Sunday, 29 November 2009

I met someone recently who was particularly sniffy about what I am doing, or trying to. He just didn't get it at all and seemed to think I was some sort of privileged hobby gardener with nothing better to do with my time than grow a few plants. I hope I was polite (though no doubt rather firm) at the time but inwardly I was seething. When I look at the soggy mess that is my gardens at the moment, and contemplate how much there is to do, I can almost understand people having no comprehension of what is going on, so I thought it might be a good idea to try to explain.

I like growing flowers. A lot. I've gardened for ages but I am not a brilliant gardener though I'm getting a hell of a lot better. I started slowly because I didn't have vast resources to plough straight into the project and I didn't want to be vastly in hock to the bank or any other institution - and before I started I had to buy the ground to use. We did not have any infrastructure from which to get going, ten years ago there was one small tatty cottage here with no sheds, no barns, a smallish garden. So it took a while to get to the point where I could give up writing as a day job and launch into this project. Plus I am not necessarily very organised, I tend to make a decision about what I am going to do then work out a way of doing it rather than planning first.... that definitely affects things!

I wanted to create a garden, not just a commercial growing project. I didn't want great straight lines of annuals - or perennials. That is no doubt the easiest way to sow, weed and harvest. It's not what I like visually and not what I want from a garden. I want surprises, diversity, even a bit of chaos is fine. I want the first patch you see when you walk into the field to look like a couple of huge deep long herbaceous borders (only tattier I'm afraid than all those sumptuous British gardens that are such a joy to visit). I decided to go for blocks, or possibly patches would be a better description, of different flowers in the first three quarters of an acre I planted, having first surrounded it with a hornbeam hedge. I couldn't fill the whole area at once, partly because I wanted to see what coped best with the conditions (north facing, higher than average rainfall, heavy clay with patches of almost surface marl) and partly cost. In retrospect it might have been better to pay out for more perennial plants and shrubs at the early stages to get them established rather than trying to propagate, but I didn't.

The hedged area will all be looking pretty established next year - year three (I bought the field in 2006 but did no permanent plantings until spring 2007). Mainly a mix of perennials with patches of annuals near the top where it is easiest to water them. I don't do much watering, I think people water far too much. I might get heavier crops if I watered more, but I'm not going to go own that route. Plants here have to work, they have to survive, they have to put in the effort or they're out. I do give annuals better treatment than perennials, and have most of them in the more sheltered area to the east of the hedged area, but they only get watered at the beginning, and if they look as though they're in danger of pegging out. I still have some stocks flowering now, extraordinarily, despite the fierce recent weather, and cornflowers. They can come again!

I have another acre, tilled this year, which I am going to use slightly more conventionally in commercial growing terms with larger blocks of massed plantings rather than any pretence of creating borders. At the moment it is awash, one stretch still waiting for tulips, one stretch covered in membrane, other stretches full of weeds. It will happen, but not today! I'm planting a seam of dogwoods down the middle, partly for windbreak, partly for cut stems, and another area of berrying shrubs, but otherwise it will be largely tough perennials and a space for lovely thugs such as golden rods and white loosestrife as well as a large patch of sunflowers, and some good grasses. It won't all be planted at once, although I'm propagating like mad it would take thousands of plants to fill it... and while the first area does get weeded as much as possible, the further area is going to have to pretty much fend for itself.

When you grow in patches rather than rows you end up with more interesting looking bunches than when picking from rows. It sounds ridiculous but I'm sure it's true. You notice more. Not just what flowers go together but the way the plants are behaving. Where I've planted the same species/varieties in different spots around the growing patches they may react quite differently, not just according to the slight wind/shade/sun/soil differences but also depending, I'm sure on their companions.

It's all an experiment, and that's what keeps it interesting.

Compared to gardens with row upon row of flowers, it might not look as though I've got much going on. It's true that there are times when it is a lot harder picking enough flowers from scattered patches than it would be from more ordered rows. But it would also be tempting to use masses of one flower at the expense of a greater mixture. And I'm sure I appreciate my flowers all the more. I want always to be able to send out mixed bunches with at least ten different varieties of flowers in them.

