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.


  1. Having followed your blog with great interest for a few months, I can say that what comes across most strongly is the enormous effort - in terms of time and energy - you put into what you do, but that coupled with great passion for it. It's a winning combination because that mix of enthusiasm and sheer hard work is so impressive, and the underlying principles are laudable.
    Having been given one of your beautiful bunches of flowers, I've seen the end result. It was magical and lasted for ages.
    Keep on doing what you're doing and you'll show the sniffy critics that it's very worthwhile!
    (So glad the cornflowers have earned their place!).

  2. As a fellow-grower - although on a much smaller scale than you - I completely understand how hard you have to work and how deeply frustrating it is when people think you're just pootling about having a lovely time. I think I might have lamped him one! What you are doing is innovative, not lightweight - the man clearly has no vision. I think the way you've managed to build the business up in such a short time is a real achievement. You go, gal!

  3. Just caught up with your last post - and I'm seething alongside you! After 18 years working in Health & Social Services I've recently been made redundant, and gone back (very happily) to my roots - growing flowers. It hasn't stopped raining much since I got going again, the ground is so sodden here in Devon that it's a job to stay upright or not sink completely - and the tulip bulbs are waiting here too.....
    |If anyone else asks me what I am doing now, and responds to "Growing Flowers" by saying "No, I mean work" - they risk a close encounter with a muddy spade......