Sunday, 17 May 2015

British Flowers, The Chelsea 2015 Edition Part 2

It's a word we know, and most of us understand but in a world where we can pretty much get anything at any time if the year, it's hard to remember that the vast majority of things that are grown, are only available for a limited time in the year. It's somewhat bizarre that strawberries can be bought at Christmas and asparagus at any other time than mid May to June is little short of sacrilege, and yet they are both pretty much available all year round. 
But if you've eaten strawberries at Christmas, you'll know they pale into nothingness in comparison to the deep sunfilled sweetness of a strawberry picked and eaten in mid summer. They lack taste, fragrance and their texture is usually too hard or too soft but they're strawberries out of season and so they are bought,with little thought of how they arrived or from where.
So what does this have to do with flowers or RHS Chelsea? 
Well every year the floral marquee at RHS Chelsea is filled with the most spectacular displays from our amazing nurseries and growers from all across the UK. There are everything from stunning narcissi, to tulips and hyacinths and alliums-all plants and flowers you would expect to see within a six week window at either end of the show week. There is always a strawberry display that you can smell long before you can see it. The bulb companies show off their spring and early summer flowerers whilst the larger nurseries show what they have new for the year ahead. It's an amazing, inspiring, fragrant pavilion that you know you're entering by the fanfare of scents and colours that meet you as you enter, and I for one have been rendered speechless by the beauty of the exhibits on more than one occasion. It can be emotional, particularly when you understand the pressure these growers put onto themselves to produce the perfect bloom, the perfect plant. 
At a nursery I formerly worked at we called it the Chelsea dance. Plants being taken from sun, to shade, from heat to cool and back again, often all in the space of a day,to ensure they were in perfect condition for the day they finally went to the show ground. Working 18-20 hour days in the run up to the show is normal and a culmination of months of preparation and specialist growing. As a grower it's exciting and challenging and although the pressure was huge, and everyone says that's my last year, never again, if I'm honest I miss it. 
The RHS proudly announced last year that 95% of the Chelsea Floral Marquee was British grown. The pedants among us might have said why not 100% but there are a few stands where clearly there are going to be some foreign grown plants, such as the quite incredible South African and Carribean stands that are so inspirational and educational. 
So with all this being really at the heart of what the Floral Marquee is about, beautifully, mainly seasonal, British produced plants that speak of our horticultural heritage, you would hope that the foral displays produced by Interflora who are bringing us a stand that by design is about the Britishness of garden parties, drinking tea and presumably being surrounded by quintessentially British gardens, would want to support the British flower industry as it rises like a Phoenix from its own ashes, reinventing itself all across the country, and bringing us those perfect early summer blooms. Sweet Williams, one of the British flower growers staples, beautiful scented pinks, Larkspur, Ammi, Geums, Sweet Peas......the list goes on, are all available here and now. 
But instead they chose to try to source Paeonias, Roses, Stocks and Allium Gadiator from UK growers whilst sourcing what else was needed from Holland, but failed to check these would be available or, and more importantly, order the plants with plenty of warning so that the Chelsea Dance could begin. The reality of the stand is that less than 20% was ever going to be British grown and today I estimate that it is far, far less than that. If Marks and Spencer could see that they would need to work with UK growers last year so that their paeonias were ready in time for the show, how on earth did Interflora not look to do the same?  To check that there was a large scale producer of English roses as cut blooms might have been wise, not to mention ensuring that the required Allium variety was grown commercially, and it's horrifying to be in the knowledge that this was never done. No Chelsea garden's planting is set in stone until the day it is finished for this reason precisely and to take into account that things go wrong, so why would the designers involved with the Interflora stand not have used that thinking as they were designing? 
And sadly the answer is a lack of understanding or care for seasonality. An expectation that they can have what they want, when they want it, regardless of the cost to the environment or the industry which they are snubbing. Hinting that they felt let down by the UK industry when they actually hadn't even engaged with them, but just gone through a wholesaler, is far from being acceptable but the saddest part is their lack of understanding of the business in which they are set and its dependence on the seasons and the way it regularly reinvents itself when needed due to the vagaries of the British weather and the pressures of the market. And so they will present a stand tomorrow with un scented Carnations from South Anerica whilst next to them are Whetman's Pinks with their stunning display that not only looks like English summer but smells of it too, bringing true seasonality and excellent nurserymanship to the Floral Marquee.
Our British flower industry is blooming, but it needs support from the people who are at the centre of the flower industry as well as from us all. Yes British grown flowers tend to be dearer but they are also beautifully grown by people who are passionate about what they do and long for the recognition they deserve. Often they are grown in places where the environment is being nurtured as closely as the flowers, free of chemicals and by growers who understand the importance of keeping our soils healthy and full of life. These people don't see growing as a job but a lifestyle choice, a way of supporting themselves as they support the land. Going into an uncertain future would you rather spend a fiver on a bunch of garish flowers from the supermarket that are chemically treated and have travelled thousands of air miles or save that money for a monthly treat from a grower at your local farmers market or an online florist? And having read this morning that the huge Dutch greenhouses produce blooms that have a higher carbon footprint than flowers imported from Kenya, can anyone happily buy these chemically produced blooms? 
Interflora could be at the forefront of showing how flowers can be bought seasonally and still be beautiful and bespoke. Théy could encourage their franchisees to buy British blooms where possible and to highlight them as a premium range where possible. Théy could be producing seasonal bouquets of British flowers , encouraging florists to become engaged with the industry that so many assume are behind them, whilst demanding that the Dutch lower that carbon footprint. They could be running a range of organically grown blooms and highlighting the reasons why they are a premium range. And for certain they should be saying to anyone who buys from them that sometimes substitutions need to be made because to guarantee a rose in February really in the UK. Is like guaranteeing strawberries at Christmas-a sad lack of understanding of seasonality and proof that we think if we want something we should be able to have it whatever the cost. 
Part 3 will follow.........

