We have a huge appetite for fresh flowers. They mark our most significant moments in life and can also lift our spirits day-to-day. But we shouldn’t overlook their provenance. The international cut flower industry is an environmentally unfriendly juggernaut: the biggest markets are the US, Germany and the UK. But after the Netherlands, the most prolific growers and exporters are Colombia, Ecuador and Kenya.
That means 82 per cent of flowers sold in the US — and 86 per cent in the UK — are imported and carry a heavy carbon footprint. There is an increasing imperative to consider the origin of flowers and source locally, seasonally and ethically.
The UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) reports that homegrown flowers account for 14 per cent of all UK sales, a small but significant 2 per cent increase since 2015. Helping to drive this trend were recent royal weddings; florist Philippa Craddock adorned Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s 2018 ceremony with foliage picked from the Crown Estate and Windsor Great Park.
But you could go one step further: opt out of the cut flower market entirely and grow your own.
If you have a temperate maritime climate that is kind to gardens and flower growing, such as that in the UK, an abundant supply of flowers and foliage from your own plot is achievable. It means simple and stylish arrangements indoors throughout the year, as well as an increased awareness of the changing seasons outside.
Homegrown flowers possess different attributes to their “off the peg” cousins. Transportation and refrigeration are less of a consideration and varieties can be selected more for their shape, size and scent. The beauty and variety of locally grown flowers have florists such as Flora Starkey and Scarlet & Violet hooked on their charming non-uniformity, while hobby gardeners (perhaps buoyed by their prowess in the borders or vegetable garden during lockdown) can develop their knowledge of floristry and flower growing to extend their skill set. Sustainability is a core motivation for many florist-growers.
For florist Kitten Grayson, the mass cancellation of events during the past 18 months prompted relocation to her native Somerset. This was a dramatic change of pace and an opportunity to pursue the long-held dream of growing her own flowers biodynamically and “in harmony with the lunar calendar”, recognising the subtle influence of the moon and planets on the seasons and plant growth and working with them.
The Cutting Garden project started in late 2020 on half an acre within an organic farm near the town of Bruton. Grayson had gained experience of growing while working at Heckfield Place alongside Jane Scotter of Fern Verrow Farm. A sensitivity to the environment underpins her theatrical style. She relishes the creative opportunities of “letting the colours sing” and planning her planting in painterly colour schemes that evoke different feelings.
The Cutting Garden is where her studio, primarily based in London, can experiment, growing plants for installations and events but also for local outlets.
If you are similarly tempted to delve into the world of growing cut flowers it’s wise to invest a little time in making a plan. The back of an envelope is often good enough. You will want to position your cutting area in a sunny spot on the best soil you have available and be generous with homemade compost as it retains moisture and helps soil structure. Consider how you will water and where the source is. Next, think about when you really want to cut flowers: it may not be during high summer when you might be away and the harvesting and maintenance is too demanding.
You will need a good balance of materials: be creative. Choose some showy focal flowers like tulips and delphiniums but also seed-heads, textural foliage and plenty of “filler” plants. Diaphanous annuals such as hare’s ear and Queen Anne’s lace are easy to grow from seed and prolific. Mint and cinnamon basil offer armfuls of fragrant leaves.
The shapely branches of trees, a longer-term prospect, are invaluable. Cherry, lilac and apple blossom are a highlight of spring, while beech and hornbeam through summer and autumn provide fiery-hued berries. Planting bulbs, perennials and a few annuals to use in conjunction with stems picked from existing shrubs and trees can provide you with a long season of material from April to October.
Even small-scale commercial growers usually have a polytunnel or two. This extends the growing season, protecting the fragile blooms of early bulbs and late-season chrysanthemums from the vagaries of equinox weather, but there is so much you can grow in just a modest space with no plastic or glass in sight.
Aim to develop your own style and experiment with different colour palettes. You can sometimes use the same area twice in a year, for example, by planting your late-summer dahlias in the same ground that hosted spring tulips. Most tulips are treated as an annual crop, the bulbs lifted and composted after picking so you can pop your potted dahlias straight in.
Professionals rely on an organised, structured plot. Certainly, planting in rows of about 1m wide makes it easier to get into the harvest mindset. It’s also more convenient for maintenance. Attentive watering, close planting and staking (if required) achieves long stems and dead heading extends the flowering period of stalwarts such as roses and dahlias.
Climate-conscious Rachel Siegfried of Green and Gorgeous growers stresses the benefits of growing perennials: “They are hardworking, dependable and low maintenance”. A trailblazing florist-grower and author with two acres in Oxfordshire, she recommends floriferous cottagey geums, which will keep flowering through the summer if they are picked regularly, to fill the gap between spring bulbs and summer annuals.
The intricate and versatile semi-transparent great masterwort, aromatic catmints and showy perennial scabious are also favourites and fall into this “cut and come again” category. Various species of hellebore are valued for their long season, offering sultry cupped flowers early in the year that remain eye-catching as they age.
Spring-flowering bulbs such as tulips, daffodils and fritillary are purchased in early autumn and planted out as the cold sets in and winter draws near. These are among the easiest cut flowers and are most conveniently planted densely and uniformly in a trench at a depth of about three times the length of the bulb. Daffodils will multiply and can remain in situ for up to four years, the demure highly scented varieties offering quite as much joy as the more baroque tulip varieties.
Sow hardy annuals such as larkspur in September for an early summer crop the following year and half-hardy annuals such as cosmos, amaranth, statice and sunflowers in spring for a late summer abundance. Once you have started a cut flower patch and selected your favourites you can quickly learn to collect ripe seed to become more self-sufficient.
Kitten Grayson uses dried plants extensively in her work, harvesting
fennel, jewel-toned Helichrysum and dahlias in late summer, prepping and hanging them to dry for use through the winter months. Siegfried’s plot lies close to the Thames, where the humidity plays havoc with delicate papery flower-heads intended for drying, so in winter she focuses on arranging with evergreen foliage. She harvests generous bunches of glaucous eucalyptus gunnii and masterfully displays the sculptural branches of larch and aromatic conifers.
But there are still bright flowers to be enjoyed in the colder months: you can force your own bulbs indoors for midwinter cheer, replanting them in the ground later and closing a beautiful loop of creative, sustainable floristry.