In Gill Hodgson’s Instagram feed is a black-and- white photo of a little girl. It shows Gill aged five, clutching a bunch of flowers on her parents’ farm in the late 1950s. ‘I still live on the same farm and my hands are still full of flowers,’ reads the caption. Despite having stayed in the “very rural” East Riding of Yorkshire all her life, Gill has had an impact throughout Britain. And it’s all down to those flowers.
Ten years ago, she created Flowers from the Farm, a not-for-profit co-operative of British cut-flower growers. Gill can’t quite believe that her fledgling organisation now has around 1,000 members across the country, stretching from the Scottish Highlands to the Isles of Scilly. As Honorary President, she oversees a network of regional organisers – volunteers united by a passion for cut flowers and a wish to spread the word about local, seasonal blooms.
What made Gill set up Flowers from the Farm? As usual with most things, the seed was sown in childhood. “Mum was a great gardener. She craftily got me involved with the gardening, turning it into a game. I just picked things up by osmosis.” As well as looking after the garden and raising four children, Gill spent the bulk of her professional life working on the farm. It wasn’t until her mid-fifties that she took her first steps in the cut-flower business.“I started by putting out bunches at the end of the drive. After a couple of years, I decided to go to my local farmers’ market. When you sell at the farm gate you don’t see the customers, but the market was a real eye-opener. People were picking up the flowers, putting their noses in a bunch, and then this look of joy would come across their face.”
Searching for camaraderie and cut-flower know-how, Gill trawled the web for a group of people growing and selling flowers – but didn’t find one. So one morning, “between one bite of toast and the next”, she decided to create her own.“I got in touch with my local co-operative society. They gave me information on how to set up a mutually beneficial group. I then put out a press release. It must have been a slow news week because the Yorkshire Post picked it up,” she jokes. “Then the local BBC came and did some filming. Next thing I knew I was offered a stand at the Great Yorkshire Show. I had a ball. A couple of people who joined Flowers from the Farm that weekend are still members.”
Flowers from the Farm is open to anyone, whatever the size of their plot. “It could be a backyard or an allotment,” Gill explains. “We even have a few guerrilla gardeners.” They knock on people’s doors and offer to look after the garden in exchange for growing flowers.
As you’d expect from a farmer, Gill is practical and down to earth and has great business sense – qualities you need for success in the cut-flower market. “A lot of people have a rose-tinted view of what it’s like – usually involving a Cath Kidston pinafore, a trug and some flowery secateurs. It’s not like that. It rains when it shouldn’t. Your nails get broken and you develop this wind-blown skin.”
Gill’s proudest moment was when Flowers from the Farm won an RHS Chelsea Flower Show Gold Medal in 2018. With no sponsor and a tiny budget, she and 100 volunteers rallied together to create the most staggeringly pretty stand: a horse and cart proudly displaying more than 14,000 flower stems. Nowadays, Gill leaves the running of the organisation to others and has reduced her flower-farming business (known as Fieldhouse Flowers) to a third of an acre.“When I get to 70, I thought I would retire, but I’m not sure I will.” She loves what she does and is delighted by the success of Flowers from the Farm. “It isn’t just a fad. There was a time when jam jars and bunting were all the rage. As if British flowers could only sit in a jam jar.” While the coronavirus lockdown put a pause to wedding flowers, it saw lots of people buying local flowers for the first time. “It was wonderful because it saved a lot of people’s businesses. Flowers will do for any occasion and for whatever you want to say, whether it’s ‘I’m sorry’, ‘I miss you’, ‘I love you’, or ‘Happy Birthday’. I can’t think of anything else that works in this way.”
At the beginning of the lockdown, Gill swapped houses with her daughter and son-in-law. They are now in the family farm and she lives 20 yards away in a converted granary. She can look across the courtyard to their house. Her four grandchildren – all aged under five – use her house (and her fridge) as an extension of their own. What with flowers and grandchildren, Gill has her hands full–just like she did all those years ago.
Fieldhouse Flowers, The Granary, Field House Farm, Everingham, East Yorkshire YO42 4LH. Tel 07803 127081, fieldhouseflowers.co.uk