Putting the wild back into flower farming
You know how it is when suddenly an apparently random subject just keeps on coming up?
Well, over the past few weeks I keep on hearing people holding forth on how to maximise flower production at flower farms.
They talk of how to only grow flowers which will last weeks in vases, how to compete with huge mulitinational flower growing corporations in order to be a 'proper' flower farmer, and it seems to me that the way people try and do this is usually by de-wilding the space they have, joining a race to supply the cheapest flowers to the maximum number of people, often dunked in chemicals you wouldn't want to breathe the gas from on a daily basis...
I hear of people growing flowers in hermetically-sealed, poly-covered, giant sheds in order to prevent the polination of the flowers by insects. I hear of people treating flowers with chemicals designed to stop them growing when they've been cut. I hear of people super-maximising production per square metre (flower farms are often based on surprisingly small acreage) at the expense of hedges, any possibility of wild areas and so on.
So I thought i'd write a little post about what being a customer of THIS little Somerset flower farm supports. Fabrizio famously once said years ago, 'Look after the invertebrates, and the rest of the food chain will look after itself.'
Flowers may not feed us directly, but their pollen and nectar and seed heads are forage for all kinds of other insects and wildlife. Fabrizio wouldn't let me farm flowers at all if we kept ALL the flowers' deliciousness for ourselves. Besides, the work that goes into NOT sharing flowers with butterflies, birds and bees, doesn't just leave the wildlife hungry, but actively adds unneccessary chemicals into our environment.
There is nothing hermetically sealed here at Common Farm Flowers. Indeed, only yesterday I spent a happy hour with a wren in one of our poly tunnels - she foraging, I weeding. She wouldn't be welcome at a more commercial environment for fear she'd leave droppings on the anemones - whereas I'm a person who knows that being dropped on by a bird is a sign of very good fortune...
This week I went to a talk given by a representative of a world leader in chemical solutions developed to stop flowers from going over once they've been cut. This is an organisation dedicated to keeping flowers looking fresh for weeks at a time. We were given descriptions of product after product, all of which we were told were perfectly harmless to the environment (although there were those amongst them which needed special treatment before being disposed of - which makes them not perfectly harmless I imagine...) but with which this rep. said flowers should be pulsed after harvesting in order to prolong their vase life, stop them growing in the vase, stop them producing ethylene, the ripening gas produced by fruit and veg too such as bananas and tomatoes, but which will also stop them producing the oils which make them attractive to polinators, and which give them their scent.
The bouquet below has been created by us here at Common Farm Flowers using no flower preserving chemicals. It's made with flowers cut fresh from the gardens at Common Farm. Basta, full stop, the end. Nothing more nor less than flowers themselves. It won't last forever, no. But it will have given somebody enormous pleasure during it's five to seven day life.
Now I don't know about you, but if I cut a flower fresh, and deliver it to your door the next day, and that flower (and all its friends in its lovely seasonal bouquet) lasts without any life-prolonging chemicals for five to seven days (I just had an email from a client who sent flowers to her mother for Christmas which she's only just thrown out three weeks on - so when I say five to seven days, I mean that as a minimum!) isn't that enough? After a week the flowers will start needing dusting!
Besides, if I start growing flowers which don't mind being pulsed with all these chemicals then I won't be able to grow the delicate little angels which would curl up their toes in horror at being pulsed with anything. Imagine a buttercup being asked to handle chemical life-prolongers. And sweet peas that I see sometimes which have been treated have NO SCENT at all! What on earth is the point of a sweet pea without scent?
We supply care-cards with our flowers which suggest no flower food nor sachets of anything to prolong the flowers' lives: instead we suggest trimming the stems of the bouquet every day to keep the celulose drinking cells of the flower stems open and working, giving the flowers fresh water every day, and a quick rinse of their vase too, to wash away any build up of flower-killing bacteria. Too simple.
We could certainly make MORE MONEY if we farmed our flowers more intensively. We have a seven acre plot here at Common Farm Flowers, and it's chopped into four different flower growing patches which altogether make up about three and a half acres. The rest of the land is what I'd describe as mildly managed wild, with willow (as ancient an inhabitant in the UK as the great oak, and a great home for invertebrates over winter, and therefore gangs of long-tailed tits and gold finches who feed on them,) small orchards, chunks of wild flower meadows, heaps of horticultural debris (Fabrizio never lets me turn these into proper compost heaps because of the slow worms and grass snakes and toads which live in them,) about the place.
The formal cut flower patches are spread out with wild sections between so that there are little individual areas for wildlife to inhabit and move about from and to. There are bees in the far corner of the field: honey bees which we don't exactly 'keep' but which live happily in our old hives, and which, untreated, and their honey unharvested and so left for them to live on, flourish, swarming every summer, sending off new colonies of varoa-hardy honey bees into the wild. These are bees which have never been treated with, we're told, absolutely necessary Apigard, and which are contributing varoa-hardy colonies to the wild honey bee population. It gives me pleasure that our flowers are there for them to forage from.
We cut a great many flowers here, and they last nicely. If the bees polinate a great many of them then fair's fair I say. In the great scheme of things it's more important that we grow food than flowers. But I love flowers (and I don't love cabbages so much - besides, we have Charles Dowding up the lane growing cabbages so...) So, if we're going to WASTE our land growing flowers for us all to enjoy (and to pay for those pesky kids' expensive shoes into the bargain) then I think it only fair that we should grow those unnecessary flowers in as green a way as possible.
Somebody asked me recently (with an amazed face when I told him what we do for a living,) 'But how do you grow a business like that?' I suppose the answer is that we don't. We need to be clever, and strategic, and maximise where we can, because growing flowers in the extremely eco way that we do, sharing half the land with the wildlife for a start, means we're inevitably wasting the financial opportunity offered by just using up all the land to the very corner of every field.
But while I would like enough money to take lots of family holidays, and to not think twice when I fancy a new shirt or pair of shoes, while I'd like to be able to go to the pub for supper whenever the mood takes me... I don't NEED masses more than we have. More than anything I'd like more TIME, and that's just a question of boxing cleverer with how busy a fool I can be.
Probably my all time favourite film is Out of Africa, and one of my favourite lines in it is the one Karen Blixen comes out with when asked by her bank manager why she doesn't move the Kikuyu people, who live on half the land she owns, off it, in order to have space to grow more coffee. 'Why don't you just move them off?' he asks. 'Because they live there,' she replies. And I suppose I feel like that about the wildlife we have here on the flower farm. The wildlife isn't people, but it seems perfectly obvious to me that it deserves its space, that it's fair that there should be a place for it. We grow unneccessary flowers, lovely, but unneccessary.
When I don't sleep at night because I worry about covering our costs all the time I'm happier than I would be not sleeping at night because I'm desperately trying to make make make as much much much as I can financially, with little acknowledgement of the needs of our immediate environment.
When you buy flowers from Common Farm in Somerset then, you're supporting this environment. So thank you from me, but also from the bees, the butterflies, the slow worms, the grass snakes, the toads, the barn owls, the falcons, the hedgehogs who live here with us.