Selling mail order is the most sensible option from here because of my geography. There are few good markets within reach. If I lived near a great town or city I would possibly go down another route, but we are short of hotels, restaurants, offices and other possible clients, and I like mail order, there is something terribly pleasing to me about the process.

Weddings are also of course very important to any floristry business. Again, I enjoy the process, I like using all our own flowers and producing flowers than no conventional florist could ever approach, or when I am asked to buy in for winter weddings there are different challenges of missing conventional flowers with hedgerow and homegrown. As long as all the flowers are grown ethically. I have come rather to dislike the ramrod blooms offered by conventional flower shops, not only because of the production processes an the airmiles etc but because they just don't have the same qualities as home grown, at all.

Eventually I would like to invite other people in who have no opportunities to experience what can be an utterly wonderful working life, and can be pretty miserable. I'd like to use part of my land for some sort of social project... but that's probably way down the line. But now I must go back to my wet weather day job - fortunately I am till asked to write the occasional feature or edit an occasional book. That also is a wonderful occupation when the weather is like it is.

I suppose it is remarkable that such a small patch of land can potentially support a reasonable business, and employ people. That is exciting, positive, and could mark an exciting way forward, not just for me.
And to anyone who thinks I am a hobby gardener, give me a ring and come and visit. Expect to be given a spade or at the very least a trowel.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Rainbow tulips

I mustn't complain about the weather when people in Cumbria are flooded out and here it is mere inconvenience in comparision. There are still 6500 tulip bulbs to plant and my field is puddled with water. I can't think of any way of getting them to dive so they will have to keep waiting. Does anyone have any failsafe methods of planting bulbs in the wet?

The other question - does anyone know how to deal with BT customer services and keep sanguine? The call centre in India is full of very polite people who repeat information very very very very very often often often until I feel like screaming. They have taken three and a half hours of my time since I changed to their broadband services. Avoid them. I am now tied into a contract that I can't get out of so have to grit my teeth.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

anatomy of a winter wedding

I am asked so often "How do you price for a wedding?" I suspect people think I'm being disingenuous when I say I don't know, it depends on so many factors, and I usually get it completely wrong and do myself down.... so here as requested by a few people is how wedding preparations work!

This weekend's bride was very specific about what she wanted, lots of ivies, ivory roses and hypericum, abundant arrangements, nothing stiff and formal. She knew it wouldn't be possible to get roses locally, or hypericum, at this time of year and was happy for me to buy in, which I'm happy to do for events during the winter if requested - although a bride in a few weeks is having greenery, seedpods and the few seasonal flowers that I will have, she is not having anything bought in.

So I sourced British grown berries and Fairly traded roses, and worked out what arrangements I would make and how many flowers I would need. Ivy is more flexible, I didn't have to worry about getting precise quantities ready. In the event the wedding took 600 roses, 300 stems of hypericum, at least 200 stems of trailing ivies and about nine large chequered laundry bags full of berrying ivy. A substantial amount of material!

We decided on three huge flower balls for the marquee plus the required number of table centres - some high and some low, plus a garland separating different areas of the marquee. The church was to have a garland on the porch, pew ends, fully decorated rood screen, and all eight large windows needed decorating as well as something for the altar and greenery twining through the porch. Then there was of course the bride's and bridesmaid's bouquets, buttonholes, flowers for the cars, flowers for the hair, and the cake, and presentation bouquets for the mums.

I spent half of Monday making the structures for the flowers - making oasis and moss cages for garlands, wiring oases for the flower globes, making pew end cages. It's true that you can buy all these ready made, and I tend to use some ready made garland oases, but I find they are only suitable for some indoor work, they are not robust enough for outdoor garlands, and actually don't work so well as those you design yourself.

