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  • Why Flower Growing?

    I suspect that my reasons for being a grower will change over time as I settle into the beautiful and busy world of flower growing. I want to capture the reasons and motivations which have pulled me into flower growing in the first place before they are replaced with new reasons to stay. Since completing my university education, I have been a secondary school teacher of English. Despite enjoying the classroom element of teaching, I've increasingly felt the pull of the outside world over the past four years and have often felt miserable when I have been cooped up indoors marking endless assessments, planning lessons and writing essays while the sun shines brightly outside. One particular evening last spring, on a brief walk at dusk, I noticed that the cow parsley and May blossom was out in full bloom, the air heavy with its fragrance, and the natural world was suddenly so lush and green with the vigorous growth of spring. It dawned on me that the whole world had completely changed over the past few weeks and I never noticed it happening. It felt as though I hadn't properly looked around me for months, as though I had missed out on a very beautiful and powerful shift in nature that year. I realised then that to be able to witness the seasonal changes of the natural world and to celebrate them is very important to me, and it was something I wasn't able to do as a teacher. After my degree, I took a masters in Landscape History at the University of East Anglia. The masters focused on the East of England was highly interdisciplinary, dabbling in archaeology, geology, cartography, toponymy (the history of place names), pollen analysis, social history, natural history, paleography among others. It also included a lot of archival work and enabled me to delve into the social history of my own village, Blunham, in Bedfordshire Archives. After discovering a map of the open fields of Blunham in 1719 and several volumes of Blunham's manorial court records, the landscapes I grew up in took on an entirely new dimension. I found myself walking around and referring to familiar fields and lanes by their old names, ones long forgotten. Our home and garden became Hatchgate Pasture again. The field next door was Barkhurst Meadow. We no longer lived on Grange Road but rather on the quaint and wonderful 'Whistling Way'. I saw the ditch cutting through the field behind as the original path of the River Ivel before it was redirected in the 1750s. The fields we walk our labrador in were all part of one great open field called the Hamm and included Oxholm, Cowholm and Lowehill Pasture. The manorial court records were an evocative read and they placed 17th century villagers back into the fields in my mind. They told of troublesome villagers, fined for stealing eels and fish from the lord's waters around the mill, of escapee livestock causing chaos in the open fields, of a vicar who was fined for failing to clean out his section of ditch and of endless complaints about the dung heaps left on the main road. After reading them, I found myself imagining villagers of 300, 400, even 500 years before, collectively working the furlongs, guiding their oxen and ploughshares across the vast open fields, and tending to their livestock on Finham Common. Since reading them, when working the land, especially in Blunham, I feel a deep connection with the past and the people who came before us, a satisfying sense of continuity with our ancestors. Another part of my personal heritage lies in the heart of bulb-growing district in Holland and hence the flowers. My great grandfather and father were both flower growers, first in Holland and then, after the Second World War, in Sandy in Bedfordshire. I feel proud of this dutch flower-growing heritage and am excited to be rejuvenating its connection with the family name. I have always loved flowers but since embarking on this flower growing journey, the beauty and potential I see in them grows daily. The initial, simple (and sensible) plan was to specialise in a few varieties to sell to florists and wholesalers. But already I'm feeling the desire to grow anything and everything, and to arrange, dry and create with them. The sheer possibility excites and overwhelms me, and leads to great inefficiency and so I am aware of the need to focus on one thing at a time. The possibility is appealing because it equates to great freedom; we can take the business in any direction we like and to some extent I'll be able to spend my time on whatever appeals and on exploring my creativity. I am aware of just how lucky I am in this respect; there are very few jobs which entails this much freedom, especially at my age. I am hugely grateful to my father because for me he is the great enabler. He has the knowledge, expertise, contacts, experience and therefore confidence to guide the way with setting up Zwetsloots Floriculture. Another pull is the nature of the work. I have often found physical work more satisfying and stimulating than mental work and I enjoy creating things with my hands. During one particularly busy teaching period, I was drilling together a raised bed on the patio and realised that it was the most satisfied and contented I had felt for weeks. I sought a job which mixed both mental and physical work. I decided to quit full time teaching in March 2022 and to spend the next school year doing supply teaching and working out exactly what to do next. I knew I wanted to be outside, to grow plants in some capacity, and to be able to create and learn. Before that year really began, a couple of plots of land became available to rent and after some idealistic conversations with my father on holiday, the idea of a flower growing business was floated, very quickly gathered speed and then became a reality. Flower growing seemed to be an amalgamation of all the elements I was seeking. I decided to give up the idea of finding the ideal career and instead decided to start building my dream lifestyle and way of being. Whilst we are only half way into our first year, I never expected to find so much satisfaction and fun in the business side of things. I am enjoying the challenge of building a customer base, learning how to design a website and brand, building a social media profile and brainstorming products and methods of selling them. I feel incredibly motivated to make the business a success and feel contented thinking about it all day long. There are still so many more reasons to cover. There is much to learn about the growing itself- about soils, plant science, pests and disease, irrigation, fertiliser, the trade. There is the cultural history of any and every flower to discover. There is the opportunity to meet creative people and like-minded lovers of flowers and the landscape. There is the lovely privilege of getting to share flowers with people, to be a giver of beauty and joy in the world. Like any new business, we are taking a big step into the unknown which can feel a little daunting at times but my great grandfather took a much greater leap of faith when he decided to move with his young family to an entirely new country on the eve of war to set up a flower growing business here in the UK. Fittingly, he is finishes his personal memoir with the words 'my advice is - always take a chance in life and be an optimist, because this makes anybody happy and satisfied with the things you have'. If ever I waver in my confidence about this new path (with has been seldom thus far), I will keep these wise words in mind.

