There’s nothing quite like a bunch of freshly picked flowers to lift our mood, to light up a room, or to make an occasion extra-special. Why then, did successful flower-grower Rachel Siegfried feel that she was taking ‘a leap of faith’ when she set up her Oxfordshire flower farm, Green and Gorgeous, six years ago?
‘At that time’, Rachel explains, ‘there were relatively few flower growers left in the country. People had become used to buying flowers flown in from around the world, whatever the time of year. They’d forgotten how much flowers picked in season have to offer’.
Perhaps it’s only when we see blooms bred to survive long periods of storage alongside freshly picked flowers that we realise that something is missing? Rachel certainly thinks so. ‘Their beauty lacks the vibrancy of seasonal flowers. It has an almost artificial quality’ she says. Thanks to a new generation of growers like Rachel and her partner, Ashley Pearson, we are starting to appreciate the seasonal beauty of locally grown flowers that our grandparents took for granted.
Neither Rachel nor Ashley intended to focus on floriculture when they started their careers. After studying horticulture at Pershore, Rachel worked as a garden designer but, she says ‘as I became more interested in environmental issues, my focus shifted. It wasn’t until I was working in an organic walled garden that I really began to notice the intense beauty of flowers that have been freshly cut’.
Ashley’s career went through a similar transition. As a student he studied plant biology and crop protection, and then worked on organic farms. After a spell in academic publishing he moved back to agriculture to manage vegetable production at Daylesford Organic Farm. But when an organic market garden in South Oxfordshire, equipped with polytunnels, was looking for new tenants, he was just as ready as Rachel for the challenge.
‘During our first year of flower growing I took our produce to farmers’ markets,’ Rachel explains. ‘I had no idea that the freshness of the flowers would have such an effect on our customers. They were always visibly moved by them and by the memories they triggered. The sweet peas sold very quickly and often before the vegetables’.
At much the same time, Rachel’s old school friend Jo Wise was also re-thinking her career. A successful event designer, she had decided to focus on weddings and smaller events. She was looking for someone who could supply her with locally grown flowers. Within a short time Rachel was growing flowers for weddings and Green and Gorgeous was born.
As Rachel and Ashley point out, ‘during the early years, we had to develop our skills as we went along. There weren’t any ‘how to’ guides to flower farming. We made plenty of mistakes but we learned from them’. ‘As the wedding business grew, we realised that we needed to expand the variety of plants we could offer. The Green & Gorgeous site, although ideal in many ways, sits in a frost pocket. Some of the plants that we knew would be useful simply do not thrive here’.
The couple were fortunate to find a sheltered walled garden a mere 15 minutes away that was perfect for growing the extra plants they needed. ‘Our sweet peas will always need to be close at hand, but useful foliage plants such as pittosporum can flourish in the walled garden without needing our constant attention’ says Rachel. With a successful planting scheme established over the two sites, Green and Gorgeous soon exceeded its five-year plan.
As the flower buying public’s appreciation of seasonal flowers re-awakens, so the number of people keen to grow them is increasing. With the vast amount of knowledge and experience that Rachel and Ashley have built up over the past six years, they are in a perfect position to help anyone wanting to learn, whether as a business opportunity or for their own pleasure. It’s little surprise that their course ‘Flower Farming for Beginners’ is always a sell-out.
As Rachel explains, ‘after years of developing a good variety of plant material, we are ideally placed to help new flower farmers to get their plant list right first time. I encourage students to think carefully about their markets and to grow the flowers that fit. If they’re focussing on weddings, for example, they can grow flowers that will be at their very best for a day. On the other hand, if they’re selling at farmers’ markets, they will need flowers that last longer’.
Picking at just the right time is one of many skills that Rachel’s students must master. ‘If you cut too early the flowers don’t open properly,’ advises Rachel. The team of ladies who join her for dawn-to-dusk picking has been well trained. ‘Getting the picking right is doubly important at Green and Gorgeous as we open for the National Gardens Scheme. We pick so that every flower we sell is at its best, but we must also keep the garden looking good for visitors. Picking badly, or from the same patch would be a disaster’.
Rachel also encourages her students to be creative in their choice of flowers. ‘I look beyond the flowers that are traditionally used for cutting and often pick from our hedgerows when I’m walking the dogs. Crab apple blossom looks wonderful when it’s added to a wedding bouquet,’ she suggests.
Rachel’s students aren’t the only ones who feel inspired by the time, care and attention that the couple devote to their flower farm. Brides like recently married Sarah Cherril fall under the Green and Gorgeous spell too. ‘I spent a lot of time looking at wedding magazines to find the vintage but informal look that I wanted. With Rachel and Jo’s help, I chose flowers for our wedding that would make the guests feel comfortable’.
Unfortunately, all the planning in the world doesn’t guarantee good weather but as far as Sarah is concerned, the wedding day rain wasn’t a problem. ‘The Green and Gorgeous flowers were so spectacular that they brought spring into the marquee. All our guests commented on them’.
But the impact of the flowers didn’t end there. During the months before the wedding, Sarah had walked around the Green and Gorgeous flower fields with her mother. ‘I’d noticed flowers that I remembered seeing in my grandmother’s garden. Their colours and scents brought back lots happy memories. After the wedding, I signed up for Rachel’s Flower Growing course so that I could learn to grow my own peonies, Sweet william and Icelandic poppies in the new garden that I’m making with my husband’.
As Rachel and Ashley point out, ‘we could never have imagined the effect that the vibrancy of flowers, grown locally and sold in season would have on our customers’. Almost unwittingly, Green and Gorgeous has been putting their customers back in touch with nature.