Tuesday was ivy picking and starting on the garland bases. At least ivies will keep perfectly happily for a few days so I was able to get on with some things. It took many hours to pick the ivies, it is hard to imagine how much material the huge globes and garlands take to cover every inch. And I had also decided on circular wreath-style decorations for some of the tables, and others in oases on saucers, they all use more than just flowers in water. Anyway the bride wanted abundance....

Wednesday was carrying on with greenery for garlands and putting the first layer of long greenery n the flower globes. It was also the day to pick up my new van, I've been looking for a decent secondhand one for months but the right one didn't turn up so I'd bitten the bullet and ordered a new one. It's white, though I would have liked a colour, this one was cheaper because it had been preregistered and had all of 10 miles already on the clock so I was not going to fork out nearly two thousand pounds more for one in the appropriate shade. So now I am white van woman (again). Wednesday was also the day to collect the roses and the berries.

Thursday was making twelve table centres, 11 pew ends and the rest of the garland bases, plus sorting out everything needed for the bouquets and buttonholes and wired hair and cake flowers so it was all in order - however well planned I think I am I know there's always a rush at the last minute. Somehow I worked flat out all day and didn't finish till late and still seemed to have masses to do.

Friday morning was picking yet more ivy, unbelievably I had got through about six bags full already... loading up and going over to the church. Meg came with me to help. She got stuck into the window decorations, (brilliantly) I got stuck into the rood screen and the outer garland. Thank heavens the pew ends were all ready to hang as it still took us five hours and we were so busy we had no time to stop for even a cup of tea let alone lunch. Then Annette came over in the evening and the three of us spent a couple more hours making buttonholes and car decorations and I got started on the bouquets. A shower bouquet takes many hours as every single stem needs to be wired, and bound, and the bouquet is made from about six different sections wired and bound together. Annette has become a genius buttonhole maker. Meg made lovely hooped decorations for the cars.

On Saturday morning I was up at 4.30 to finish the bride's bouquet and do the next layers of the flower globes. Annette was out with me by 6.30, we stopped for breakfast for half an hour at 8.30 and left at 10.30 with lots of final preparations still to do on site.

And it was very very very very wet. I forgot to mention that earlier. It was wet all week but had been getting steadily worse as the week wore on. By Saturday morning it was a deluge. The day before I had got the van stuck in the gateway trying to get to the marquee (I was delivering pots which the family were filling with topiary trees for the evening) and it was a mudbath, by Saturday it was worse. We had to leave the van a way from the marquee and carry every box up to the tent, take off our shoes and walk barefoot over an increasingly wet carpet, it was Ok but things like that just add to the time factor. And there is always an unexpected something to throw a spanner in the works. I had planned for a nine foot garland to cover a long steel beam between two areas of the marquee but was presented with an already curtained wire beneath which the garland had to be looped. I couldn't use the cage I had intended as it was too robust for the wire and designed to be tied flat against a beam. So we had to completely remake a long garland. This took almost two precious hours. Decorating the cars in the rain took twice as long as it should have done. The candles refused to go onto the candelabra spikes without splitting as I was using different candles from normal and hadn't realised each one needed melting and spearing. We finished decorating everything, with all candles in place, five minutes before the bride and groom were due back from the church. It looked fabulous. It took ages. We got back exhausted!

Sunday was de-rigging - removing the heavy garlands from the church (no church flower ladies want to be left with this though churches like to be left with as many flowers as possible), collecting candelabras, collecting pots, tidying up, and negotiating floods.

So how to charge for a wedding? I really don't know, there are just so many variables......

Monday, 9 November 2009

tulip trial and error

First, apologies for lack of images, my camera seems to have given up which is very boring and requires a trip to town to the camera shop one day soon..

Finally I've started planting tulips, I can't prioritise any more diversionary tasks although I really now should be starting on clearing out the Flower House and checking materials for next week's large wedding. But before I could start this morning I had the most frustrating conversation with BT, to cut a long story short, after 45 minutes I was almost weeping with frustration and had got nowhere....