  • Learning Floristry Basics with Hedgerow Bouquets

    After feeling a growing urge to learn some basic floristry, I watched a series of youtube videos and read the introductory chapter of Floret's A Year in Flowers. I wanted to be able to get to grips with arranging- gain some confidence, experiment and make mistakes- without spending money on flowers or ruining our first flowers. Our flowers are also a way off blooming and I've been getting impatient to experiment! I am very fortunate to have a nature reserve on my doorstep. The reserve was built on a series of former gravel pits and the organisation seeks to create a variety of environments for biodiversity including ponds and lakes, meadow, hedgerow, heath and scrub, which makes it an excellent place for sourcing a variety of foliage and wildflowers. On a very sunny and stormy, changeable day earlier this month, I set out into the reserve with my clippers, secateurs and bucket. Having read about about the six floral categories- structural foliage, supporting and textural ingredients, focal and supporting flowers, and airy accents- I went out seeking a wide range of texture, colour and shape. I had no problem finding warm structural foliage.The new spring growth of almost any tree looks beautiful and appealing and so I snipped away at hazel, willow, hawthorn, damson, crab apple. For textural foliage, I found meadow foxtail grass and goat willow catkins, and for airy accents I found cow parsley and branching buttercups. Focal flowers were the category most lacking and I had to make do with a couple of early dog roses and going over crab apple blossom. Throughout, I followed the general rules for foraging, making clean cuts just above nodes to encourage healthy regrowth (this prunes the tree and is arguably beneficial) and never took more than a third from any plant (I was taking far far less than this!). Towards the end of my forage, the skies which had been darkening and growing ever more ominous, opened up and the rain and hail pummeled down. I found myself sheltering beneath a willow by the waters edge, desperately trying to protect my delicate buttercups from a beating. I was soaked through in minutes and, once liberated from trying to keep dry, loved being caught in the midst of it! It makes me excited for the many different weathers I will get to experience in my future as a flower farmer. Once home and dried, as a learning exercise, I tried to sort the tangle of foraged material into the six different categories and laid them out on the table. I then stripped the leaves from the lower stems and began to gather stems together in my hand, making sure to keep my hand loose as told in a video and turning the stems every time I added to the bouquet to achieve that pleasing twist. I ended up using far more foliage than I had expected to use in a relatively small bouquet and found it hard to keep the bouquet well balanced, resulting in lots of gappy parts. The end result was pleasing, especially considering it was my first 'bouquet' and the material was entirely free. Although I had low expectations for vase life, most of the foliage and the buttercups lasted pretty well. As to be expected, the already too-open crab apple dropped its petals after two days, as did the hawthorn blossom. The cow parsley dropped a fine layer of pollen on the table and the catkins produced a fluff that went everywhere! However, the exercise was very enjoyable and good practice for learning the basics of arranging. I also found that I was completely absorbed by the task, especially the foraging, and so it was a very grounding and mindful exercise too. It'd be a lovely exercise to do once every month or two as way of getting to really know the hedgerows and capturing their changes and beauty throughout the seasons.

