A book changed my life. 'The 50 Mile Bouquet' by Debra Prinzing, follows the journey of a group of growers who were, and still are, changing the face of American floristry with their ‘Slow Flowers’ movement. It showed me there were florists growing on a disused car park right in the heart of San Francisco and it made me think that if they could do that then why couldn't I?
by Emma Sousa, Urban Flower Farmer
I had been a florist long before I started growing British cut flowers. After several years building up my business without thinking much about where my flowers came from, I did some research and was horrified at the effect that our industry has on the planet. I was shocked at the amount of flower miles incurred by blooms grown thousands of miles away, flown halfway around the world to the Dutch flower auctions only to be trucked to the UK. Transportation has a huge environmental impact before you even consider the tons of plastic flowers are routinely wrapped in, and the volume of pesticides used in large-scale commercial growing.
In the early days of my business, I didn't need large quantities of flowers for my orders so I started to research local British flower growers as an alternative to commercial wholesale supply. At that point, I had never heard of Flowers From The Farm and its directory of flower growers. And back then, whilst I found that small scale British growers existed, there were none close enough to make it viable for me to buy from them. Also, if I’m being totally honest, although I thought it would be great to buy locally grown flowers, I knew I would miss the convenience of popping to my local wholesalers to pick up a few wraps. But after my Eureka moment of discovering ‘The 50 Mile Bouquet’, it dawned on me that if I couldn't buy from anyone locally then the only solution was to grow flowers myself - not an easy thing to do living in London where land is at a premium and where it’s not exactly brimming with green farmland!
I searched and searched without success for a piece of land so took on a couple of allotments to a least make a start and learn how to grow flowers. Even though I couldn't promote myself as a grower or sell my flowers because of allotment commercial use restrictions, it was a great learning experience. When I’d got a little growing expertise under my belt, a piece of land with water on site came up and I still grow there today. I’ve since had to give up my beloved allotments because it’s hard enough running an events business whilst growing flowers on a single plot, let alone on multiple sites. The space I grow on has actually shrunk over the last few years to a more manageable 700 square metres.
The logistics of being an urban grower are not always easy to navigate, especially in the capital: my land is just 5 miles from my studio but some evenings I can sit in traffic to and from my plot fighting against the rush of London commuters. Some days on arrival I can’t even park my little van as my flower field is off a busy road with no parking allowed. The location also poses challenges when getting supplies to the plot - it’s hard work wheelbarrowing 5 tons of compost when you are navigating traffic, gates, slopes and steps.
My plot has a substantial greenhouse onsite and I use this to start off my seedlings, but alas no polytunnels are permitted so after this sheltered start, everything is grown outdoors. We do have low caterpillar tunnels for flowers such as autumn planted Ranuculus and Anemones to protect them from the worst of the winter wet on our clay soil and also to shield them from our resident deer who earlier this year destroyed an entire bed when the tunnel blew off in a storm! Although it’s London, we do have pests and predators around - my plot backs onto farmland as we are on the outskirts of the city, so we share our land with badgers, pheasants, deer and foxes but thankfully they don't cause us too many problems. Occasionally, a critter will dig up new plants or the field mice will nest in the dahlia tubers over winter, but I very much work with everything and everyone. Thankfully we have had very few disasters to date.