Tulip planting this year is a bit of an experiment. I'm on a new piece of ground at the far end of the existing plot and I haven't treated it in the same way as other parts as the soil seems to be lighter here, and there's no problem with fertility as it's worm heaven. I had it ploughed last spring, and planted it with green manure which I cleared a couple of months ago and covered the area with black membrane. It's not perfect but it's the best I can do without using chemicals - or machinery. On machinery - I have called on local farmers when necessary to prepare the ground initially for me, ploughing up patches as and when required - but thereafter I rely on hand labour. I have a small and ancient rotovator, nothing else, because the way I am growing is more like building a garden than a traditional commercial plot. It wouldn't really make sense to invest in machinery (at the moment, anyway) as it is far more efficient to invest in labour - there are an awful lot of woman and man hours in the cost of a piece of machinery. Also, I'm interested in how my rather chaotic growing system might work as a sort of model for other very small scale producers - though they could probably do it much more efficiently than I have done so far, and they could benefit from some of my mistakes and not go with quite as much trial and error. I'm assuming that there are a lot of people out there who do not have huge capital resources to sink into the infrastructure of a project but might still be interested in growing on a small scale. The big and obvious drawback - one of many probably - is that it is very very hard work sometimes! (As I am now writing at the end of a very long planting day, I remember that I do sometimes feel that machinery would be wonderful!)

Planting 10,000 plus tulips by hand is such a gesture of faith somehow, hoping that weather, rodents, rabbits and late gales don't put paid to them. I decided to try planting largely in trenches this year, but it has been so wet over the last few weeks that we only got one large trench dug before the rains moved in, and I really need 8 more.... I was half tempted to plant this one and leave the rest until it has dried out a bit, but it may never dry out much now so it will be a week or more of soggy trenching. It is actually still quite early for me to plant - usually I reckon to get them in by Christmas Eve but I have been known to be hurling in latecomers in January. I'll plant some in different areas to try and stagger the blooming a little, but in my experience tulips of the same variety flower at the same time regardless of how you treat them. I hope to have them from mid-late March onwards, but it does depend a bit on the weather, the earlies are usually later here than in other areas, and the lates also later, we were picking the lovely waxy long lasting Vancouvers at the end of May last year but most varieties peaked in mid to late April.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009


I've just spent a few days in Northumberland, showing my (grown-up) children the place where I grew up. It was very November-ish, basically rather cold and grey and they couldn't quite get why I loved it so much. We visited the farm where I grew up, now changed radically, and sadly where there was once a wonderful garden created by my mother there was now worse than nothing, all the trees and hedges removed, it was basically as bleak as you get... However, I love the landscape and recognise the shape of every covert so for me it was still beautiful. We went to visit Alnwick Castle gardens, the latest "great garden" in the North but somewhere I have very mixed feelings about. I have visited before, but as a journalist for a couple of publications so I had to be polite. Now I know November is not a good time to visit a northern garden, however it was still open so I reckoned we'd go and have a good trawl around. We got there at 3 o'clock on a perfectly reasonable afternoon and went to buy tickets. "You'll have to be at the exist in 45 minutes" we were told, as we're closing by 4. OK, so we'd still like to look around, how much will it cost. "The tickets are the same price whatever the time of day". I decided not to look round, I would not pay £9.00 each for less than three quarters of an hour looking round a garden that I found marginal at the best of times. It may have some wonderful features (personally I found the much vaunted Witz cascades out of scale and out of place and nothing else particularly garden-memorable though it's probably a great theme park garden if that's what you're looking for). Not impressed with the attitude. Yes I'm probably bigoted because I grew up round there and knew plenty of the Duke's tenants who were mightily unimpressed with the garden development happening at the time they were suffering from foot and mouth and getting no rent reduction, I know the garden and the tenancies were unconnected but there was an amount of not-good feeling about it all, I know it probably brings tourists which the area needs, and I know that farming is fairly unviable in lots of parts of the county now.... so I'm probably a lousy judge. But Alnwick Castle garden is definitely not for me.