  • Trials Part 1: Selecting Seeds and Sowing

    For Zwetsloots Floriculture, 2023 is to be the great year of trials. We are in the process of growing a great range of annuals and perennials to gather as much information as we can to inform our plans for next season. This means that 2023 is also the year of the spreadsheet and data! We're seeking the answers to a large numbers of questions including which varieties and cultivars: - are best suited to growing on our soils and climate - we enjoy growing and handling most - germinate well using our current set up - compliment one another in shape, texture and colour in a bouquet - have the best vase lives - sell well locally - dry successfully - we enjoy bunching and arranging Selecting Seeds Seed selection began with an idea of the varieties we both liked. I tended more towards the annuals whilst Pa focused more on perennials and foliage plants. My list included snapdragons, especially the salmon and bronze shades. I also really like cosmos, although was initially sceptical about the vase life of them, and was curious to try zinnias as I've never grown them before; I like the idea of having dahlia-esque flowers before dahlia season began and was drawn to the newer, less brash varieties such as the Queen and Benary's Giant series. Pa began with a longer list which included delphiniums, achillea, rudbeckia, bells of Ireland, lady's mantle, eryngium, phlox, salvia, gypsophila and dahlias. Many of these flowers, such as the phlox and delphiniums, were chosen simply they're ones he has always loved. Eryngium was another, but one he has also previously struggled to germinate so he saw these as a challenge as well. The salvia was selling cheaply at Spalding auction. The atriplex is mentioned a lot on flower growing podcasts as a good filler, one that self-seeds and grows fast. Selecting varieties of these species became a totally absorbing and never-ending but utterly joyful task. Beginning on pinterest, I pinned all of the shades I liked, naturally forming a palette, and made lists of cultivars, before researching stem length and discarding any that were unsuitable. Like many, I was drawn to the oranges and pinks and all of the shades in between: the salmons, peaches, apricots, blushes. The search broadened with trawling through some of the big seed company websites; my list of potential varieties grew and grew as I came across more beautiful and well-reviewed flowers for cutting and foliage. The Chiltern Seeds 2023 Spring Edit which focused on flowers for cutting and drying was especially inspiring to me, organised as it was by colour, and by this point I was really struggling to exercise any kind of discipline! The pretty pictures in the depths of winter were all just too much of a temptation. At this time, a new idea began to grow: the idea of growing a small range of flowers for drying and selling on Etsy this year. Despite the initial plan to experiment this year and save the selling until 2024, my enthusiasm and impatience to start selling had grown dramatically since beginning the business in September. A dried flower range could be small scale, would in theory be less pressure because I'd be dealing with a dried product rather than a fresh one, and it'd be a great confidence boost and motivator if we managed to make a profit in year 1. I also have 6 long weeks of summer holiday because I'm a teacher and I'm keen to put to good use. As a result, many classic everlasting flowers such as helichrysum, gomphrena, craspedia, canary grass and bunny tails, were all added to the list. I also began to see new potential in some of the other flowers we'd already chosen, especially Pa's eryngium, achillea and gypsophila. Once the list was finalised, I tried to purchase mostly from the cheapest but well-reputed seed suppliers. Some seeds such as the gomphrena and helichrysum were purchased from small eBay suppliers because I struggled to get hold of them elsewhere. I kept a record of the suppliers in case the seed didn't germinate and I could avoid purchasing from the same place again. My Seed Set Up Most of my seeds were surface sown in 8x12 3cm plug trays in March. To avoid wasting seed, I used tweezer to position the small seeds and cocktail sticks for the fiddly, teeny tiny antirrhinum seeds. I always enjoy handling seeds in all their strange shapes and sides. This year's favourite seed was Scabiosa stellata 'Sternkugel' which initially resemble shuttlecocks and then turned into little skirts on the stems of the seedlings when they germinated! They also make robust, thick-leaved seedlings which made me favour them over my snapdragon seedlings which buckled and crumpled beneath the lightest of forces. As I don't have a greenhouse and my windowsills are too shallow for wide plugs trays, I set up an 80cm wide grow house with four shelves and a plastic cover in the utility room. I attached full spectrum grow lights and put them on a 12 hour timer. I was initially worried about the temperature in the room because it was hovering around 12 degrees celsius, often dipping below. Most seed packets, especially those of tender annuals like zinnias and cosmos, state that they need much warmer temperatures to germinate. However, to my delight, and with the exception of the gomphrena, all of the germination rates were surprisingly high. I had sown my teensy antirrhinums in twos which meant I had to thin almost every plug out again and could have saved half of the seed! Owing to a shortage of space in the grow house, the antirrhinum and helichrysum were soon pushed out and put into the cold frame in the garden in the day time and brought in at night if the temperatures were due to be in low single figures. As I tired of traipsing in and out every night with numerous trays, the seedlings were made to endure cooler and cooler temperatures and so became hardened and robust from a small stage and grew strong. I went away for a week at the start of April and so they all got to live in my partner's office temporarily! Pa's Seed Set Up Pa's set up was quite different to mine; it was larger scale and produced more consistent conditions. He sowed most of his seeds in seed blocks on a heat mat in his greenhouse. He used a 2cm soil blocker in long trays which meant he could fit a lot of seedlings into a small space and these were watered gently to avoid disintegration. The greatest challenge with the soil blocks were them drying out too quickly when the day time temperatures increased. Conclusions My seed set up wasn't ideal because of the constant moving about. I lost a few because they got knocked about, crushed by heavy rain and a few slugs managed to reached them in the cold frame. Next season, I'm keen to spread my seed sowing. I want to try sowing hardy annuals in late summer and autumn this year and to get them established in the ground before the first frost. After reading 'Cool Flowers', I want to use the Lisa Mason Ziegler method of sowing them in soil blocks just 2-3 weeks before planting them out. The idea of planting them at a much earlier stage sounds really appealing because it eliminates weeks of worrying about them drying out, taking up space or getting damaged by rain or cats. They should also work better in my smaller space because they'll all fit on the shelves of the grow house and/or my windowsills. And, the biggest appeal of all, I'd love to be able to be picking my antirrhinums and helichrysum this time next year instead of planting them out!

