6th October 2013
Lesley Stevenson lives in Heaton Moor and started up her small sustainable flower farming business ‘Watch The Flowers Grow’ from home at the end of 2012. She has a loyal following of local people who regularly buy her ‘just-picked’ flowers and has been doing local markets, including Stockport Vintage Market and Heaton Moor Producer’s market, throughout the year in order to promote her business.
“I sort of dread the markets. Not because they are such hard work – although I had no idea how physically taxing they would be – but because I go picking all my flowers and spend hours making lots of lovely bunches knowing that I’ll have throw half of them away. You need to make a display at the markets to attract attention and often there just isn’t, what they call ‘the footfall’ for you to sell to. But the feedback has been great and I’m now getting lots of return custom”.
“I’ve done weddings, christenings and birthdays, as well as making many bouquets, including those for a number of head-teachers in the Heatons”.
Her belief that local, sustainable, naturally grown flowers are the way forward has helped her, quite literally, plough on, despite making no money in her first year. Here she tells us how things might have turned a corner:
At August’s Heaton Moor Producers Market I had to move my stall three times to protect my home-grown flowers from the sun. I moved it again when the rain came lashing down. I clung onto my popular, painted, recycled flower-filled tin cans when the wind swept through the car park between Kro Bar and Kushoom Koly, where the market is held on the first Saturday of every month. The weather can be the market stall holders’ friend or foe, as much as the gardeners’. But what I was most anxious about was whether my flowers would sell. Or, would half of them, again, end up on the compost heap.
This month’s market was probably going to be my barometer. Whether I or not I continued with my local, seasonal, naturally grown flower business would probably depend on how many flowers I sold on this sunny, wet, windy day – even though I was not actually thinking this at the time.
All the flowers on the stall had been grown organically in peat-free compost, mostly from seed without the use of a heated greenhouse. I make my own organic, fertilisers and pesticides. They were probably the freshest flowers available to buy in the Heatons, with the teeniest of carbon foot print. Most of them were picked at dusk the day before. The bottom leaves had been meticulously stripped before being arranged and plunged into fresh water overnight. I got up at dawn to pick sweet peas that I hadn’t managed to crop before dusk turned to darkness. I then gathered some samples of edible flowers I’d promised via twitter, before loading the car and leaving my hay fever suffering husband to live with or deal with the flowery disaster zone I’d left behind.
This is my first year as a flower farmer. I’m testing the waters. There are many others like me around the country, mostly women, who are doing something similar. Many are operating on a much bigger scale with more land and usually with more business nouse than I appear to have. One of our aims is to promote British flowers. Only ten per cent of all the flowers we buy are grown here, twenty years ago it was 45 percent.
I’m not totally tied to the ‘buy British’ idea, because that would also involve supporting growers who heat huge greenhouses, use chemicals and generally make no attempt to grow in a way which has the least impact on the planet. What is important is that the new British flower ‘revolution’ is trying to promote seasonal flowers. Brides, for example, wanting Peonies in January will be offered alternatives. Red Roses for Valentines Day? Let’s ring the changes!
“What flowers would you have for a wedding in May?” This is what I was asked at August’s Heaton Moor Producers market. It’s the right question. I could give no guarantees of what would be available, but I could guarantee that this May bride would get the best of whatever beautiful flowers I have growing and can pick for her Big Day.
A ‘just-picked’ look seems to be a popular wedding trend. It also seems to be influencing general floristry style. Not that I’m a florist, but I do love bunching and arranging. I don’t like, however, all the chemicals traditionally used by florists to keep flowers going. Or the carcinogenic oasis – the green sponge thing used to make flower arrangements. I actually don’t like many of the flowers bought from abroad by most florists, chosen for their longer shelf life. But you can’t blame the florists, we want flowers that will last forever! Florists are trying to make a living and customers want value for money.
“How long will your flowers last?”, is something I get asked a lot. They will last as long as most flowers, given the right conditions. As I grow lots of wildlife-friendly British natives alongside traditional English garden flowers, the style of my bunches are a bit on the wild side. For some reason people assume they will not last as long as the exotics flown in from abroad or the staples of flower shops, such carnations and chrysanthemums – although I actually like those flowers. Changing the water every couple of days or moving them to a cooler place during a hot day will dramatically increase the lifespan of all flowers without resorting to chemicals. I appreciate it can be more difficult for cafes, shops and restaurants to find a cool place to display flowers or find the time to change the water. All the same, I’ve been disappointed that businesses choose to blow their flower budget on large displays of exotic blooms from abroad that have been steeped in chemicals rather than celebrating local, seasonal flowers. Smaller flower arrangements changed more often could work out just as economical. But it’s a different mind set, and to me, a bit nineties. And, dare I say it, a bit masculine!
Sadly, for me anyway, businesses can be at odds to promote the ethical values of their food, clothing and packaging etc., but the ethical values of their flowers is not yet part of their marketing rhetoric. For the moment I am selling many of my flowers beyond the Heatons. I really would prefer to keep everything local.
They say flowers are at the stage food was ten years ago and that people are now starting to ask “Where do the flowers come from?” Provenance, of course, is important, but so also is how they were grown. I’m more than happy to be asked all these questions about my flowers. But I also need to to make sure people like the flowers I choose to grow, that the bunches are full of the freshest, most beautiful flowers, at a price people want to pay.
Fortunately, I must have been doing something right at last month’s Heaton Moor Producers market as I all but sold out! I now feel a little more optimistic. I got a couple of wedding enquiries, a number of people were return customers, some people even gave me more money than the price tag and many showed a great deal of interest and appreciation. It turned out to be a high point in my first year as a Heatons flower farmer. So, despite the rain, the sun, the wind, at the close of day the barometer reading suggested some fair weather ahead.