by Meg Edmonds, FFTF Co-chair, Roots Family Farm Shop.
As the first Flowers from the Farm Co-Chair to take the role without being known to our Honorary President, it was great to meet Gill Hodgson at last and to explore the story of Flowers from the Farm as it turns 10 years old on Wednesday this week. Here's how our conversation went...
I met Flowers from the Farm for the first time in the RHS Chelsea Show Flower Marquee in 2018. How did it feel to have achieved a Gold Medal?
Leading FFTF to a Chelsea Gold must rate as one of the greatest highlights of my life - even just thinking back to walking into the Great Pavilion early that Tuesday morning and seeing the medal sends a delighted shiver right through me. That moment was the culmination of an unbelievable amount of work done by our members, but you have to step back another year to find its beginnings.
FFTF looked different in 2017: I’d run the organisation by myself since its inception and I’d announced to the committee in February that it was time it has a proper management structure with elected representatives and a constitution.
Entering us for Chelsea without a word to anyone was my final act as benign dictator.
I can honestly – hand on heart - say I never had one moment’s doubt.
I knew that people would come forward; I’d already eyed up a few key players; I’d seen the standard of FFTF’s work displayed at shows all over the country; I knew that all the ingredients were there.
I can’t claim to have been certain we’d achieve Gold but it was utter elation, not surprise, that saw me screaming, laughing and crying on that magical Tuesday morning.
Can you describe your flower garden to us?
We have four children and, back in 1990, I laid out a formal parterre of box-lined beds each measuring 10m x 5m and ‘gave’ one to each of them.
I stupidly thought they’d take to gardening like ducks to water but they just made dens and dug for worms while I grew the vegetables and flowers.
Flowers gradually elbowed the vegetables out and FFTF emerged from among the rows.
30 years later, that garden was fabulous. The roses had finally clothed the pergola, the box was fat and healthy, perennials formed the backbone of the beds and a merry array of annuals and bulbs filled the gaps.
It was beautiful.
Then I ripped the whole thing out.
We swapped houses with daughter and son-in-law a year ago and moved 40 yards away. They’re not gardeners and I had two choices: either I could watch from my window while my pride and joy became overgrown, neglected and full of weeds, or I could keep on tending it even though I knew it was already becoming too much for me…
Neither option was realistic, so I got out the JCB, pulled out the hedges, levelled the lot and sowed another lawn. Gardens and flower fields don’t stand still, they need constant work and, sometimes, hard choices.
We’ve heard about your famous flower cart, does the cart have a story to tell? What did it carry before flowers?
We had a flock of hens on the farm when I was little – they lived in the building that we converted into what’s now our house and used to peck and scratch around in our bedroom.
The cart is the one my grandad used to load boxes of eggs onto and he would give me rides on it back to the wash house.
Who encouraged you to grow things when you started out?
I think it might have been self-preservation.
With four children under six, being outdoors was the best way to fill a day so we were out there, rain or shine, and they grew up to be waterproof. Planting seeds was just a natural progression although it was survival of the fittest for the seedlings which were regularly dug up by plastic spades, run over by ride-on tractors or eaten by the baby.
Can you choose your favourite flower?
I welcome every new flower when it opens for the first time that season, it’s like greeting a friend you haven’t seen for a while, but there’s a magic about the scabious and few flowers are so intricate when you look at them closely. It’s also the flower that makes me break all the rules.
You should never grow things that dislike the conditions you can offer.They’ll sulk. You’d be so much better off growing the ones that love your soil and your micro-climate and will flourish for you. So, you shouldn’t try to grow chalk-loving scabious in your acidic field. And you should do as I say, not as I do.
Do you grow vegetables as well?
I’m afraid that vegetables got jettisoned on the way, but I still have runner beans growing up the repurposed pergola every year because they’re my favourite. They’re not fussy about conditions, they clamber up without needing to be tied in, they’re not bothered by pests or diseases.
Would that I could say the same of some flowers.
Who would you most like to arrange a bouquet of flowers for?
I’ll always wish I could have made a bouquet for my mum: she died when I was 20 and she really loved flowers. I only came to flowers after her death when I was forced to look after the garden she left behind - but I’d already absorbed a lot of knowledge from her without realising it. She was disabled and she’d craftily involved me in all the garden tasks that she couldn’t do on her own by making them into a game when I was little.
What’s your least favourite job in the garden?
It’s more a case of not being able to do some of the jobs rather than disliking them. I’m 66 and I started land work as a 7 year old earning 1/8p an hour picking potatoes or leading bales in the summer holidays: these knees have seen a lot of work. I’ve prided myself on my strength and I’m taking badly to being unable to work like I did 40 years ago. I promised myself that 2020 would be the final time I lifted the dahlias and that, from now on, I’d leave them in situ over winter. However, their plot was underwater for three weeks in January and I’d have lost them all if I’d left them buried so I may have to revisit that idea.
Did you imagine that Flowers from the Farm would have a thousand members on our tenth birthday?
The short answer is no. If I thought about it at all I’d probably have said that 40 or 50 would be a nice number. Although at a free rural business seminar back in 2010 we were all told to work out what our goal was and to justify it. The first three to stand up and read out their goals all proudly announced that they really wanted to have a website.
I stood up and stated that I planned to have 612 members and that I’d arrived at this figure by giving every potential member a hypothetical 10-mile radius in which to sell his [they were all going to be masculine] flowers and that, by dividing the area of the country by one person’s area I’d got this answer. These figures were rubbish; made up out of a desire to show off but it got me noticed and resulted in being given a Yorkshire Forward mentor for 6 months.
Moral of the story: always appear bigger than you really are.
We are all so looking forward to being able to travel again soon, where are you most excited about visiting or re-visiting after lockdown?
It’s people we’ve missed more than places isn’t it? We’re all lost without our friends and I can’t wait to hug them all again.
But, there’s a stone seat in Fiona Pickles (Firenza Flowers) Halifax garden: I saw it on one of her Insta posts on a day when I must have been feeling a bit fed up and it’s come to represent the place I’m going to sit and give thanks that the pandemic has passed. Then there’s Claire Clarke’s Shepherd’s Hut in Ilkley (Pear Tree House Flowers). She’ll walk out into her garden one day and just find me sitting in there enjoying the view and hoping for flapjack. And then up north to Gordon Castle Walled Garden and the fabulous place that Zara Gordon Lennox and her team have created on the Moray Firth.
I just can’t wait.