Florists, flower farmers & lockdown

The following is a transcript of my article which appeared in The Daily Telegraph on 30 May 2020, about the effects of COVID-19 and the lockdown on the businesses of florists and flower farmers.

NB Roses © Denislav Dobtchev

Florists, wholesalers and flower farmers are used to emotions; a laugh, a smile or a tear is never very far away when you work with flowers.

Thanks to the lockdown, however, life has been even more of a rollercoaster than usual. While some florists, wholesalers and growers are discovering new lands of opportunity, others are on a nail-biting through the yawning chasm created by the total loss of the weddings and events market. 

‘If you’d told me as I stepped on to a plane to LA in February that the world as I knew it would not exist by the time I got home, I wouldn’t have believed you – but that’s what happened,’ says florist Simon Lycett, who counts royalty and celebrity among his clients and is keeping business going doing bouquets, InstaTV and virtual appearances from his tiny back garden in south London.

Mothering Sunday is traditionally the opener to the events and party season but this year, the flower-coolers were switched off, shops and stalls closed and the flower industry went dark.

‘The lockdown came at the end of what had been a big and very emotional week for all of us,’ recalls Nikki Meader, Retail Director of the British Florists’ Association and owner of West Malling Flowers in Kent. ‘Borders had been closed on the Continent and the market had collapsed. We still had flowers but no way of selling them. It was terrible.’

The Government’s furlough scheme has been a lifesaver for many, and large wholesale growers such as Sue Lamb of Lamb’s Flowers were eventually able to restart delivering British cut flowers to the likes of Waitrose and Morrisons, but the New Covent Garden Market Authority remains closed to the public for the first time in centuries.

‘Order flowers if you can, and buy locally’ is its message. As I have discovered, speaking with some small-volume growers and single-trader florists this week, that is what has been happening. Here are some of their stories.

Larry Walshe

After moments of denial – ‘if I don’t pick up the ‘phone, will it all just go away? – London-based celebrity florist Larry Walshe threw himself into future planning. ‘Never give an active mind time to think. I put all my admin in order, dipped my toe into the waters of retirement – definitely not ready for that! – and planned all my social media campaigns up to Christmas.

‘Then I started to think about new business and I’m about to launch a new online flower delivery service called Bloom; people will be able to choose precisely what size, type and colour of flowers they want and they’ll receive them within 24 hours of ordering; it’ll be as near to going into your local florist as possible and of course, beautiful yet simple.’

Rachel Siegfried, Green & Gorgeous

Having a seasonal business is scary at the best of times as Oxfordshire-based wedding-flower grower Rachel Siegfried will tell you. ‘You work your socks off all winter for that precious period between March and October when you make all your income for the entire year.’

‘The moment lockdown began, I started my “Field to Doorstep” delivery service; flowers don’t wait and these were spring bulbs, the most expensive part of our annual investment.

‘The response was amazing; regular customers were telephoning, wanting to know how to get our flowers to make sure we stayed in business, and florists from nearby and further afield, in London, have been in touch wanting buckets of local, seasonal blooms. Demand is very high at the moment but the weather can change any time and take out a load of my flowers, which means I’ll struggle to fill orders the following week. I’ve been in horticulture for 25 years and doing this for 12 and it’s armed for me times like these.’

Linda Clarke, The Spotted Dog Flower Co

Situated 400 yards down a country lane just outside Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, passing trade was unlikely to save the thousands of narcissi and tulips grown by weddings and workshop flower grower Linda Clarke.

‘My first thought was “We’re all doomed!” but then I put some bunches outside the gate and within an hour, they’d gone. I posted a notice on the village Facebook page offering to do a different delivery route each week and all of a sudden, the requests for funeral and sympathy flowers started to come in, many from overseas, people who’d lost loved ones here in the local area.

‘Thanks to social media, I’ve discovered the joy of entertaining others with my flowers and the level of work is crazy but wonderful. My daughter helps me with the deliveries – “Sanitise, deliver, sanitise,” she chants – and it’s so lovely, seeing the joy on people’s faces as they receive the flowers.

‘Follow-up business is coming through too, so we can plant more for next season and I’m also offering monthly flower subscriptions; interestingly, more men are signing up for these and giving them as gifts.’

Caroline Beck, Verde Flowers

Florist-farmer Caroline Beck had 2,500 florist-grade tulips about to bloom in her Victorian walled garden near Durham and a list of wedding events and pick-your-own bouquet bookings all the way through to October, all of it now cancelled or in limbo.

‘I cried for a week and told myself “It’s a field, you can walk away”, but you can’t; it’s a huge investment, emotionally and financially. I thought about composting everything and planting vegetables but then I emailed everyone I could think of locally and asked if they’d be interested in buying my flowers?

