British Flowers Week 2016 - Founder of Flowers from the Farm Gill Hodgson

To celebrate British Flowers Week 2016, Gardens Illustrated will be posting a series of interviews with some of the amazing cut-flower growers and florists supporting the British-grown revolution. Gill Hodgson talks about her cut-flower business and her non-profit organisation, Flowers from the Farm. 

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Gill Hodgson

 

Fieldhouse Flowers and Flowers from the Farm

 

Gill Hodgson runs Fieldhouse Flowers in York, working 12 hours a day to grow British cut flowers. She also set up Flowers from the Farm; a networking organisation for flower growers, which trains and mentors members in business, marketing and runs digital workshops. It is an amazing resource to help support the British flower growing industry and has over 200 members. 

Why did you decide to grow cut-flowers?
I’m a farmer by trade but I had always been a gardener and had always grown flowers mainly as decoration for my own house. About eight to ten years ago, I had a year when I had a massive surplus of flowers so I decided to put a few out at the end of the drive. I sold £1 bunches, sat in a bucket, with a jam jar as an honesty box and over the summer I sold about 70 bunches. After the success of those initial buckets, the business grew from there. The next year I sowed extra seeds and doubled the price and sold even more and the year after that, I tried selling at farmers markets.

Year on year the ideas grew and it happened totally naturally. When I put out those initial bunches, I didn’t even realise I was looking for another career but that is what it evolved into. It was all down to the success of the flowers – I didn’t advertise, I didn’t try to push them – the flowers sold themselves and that was an eye-opener for me. It opened my eyes to the relatively small variety of species that are available for the public to buy. I realised there is a generation that have grown up only seeing chrysanthemums, roses, carnations and lilies in the supermarkets. They haven’t seen lupins and bells of Ireland and all the other different flowers I was putting out there and that’s what made me think that more people should be doing this and that there’s a market here. That’s why I set up Flowers from the Farm – to get people interested.

How would you describe the community at Flowers from the Farm?
There is a fabulous community. We’ve often discussed between ourselves whether growing flowers turns people into nice people or whether nice people turn to growing flowers because honestly, I have made such wonderful friends. Sadly British agriculture isn’t known for fostering a great cooperative spirit. Old fashioned farmers, the ones I grew up with anyway, were quite secretive about the prices they were getting, the markets they were selling to and the methods they were using. One of the things I love about flower farmers is the openness and generosity with information. You can see someone else’s flowers on Twitter or on someone else’s farm and ask, ‘oh, what variety is that?’ and the grower will tell you.

Why do you think that is?
I don’t know, it’s interesting and I’m sure somebody could write a whole thesis about it. I almost don’t want to say it’s because we’re mainly women, I really don’t want to say that but none of us are competitive; all our members without exception believe that they want to make British Flowers better known, and by making British Flowers better known we help our own businesses and that’s the best way to do it. All 260 of us are out there talking about the beauty of British Flowers and every single one of our members benefit from the other 259 members talking about British Flowers as well. It’s not gathering a market for yourself and being jealous of it, it’s the willingness to share little tips or news about a new flower variety.

How can people support British Flowers?
People are re-discovering or think they’re discovering species that their grandparents knew perfectly well but to them they’re new and exciting. So the word is spreading about British Flowers but we actually need more people growing them. We’ve got fewer than a dozen big commercial enterprises growing flowers in Britain and selling to supermarkets so we’ll always be a niche market and smaller growers are a niche part of that niche market.

Do you think we need more big commercial British growers?
No. I actually think - and this isn’t just because I’ve started Flowers from the Farm - that the artisan way is the way forward. It’s a bit like local food – it’s about fewer road miles, it’s about local, it’s about known provenance. A bride, for example, can say to people ‘I’ve seen where my flowers grew’ and it makes for a more personal story and that appeals to a lot of people. For some, it never will and that’s fine. We’re not evangelising and saying everyone’s got to like British flowers but there are enough people out there who do like them or want to see that they are available.

Why do you think people are buying more British flowers?
People now have smaller gardens so they don’t actually want to pick the flowers that they grow in their own garden; they want to leave them for decoration, but they are also the sorts of flowers they do want in their houses. By putting British flowers on the market, it’s giving people an opportunity to have a bit more choice.

Do you have an advice for new flower growers?
Join Flowers from the Farm. We offer a subsidised year's membership for what we call our ‘seedling growers’. People who aren’t actually growing yet but they want to spend a year doing research, looking into the business of flower growing and thinking is this for me? How would I start? And we give them that information. By the end of the year, many people might decide 'actually, this isn’t for me at all, I’ll just carry on being a gardener' but it gives them that opportunity to find out.

Those that say yes, look at the market to find a special niche where they think they can fit in. Somebody in a small market town will say ‘Yes, I can go round my local florists and stock these’ or someone in a small village will think ‘Yes, the ladies doing the church flowers will buy my flowers’ or someone on a busy road will decide ‘oh yes, there’s a lay-by near me where I could maybe put up a little stand’. Some people will just do weddings; some people wont touch them with a barge pole.

Actually, funeral flowers are becoming very popular now for people wanting a more personal touch. I did a funeral a few weeks ago for a gentleman who actually lived in the village and I picked all the greenery out of his own garden. It was a bit of privet from his hedge, some box, a bit of yew and some oak but it was all from his garden and his family loved it. He wasn’t a roses and lilies man, he was a bit more down to earth and the arrangements reflected that. It’s a very personal thing – more personal than weddings somehow.

What would you say is the biggest challenge for flower growers?
A lot of people want to grow flowers but don’t have the land and that is a difficult one. You don’t need a big area, a big garden is plenty to start off with but then having got to that size, people then want to expand. The British weather is - and I try not to say a problem, because there’s always something flowering - but it makes it very difficult when you’re trying to woo florists into buying your flowers.

Why is that?
Florists are lovely, lovely people and they have done a lot of training but their studies focus on using imported flowers. They can ring up the Dutch flower markets or the wholesaler at 9pm at night and order exactly what they need, in the exact shade that matches a bit of ribbon and the flowers will be there on the doorstop at 8am the next morning. I have to try and get across to the florist and to the bride that I don’t know what will be flowering that week, I can only give them a rough idea on what was growing at that time the year before. But that’s not what British flowers are all about, it’s about seasonality and that means what’s flowering that week.

 

Useful information

Fieldhouse Flowers, Tel 07803 127081

Flowers from the Farm

Gardens Illustrated are running a series of interviews, one each day, to celebrate British Flowers Week. To see Tuesday's interview with florist and grower Sara Willman, click here.

For more information on British Flowers Week, visit britishflowersweek.com

 

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