End of the season – what have we achieved and what have we learned?

The glut of flowers just starting in early June, after a disappointing shortage in May

I can see that my last post was right at the start of the season, which shows just how crazy this year has been. When I started my career change last autumn and tentatively ordered bulbs, plants and resources to convert my land into a serious full time flower farm I had been desperately hoping I wouldn’t be throwing money down the drain. I am now wishing we had invested more as I have sold absolutely every stem I have cut.

I planted around an acre with a range of plants . My vague plan to have a continual supply of fresh flowers from April until October. My main problem on the growing side was running out of prepared space and time. We were learning on the job, so issues such as how to control weeds or have useable pathways developed while planting up beds. In May we had to rotovate two large new beds because I had run out of space. Because I was so busy planting and cutting in April and May I did not get as many succession sowings completed as I would have liked. So inevitably I had some times when I had shortages – May was tricky because of limited range of flowers being grown, when the tulips finished earlier than expected I had an awkward week with hardly any flowers, which of course coincided with my first stall on a local farmers market! Late summer was tricky because although I had dahlia, cosmos and zinnia most of the other ‘filler’ flowers were finished because I had not done my final summer succession sowing.

We started off the year with a small roadside flower shed for sales direct to the public, hoping people passing would stop and buy flowers. My conviction was that if I offered flowers that were high quality and completely different to anything else being offered locally then they would sell. This was a good strategy, flowers sold so well that on top of passing trade we built up a core of regular customers who came out weekly to buy flowers from us. Every one that brought from us told other people. By the end of the season we were selling out every day. Selling our flowers has been the easiest part of the job, no doubt also helped by the recent huge rise in interest in British grown flowers.

So by the end of our first year we have:

  • Built up a good and loyal customer base
  • Teamed up with local independent florists
  • Had a successful stall at a local farmers market
  • Exhibited and had a stand at Woburn Abbey Garden Show, for which we were awarded a gold medal
  • Started to supply a shop in town with seasonal mixed bunches
  • Teamed up with two other local flower farms to supply larger events
  • Hosted a variety of workshops and fully booked up all of the workshop spaces for next year.
  • Booked out to supply as many wedding s next year as we feel comfortable with
  • Been on an advanced flower farmers course with Cel Robertson of the forever green flower company to help with future planning

What does this mean for next year?

We are expanding, another acre is being planted up at the moment – the demand is there we now just have to meet it. Hopefully what we have learned this year will mean I will be more efficient, better prepared and so able to grow more. However I am aware I will need to employ someone else to help with this. I am putting in a wider range of shrubs, perennials and bulbs to try to rectify the problems with shortages as certain times of the year. My greenhouse is now a factory run by the sowing dates on the calendar not somewhere to work on a rainy day or when all the other jobs are done (the greenhouse is my favourite place to be and so I always left working there as the last job on the list!)

Over the winter I will be running wreath workshops and continuing to sell seasonal plants and flowers. I will be planning another show garden and floral installation for next years Woburn Abbey Garden Show ( yes they’re are letting us back and giving us more space!) And planning for next years British Flowers Marquee at the local Young Farmers rally And writing a free course aimed at helping new flower farmers in the UK get started. And updating website and social media pages, mailing lists and business accounts. Maybe I’ll sit down for a bit. Just maybe.

The new season starts on the flower farm

We opened our doors to the public on the 30th March this year and it has been a manic two weeks! The glasshouse is filled to bursting, as are the polytunnels, and over half of the field is planted. We are constantly searching for more space to cram plants into. The flowers in the flower shed have sold out almost every day since we opened the door. I did not order enough tulips or narcissi. In the summer when trying to plan I knew I wanted to grow only the best and most sumptuous spring bulbs, but of course these are also the most expensive and difficult to grow. I ordered cautiously, not wanting to go into the 2019 season with a large debt. The demand we have had for our flowers has far exceeded our expectations. Each bunch could have been sold three times over! There has been a growing interest in buying and using seasonal British flowers – and we’ve been contacted by flower wholesalers, florists and members of the public all wanting buy British flowers. Sowing and preparing plants for the summer and autumn flower trade is still underway, so having learned from my mistakes I am growing as much as I can, and then some! As for next spring, well I have taken on another couple of acres and already got tulip and narcissi bulbs in my basket with my favourite supplier (Peter Nyssen) ready for when the spring bulb sales start again in mid summer.

The image shows tulip Professor Rontgen. Not a fashionable spring colour, but its stunning shape, green streaks and large flowers have made it a huge hit with our customers.

