Home Grown: How British flowers are making a comeback

Forget mass production and lorryloads of tulips shipped over from Holland, Tessa Bunney tells Sarah Freeman why she has turned her lens on Yorkshire's farmer florists.

Wendy Jefferson, Holme Flowers, Holme on Swale, North Yorkshire. Picture by Tessa Bunney.

Gill Hodgson says she began growing flowers by accident seven years ago when a friend asked to sow a few extra seeds for her wedding bouquet and table arrangements. The soil at her mixed arable farm in East Yorkshire turned out to be a pretty hospitable home and when the various species blossomed far too early, Gill cut them back and sold the flowers on the roadside for £1 a bunch.

“I’ve now got one acre devoted to growing flowers,” she says. “Like any other crop, you have bad years and good years, but because it’s not a monoculture if the sweet peas don’t do well, the peonies or the delphiniums will. There is always something new, always something just about to come into bloom. Ten years ago a bride-to-be would walk into their local florist and choose a bouquet from a brochure and 99 per cent of the time it would be made of up of foreign-grown flowers. However, the last few years have seen a real boom in people wanting British-grown arrangements. They want something which looks more natural and that’s been a real boost to what we are trying to do.”

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Gill is not alone. Just as people began to turn to farmers’ markets and local butchers in search of meat and veg sourced locally rather than thousands of miles away, British flowers are also benefitting from the home-grown movement.

Suzie Rush, Picked at Dawn, Thirsk, North Yorkshire. Picture by Tessa Bunney.

“It is still a little distressing how many people are still so far removed from seasonality,” she says. “I have to tell brides, ‘Well you can have such and such a flower now, but in two weeks time it will be gone’ and reassure them that there will be something equally beautiful.”

Flower farms were once a familiar feature of the British countryside and by the 1800s as key transport links improved, daily trains carried violets from Dawlish, snowdrops from Lincolnshire and narcissi from Cornwall to markets across the country.

However, like many industries it fell victim to foreign competition. As Holland monopolised the trade in blooms, British-grown varieties fell to just eight per cent of the £2.2bn cut flower market, but things are changing. When Gill became the North East co-ordinator for the Flowers from the Farm network there were just three members. Six years on, there are 500.

The resurgence is something Kilburn photographer Tessa Bunney realised after she returned from two years abroad, and the women behind the new breed of farmer florists are now the subject of her latest collection of images.

Jill Smith, Binnington Blooms, Staxton, North Yorkshire. Picture by Tessa Bunney.

“I went to a market in Hovingham and came across the Flowers from the Farm organisation,” says Tessa. “I have always been interested in capturing the details of rural life and this was something which seemed to have sprung up while I had been away.”

Making contact with Gill, Tessa has since photographed a number of the county’s farmer florists and while the project has some way to run she will be unveiling the first results as part of North Yorkshire Open Studios (NYOS) next 

“What was really admirable is that while these women often work alone on a relatively small piece of land, they have come together under the Flowers from the Farm umbrella to create a market and it seems to be working,” adds Tessa.

“They are really raising awareness of flowers that haven’t been grown commercially in this country since the 19th century.

Suzie Rush, Picked at Dawn, Thirsk, North Yorkshire. Picture by Tessa Bunney.

“What they do is at the other end of the spectrum from cheap mass-produced floristry and I’ve been lucky enough to follow a group of women through a year’s growing cycle to really go behind the scenes of this new movement.

“While the end result might be a beautiful bouquet, it’s not all glamorous. The ground has to be prepared, the seeds and bulbs are sown by hand and then they have to make sure that they have somewhere to sell into.”

It’s the latter that often proves the biggest 
hurdle. “Those who fail tend to be gardeners who fancy having a go at doing something on a bigger scale, but ignore the fact that unless you have marketed your produce and have sourced a sustainable market you haven’t got a business,” says Gill, who began selling to farmers’ markets and local florists.

“Now most of my time is taken up with individual bookings for weddings, but it takes time to build up that kind of demand.”

Jill Smith, Binnington Blooms, Staxton, North Yorkshire. Picture by Tessa Bunney.

Tessa is hoping to extend her project to include farmer florists outside of Yorkshire, but NYOS will be a chance for people to give feedback on the collection so far.

“When I came back to Yorkshire I wasn’t specifically looking for another photographic project,” she says. “But this was irresistible and I hope people enjoy looking at the images as much as I have taking them.”

Tessa Bunney is one of more than 120 artists participating in North Yorkshire Open Studios June 3-4 and 10-11. For a full programme go to www.nyos.org.uk. Flowers from the Farm will be exhibiting at the first ever RHS Flower Show at Chatsworth from June 4 to 11 and RHS Harlow Carr in Harrogate from June 23 to 35. flowersfromthefarm.co.uk