October (how is it October already!?)

I have limped (quite literally as I have injured my foot) through to the end of the season! It was our last day of fresh flower sales yesterday. As the year went on it just got more and more manic as more customers – florists and public alike, discovered us and became regulars. Which was good, it’s just been difficult juggling the growing, cutting, selling and paperwork, when I had no idea at the start of the year how quickly the business would grow.

However we have still managed to complete a few tasks over and above the everyday ones to ensure that we are ready to hit the ground running when the new season comes around. The new polytunnel is up, the biennials are all in, as are most of the hardy annuals for early cropping. Lots more perennials and shrubs have gone in, and the weed control fabric we laid over a large area last year has significantly cut down on the workload. Some of the bulbs have been planted and the anemone and ranunculus are pre-sprouted and ready to go!

We have two areas we want to develop further next year, firstly we would like to grow even more flowers for drying, as the market for them has remained huge again this year. Secondly I would like to try to extend the season for a month either side of where we are at the moment and be able to cut enough fresh flowers for my market bouquets from March through to November. The polytunnel will help with this, as will variety selection.

Now all I need is some half-decent winter weather!

July – the halfway point on the flower farm, burnout and battling on.

July is a milestone on the flower farm. The flowers switch from early summer to late summer varieties, which of course include the dahlias (the first Josudi Andromeda dahlia is pictured). Although without a doubt the dahlias are the real showstoppers they are joined by many others – zinnia, aster, cleome, amaranthus, cosmos, sunflower and ageratum, to name a few. I don’t sow or any more annuals for this year now. Many flower farmers experience a period of burnout now, from the intensity of the work and start to dream of the end of the season and clearing beds for new plants. But of course now we have to work even harder to make sure there will be plants to put into those newly cleared beds. I still have the odd tray of plants for flowers this year to pop in but the main focus in the greenhouse now is biennials, hardy annuals and perennials for next year. Many are already growing strongly in their modules – foxglove, hesperis and honesty look good. Some are just ready for pricking out – sweet williams, stocks, yet more aquelegias and lupins. At the end of the month I will start sowing hardy annuals for overwintering either outside, under low tunnels or in the polytunnel. Where they go depends on just how hardy they really are and how early I would like to start cutting them.

The flower trade is still very busy. Our turnover has more than doubled since last year (and I thought I worked hard then!) However as I write the autumn sown barley has been harvested and the rest of the arable crops are not far behind. I have no idea how we will cope when the combine starts to roll properly and I take up my late summer role as harvest support worker. I don’t do anything big on the main farm, ferry harvest workers and vehicles between the two farms and do two refreshment runs a day around the fields. But these seemingly small tasks take at least two hours out of every day. So that actually adds up to a day lost every week. So now is the point when I switch from making progress to survival. I cut flowers, deadhead, work in the greenhouse, fill orders and water. I don’t weed unless its really desperate. I don’t do any but the most essential paperwork. In fact I don’t do anything unless its vital (that includes eating, drinking, visits to the toilet and sleeping). Life is about to get just a little more manic. Brace yourselves, here we go!

June and we are back in business!

Lockdown restrictions are gradually easing and from next Monday we will be allowed to re-open our flower shed , which happily coincides with British Flowers Week. Most of the flower field is looking good and two acres are in full production. The third acre is currently furloughed (now there’s a new word!) as we will need to move the majority of the plants from there in September and October to put up the new polytunnel. The dahlias are all in, and growing well.

The British Flower trade continues to thrive and demand for our flowers has been huge. So although we’ve over doubled our growing space, I’m still not sure we are growing enough. This year we have also dedicated about half an acre to flowers and grasses for drying as dried flowers are still very much in demand. The phone doesn’t stop ringing and the order book is always full. Which is just as well because this month will be the most expensive month for us. June is when I order almost all of our tulip, ranunculus, narcissi and other bulbs. After selling out of tulips two years in a row I’m going to up the amount we grow again this year – although I must admit planting them is not my favourite job and I’m not looking forward to the extra trenches I’ll need to dig in November. But nothing beats seeing the first spring bulbs blooming and kicking off a new British flowers season!

May on the farm – baby steps and giant leaps

undefined Mixed tulip bunches in April

April was a month of very warm and sunny weather and everything grew including the weeds. Everything except the sickly biennials and hardy annuals which had been laying under water all winter. And although it’s heartbreaking they are being ripped out and replaced. The soil in the beds has suffered and is in desperate need of being turned over and fed. We are moving ahead laying weed control fabric over a lot of the old flower field in preparation for planting a large amount of perennials for cut-flower production. Delphinium, achillea, eryngium and scabious are already in. Our youngest, Jack, has proven to be a whizz at using a hand-held blowtorch to burn planting holes in the fabric and finishes a row in half of the time it takes any one else.

The new acre out back is filling up nicely, all of the first sowings of hardy annuals are in and soon it will be time for the half-hardies to go out. As I write we are due one more round of colder weather and frosts.

We’ve finally managed to get the shepherds hut workroom home and into the field. It was given to us by my father in law. Already it is making a huge difference to my productivity as flowers can come straight from the field to the hut for processing and all of my floristry and wrapping tools are there which speeds up the process immensely. I’ve bought a solar panel for the roof of the hut, so I’ll also be able to have electricity down there too.

And as my eldest and his girlfriend are with us for the lockdown they have tackled a task which has been upsetting me. They have taken apart and scrapped all of the broken and twisted polytunnel frames and cleared the ripped covers away from the field so we can finally get on and tidy the area where the polytunnels once stood. I’d love to get on and replace the tunnels straight away but we have decided to upgrade to a much larger polytunnel and I will need to move some shrubs and perennials for this to happen so we’ll have to wait until October. Still that will be just in time for planting up the polytunnel crops for early blooms next year and overwintering stuff.

Sales wise it has been amazingly busy, I get several daily requests for buckets of flowers from florists and the shop in town has been selling out of bunches, sometimes only an hour after I’ve delivered them. I can’t grow enough to meet the demand and other local growers and British flower wholesalers are in a similar situation. We are working closely with other flower growers and suppliers in the area to expand and streamline our operations. This year may have started off in the most disastrous way, but I am hopeful for the future.

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!