‘Within a week I had 50 new clients and a delivery route that I do once a week. The bouquet orders keep coming in and it’s been humbling to see how much people have wanted to support their local florists and have taken such pleasure from simple, seasonal British-grown flowers.

‘Thanks to them I’ve been able to commit to buying stock to plant for next year and I’m hopeful the interest will remain once the lockdown is lifted.’

Sarah Louise Glynn, Petals by Sarah Louise

The timing of the lockdown could not have been worse for Staffordshire-based events florist Sarah Louise Glynn, who decided in January to extend her studio business by opening a shop.

‘I’ve had the keys since March but I’ve not been able to open yet. My corporate hospitality clients went first and then my wedding clients. I couldn’t rely on passing trade and, as all the wholesalers were closed, I wasn’t sure I’d have any flowers. Then I started getting calls from customers who’d lost loved ones and I realised they needed to be my focus.

‘For one bereaved family, where I couldn’t get what they wanted for their relative’s coffin, I visted her own garden and cut a stem of her favourite magnolia.

‘My wholesale deliveries are back, although I’m also using foliage from my own garden, and I’m working from my home studio and doing deliveries. I put a poster in the window to let people know how to contact me and I’ve been getting a lot of business through the district council website and social media.

‘I shan’t be able to afford a grand opening for the shop but I feel better prepared to run it now. I’ve had to be more organised and become more of a risk-taker. Thankfully, many of the brides who’d postponed are now getting in touch and pencilling in new dates.’

Neil Birks, NB Flowers and NB Roses

The early days were quite shocking, recalls New Covent Garden Market luxury florist Neil Birks. ‘All our business is in hospitality and within days, our events had cancelled or postponed and our hotel and private members’ club clients closed. All I could do was head home to north Essex and keep the weeds down in the field where I grow thousands of organically-grown scented roses [pictured at the top of this post] to use in my own florist business and sell to my wholesaler, Zest Flowers.

‘I’d been planning to start selling some of them to local florists this year and I’m hoping that will still happen but I’m also going to give some of them to NHS staff as thank yous.

‘The initial easing of the lockdown has a game-changer. My four staff and team of freelancer florists are on furlough – thank heavens for that scheme! – but now, it’s time to shake off the holiday feeling and set up new routines of working with social distancing, and to think about new sources of work.

‘Of course, the virus may change everything again but for now, July is crucial and I’m excited once more, full of ideas and vigour, although I do hope we learn from our lockdown experiences of clean air and blue skies, the peace and quiet, and that a less ostentatious way of living comes out of this.’

Jennifer Stuart-Smith, Blooming Green Flowers

At the no-dig farm that Jennifer Stuart-Smith runs in Kent with her cousin Rebekah Bibby, it was all hands to the pump to move to online selling.

‘We closed the farm and reworked our website so we could take online orders. We had to furlough our team of five but two florist friends were living with us at the start of the lockdown so they’ve been helping us voluntarily and we’re focusing on the acre we normally use for pick-your-own visits and not planting as many flowers.

‘We’re bumping along, taking it one step at a time. The growth in the number of florists getting in touch with British flower farmers is encouraging and if this experience makes more people question the fragility of their supply chain and think about having a reliable, quality one closer to home, then perhaps this time will have been worth it.’

My additional reporting:

Caroline Onions, Wysall Flower Farm

With weddings off for the duration, NHS manager turned flower grower Caroline Onions feared for her crops; some were ready to be cut and distributed to her florist clients and do-it-yourself wedding customers, while others needed to be sown soon if she was to remain in business in the future. Because of the lockdown, she was also home-schooling her two young children, leaving her little time to spend working the flower farm that she set up in the converted sheep paddock on her family’s Nottinghamshire farm in 2017.

‘Two weeks into lockdown, I was inundated with calls for flowers from local florists whose usual deliveries of Dutch flowers had stopped, and with requests for bouquets from people all around the local area.

‘I’d started doing bouquets last year and although one of my goals for 2020 had been to do more, to go from two a week to twenty or more a week in just two months has been incredible. Nobody knows how things are going to develop but the orders have given me the cashflow to carry on and hopefully, I’ve got new customers who will stay with me now.’

Katie Bennett, Flowers by Nattrass

Third-generation florist Katie Bennett has temporarily closed her family-owned florist shop in Darlington, County Durham, furloughed her six staff and set up a studio with her family (her mother Sally is now manning the telephones) in their old garden centre, handling a very welcome rise in flower orders for birthdays and new babies, anniversaries, sympathy and funerals.

While her Dutch flower supply has been re-established and choice is improving all the time, she is less confident about how quickly her bread-and-butter business in weddings and the corporate and hospitality sectors will return. ‘We’ve been going for 60 years and are well known in the area, which helps, as does the fact that we also have Strelitzia, our software business which helps florists run their businesses more efficiently. But flowers are a luxury item and the sudden suspension of all our contracts has been nerve-wracking, and while July is our focus for now, I expect that to change again.’

