Growing with nature – a new sustainable approach to flower farming

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2024

Salt welcomes new columnist Sarah Smith, who writes about ecology and agriculture. This week she looks at the new breed of artisan flower grower with an eye for localism and sustainability.

When it comes to food, the idea of eating seasonal and local produce is now well established. But this ethos has been slower to catch on in the cut flower market, and over 90 per cent of the blooms sold in British shops are now imported from as far away as Africa and South America.

There was a time when the market at Covent Garden was full of British-grown flowers. South West England and East Anglia were home to thriving flower farms due to their near perfect growing conditions and good rail links to London. But cheaper labour overseas and global air transport have made imported flowers more attractive to florists and supermarkets, and many of the family-run businesses have closed.

Flowers flown in from Kenya, Colombia or Ecuador might be cost-effective, but they come with a high environmental price tag. Factor in the heavy use of pesticides, together with huge inputs of irrigation water and the carbon cost of flying or trucking the blooms across the world, and that bunch of cellophane-wrapped red roses suddenly looks a lot more expensive.

A new breed of artisan flower farmer

For many years, there was little choice for shoppers looking for a locally grown bouquet to give as a gift or to add the floral finishing touch to their wedding. But a new breed of artisan flower farmer is bringing a fresh approach to the cut flower market.

They are offering sustainably grown, seasonal blooms and a high level of service. Many of these new growers have had previous careers, often switching when family commitments kept them at home. Others still juggle a ‘day job’ with tending their plants and selling bunches of flowers at farmers’ markets and the garden gate. Regardless of their background, they are all passionate about changing the cut flower industry.

Changing the traditional business model

With a range of skills and previous experience, it may be only natural that the new growers are looking to change the traditional business model when it comes to floristry and flower farming. No longer are the grower and florist two different people, separated by a plane journey and a truck driven over from Holland. These flower farmers are both growing the blooms and creating the arrangements, offering a complete field to vase service.

Gill Hodgson, a Yorkshire-based grower, explains how this approach has evolved: “On a small piece of land where relatively few flowers can be grown then it’s vital to maximise the price/profit of every stem. Smaller growers will offer bespoke bouquets and wedding flowers, to add value to their crop.”

Working with nature

The majority of British growers are also keen to work with nature and grow using organic principles. While Soil Association registration for cut flowers is relatively rare, flower farms rely on natural predators to control pests and often make their own fertilisers using nettles or comfrey. Georgie Newbury of Common Farm Flowers has coined the term ‘a tithe to nature’ to describe her commitment to building a sustainable business. While the land she farms needs to produce enough flowers and foliage to make for a viable business, Georgie knows from experience that this doesn’t need to be at the expense of the local flora and fauna. Areas of meadow are left to flourish alongside the more formal cut flower beds, there’s a network of ponds and, rather than specialising in just one or two types of flowers, Georgie grows a huge range of annuals, biennials and perennials over as long a season as possible. From a business point of view this means she is able to extend the flower selling season, and for bees and other pollinators there is food available from early spring right through to the beginning of winter.

Gill Hodgson says that most growers “simply grow this way because they want to – and because it’s the way in which the people who take trouble to seek out our flowers expect”. She adds that “sadly, with 90 per cent of flowers being imported from massive businesses in South America and Africa, the environmental concerns appear to matter little to most buyers.”

Spreading the word

So the challenge now is in spreading the word and encouraging more consumers to seek out locally grown blooms. And this is where social medial comes in as a tool for advertising, networking and sharing ideas. Photographs of beautiful bouquets appear regularly on Twitter accompanied by the #britishflowers hashtag. Facebook pages and Pinterest boards are used to showcase British flowers, and initiatives like British Flowers Week and the Lonely Bouquet are used to further promote the work of local growers.

As well as running her own cut flower business, Gill Hodgson is creating a national network of flower farmers through the Flowers From the Field website. The site has grown rapidly to over 200 members, and now forms an essential resource for anyone looking for growers or florists using locally produced flowers in their region.

While artisan growers will never be able to supply more than a small fraction of the UK cut flower market, it could be that their combination of old fashioned farming practices and modern marketing techniques will encourage shoppers to start questioning where their flowers came from and how they were grown.

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Photo Credit: Domiriel from flickr

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