  • Preparing for Peonies and Planting

    Preparing the Soil In September 2022, we acquired a two-acre plot of rough land which was covered in scrubby, pioneer vegetation but had promising, alluvial soil and was close to home. It was a plot that required a lot of work before we could even think about planting. In October, we (largely Pa, with me having tractor lessons) began tackling the tamer of the two halves and, armed with flail mower and chainsaw, got started on smashing back the tangle of bramble, dog rose and saplings. Pa became especially adept with the flail mower, performing all manner of manoeuvres to flatten the thicker, woodier dog roses. Once the first half was mown, we swapped the flail mower for a plough and began slicing into the earth, inverting and burying the turf, to reveal the rich, silty soil beneath. The weather was wet in early November, resulting in difficulties with spinning tires which struggled to grip onto the soil in places, especially when the plough met with substantial bramble roots. The plough was then replaced by the rotavator which transformed the thick clods into a fine and pleasing tilth. It was very satisfying work, especially considering how overgrown the plot had been just weeks before! Planting In late November, the field was ready for planting and we began marking out the beds and laying out the landscaping fabric. After much deliberation, and with the environment very much at the forefront of our minds, we concluded that it was necessary to plant through landscaping fabric for the first few years. The soil had been uncultivated for years and had built up a big bank of weed seeds and roots; if we wanted to be able to successfully grow thousands of peonies and undertake all of the physical labour ourselves (planting, weeding, feeding, cutting) alongside our pre-existing jobs, then using fabric to suppress the weeds for the first few years was essential. We hope that within a few years, when we are working full time on the business and weed numbers have reduced, we can spend more time on hoeing and won't have need to replace the fabric. Pa measured out the beds (which we made 40m long, 1m wide, with a 50cm path), raked them, removed roots and pinned down the fabric. We used hundreds of metal pegs to fix the fabric down but were concerned (and still are) about entire lengths disappearing should there be strong winds so we weighted it down with large stones and rocks as well. I followed behind with the nice, cushy job (and slightly warmer job in the freezing weather) using a blowtorch to burn holes into the fabric. We used blowtorches because it was more time efficient than a knife and prevented the fabric from fraying once cut. After making some initial abstract, free-hand blobs, I went and bought a cake tin, removed the bottom and used it to burn out perfectly clean circles. Planting the tubers through the fabric was quite awkward work but we quickly fell into a rhythm, usually planting a full bed of about 140 peonies in a 3 hour planting session. We planted two rows in a bed with 60cm spacing between plants which will hopefully allow enough ventilation to avoid mildew and be close enough for the plants to support themselves. In November and December, the weather was drizzly and damp which made the work messy and hard-going initially. Other days were bitterly cold and foggy, the ground frozen solid and so planting was paused until it warmed up a little. Over Christmas and the new year, we enjoyed some milder days with bright blue skies and were able to make a lot of progress, and by January, we were in a race against the peonies themselves which were rapidly sprouting and beginning to go mouldy in their crates. By the start of March, we had planted 16 beds and over 2000 peonies: a mix of the creamy Duchesse de Nemours, pale pink Sarah Bernhardt and pinky-red Command Performance. Sourcing Peonies In late October, we were given permission to salvage peony tubers from a field which had been left to waste in Lincolnshire. It was a bit of a treasure hunt because very little foliage remained and the beds were not marked so finding them involved digging in random spots and guessing the spacing between them. Having been submerged 15cm deep in compost, the tubers appeared to be stressed and had produced a high number of tiny shoots. After several hours of rooting around in the soil on a warm afternoon, we came away with 200 large tubers, ready for division, and 200 smaller ones. To top up numbers, Pa ordered an additional couple of thousand cuttings from Green Garden Flower Bulbs in the Netherlands which arrived in black crates a few weeks later. Generally, the peonies we planted were either smaller or in poor condition, and most had to sit in crates for slightly too long before we could get around to planting them. This year, we will dead head them to encourage healthier growth of the tubers and in 2024 we hope to cut our first, very small crop. It will be several years before the plants are in full production.

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