Proof British flowers are available all year-these received from Common Farm Flowers in January!! 

Friday, 15 May 2015

British Flowers-The Chelsea 2015 Edition

After the Valentine's Bouquet 2015 fiaso which you can read about here, I was slightly surprised to see a Tweet earlier in the year frrom Interflora saying that their Chelsea 2015 stand would be all about celebrating Bristish flowers and I immediately sent them a message asking someone to contact me. I received an email from a Brand Manager introducing herself and saying how pleased she would be to show me around the stand. I replied, sending the article I wrote, and said, in essence, don't do this half heartedly and don't let the growers of the UK down.
So imagine my surprise to hear from Gill Hodgson of Flowers From The Farm that she had been informed there were Dutch bought flowers being put into the stand. I emailed everyone I could think to email at Interflora and got a message this morning from their Marketing Director that she was happy to speak. And here is the run down of the conversation.....
It seems the decision to go British was to link in with the RHS who at one point wanted a British theme to the Floral Marquee this year. But then the RHS changed their brief, Interflora realised they didn't really need to go the whole hog to use British flowers but just didn't bother to say they weren't going to. And my guess is they think they would have gotten away with it if it weren't for the beady eyes of those there!!
However, shocking and appalling as that is, it's the next bit that really got to me. This Director seemed quite adamant that the UK flower industry was not able to fulfil what she wanted for the stand. I asked which growers she had spoken to and it quickly became apparent that there had been one conversation with one wholesaler, and nothing else and that the flowers had been ordered only in the last few weeks, not months in advance as they ought to have been.  Having spoken with Gill this morning, we now know that many if the required blooms are available, and that growers across the country have a huge array of other blooms ready and waiting.  When this was questioned she asked me how I would feel if I were a bride and the flowers I had been promised or requested weren't available, to which I naturally replied I would trust my British florist to know what would be available and expect there to be substitutions due to our climate if and when necessary. But apparently this is not how Interflora work, which is no surprise in reality, but just very disappointing that they have leant nothing from the previous furore. No understanding of seasonality, or that dreaded word sustainable, and I doubt any thoughts for air miles or chemical footprints. 
Interflora had asked me to write an article for their in house magazine, Mercury, and the original idea would be that off the back of the Chelsea stand I would explain to their florists why they should buy British where possible. But considering this exchange, their corporate stand that if they want it they shall have it and their total lack of real engagement with the amazing British growers across the country who are continuing the amazing fight to keep our cut flower business growing, I'm not going to write that article. 
Instead I'm going to repledge my allegiance to the British flower farmers, growers and the florists who fight for them by using their blooms. And I'm going to ask you to do the same. If you're visiting Chelsea buy a British buttonhole to wear to the show. Ask the florists which blooms are British. Ask why they are not all and what Interflora are doing to support our blooming industry. And away from the show ground? Support them with your hard earned pound. Talk about them. Tell your friends and families about the way flowers are produced in South America and Africa and ask them to see flowers as a luxury item that you can't buy for a fiver with your weekly shop.
I guess what we take from this is that the fight must continue and it strikes me that whilst Chelsea is bringing horticulture to the fore in the next few days, we must shout loudly and be heard. Use social media, tweet @interflora, comment on their Facebook and join in with the #grownnotflown hashtag on both Twitter and Instagram!! Let's get this out there whilst we can. The British Flower Industry has resurrected itself, let's make sure its success continues.

British narcissi snapped at Common Farm Flowers! Beautiful, scented and UK grown.