March on the farm

March is one of the busiest months for us. The majority of the spring growing takes place this month and we will be working around the clock to sow, pot on and plant a huge variety of flower and veggie plants. It is also time to wake up the dahlia tubers and take cuttings for the new season. Narcissi, tulips, anemone and ranunculus come into bloom in the flower field alongside the wallflowers, valerian, flowering currant and cherry blossom in the garden. This year we have built a new flower shed sales area and renovated the greenhouse. We brought the greenhouse second-hand 25 years ago, along with the wooden staging inside it, and it’s fair to say the shelving was well and truly past its best. As well as all the growing going on we usually have a few newborns to look after – this year it’s goats and chicks. Oh and the bees wake up, the hives need a spring clean and some new honey frames. The days are getting longer but there still aren’t enough hours in them to get everything done!

February on the farm

February, in theory, is a quiet month on a flower farm. In reality there are still 101 jobs to do. We have been cleaning glasshouses, sowing a few seeds (while resisting the temptation to sow more), checking and starting a few early dahlia tubers for cuttings and starting ranunculus for a second, later crop to follow on from those overwintering in the polytunnel. We were delighted to have been invited to attend the Woburn Abbey Garden Show in June, which promises to be a really exciting event. Around 5,000 visitors are expected to attend the show and so we have a lot of planning to do do make sure we have plenty of top quality flowers ready for that weekend – especially as we will also be designing a show garden for the event. So looking forward to working with the Woburn Abbey team again!

Perhaps most excitingly for me on a personal level we are planning on working with the King’s Arms Project in Bedford to host a volunteer and potential employee from their Pathways to Employment course. This community has provided much support to our business during its early stages and it is a privilege to be in a position to be able to offer something back.

Finally, although February is much quieter on the flowers front there is still joy to be had from seasonal flowers. The garden provides viburnum, snowdrop and hellebore and there are narcissi in the greenhouse and amaryllis in the conservatory. So plenty to keep my vases full.

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New season, new ideas.

We have done a lot of planning for next year and a lot of plants are in the ground ready for next years markets and events. As always what we are growing and selling changes as we adapt to the needs of our clients. We have had two royal weddings this year that featured white flowers and, in particular, lily of the valley in bouquets. Subsequently my florists are asking for as many white and scented flowers as I can grow, so next year some purely white cutting beds are going in. We have been asked to do a prestigious two day event in midsummer (news on this to follow shortly!) This has meant we have had to develop a range of new products to suit the wonderful venue. Our amazing customers have told us they would love to see behind the scenes and attend more events at the farm, so next year we will also be running various customer based open days. The first of which will be a seed and plant fair in April. We also hope to host a sweet pea festival in June and a dahlia festival in August or September. After the success of our pick your own sweet peas last year we are also looking at opening some of the other cutting beds up for pick your own bunches.  There is a lot to be getting on with over the next few weeks!

sweet peas

Planning for spring blooms

In reality planning for next spring started last spring. What sold best were the unusual and scented varieties. Especially if bunched with a sprig or two of spring greenery. Researching and browsing suppliers catalogues for new varieties happened in early summer and mid summer the bulbs were ordered and the hardy biennials and hardy annuals were sown. It is early October as I write this.  All of the hardy biennial and annual plants for overwintering are in the ground. The ranunculus and anemone are in the cool dark shed pre-sprouting. In a weeks time I will plant them in the polytunnels. Tulip and daffodil bulbs are also going in next week so I will be pretty exhausted by the end of the month.  However I cannot believe how excited I am to be growing some new colours and new varieties – it’s what I love most about being a grower. You put in the work and walk the flower field every day watching the plants grow. Finally, sometimes after months of anticipation, that new flower first breaks bud and you get to see what it looks like in all its glory. A new one for us this year is ranunculus ‘cafe au lait.’ I don’t know if I like it or not – the images of it online are variable. Maybe I was influenced by my love of the dahlia of the same name, which has always been a central player in my dahlia beds. I will have to wait until at least April to find out if it is going to become a future favourite or an also ran.

ranunc cafe au lait

Growing up

After a trial year we decided we could expand the business significantly. We had more than enough land and people loved our product. The trial year was vital as it was more than just a trial to see if the business would be viable. We also explored different growing techniques, different flower varieties and different bunching and packaging methods. We also spent a large amount of time reading and researching and visiting similar businesses in other parts of the country.
Growing up the production side is the easy bit. It’s the bit we love. However growing up also means embracing the side of the business which we have so far avoided – advertising, promotions and utilizing social media. However our skills are growing fast. I can now manage a website and online shop, I have taken an advertising and social media course and booked up to do a few outside events over the coming year. My first love will always be growing the flowers and for every hour I spend inside on the chores bit I still get to spend 8 hours outside on the good stuff. I hope I can maintain that sort of a ratio!20180721_090852