Helen Babbs meets an artisan florist and flower farmer

Like most smallholders, Georgie Newbery starts her day by checking her stock. However, these aren’t sheep or hens or even vegetables, but fresh-cut flowers. “I started flower farming because I didn’t like growing vegetables!” she says with a laugh. “I’d moved to Somerset a couple of years earlier, I had two small children and a large garden, and I needed a way to make an income.” While Georgie and her artist husband Fabrizio Boccha were considering what they could do from their seven acre smallholding, a neighbour sent Georgie a bunch of flowers in the post. “I’ve always grown flowers and we’d sold sweet peas from a bucket at the gate,” Georgie explains. “I looked at this bouquet and thought, I could do that. So we bought some packing boxes, cut some bouquets from the flowers in the garden, and starting sending them out in the post.”

Eight years later

That was in 2010. The Common Farm Flowers business now sends out over 1,600 bouquets by post each year, all still hand cut and prepared at their smallholding near Bruton in Somerset. “We also do the flowers for about 60 weddings each year,” says Georgie, “and I run a similar number of talks and workshops across the region for craft guilds, WI groups and such.” To keep up with this demand, she now has a number of helpers. “There’s Sharon, my right-hand woman, and Sue, who does the weeding, and a volunteer who comes in one day a week, plus the book-keeper and someone to do the website.”

It’s a classic rural success story – complete with a degree of good fortune. “It wasn’t a strategic decision, really,” Georgie points out. “We were lucky, starting up right at the beginning of the resurgence in local flowers, and also at the start of social media transforming the potential for rural businesses.” Social media, such as their popular Instagram account, is the basis for all of Common Farm Flowers’ advertising. “I spend about half an hour each day on social media,” says Georgie, “and then we have the website for the sales themselves. We’ve never had to spend any money on conventional direct advertising.”

Smallholder:

Grown not flown

From the beginning of April to the middle of November, all the flowers and foliage used in the bouquets are home-grown. “We grow over 250 varieties, with 15 kinds of sweet pea, 20 dahlias, even more roses...” Georgie describes. The cutting gardens aren’t laid out by conventional divisions of annuals, biennials and such, but by their eventual role in the bouquets. “I aim to have about one-third of accent flowers, one-third filler and one-third greenery,” explains Georgie. “In the spring, this will be tulips for accents, narcissi, wallflowers and cowslips as filler, and phacelia, which is normally a green manure, for the foliage. The mix changes through the year.” Most of the flowers are sown or planted direct into open beds, as Georgie finds it quicker and easier to use a little extra seed than spend time pricking out and transplanting. However, two small greenhouses and a pair of polytunnels are used to get an early start on the spring flowers.

The cutting gardens take up about half the smallholding. “The rest is patches of wild meadow, which are my husband’s special love – though we also pick some flowers there,” Georgie adds, “an orchard, and 1.5 acres of willow, which we use to make willow wreaths for Christmas sales.”

The winter-time willow and “hedgerow pieces,” such as crab-apples from the orchard, are supplemented with extra flowers bought in from another small British flower farmer in Cornwall. “We also buy in if we need extra stock in the summer,” says Georgie. “If we have four weddings in one weekend, for example, we buy extra flowers from five or six local small growers.”

“Green” flowers

The sourcing of only British-grown flowers is part of Georgie’s emphasis on eco-friendly growing. “We grow on exactly organic principles. The seeds aren’t necessarily organic, though some are, but it’s all treated organically, with no pesticides or fertilisers. Nothing gets sprayed. We do have slugs,” she admits, “but with so many varieties and everything getting moved about, there isn’t time for any pests or diseases to build up. The annuals get cut for about six weeks at the most – they don’t have time to get mildew.”

Even once picked, the bouquets aren’t treated with any chemicals or preservatives. “We sell fresh flowers in fresh water, nothing else,” says Georgie proudly. “There may be an odd aphid or pollen beetle, but you’re just as likely to get a ladybird – we have a lot of ladybirds on the farm!”

Smallholder:

A day on the farm

Like all smallholding, flower farming is dependent on the weather. “Sometimes this is good, we’ll have a sunny morning in early April that’s just right for planting out 750 gladioli!” says Georgie. Other times, the weather can be a set back. “If we get a late frost, that can mean no blossom on the crab-apples, so no fruits for the winter bouquets.”

Whatever the weather, the first priority each day is cutting the blooms for the next batch of bouquets. “We cut whatever’s looking best in the garden that day. It’s always a balanced mix, but it means it has a life to it. Rather than a fixed type of flower, each bouquet becomes an enjoyable surprise for our customers.” The cut flowers are stood in water for a couple of hours, then assembled into bouquets in the early afternoon. “The couriers come to pick up at 3:30,” says Georgie, “then we collapse for half an hour to recover from the rush! After that, we’re out gardening.”

None of this involves fancy equipment. “We use carbon-bladed florist’s scissors for cutting the stems and making the bouquets,” Georgie explains. Apart from this, it’s ordinary gardening tools, Felco secateurs for pruning the roses “and buckets, lots of buckets!”

Spreading the word

Georgie describes herself as ‘artisan florist’, with no formal training in floristry. “I grew up gardening, and get a lot of inspiration from Constance Spry, the famous 20th century gardener and flower arranger.” Based on her experience, Georgie has written two books about flower growing: The Flower Farmer’s Year and Grow Your Own Wedding Flowers. She’s keen to encourage other smallholders and now runs a whole range of day courses at the farm, both about flower farming and more generally about gardening and starting a small rural business. “There’s plenty of room for more small-scale British flower growers, and you don’t necessarily have to be a great sales person as a flower seller, you can just start with a barrel at the front gate,” she points out.

“My key advice is to remember that you’re not your customer, what’s everyday to you is special to

them, so don’t undercharge or under value yourself. I always start my flower farming courses with looking at the financial side: all the costs like compost, water, your own time have to be included so you don’t lose money.” Flower farming, like all smallholding businesses, isn’t a way to make a fortune. “But you can make a good, honest living,” says Georgie enthusiastically. “It’s fun, it’s not easy, and if you do it properly it’s lovely!”