GOOD TO KNOW – buying British-grown fresh-cut flowers helps to support local florists and flower growers. Consult these souces to find suppliers near you:

Celebrate British-grown flowers during British Flowers Week, 1521 June

Share the healing power of plants and flowers during this annual national event which, because of COVID-19, will be celebrated online this year. Decorate your windows with British flowers and foliage and share it on social media, #BritishFlowersWeek. For more details, visit britishflowersweek.com

Making gardens fit for purpose –

The last four weeks and counting spent cooped up in our homes and gardens (if you’re lucky enough to have one) will almost certainly have laid bare all those flaws which, until this enforced in the way they function. The downtime has almost certainly also inspired ideas for a more comfortable way of living too. For landscape designers Randle Siddeley (pictured), spaces that suit our lifestyle is at the heart of every garden he creates, as I discovered when I spoke to him a few weeks ago.

Making gardens wonderful comes naturally to landscape designer Randle Siddeley. Rather like classical architecture, his planted paradises are delightful exercises in proportion and form, journey and place, style, function and decoration. What is his secret? ‘It’s all about seeing and observing the place, learning about the owner’s needs, their lifestyle and expectations, and knowing how to interpret these to create a garden that matches or surpasses their dreams,’ he explains.

‘Every garden we encounter presents its own challenges, be it a bare, muddy field, a neglected urban courtyard or an expansive countryside estate,’ he continues. ‘But each one needs to be reincarnated as a magical green oasis while lending the property it adjoins a newfound stature and beauty.’

City gardens tend to present rather more hurdles to overcome–they are generally short on space, usually overlooked, and have awkward access and poor soil–but as Siddeley says, ‘they’re also an opportunity to be creative and to showcase our skills as landscape designers.’

The Wandsworth-based designer and his team have been creating classic outdoor spaces for A-list owners all over the world for the last 40 years or so and some of the most recent are showcased in Siddeley’s latest book, Before & After (Papadakis, £50). ‘You learn so many things as you go; how many elements should this garden have; is less more? Is it better to have just one statement piece, and so on? For the most part, I need no more than the landscape…landscape design is as much about creating space as it is about filling it,’ he explains.

His ethos is especially important when it comes to designing London gardens. Space is almost always at a premium here, he says, so ‘the first thing we consider is the orientation of the site and try to find ways of opening up the plot and letting in the light as that has a huge impact on the style of the design and on the planting we use.’

Managing owner expectations and always trying to create a garden that surpasses them are key. ‘People can become quite wedded to the ideas they have for their garden without understanding whether they are feasible or suitable for them and the space they have got. Making a garden is a long-term investment and a lifestyle choice so before we do anything, we ask them questions, lots of questions (see his checklist, below), so we have a clear idea of how they want to use the garden, as well as what they want it to look like.’

Inevitably, the process of due diligence can lead to changes of brief. ‘Some of my projects have started out as relatively straightforward renovation requests,’ Siddeley reveals, ‘but what we learn before we start to design often leads to a more dramatic transformation. With London gardens in particular, site access, or the lack of it, can be the greatest challenge and the most costly aspect of a project.’

Creating a garden that looks as if it has always been there requires mature plants and trees, for instance. ‘We routinely have to close roads to crane these huge trees in over the top of the house,’ says Siddeley. ‘One job in St John’s Wood required us to close sixteen parking bays for four days. For another project in Chelsea, the owner wanted quite an expansive outside seating area and as it was situated above an underground car park, we had to do a lot of structural work first, to meet strict weight constraints.’

For all the complex issues raised, however, the finished gardens never fail to fill their owners with delight. ‘Ravishing,’ says one; ‘it’s overwhelming in its natural beauty’ says another, while a third captures Siddeley’s efforts in one: ‘The garden is the crown jewel of our home and looks as though it has been blooming for 100 years.’

Create the garden of your dreams
  • How will you use your garden? Do you want to cook, entertain and play, to simply sit and relax or a combination of all of these?
  • What do you like and dislike about your existing garden?
  • Do you want it to look contemporary, formal or informal?
  • Should it be a single space, or a series of inter-connected spaces?
  • Do you want the planting to reflect the seasons, and when are you most likely to use the space during the year, and at what time of day?
  • If you have children, how will they use the garden?
  • Or is it mostly for adults? Do you have pets and do you want other features, such as a pond or a swimming pool?
  • Is safety, privacy and/or security important, and are there any intrusive features?
  • Is there a front garden, a need for a grand entrance, driveway, car parking or other ancillary buildings?
  • What about planting – do you want a high- or low-maintenance scheme?
  • Finally, how will the garden be maintained, and by whom?

Photography, Georgina Viney

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