A blooming enterprise

British cut-flowers are rising in popularity presenting new opportunities for growers, as Tim Relf discovers

If you want to be a good flower grower, you mustn’t care what your hands look like, according to Justine Scouller.

“There’s no room for vanity in this job,” says Justine of Far Hill Flowers in Monmouthshire. “People have visions of someone in a dress carrying a basket, picking flowers with little snips. It’s actually trudging round in wellies, sometimes late at night, with a big pair of secateurs and a bucket of water slopping down your boots. It’s really hard work.”

Justine, who until recently was co-chair of the not-for-profit co-operative Flowers from the Farm (FFTF), is optimistic about the outlook for the cut-flower sector. The trend to buy British and local when it comes to food is evident in this market.

“The flowers you get in a supermarket might be cheap and colourful, but the first thing people do when they see a bunch of flowers is to smell them, and all too often, the ones sold by the huge retailers don’t have a smell.

“They could have travelled thousands of miles from another country and been treated with lots of chemicals.”

Another factor that has buoyed the market is that fact that royal weddings have featured British flowers and showcased the work of British florists. “There has been some beautiful, natural floristry on display, and a lot of brides have seen it and said ‘I want that look at my wedding’.

“Britain buys about 17% of the world’s cut flowers, so it shows how much we love our cut-flowers in this country. It also suggests lots of opportunities for domestic growers. Florists are increasingly looking for home-grown flowers,” says Justine, who made her first foray into the profession in 2013.

Justine Scouller. Credit Michelle Huggleston Photography.jpg
Justine Scouller. Photo credit: Michelle Huggleston Photography

After Justine and her husband bought their ‘forever home’, a smallholding in Monmouthshire, in 2005, Justine considered running a veg box scheme. “But it struck me that being paid for growing flowers was a lot more sexy than growing vegetables!”

She admits it was a steep learning curve. She studied a horticultural course at Sparsholt and made the most of the many educational opportunities available through FFTF.

“As a group, we don’t see other flower farmers as our competition – we see them as people who we can help and who can help us. We all share business information and tips.”

She now grows everything from narcissi, ranunculi and anemones to tulips, roses and achillea.

“I felt some despair last year because Covid-19 forced so many weddings and events to be cancelled. I had a field full of flowers and nothing to do with them. But so many people got in touch asking if we could deliver locally, which partly made up for that.

“There’s a trend to source locally because buying in that way is more environmentally sustainable, and you’re supporting the nearby economy. If you’re giving someone flowers, too, it feels more personal.”

Buying local

Another grower who has seen this ‘go local’ demand is Sarah Hammond, an artisan florist who runs English Peonies in north Norfolk.

“In March 2020, I had bulbs in their thousands growing for Easter workshops, weddings and florist orders – but then the pandemic hit. I couldn’t bear the thought of them going to waste. I was determined they’d be used so, we sent out more, doing direct deliveries of flowers and bouquets and even arranged for free posies to be delivered to local people who were self-isolating.

Lockdown has prompted new people to discover the joys of fresh, local flowers, as they have done with meat and vegetables.

Sarah, who specialises in peonies, says: “There’s something quintessentially English about a peony. They’re exuberant and blousy and really special because they’re only in season for a few weeks in late May and June. They’re very resilient flower and incredibly popular at weddings.”

Peonies have been grown on the family farm for 50 years, first introduced by Sarah’s late mother-in-law, the horticulturalist Betty Hammond.

Sarah Hammond. Credit Tim Platt.jpg
Sarah Hammond. Photo credit: Tim Platt

“It can be a very labour-intensive enterprise, but I enjoy running an enterprise that’s based on the farm and makes use of our resources. I love working with flowers and I love working with people. I get to do both in this job.”

Refining the business

Meanwhile, at Willow View Farm near Topcliffe in North Yorkshire, Sahra Rayner is viewing the pandemic as a time to reorganise her business.

“Early in the 2020 season we had to throw quite a lot of young plants away because there wasn’t a market, so we’re using this quieter spell to set up a new field so the flowers, shrubs and foliage can all be grown in one place. We’re also putting up a polytunnel, which will help expand the season at either end of the year.”

She’ll use a well-drained, easy-to-access seven-acre field, about half of which will be put down to cut flowers. “Doing this as a job is very different to growing flowers in your garden,” she stresses. Sahra studied RHS Level 2 Horticultural qualification at Askham Bryan College to help her learn about the skills involved.

“You have to think incredibly carefully about growing successionally – so there’s always something to cut. Marketing is another area you need to become knowledgeable about, and social media is also important because cut flowers are so beautiful to look at.”

There is, she says, a good synergy between the flowers and the family farm – the former being busiest at a time when the cattle are out at grass so less labour intensive. “I also use the cow muck and sometimes commandeer machinery.

“We sell meat direct to the public – so it might be that we’re able to leverage that customer base in some way for the cut flowers, too. Growing flowers is a constant battle against the elements. There’s always a challenge, but when you see your seasonal flowers and foliage used at an event or in someone’s wedding bouquet, that makes you proud and makes it all worthwhile.”