From Manila to Somerset - my long journey to becoming a flower farmer

Article Published By Flowers From The Farm on Nov 22 2020

     

    by Aizel Finch, Yalham Hayes Farm

    In March this year, we started our flower farm.  I have been longing to get to this stage in my life for a very long time. This place where I am today wasn’t even in my consciousness a few years back and it definitely was never my plan to run a flower farm with my family let alone manage a farm holiday let and a workshop, with children and dogs running around! 

    Growing up

    I was born and raised in Manila, capital city of The Philippines, and while most individuals like me would have grandparents in towns outside the city, both sets of my grandparents also lived in the capital.  Our home, built just behind my father’s parents, was tiny - possibly the size of my kitchen in the UK. It didn’t have a garden, not even a small one, so my childhood experience of flower growing was limited.  My grandma had a small porch where she kept pot plants.  Most pots were recycled large powdered milk cans which would eventually rust and disintegrate.  There were a few orchids too, grown in coconut husks hung on a damp wall, and watered every night. 

    Manila has no winter and an average temperature of 25C all year. It gets warmer in March with temperatures up to 38C (though it gets hotter now in certain areas during the height of summer). 

    Coming from an ordinary background, I had to work really hard to get into the University of the Philippines (UP).  Only 10-15% of applicants  get a place as it is one of the top universities in the country and is hugely oversubscribed. To this day I’m so honoured to have been among the privileged that got in (and got out).  I started out on a Pharmacy course with a view to completing a medical degree but two years into my course, I realised that it would take a very long time to complete my medical studies and I just didn’t have that luxury, so I changed to study Communications instead.   

    In UP, I realised education was an equaliser.  I sat next to many wealthy students in class.  One had a bodyguard that followed us in another car when we went to a friend’s house to swim!  Another had a mobile phone the size of a backpack and her monthly phone bill was three times what my parents earned a month.  But in UP, we (sometimes) queued for the same food in the school canteen.  We took the same exams.  I secretly tried to outdo them in schoolwork just to prove a point to myself — they may have been rich but I was brighter. (I hope I don’t carry that angst now.) 

     

    Starting work

    1997 heralded the end of University and the Asian market crash.  Jobs were scarce even for a UP graduate like me but eventually I landed a job in Corporate Communications and Market Research for a large telecoms company and as I worked up the corporate ladder, I reached a position where I earned enough to move out of our family home – a rare thing for 24 year olds to do in my country. 

    My next career move was to South Africa – not a  popular place for Filipinos to work at the time due to apartheid. This was my first chance to really see more of the world and my expat package gave me a two bedroom home and my first garden!  It was in Johannesburg that I also met my husband-to-be – an Englishman whom I married a few years later. 

    When we came to England, I had a 9 month old baby and my husband continued to work and travel internationally, so I was left to look after the home and my daughter in a small Hampshire town. It seemed dreamlike but I was a first-time mum dealing with living in a completely new culture where I was quite naïve in my understanding of ‘English’ ways of life.  In Whitchurch, I met many wonderful, understanding neighbours and friends who, without them knowing, helped me get through my everyday quite happily: choosing pushchairs, finding cures for nappy rash, and also silly things like getting ‘cashback’ at the till in the shops.  

    Although I loved being a mum and having a family, I still had the nagging feeling that I wasn’t in my place, that I wasn’t doing enough.  Part of me wanted desperately to go back to work so I decided to take some postgraduate marketing and business courses. 

     

    Catching the growing bug

    Whilst on a family holiday in Shropshire, we fell in love with the idea of living in the countryside and at this point, I started getting into gardening rather like a mad plant woman. When I couldn’t find anywhere else to plant in our small garden, I dug up the lawn, I moved pots every day if I could. Luckily the trees were huge and in the ground, otherwise they would’ve moved too! I only stopped gardening when it went dark, and spent my spare time after school drop off at Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants, about two miles from where we lived. 

    I was totally new to gardening to which there's no equivalent in the Philippine way of life.  Especially as I grew up in the city, I had never paid attention to plants, or soil or frost and I’d certainly never heard of Monty Don!  Orchids are very popular in the Philippines but other than that, I can’t think of any ornamental plants that were part of my childhood.  Plants and planting were never a conversation topic around the dinner table, nor did we have programmes like  ‘Gardeners' World’ or ‘Countryfile’ on TV.  Farming had a very menial, lowly image and was never presented as something to aspire to.  My education didn’t put any importance on learning about plants or trees but I think even if it had, I would not have appreciated them in the way I do now.  How could I have cared about gardening when I was desperate to finish school to get a job so I could earn good money?

     

    Somerset life 

    In 2017, we moved into a barn conversion home with nearly three acres of land.  On our first trip taking our son to school, we encountered a herd of ‘giant’ dairy cows and from that moment onwards, we knew our lives would be interesting. 

    I continued to explore ideas for what I might do in terms of self-employment and looking around our village I noticed that we didn’t have a bakery.  Full of enthusiasm, I went on an intense 3-day bread making course in Dorset, only to never again make bread since! 

    My thoughts turned to what I really love: gardening. But I didn’t want to be a gardener, so I wondered about flowers, signing up for an introductory floristry course in Taunton. Googling later to find local florists,  I was surprised to come across a farmer florist in Devon.  I really didn't know that there were florists who grew what they arranged. This struck a chord with me because although I was enjoying arranging flowers, I was much more intrigued about the plants!  Armed with this new idea for a career, I signed up for three different flower growing workshops – with Common Farm Flowers in Somerset, Green & Gorgeous in Oxfordshire, and Forever Green in Norfolk.  

    I went to college for RHS Level 2 and Level 3 horticulture diplomas and loved all this learning and meeting other people with similar interests. Looking at gardens, identifying plants, going around farms, I felt like a child seeing things for the first time.  Perhaps that was exactly what I was doing. The more I learned, the more I realised how much I didn’t know. Without developing a horticulture sense from growing up around plants and not having grown up in England, it was very challenging to understand many concepts. I didn’t understand when frosts came, or how the shadows cast change with the seasons, when seeds go in the ground, which seedlings should be planted under cover or sown directly and so much more!

    The task of setting up a farm was very intimidating:  marking out plant beds, deciding what to plant where (and why), organising irrigation, dealing with access, wind exposure, aphids, slugs…  I really felt I needed farm experience and came across The Apricot Centre in Totnes, Devon. I signed up for their six month permaculture course and learned a lot about the three main principles of earth care, people care, and fair share. 

     

    Setting up our farm

    It was exciting to realise my dream of starting a flower farm this year.  Through my studies, I built my confidence and have gained a bit of experience through landscaping the front of our home, but I still felt like a total beginner when we started preparing the ground.  We are learning from our mistakes every day. 

    Working the land I’ve seen birds fly above my head, and bees asleep on flowers.  I’ve even driven a digger - I couldn’t dig with it, but I drove it!  I have met so many interesting people, made new friends and right now the possibilities feel endless. 

    Yalham from old English, ‘ewelm’, means springhead and for me, the farm is a wonderful beginning, a large part of a greater design. 

     

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