The warp and weft of time has brought benefits and drawbacks to our lives. It’s made our world smaller, allowing us to traverse the globe in a matter of hours. But at the same time, making the world smaller also means that the world’s enterprises have muscled in on our markets, elbowing out British businesses. As we jetted off on farther-flung holidays in the 1970s thanks to low-cost air travel, cheaper foreign flowers made their way to our shores. Peruse the flower aisles of your local supermarket today, or pop your head around the door of any high street florist (if you’re lucky enough to have one), and nine in every 10 bunches on display will be floral foreigners.
It’s not that the volume or value of British flowers sold has necessarily decreased in the past few decades – the value of British cut flower sales has actually risen from £79 million in 1988 to £82 million in 2015. It’s just that the international interlopers have filled up the remainder of the ballooning market. Imports of cut flowers have increased from £122 million in the late 1980s to £666 million by 2015. ‘Highly subsidised Dutch imports and the logistical prowess of exporters from Dutch markets have made competing on price unsustainable,’ says Amy Gray of the National Farmers’ Union. The Netherlands, Kenya and Colombia are the three largest importers of cut flowers to the UK.
That said, things are looking up. ‘British flower farming is at a turning point,’ adds Amy. ‘After years of playing second fiddle, the competitive landscape is slowly shifting back in favour of the British grower.’ Consumers are more savvy about where their flowers come from, keener to buy British-grown produce.
All of which benefits Susan Dobson and The Yorkshire Dales Flower Company. In 2014 Susan set up the company in the gardens surrounding her Bradley farmhouse. She focuses on growing cut flower varieties not normally found in the supermarkets (which account for 60 percent of British flower sales): her hollyhocks, lupins and delphiniums are all varieties you’re unlikely to find piled high on the shelves in Asda. ‘Yes, I grow tulips that you’d find in supermarkets, but they’re much more the cottage garden style sort of flowers, very rustic and natural,’ she says.
The flowers she grows from her home garden, roughly an acre of space near Skipton, celebrate the English cottage and country garden. They also harken back to Susan’s childhood, and a family life spent outdoors. ‘My parents were really keen gardeners, as was my grandfather,’ she explains. When Susan got married, she had her first chance to make a garden of her own. ‘The obsession’s carried on since then,’ she adds.
Six or seven years ago she read about the Great British flower revival, people setting up businesses across the country to grow homegrown flowers. ‘I decided that I would love to do that,’ Susan says. ‘I love my garden, and we had the space. I decided I’d have a go at it.’ As well as growing a range of flowers, Susan also wanted to arrange the things she grew, so she trained as a florist, travelling down to a flower school in Bath, where she studied a course in wedding flowers.
The Yorkshire Dales Flower Company is part of the Flowers from the Farm organisation, a network of flower growers that stretches from the northern tip of Scotland to the farthest part of Cornwall. ‘They range from larger growers and have many acres of flowers, down to people like me who have up to an acre, and grow mainly for their own purposes.’ Flowers from the Farm’s 500-odd members aim to promote homegrown flowers and Susan uses her own flowers to create bouquets used for special occasions, including weddings and other celebrations. She’s become so adept at handcrafting beautiful bouquets she’s teaching workshops to local groups, where she continues to spread the word about the importance of homegrown flowers to Britain.
An example of how globalised the market in flowers is was shown in stark relief when Susan travelled to Aalsmeer Flower Auction in the Netherlands, the world’s biggest. ‘They had a chart on the wall of where flowers go to in each country in the world,’ Susan recalls. In front of her, writ large on the wall, was a demonstration of the global flower trade, and how most of what comes into the UK is from all four corners of the globe. We buy our flowers differently, and are far more reliant on supermarkets for last minute bunches of roses than traditional, expert florists.
‘We’re trying hard to promote British flowers because they’re an amazing product,’ she says. Susan’s doing so from her home garden, which also acts as the base for the business. Gardening is a year-round activity for her, constantly preparing her land for the next flowers she needs to plant. As we speak, she has just pulled out her tulips, replacing them with a bed of dahlias. That greenfingered tendency means she wouldn’t feel comfortable without tending to her own plants. ‘I couldn’t possibly be on a high street in a shop,’ she jokes. And with business booming enough to build a new extension that will house a studio and workshop, things are looking good for Susan.
Mixing business and pleasure might be a drawback for some, but Susan loves it. ‘At times it is a challenge to get the gardening and floristry side of the business done, but I love it,’ she says. ‘There are very busy times of the year outside which you’ve got to try and address, and I have a lot of weddings which take up an enormous amount of time as well, but it helps that I absolutely adore flowers. It’s heaven for me.’
BOUQUETS OF FUN
Susan’s top tips for creating the best bouquets
‘My floristry is very natural and rustic. I learned the more formal side of floristry at college. There are definite rules for creating a floral arrangement or bouquet. One thing is to have uneven numbers of flowers. That helps to lead your eye around an arrangement or bouquet. If you do a bouquet with four focal flowers in it, you end up with a square. There are rules to get the eye to travel around the bouquet, rather than think there’s a square in there. Working with odd numbers does help.
‘I don’t tend to have strict rules about colour combinations. I tend to go for a bit of everything these days. At college we used to have to use flowers which were opposites on the colour wheel, then something in the middle to make it harmonious, but I do tend to do my own thing. The cottage garden style of floristry lends itself to that.’