Having discovered I was actually a bit scared of horses and wasn’t even really that keen on animals, as secondary school years passed, my thoughts for the future turned to being a journalist or a teacher. After university I worked for a couple of years as the editor of a trade magazine aimed at agriculturalists in Southeast Asia (first choice job box ticked, after a fashion). You may think that this proved my first tenuous link to farming, but in reality, the main effect of this job was to give me itchy feet to travel and to visit this part of the world for myself.
In Southeast Asia, I became an English teacher and thought I’d found my vocation in the classroom (second choice job box ticked) – indeed, I stayed in language teaching for the next 20 odd years both at home and abroad. Whilst running a language school London, I had a neighbour who was really keen to be a florist, taking night classes in flower arranging, and to be honest I just couldn’t see what the fuss was about. I was equally bemused when, on moving to Birmingham several years later, my best friend here also confessed a yen to have her own flower shop – I just didn’t get it.
I’d been a mad keen gardener and allotment holder for many years, so knew a lot about plants, flowers and growing but my main interest was in creating gorgeous flower borders, not in cutting, arranging or selling them. I took bunches round to friends’ houses and made up jam jars as little gifts, but that was about the extent of my very modest expertise and interest in floristry. So when a friend announced she was getting married and asked me (as mad gardening lady) if I’d do her flowers, I was surprised, slightly perturbed, but happy to jump in at the deep end and give things a go. And that was the start. I lost myself in a world of internet searches and wedding floristry books and in the months preceding the wedding made up trial bouquets and buttonholes from my garden flowers on a regular basis. It was my secret passion. As someone who had most determinedly NOT pored over every little detail for my own wedding, I was shocked to find out how much I loved thinking about these flowers!
When my brother-in-law died suddenly a couple of years later, my sister asked me to arrange his funeral flowers. She told me to use only flowers which were growing in their wildlife-friendly garden (he worked for a wildlife trust) so that the flowers would be ‘him’. With my mum’s slightly horrified response ringing in my ears:
“There’s only a bit of manky buddleia!”
I set to work googling ‘natural funeral flowers’ and came up with virtually nothing that inspired me – lots of football shirts, names and beer glasses in spray painted carnations – but there was one website that spoke to me. It was the website of Charlie Ryrie (The Real Cut Flower Garden) and I started in my seat when I saw the naturalistic, glorious flowers she arranged. My thoughts were
“She does my flowers! And she does it as a business…..”
and that little thought never quite went away. Especially when I saw the reaction of friends and family to the flowers I created for Steve’s coffin, watching them identifying the seedheads and flower types as the hoverflies and bees buzzed around it outside the crematorium. In that moment I knew that there were others who would love an alternative to ‘traditional’ chrysanthemum-studded tributes, and who felt as alienated by them as my own family do. (Happily, if you google ‘natural funeral flowers’ now, you’ll find a visual feast to inspire you from Flowers from the Farm members all over the UK.)
But still I didn’t leap into starting a flower business. Instead, I channelled my desire for a career change into retraining as a primary school teacher. My eureka moment to start my flower business only came a year later, while applying for teaching positions, when I realised whilst going for interviews that it was the thought of gardening with the kids, not teaching them in classrooms, that actually got my enthusiasm flowing. It was growing, not teaching which I loved!
Once that course was set, in my usual fashion I decided to take a flying leap into flower growing as a business, rather than doing a course first. Learning by doing is always the way I learn best, after all. But I still wasn’t planning to be a florist – my idea was to grow cut flowers and sell them at my local farmers’ markets – but this was a notion, rather than a properly researched plan. I learned the hard way that farmers’ markets are a lot of work – cutting, gathering up all the other supplies, packing cars, unpacking cars, setting up stalls, standing there all day, packing up, unpacking again, putting everything away….. and the financial rewards were fairly low too. But I persevered figuring that I was being paid (just about) to learn – and used the time standing on markets to practice the art of making tied bouquets, learning how to wrap them and chatting to people about my business (rather than hiding behind my computer at home). I wouldn’t recommend this approach to others, but nonetheless the confidence I gathered over the first year, helped me to feel my way into the job and also served me well for local marketing.
Taking on the role of West Midlands co-ordinator for Flowers from the Farm was also a crucial step in the first year of my business. It put me actively in touch with a whole host of fabulous flower farmers who made me feel like I wasn’t the lone nutter pushing a wheelbarrow full of flowers! Organising big displays for FFTF at the NEC with other growers and winning medals was a huge boost to all of our confidence – it showed us we could do big things and we could look professional too! ‘Feeling it’ properly was massively important, and later, when people asked (as they cooed over the flowers) at my market stalls if I ever did weddings, I found myself ready to utter the word “yes”.
Nine years (and many many weddings and funerals) further on, I still make regular leaps into the deep end. I think these leaps are a hugely important part of being self-employed. I know that if I’m feeling confident and comfortable in everything I’m doing that I’m simply not pushing myself enough. I’ve learned so much by starting my business, and through the sharing community of Flowers from the Farm: not just growing skills and floristry but also websites, book-keeping, social media, more photography, marketing, organising conferences, chairing FFTF… none of which I would ever have imagined as I marked homework and planned lessons back in my teaching days.
I love the learning curve of self-employment and remain obsessed with growing flowers, small business issues and yes…now floristry. I’ve never regretted my career change for a moment – nine years on I’m still not bored and am probably becoming addicted to that moment when you gather yourself, jump into the air…and see where you end up…