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My flower farming year – and what a year…

Article by Kate Norris, Northumbrian Flowers

January 2020

The New Year starts with 2 weddings. I enlist hubby to help create a hanging bauble canopy on New Years Day – it takes 2 hrs to set up and hang hundreds of glass baubles with tea lights. Hubby not impressed but it looks amazing in photos!

The New Year also marks the start of a new chapter with the License to Occupy a much bigger plot. Giant (it seems at the time of ordering) polytunnel is officially ordered and we start the winter tidy at the home plot and at the new plot. No seed sowing done but plenty of seedlings overwintering from Autumn sowings.

Consultation with a couple living China who plan to return to UK for a local wedding in November 2020. We talk about the virus sweeping China and they tell me how bad it really is over there. This stays in my mind.

I do a late planting of tulips and look forward to a spring carnival colour.

February 2020

The annual Flowers From the Farm conference. I attend, catch up with friends, enjoy talks and demonstrations, network. After my conversation last month, I find I’m acutely aware of being in a large gathering of people from all over the UK.

Weather turns cold, typical of this month, but I push on with clearing and planting shrubs. Do my annual seed packet sort. I have another very small wedding – blissfully unaware that this will be a ‘big’ wedding from July onwards. With the help of commercially grown British blooms from Helen at Evolve flowers I provide a fully British flowers bridal bouquet and do table décor with my own foliage.

I start to pot up hundreds of cottage garden perennials for plant sales and sow a load of different vegetables. Coronavirus is still in the back of my mind and the storm is gathering via constant news stories on the topic. I pot up the dahlia tubers and take cuttings.

March 2020

Work at the new plot gathers pace: polytunnel construction team are set to arrive 3rd week. Need to have the area clear and paths laid. More weeding, potting up, seed sowing has started.

Polytunnel is built – the very same weekend the Lockdown is announced,

Mother’s Day flower orders go through the roof. People are worried and taking this seriously, sending flowers to show they care and miss loved ones. I get emotional writing messages on cards to mums, I think of my own mum – my gardening inspiration and my biggest supporter, critic, fan and all round help when she isn’t working herself!

97 roses get planted into the new tunnel. Realise I miscalculated and decide after the winter the whole tunnel will be dedicated to these and work out I can squeeze in a further 65 plants and plan how to raise the money to buy another 60ft x 27ft tunnel by the following autumn.

On dry days I start getting the hardy annuals and new perennials planted out.

Early March I take the decision to email all April wedding bookings to sound them out about their plans and postponements in the face of Covid-19. Replies come back thick and fast – the majority are already planning to postpone. Becomes an avalanche of admin. I set up seed collections on my website, cut flowers and vegetables, sow more vegetables too.

April 2020

The first week after lockdown I start a daily live morning gardening chat on my fb page, initially to keep me busy and to keep a routine. Find that it also  helps people stuck at home for the first time with time or alternatively with young children on their hands.  I show people how to sow and  what they can use. I broadcast from the second plot and from my greenhouse or polytunnel, giving an insight to the life of a flower farmer.

I speak to florists I supply, telling them to get their websites set up for ecommerce asap.  They do.  Supply of spring flowers starts despite the lockdown, as well as my own gift bouquet service.  Everything gathers pace:  potted plants, vegetable seedlings, cut flower seedlings are a hit.  I cannot harvest tulips, alliums, anemone, blossoms, narcissi quick enough with one florist buying whopping 1000 stems a week every week bar the first week of lockdown.

By mid April every wedding from April to end of July has postponed to 2021. I need to think of my income streams.  Cut flowers and potted plant sales are not enough – weddings and the workshops are a vital source of income when flower farming is your sole employment.

I am blown away as tulips and narcissi grow and flower: lovely strong straight stems. I deliver a special bouquet to each of my brides on what would have been their wedding day, all made using my own flowers.

May 2020

The weather is unbelievably warm, plant sales along with the vegetable and flower seedlings go through the roof, sweet peas in the tunnel start to show flowering stems, alliums are plentiful, blossom still producing, the first cuts of perennials start.  My worries about a gap after the tulips proves groundless and I am secretly pleased with myself.

Planting out continues.  Mulching of  shrubs and perennials.  Irrigation laid in new beds.  My husband and I celebrate a year since his life saving open heart surgery. His fitness slowly and steadily improving, the psychological after effects are still being worked through.

The lease to my new plot is not finalised and I do a floral crown workshop live on fb for 48 women to celebrate Garden Day. Proves a roaring success with many  afterwards saying that it was the highlight of Lockdown 1.

June 2020

August and September weddings postpone to 2021. Weirdly new enquiries for 2021 and 2022 start.  My admin continues to increase. I remain positive and encourage fellow Flowers from the Farm members to look for new avenues of revenue, and offer support and advice as best I can.

