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April – trying to keep the business going during the covid-19 lockdown

We started this year so far behind. The wet Autumn and Winter meant hardly any work had been done in the flower field, and a lot of the biennials and hardy annuals (foxgloves, honesty, wallflowers) that had been planted for early season flowers died after being submerged for months.

We had booked to go to New Zealand for most of February – a time which should have been quiet for us, although as we were so far behind, both on the flower farm and the main farm, I had misgiving. As it turns out our timing was great. We had a lovely three weeks, travelling freely with only distant rumors of some nasty virus wreaking havoc in China and starting to spread. Also while away we learned we could not have done any work at home, the UK was still being bombarded with rain and storms. All three of our polytunnels were flattened by one severe storm. Only when travelling through Hong Kong did we have a feel for what was to come. Most flights to or from the airport had been cancelled, the airport was empty and everyone, except us, was wearing face masks. Our temperatures were scanned on arrival and on departure. People there were scared. By the time we flew home hardly any traffic was going through Hong Kong and BA had merged flights so we travelled home slightly later than expected on a very full plane.

Back in London everything seemed normal, the kids took a tube from the airport back to London and we drove home. I started sowing seeds immediately to try to catch up and replace some of what was lost in the field, and despaired to see the field still waterlogged. But I was pleased to see most of the tulips had survived.

Then covid-19 reached the UK. We were asked to avoid unnecessary travel, observe social distancing and wash our hands frequently. I opened the flower shed for the last weekend in March – providing antibacterial spray and wipes for customers and details for contactless payments. I sold out of flowers every day. Perhaps I could still manage to sell stuff!

A week later it was obvious we were not managing to control the spread of the disease and the whole country was put on lockdown for an initial period of three weeks, the kids came home, I shut the shop and prepared to live an isolated life (not too difficult for a flower farmer!) Weddings, workshops and shows up until the end of June have been cancelled. Loss of income worried us but there will still be some flowers sold – to a grocery store in Bedford and to local florists who offer delivery services and are still allowed to trade.

As I write this we are just about to start the third lockdown week. I’m pretty sure this will be extended. The field is nearly dry enough to work and I have started some limited planting. I haven’t really changed my growing and planting schedules. Some flower farmers have thrown away plants which were for late spring or early summer but I can’t bring myself to do that. I will dry the larkspur and nigella, and chop back anything else that flowers unsold to try and get a second flush. Ive gained a little time every day which I would have used stocking the shop with bouquets and I am putting it to good use playing catch up! We’ve been warned to expect a surge in late summer demand, as the Dutch flower markets have collapsed. We will see.

The biggest frustration so far is that with all of the independent florist shops forced to shut their doors, the only places where you can buy flowers in person locally are the big supermarkets. Meanwhile local flower farmers throw their flowers away and small businesses might never recover.

Apologies for the long blog post. A lot has happened since the start of the year. Stay well and look after yourselves!

A new decade – plans and collaborations

The 2020s are not getting off to the best of starts here at Hay Lane. Months of wet weather have meant the flower field has been partially flooded since November and we have not been able to plant as much as we would have liked, nor finish the cultivations that we wanted to do. And we have orders for more flowers than ever so this is going to means we will have to work our socks off when the field finally becomes workable. However there have been a lot of things going behind the scenes over the winter months. The coming year will be packed with events, workshops and projects.

We are fully booked for weddings and workshops in 2020, which shows just how popular British flowers are becoming. Over the next year we will continue to work closely with the other Bedfordshire Flower Farms and fellow Flowers from the Farm members. The shows season will kick off in May with the Made in Bedford Spring and Eco Living Fair and we will also be creating a floral marquee to showcase British flowers at the 2020 Young Farmers Rally. June will see us at the Woburn Abbey Garden Show again where we will be creating a show garden display and working on a large scale floral installation.

Personally I am really excited that over the next year we’ll also be launching a floristry training school and creating a hub for local florists who are interested in working with seasonal, British flowers in a more sustainable way. This will give us the opportunity to help with the development of new floristry businesses in our local area, which can only be a good thing for British flowers.

Oh and alongside selling our usual beautiful bunches of fresh flowers, by popular demand we’ll also be re-opening the seed shop this year!

Cant wait to get started.

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!