land close to her home. Given the unpredictable character of nature, she has developed a relaxed attitude to nurturing a commercial cutting patch.

‘I’ve had a problem with mice,’ she shrugs. ‘But I just do what I can. I don’t stress about it.’

When I spoke to Emma in April, her flowers included tulips, foxgloves, sweet William, euphorbia and other foliage. She likes the feeling of achievement she gets from growing all of her own.

Emma Sousa picking sweet William. A 'relaxed attitude' is needed in the UK climate, she says (photo: Sandra Deeble)Emma Sousa picking sweet William. A 'relaxed attitude' is needed in the UK climate, she says (photo: Sandra Deeble)

‘I love it. I work seven days a week and I work super-long hours but I wouldn’t swap it for the world.’

The appetite for natural weddings – think hay bales, ‘naked’ cakes and a tangle of sweet peas in a jam jar – have also helped the popularity of British flowers. But brides wanting home-grown flowers can be disappointed, particularly those who have been seduced by images on Pinterest.

‘We’ve stopped promising things,’ says Bettina Davies, at Gillyflower in Berkhamsted. ‘Now we say that we can’t guarantee specific flowers because it’s too unpredictable. But locally grown and seasonal flowers are quite a selling point for a lot of brides. They come a week or 10 days before the wedding and walk through the fields and point out which flowers they would like.’

Bettina and Trevor Davies are also Flowers from the Farm members. Bettina did a one-year course at Capel Manor after a career as a dancer and choreographer. When it comes to nurturing their cut flowers and floral design, they are learning as they grow.

I am full of admiration for the tenacity and creativity of all the growers. The conditions in Hertfordshire are far from Cornish. Soil tends to be sandy or chalky and they are all moving towards an increasingly popular ‘no dig’ system. Trevor and Bettina are growing comfrey to make their own feed. Johanna uses the Ace of Herts compost from Cumberlows. Manure from horses in the county is plentiful. And there’s a real appetite to learn how to do things this way. All of these Herts growers offer workshops on planting, cutting, and creating wreaths and bouquets using their own flowers which are beautiful and look so healthy and natural. The bouquets they create are stunning and look completely different from flowers you see in shops. They just seem to look right.

Bettina explains why: ‘For a wedding bouquet you really get the expression of the season of your wedding. It’s completely unique. If you see bouquets with lots of flowers from different hemispheres mixed together, it’s just not the same. They say that what grows together goes together.’

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