by Emma Sousa, Urban Flower Farmer
Emma Sousa, the Urban Flower Farmer at her plot
A book changed my life. 'The 50 Mile Bouquet' by Debra Prinzing, follows the journey of a group of growers who were, and still are, changing the face of American floristry with their ‘Slow Flowers’ movement. It showed me there were florists growing on a disused car park right in the heart of San Fransisco and it made me think that if they could do that then why couldn't I?
I had been a florist long before I started growing British cut flowers. After several years building up my business without thinking much about where my flowers came from, I did some research and was horrified at the effect that our industry has on the planet. I was shocked at the amount of flower miles incurred by blooms grown thousands of miles away, flown halfway around the world to the Dutch flower auctions only to be trucked to the UK. Transportation has a huge environmental impact before you even consider the tons of plastic flowers are routinely wrapped in, and the volume of pesticides used in large-scale commercial growing.
In the early days of my business, I didn't need large quantities of flowers for my orders so I started to research local British flower growers as an alternative to commercial wholesale supply. At that point, I had never heard of Flowers From The Farm and its directory of flower growers. And back then, whilst I found that small scale British growers existed, there were none close enough to make it viable for me to buy from them. Also, if I’m being totally honest, although I thought it would be great to buy locally grown flowers, I knew I would miss the convenience of popping to my local wholesalers to pick up a few wraps. But after my Eureka moment of discovering ‘The 50 Mile Bouquet’, it dawned on me that if I couldn't buy from anyone locally then the only solution was to grow flowers myself - not an easy thing to do living in London where land is at a premium and where it’s not exactly brimming with green farmland!
I searched and searched without success for a piece of land so took on a couple of allotments to a least make a start and learn how to grow flowers. Even though I couldn't promote myself as a grower or sell my flowers because of allotment commercial use restrictions, it was a great learning experience. When I’d got a little growing expertise under my belt, a piece of land with water on site came up and I still grow there today. I’ve since had to give up my beloved allotments because it’s hard enough running an events business whilst growing flowers on a single plot, let alone on multiple sites. The space I grow on has actually shrunk over the last few years to a more manageable 700 square metres.
The logistics of being an urban grower are not always easy to navigate, especially in the capital: my land is just 5 miles from my studio but some evenings I can sit in traffic to and from my plot fighting against the rush of London commuters. Some days on arrival I can’t even park my little van as my flower field is off a busy road with no parking allowed. The location also poses challenges when getting supplies to the plot - it’s hard work wheelbarrowing 5 tons of compost when you are navigating traffic, gates, slopes and steps.
My plot has a substantial greenhouse onsite and I use this to start off my seedlings, but alas no polytunnels are permitted so after this sheltered start, everything is grown outdoors. We do have low caterpillar tunnels for flowers such as autumn planted Ranuculus and Anemones to protect them from the worst of the winter wet on our clay soil and also to shield them from our resident deer who earlier this year destroyed an entire bed when the tunnel blew off in a storm! Although it’s London we do have pests and predators around - my plot backs onto farmland as we are on the outskirts of the city, so we share our land with badgers, pheasants, deer and foxes but thankfully they don't cause us too many problems. Occasionally a critter will dig up new plants or the field mice will nest in the dahlia tubers over winter, but I very much work with everything and everyone. Thankfully we have had very few disasters to date.
This year growing my own flowers has been a blessing: we have bought in very little because we haven't needed the volume associated with large scale weddings and events and the flower plot has kept my business going for pretty much the entire season.
Running a business in the coolest city is fab, but being an urban flower farmer is even better. If you have any questions about urban flower farming please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Emma’s Top tips
Identify who your customer is
For me, I’m my own customer as I grow for my wedding and events business - it's not only a great selling point but it means we can use more unusual blooms in our work. We don't grow everything we use but with the ever-growing interest in British flower farming, we are lucky enough to now have other flower growers nearby and we also buy from some of the larger British growers during peak season.
Consider the conditions and geographical aspect of your growing space
We have lots of trees growing around the plot so some areas get less sun. We therefore use these areas for growing perennials and biennials rather than sun loving annuals. We also plan a crop rotation to move crops around the series of annual beds.
For the past few years we have had incredibly hot, dry summers and watering takes a lot of time and energy. Every year I say I will install an irrigation system but every year something seems to get in the way: time, funds, any excuse… I promised I’d do it this year, but then Covid 19 disrupted the whole wedding and events industry so money is tight once again and I’ll be starting the 2021 season still desperately vowing to install one.
Use ‘No Dig’ methods
I’ve learned the hard way that ‘no dig’ beds are a must! When I started on my field I hired a turf stripper to remove established grass and wheelbarrowed compost (through traffic, past shops etc!) to place on top - it was time consuming and hard work and I realise now that it took a chunk of good topsoil off the land. Having learned my lesson, when I extended on my current plot I made ‘no dig’ beds.....laying cardboard down onto grass areas and topping that with compost to make new beds I could plant straight into.
This is the one piece of advice every flower farmer will give you: plant shrubs, trees, foliage and fillers early on in your journey and you will thank yourself later on. They take time to establish but are so important if you are to have a productive plot.
Be selective about what you grow
Over the years I have really refined what I grow. The flowers need to work hard for me, and I need to consider how much time I have for growing and tending my flowers during peak wedding season. I even have to think about how long they take to cut and condition (so for example I don’t grow many cornflowers because although they are the easiest thing to grow they are time consuming to cut, condition and to deadhead). For me, it’s all about growing things that will give more bang for buck. By far my most productive and useful flower has got to be my dahlias. Although they take a bit of work at the front and back end of the season they never let me down and provide a wealth of colours, sizes and texture for my wedding work - I could grow them alone and be a very happy person!
Remember that you’ve only got so many hours in a day
Being a flower farmer is not always the easiest thing in the world and my biggest piece of advice is to take on only what you can manage - for me, multiple spaces just didn't work as my wedding floristry took up too much of my time and this put huge pressure on me and my business. I’ve made growing work by cutting back to just one plot and keeping the space to manageable-sized productive chunk.