Hardy annuals are a riot of colour and perennials doing their thing. Do a sowing of biennials and a last gasp sowing of various hardy annuals. It is British Flowers Week, all events are cancelled.  Flowers from the Farm members report seeing a massive increase in demand for locally grown flowers. Me too.

July 2020

A wedding! A bouquet, 4 buttonholes, and I’m delighted to use just my own flowers: Queen of Sweden and Cream Abundance roses, cream and white sweet peas, touches of fresh lavender and pittosporum. Glorious and smells heavenly.

Retail florists re-open, the country re-opens.

Polytunnel sweet peas are already 6ft high with solid stems multiple blooms. Very very glad I made sure the irrigation went down as soon as I planted them and the roses.

Dahlias are popping with blooms. There is an abundance of flowers which makes all the hard work worthwhile. Another wedding, originally a postponement, then a late decision to elope – I oblige with a bouquet and buttonhole and a set of mini jamjar posies for the table at the pub afterwards.

August 2020

Elopements suddenly THE thing especially in Northumbrian castles.  Susan an American temporarily living in London cannot get back into America, so she and her English fiancé decide to elope. I use Munstead Wood and Queen of Sweden roses, Eryngium, Wizard of Oz dahlia, cream sweet peas, chocolate cosmos and eucalyptus for her bouquet, button hole and cake flowers.

A further 2 micro weddings and a further elopement wedding follows. All want locally grown and scented flowers. My abundance of flowers allows me to take on these small bookings without turning a hair.

I decide to do Pick Your Own, socially distanced and timed slots. It works, they sell out, people are desperate to do something within a family bubble.  I welcome 4 generations and 3 generations of families to my plot, they soak up the hour of peace and tranquillity cutting flowers and wandering around the flower beds. It is wonderful to share my bigger plot and see people’s enjoyment. I need not have worried about having enough flowers, after 4 days fully booked over 2 weeks the flowers hardly look touched. I set more dates. I order 5000 tulips, alliums, iris and 100kg of narcissi for next spring – WHAT WAS I THINKING?

September 2020

I turn 50 and have a wedding on the same day. I set away over 1000 ranunculus claws and anemone corms to pre-sprout before we take a week off from the physical demands of the business and head to Wales. Weather is the awful so we head to mum’s in Birmingham where it is hot like the south of France.

Go home and set up further Pick Your Own dates. They sell out. Do three more weddings. I never tire of picking my own flowers to use. Those 97 roses have certainly come up trumps for me this summer.

I start sowing hardy annuals for 2021 and plant the ranunculus and anenome, it seems to take forever, but the flowers next year will be worth it.

October 2020

The first day of the month brings frost which makes its mark on the outdoor dahlias, nipping them severely. The back up dahlias in the tunnels are all white and café au lait – not the planned for autumn colours – but my florists buy them anyway. The chrysanthemums do their thing and I cut 100’s of stems weekly for florists and for my own use – make a note to self to remember my pinching regime for next year to get the same results.

Outdoors, we strim spent hardy annual beds, dig out perennial weeds, cover beds with cardboard and then a layer of manure. We mark out the area for the second tunnel – I already know what it will hold: 4 lines of beds to hold dahlias, chrysanthemums, perennials and tender shrubs, hardy annuals, half hardy annuals and tulips. I am reluctant to order the tunnel as the lease is still not finalised……the pandemic is causing delays with banks and solicitors. I get anxious and ask myself the unthinkable…what if it falls through?

Mid October sees two more micro weddings. My late June sowing of hardy Sahara & Cherry Brandy Rudbeckias and scented Chocolate Cosmos.

We start planting the tulips and alliums. In one week we plant 4000. It takes us two days to plant just the narcissi.

November 2020

My mind is already focussed on Christmas. I earmark the foliage I want to use. We wire lots of fruit and pinecones.

Nothing gets done in the plots because we are focussed on all things Christmas and have our annual 5 day trip up north for the harvesting of foliage.

The last delivery to florists is made for 2020: chrysanthemums, dahlias, rudbeckias, ammi, sweet williams and mixed foliage.  The last of my gift bouquets go out before a sharp frost finishes the indoor dahlias. Surprisingly the hesperantha is putting on a show with lovely long straight stems of coral and pink flowers.

December 2020

In the blink of an eye December arrives and DIY wreath kits take over my life. These are needed to replace the revenue from cancelled workshops. I am running on fumes but don’t stop….I know January and February will bring no meaningful revenue so I must top up the bank account while I can, until  those spring bulbs start bursting into colour and the flower farmer’s year starts all over again!

I am seeing December out with two small socially distanced weddings, these will use some imported flowers to create the effects the couples wanted, but all the foliage is British grown and I’m using potted British grown orchids and my own pots of paperwhites.

We finish the year unsure of how 2021 is going to work for us, but we remain positive.  My plot lease is still not finalised but I have no choice to order that second tunnel on a wing and a prayer – I must be ready for the wedding season to start again #fingerscrossed. See you on other side!