Column: Buying British flowers for scent, soul and seasonality

Flowers at the RHS Show

Flowers at the RHS Show - Credit: Archant

AMONG the gardening community on Twitter (which, if you are not familiar with it, is a very supportive, very friendly community), there has been a wave of support for the British flower industry over the past couple of months.

This is quite possibly something which has been coming for a long time, but it’s only been within the last couple of months that I have become aware of it. I have always been very passionate about “buying British”.

When it comes to buying vegetables, or meat, I have always seen a massive benefit in the purchasing of food which comes from Britain - it seems to make a great deal of sense to me, that we buy food that has not travelled a great distance to get to our plates.

It makes sense for the local community financially, to support local producers, and I think it gives some manner of comfort that you have control over what you are eating.

When you buy meat from a local butcher who you trust, there are fewer people within the supply chain, and you can be more confident that you are eating what you think you are eating!

When it comes to buying British flowers, I had never really given it a great deal of thought. I have always loved traditional “British” flowers, just because they happen to be some of my favourites - beautifully scented English roses in the summer, along with my favourite - sweetpeas, and the fabulous frothy green alchemilla, but before now I have never consciously considered where my flowers have come from.

Actually, that’s not strictly true - I have always been conscious of buying Fairtrade when I buy cut roses, but I have similarly always been happy to buy cut roses when they are quite obviously out of season.

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All of this has changed for me within the last few months - I became aware of something called “British Flower Hour” on Twitter - it is an hour between 8pm and 9pm on a Monday evening when those who work within the British flower industry, or those who wish to support it, can chat together on Twitter, and discuss matters particular to the industry - it seems to me to be an excellent idea - for example on one occasion there was discussion about which British flowers the florists would like to have more of.

The flower growers have discussed which are the best ways to package the flowers for posting out, and can generally exchange ideas and tips.

The thing that strikes me most about these discussions, the thing that marks this industry out as different to any others that I have come across, is that there is no competition between these professionals - they are not trying to out-do each other, they are not trying to undercut each other, even though they will be appealing to the same group of customers - they are supportive of each other, they are working together for the good of the industry, they are fighting to get their work recognised, and they are working incredibly hard to be recognised on an international level for the fantastic standard of flowers that they are growing.

I was so inspired by the way in which this group of people were working, that I wanted to discuss the industry with them, and unsurprisingly, in their friendly and generous way, they were happy to speak to me.

I spoke to various different people - Georgie Newbery, Vanessa Collins and Claire Brown - who all grow and sell flowers from various different parts of the country, and Rosie Ellis, who grows flowers to make into natural confetti.

All of these ladies are very passionate about the industry, and their passion is totally infectious. I asked them all a set of questions about the industry - whether there is a big price difference in Buying British, what the benefits are... and so on.

Everyone seemed to agree that there is an added cost to buying British flowers, as opposed to buying cheap imported flowers from a supermarket, but the ladies all explained this very simply, that when we break down the amount of work that goes into producing them, they actually don’t seem that expensive after all!

When we consider the difference between buying a bunch of flowers from a British producer, Vanessa summed it up perfectly by saying that the important thing about British flowers is “seasonality, scent and soul”.

This seems to be the essence of British flowers to me - don’t get me wrong, I love flowers from other countries, and there is nothing I love more than looking at the displays of tropical flowers from other countries at the Chelsea Flower Show, but there is also something very special and very exclusive about British flowers, and for me it really is the incredibly powerful scent that they produce.

Vanessa also voiced her concerns about the fact that the public will become disconnected with the seasonal growing year when they are able to buy flowers in the supermarket that wouldn’t naturally be in flower.

Claire echoed Vanessa’s comments about scent - this is something which seems to come up again and again. She also made a really interesting point that supermarket flowers are often the same week after week - which can become pretty boring.

She told me that she doesn’t grow things which she knows she couldn’t make a profit on, which I thought was very interesting - there is a definite limit on what people are prepared to pay for their cut flowers, and there would be no point in these growers spending their time and money on growing products which they just couldn’t afford to sell.

Georgie started selling sweetpeas outside her garden gate, and is now selling flowers on overnight delivery throughout the year.

Her website is divine, and she sells exactly the kind of bouquets that make me swoon.

I asked her about the swell of support that she and the other ladies are trying so hard to create, she told me: “There seems to be a real ground swell of support for the #britishflowers campaign. With people like Mary Portas re-tweeting us and the Buy British ethic really taking hold I think it’s going to be a good year for British cut flower growers (if the sun ever comes out and the rain ever dries up!).”

Rosie comes at this from a slightly different angle, as she is growing for confetti, but is still very passionate about the cause. With more British brides looking to use British flowers on their wedding day, we can only hope that this will mean good things for the industry.

Rosie puts it perfectly: “Special occasions deserve special flowers, and that’s what quintessentially British flowers are about.”

There seems to be a move towards the natural look with wedding flowers, so we can only hope that this will make people more aware of the fantastic industry that we have in this country for growing British flowers!

Focus on... The London Flower Show

TWO weeks ago I went to the London Flower Show for the first time. It’s a show which I had heard of, but had never made it to, and this year I decided that I would take a day off work to go along.

The London Spring Flower Show is held at the RHS halls in Westminster, and from the moment I walked through the doors, my eyes were met with a plethora of incredible spring colour.

Hyacinths, and fritillaries, and daffodils, and snowdrops. Hundreds and hundreds of snowdrops! All different kinds of snowdrops, and just as I expected, there were lots of different varieties that I had never seen before. I saw some lovely snowdrops with splashes of yellow on them - which are highly sought after, and as a result of which, were far too expensive for me to consider buying for my own garden.

I didn’t come home empty-handed though, as there were lots of things to buy in addition to plants. I bought some lovely metal lillies to add some structure to my borders - still ever questing after that much needed height in my garden. The plants that were there were such beautiful specimens, and the exhibitors were clearly very expert plant people.

That is the thing that I love most about going to the garden shows - when you buy plants from one of the shows, you are able to speak to the people who are running the stalls about the plants - and where the best place to put them is. They are also incredibly friendly.

There is a general camaraderie between the exhibitors and the people who are attending the show- a mutual love of the plants that we are there to either admire, or to show off.

The RHS shows happen several times throughout the year, and tickets and information can be found on the RHS website.

Things to do this month

* The spring should be finally getting under way this month, so when the daffodils have gone over, you should dead head them.

* You should have been chitting your potatoes, and it’s normally a good rule of thumb to start planting your first “earlies” on Good Friday.

* Onion sets and broad beans can go in this month too - probably towards the end of the month.

* March is a good time to buy snowdrops “in the green”. You should get these in the garden straight away.

* Although you will need to play this slightly by ear, you can get the lawn mown for the first time this year - there’s nothing like the smell of freshly cut grass!

* Don’t worry if you are running slightly behind with getting the vegetables in - as they will catch up.

With thanks to the following for their contributions: