Sunday, 20 March 2016

How to be a Flower Farmer!!

On Tuesday I pootled over to Common Farm Flowers, home of Georgie Newbery and her team who, in the last 6 years, have grown their flower farming and floristry business from a barrow in their lane to a business turning over serious sums of money. When I first visited Common Farm it was at the beginning of this momentous journey and I am enormously proud to have played a tiny part in where it is today, even if most of that part was nagging about good use of compost teas to keep the soil healthy.

Georgie is neither a trained gardener or a trained florist, but what she is, is a woman driven by wanting financial success and with natural green fingers and an eye for colour and form that could only come from someone who began their career working for American Vogue in Paris. She understands colour, knowing instinctively how to give her customer, be it a bride, someone wanting bouquets of posies, or even funeral clients, exactly what they need. The range of flowers grown at Common Farm is huge, and this all helps to make the Common Farm style instantly recognisable.
I went on this course because I was intrigued by what the title of "How to be a Flower Farmer", which lets be honest, could be a week's worth of work and still in no way have covered everything. I know this course is one run at Common Farm often due to demand, so nosiness was my real reason for going along. But also, knowing Georgie, I suspected it would be very real and honest. I was not to be let down.

Throughout the day the most important message was that although flower farming is a wonderful job, it has to be entered into as a business, and one that must make you a living, whatever that living might need to be. For a few people on the course this was obviously something they hadn't really thought about, with far more thought having gone into what to grow, how and where. Over and again we were brought back to the importance of working out your business model and your market, whilst ensuring that those things would make you a living.
Earlier in the year I had a conversation with someone involved with Fairtrade here in Bristol, and a comment made by that person concerned me greatly. I was horrified that an organisation was supporting Fairtrade flowers before homegrown for a Valentines campaign in Bristol and one of the reasons I was given was that growers in Africa and South America are being helped by the Fairtrade trade to feed and educate their families whereas she doubted that was a concern of  any flower grower in the UK. Flower growing, it seemed, was a hobby that a few might be making some money from, but it wasn't an important part of a family income. I found this completely infuriating. I know many flower farmers for whom their flowery income is their only income and who also employ several others who are then, of course, reliant on that business too. Flower farming isn't, for most at least, a jolly game that is played at, in between lunches and days out at events and courses, but a serious business often supporting rural economies as well as adding to them. I made this point and suggested they visit various flower farms in the area, none of whom they had even investigated. They seemed unaware that the industry even existed until our conversation, let alone that there are more than a dozen flower farms, that I am aware of, within a 50 mile radius of Bristol.

And so I was relieved to see that Georgie approached becoming a flower farmer by explaining that becoming a business was the most important part, before a seed is sown or a bulb planted. For flower farming to be taken seriously as an industry it needs to show that it has serious business credentials and that it can be a job that supports families,feeding into local economies and making them brighter and more exciting places to be in business within. Before growing anything, there is the need to decide what your market is, where that might be and how your flowers are going to get there. This depends on what it is you need to earn so whereas for some selling via mail order at high end prices may bring in what is needed, whereas for others selling through farmers markets might be a great way to turn over the required funds. Of course it's also important to look at ways to add value to your flowers, usually by working on wedding flowers but also looking at running courses, giving talks, and ensuring that key moments in the year, such as Valentines, are maximised on and that your customers know that they can trust your product at all times throughout the year.

So what did I learn? Well mainly that I want to grow flowers for a living at some point in the, probably quite far, future, but that I need a solid and sensible business plan before I even consider sowing a seed because there is nothing rude about demanding a living from doing something you love. A fair and valid point!!

Sunday, 6 March 2016

New Tools!!

