British Flowers Week starts on Monday so Ben Barnett met a mother and daughter team who grow their own and then some.
From their farm in Everingham, near York, Gill and Peggy Hodgson sell more than 80 varieties of home-grown flowers and are pioneers of a nationwide campaign to redress our dependence on imported flowers by embracing species which thrive on our own shores.
Just two years after setting up a not-for-profit association to promote British flowers and encourage growers, called Flowers from the Farm (FftF), it has in excess of 150 members who grow their own on farms from as far and wide as Scotland to the South West. Set up with support from the Humberside Co-operative Society, FftF is run via a website and social media channels. It connects growers and helps people locate their nearest fresh British flowers suppliers.
This networking role has proven an awesome responsibility for the pair and they’re keen to take it to a new level by setting up a separate not-for-profit company, for which they have applied for charitable status. Their aim with this new venture is for it to become the vehicle to unite the British flower industry and co-ordinate all the various sectors.
Gill says: “No-one is in charge of British flowers. No-one is promoting them as they deserve, no-one is advertising them, no-one is educating consumers, florists and students. The revival has started but needs careful work to grow the market at the same rate as literally growing the flowers themselves.
“All of our time has been freely given and no expenses ever claimed but there is a limit to what Peggy and I can do. If the industry is to take its rightful place in the public eye, then we need the right company or individual to come forward with sponsorship of £140,000 per annum for five years to allow us to set in motion the myriad things needed.
“We have started something so big here and it rests solely on the two of us. It would be awful for that to stop for whatever reason. We want to create a legacy.”
There is a place for imported flowers readily available year round from supermarkets, particularly in winter when the weather dictates the abundance of homegrown species, but Britain has the potential to have a self-sufficient supply of flowers for five months a year, says Gill.
She wants other growers to get started across the country and for florists to catch on and stock British varieties.
“We used to grow flowers in this country but importing flowers became a possibility because of better transport with cold storage. Now it has become the norm. It’s time to redress the balance.
“I buy imports myself from the supermarket in winter, but in summer, when we can be self-sufficient, I would like them to be available here, so it’s about educating people.”
Gill does her bit locally by giving talks to floristry students at Bishop Burton College, Beverley.
She apologies for “getting on her soapbox” but it’s easy to be impressed by her passion and what she and Peggy have achieved in a little over two years since they started selling flowers grown at home on Field House Farm where Gill, 58, her husband John, 60, and daughter Peggy, 27, are the fourth generation of Gill’s family to farm.
It was a mixed farm when the Hodgson’s followed Gill’s parents on to the site, with a suckler herd, a small herd of pigs and sugar beet crops. Over the last 20 years livestock operations have ceased because trade was proving less profitable and the area’s sugar beet industry flagged after a local factory closure, says John. Today, the 200-acre farm is entirely arable with one and a half acres dedicated to growing flowers.
Gill and Peggy’s own flower business – which inspired them to set up a wider network – is Field House Flowers. Peggy also works as an auctioneer’s assistant at York Livestock Centre.
Getting started was completely by chance, says Gill. A keen gardener, she grew flowers in what had been a vegetable patch and ended up selling some to passers-by.
Gill says: “I wasn’t particularly looking for anything else to do what with having four children growing up. I had a passion for flowers but it was latent. Mum liked them so it was probably in-built.
“I grew flowers for a friends’ wedding and grew far too many. There’s a limit to how many you can fit on your sideboard so I gave some away to friends until they’d had enough of me and put some on a table at the end of the drive with an honesty box.
“That was when we realised there was a market for fresh seasonal British flowers. We sold five times as many the next year and started looking for an association of British flower growers to join but there wasn’t that group of people out there so we set up our own group.”
Driffield Farmers’ Market, held on the first Saturday of each month, is a key showcase for Field House Flowers as it’s a great way for people to see and smell the blooms. Often it leads to bespoke orders for special occasions.
The business is at the mercy of the weather, says Gill. Customers booking in advance are warned to expect lots of flowers but not precise varieties. The weather’s unpredictability means Gill has looked twice at wild flowers.
“We’re lucky. As well as the farm we have 40 acres of woodland and we’ve kept our hedgerows so we can pick a lot of pretty flowers that grow naturally. The weather has made me look at wildflowers with new eyes. For example, the white dead nettle – despite its name – is beautiful. We’ve used it among wedding displays and it looked fantastic. Other varieties can be used in this way too, such as cow parsley and buttercups.”
Gill shares the tale of a recent customer which really brings home the added personal touch possible when flowers are grown in Britain, of a bereaved daughter who was welcomed on to Field House Farm to pick her own selection directly from the flowerbeds to make her floral tribute to her late mother that bit more personal.
Field House Flowers can be found tweeting @thepatientmole and Flowers from the Farm @cutflowergrower