Recently Poundland released a range of gardening tools that are endorsed by Charlie Dimmock. The tools are at the usual Poundland price point of £1, and there has been some discussion around how good they would be or whether they might just fall apart as soon as they are used. There have been some very unpleasant comments made on social media about not just these tools, but also about the store in general and those who it's assumed fall into the demographic that shop there. Not surprisingly I found that really distasteful, with people's social assumptions coming to the fore, most of which were assumptions that were completely unfounded. I shop in Poundland from time to time!!
Charlie Dimmock has clearly said they are good quality, but with all the nay sayers I decided there was only one way to see what they are like, and that, of course, was to go and buy some and give them a go. So here's what I bought....
Just to clarify I bought a pair of what are called pruning shears but are basically secateurs, a hand fork, a cultivation/ weeding type tool, a hanging basket and a pair of pots with cloche tops which I was very pleased to see had ventilation in the top. 
Today I used them. 
And I was impressed. I began by sowing some of Thompson and Morgan's new Antirrhinum variety, Lucky Lips, into one of the pots that come with cloche lids. The pots are sturdy and the lids have ventilation which is amazing for 50p per unit. I've popped them onto a windowsill and I'm looking forward to watching them germinate. 
Now I know it's early to sow things outside but I found some Nigella seeds in 2 varieties, Mulberry Rose from Pennards and Midnight from Thompson and Morgan, and I had an area at the back of the garden that really needed addressing. There's a lot of mind your own business in our garden that needs bringing under control, and in this area it's bad, so I used the cultivator and the fork to clear it out. 
And they did a grand job!! Not only did the fork put up with my very typical Bristol clay beds, but the cultivation tool ripped through bamboo root and pulled it all out, as well as clearing lots of the mind your own business and the cleavers that are starting to germinate. Hopefully that area will be full of Nigella and Calendula in a few months. 
I also sowed Thompson and Morgan's new Nastutium for hanging baskets, Cream Troika, straight into the hanging basket, which I was pleased to see had drainage holes already and a really sturdy chain. I've popped that into the greenhouse, and hope those seeds will pop through soon, although I hope they'll wait until after the cold snap we keep hearing about.
I'm guessing now that some people will be wondering why I have done this? 
The simple truth is that for many of the communities I work with, and with many people I speak to, the cost of tools is one of the barriers to gardening. Firstly people often don't know what they need, and then when they work that out, having costed it up at perhaps one of the DIY superstores, financially it's just not affordable. Even looking at B&Q's cheaper range, the cost of garden fork, spade, hand tools, a rake and a fairly basic pair of secateurs is at least £50, which is quite a considerable investment, particularly if gardening is something that is not within a person's comfort zone, or something they've ever tried before. For people struggling to pay bills, put a roof over their families head, hold down jobs that might have unsociable hours, and look after families generally, these tools will help break down that barrier and enable gardening to be a part of their lives. In the knowledge that gardening, being outside and taking gentle exercise is good for both our physical and mental health, getting stressed out people out into the garden and growing something, has to be positive for healthy cities. 
Of course the great thing about the internet is that there is a lot of good information out there about how to garden, on You Tube, in blogs and vlogs. You Tube channels like @10MinGardener and his and Sean Cameron's are great ways of learning how to garden by following well researched how to type posts on line. There are also lots of bloggers who visit gardens and talk about their gardens which are often truly inspirational too. I have a whole raft of these online resources that I recommend to people and even if they don't have access to the Internet at home, community centres and libraries are great places to access these resources and are all well used here in Bristol.
So now I know these tools are also good quality and useable, the work to get people gardening here goes on with another barrier begun to be broken down. Well done Poundland!! 


Wednesday, 2 March 2016

An Adventure in Aquaponics

On Monday I had an aquaponics unit arrive.
The reasons behind why will be shared at some point, but I think it's fair to say I am excited to have the opportunity to try to grow in this soilless system, if only because it seems so alien to me. Growing for me is about compost, mulching, watering and weeding, but here I will be focusing on bacteria levels, ammonia, nitrates and pH levels, testing these things daily with little chemistry type kits and keeping a diary of all the results.
So Sara, I hear you ask, why? Well here is the answer.
We want people to grow.
We want people to learn and engage with where their food comes from.
We know many young people have an issue with traditional gardening and growing being fuddy duddy and the thing that old men do on allotments and grannies do in their gardens.
We know lots of people have no space to garden in.
Surely then aquaponics, which can be a tiny unit that can be bought as a kit, is far more techy than an allotment could ever be and grows fresh, leafy greens, salads and herbs which are often quite expensve to buy, could be the begining of the answer?
So I do not have all the answers to these questions but I am working on them. In the meantime I have basil and coriander growing away madly, and possibly proving that I need the grow lights sooner rather than later as they do appear to be stretching rather than growing much leaf! I will soon be sowing a selection of leaves into coir pellets as the next crop and will spend some of my time over the summer working out what grows and what doesn't, whilst panicking about how the fish, which are arriving in a couple of weeks, are on an almost hourly basis, whilst wrangling with the chemistry of the whole system.
I have to say a huge thank you to my pals at Grow Bristol for providing the system, setting it up and responding quickly to every minor panic so far.
And for further information you can check out the British Aquaponics Association, whose website may become my bible equivalent in the next few months.