Feel good flowers
Nostalgia strikes with cut flowers – from Leitrim rather than Kenya – and they’re organically grown, too, writes FIONNUALA FALLON
IF YOU’VE EVER buried your nose in the delicate ruffles of even a single sweet pea flower, then you’ll know that its perfume is one that’s both leafy and bewitchingly sweet – a nostalgic, nostril-assaulting scent that sings of warm summer days and sun-drenched hours in the garden. In Ciaran and Kealin Beattie’s flower-filled polytunnels in Kilnagross, Co Leitrim, where the 8ft tall, colourful lines of sweet pea plants stretch their tendrils up towards the roof, and their purple, pink and white blooms number in the hundreds (perhaps even the thousands), that same rich, heavy fragrance is all-enveloping.
Sometimes it’s mixed with the peppery, sugary smell of Sweet William flowers or the intense perfume of Brompton stock growing nearby; a potent combination that floats seductively on the warm air currents and drifts out of the doorways in great fragrant waves so that even at 20 or 30 paces away, your senses are softly soothed by it.
When the Beatties left Dublin in 2008 to live in this rural corner of Leitrim, it was in search of a gentler pace of life – one that would allow them to make a living off the land while doing something they enjoyed. Ciaran, a trained horticulturist, hit on the idea of growing chemical-free cut flowers for local markets, and so the business they christened as Leitrim Flowers was born.
“We knew that there would be a market for freshly harvested, organically-cultivated, country flowers that were locally grown and that came with a low carbon footprint, rather than being shipped long distances from countries like Kenya, Colombia or Ethiopia. It’s just the same as people wanting to buy fresh, chemical-free, locally-grown vegetables or fruit.”
Despite Ciaran’s horticultural training and experience as a landscape gardener and Kealin’s strong business background, Leitrim Flowers’ first few years were a “very steep learning curve”. Mice stole the freshly-sown seeds, slugs devoured young seedlings and rabbits ate both bulbs and plants. Meanwhile, the couple “read up, read up and read up” so they’d be as proficient in the business as possible.
Discovering exactly which varieties would be the best suited to organic cut-flower production was a challenge: they had to be floriferous, long-flowering, seasonal, easy to cultivate without the use of pesticides, herbicides or artificial fertilisers and have a long vase life.
“It was an awful lot of trial and error,” says Kealin. “But in the end, it paid off.” These days, the damp meadows that make up the Beatties’ flower farm are filled in early summer with neat rows of merry marigolds, scarlet lychnis and lime-green lady’s mantle. By late summer and early autumn, these will be followed by jewel-coloured asters, the large chartreuse flower-heads of Hydrangea ‘Limelight’ and marmalade-coloured rudbeckias. In spring, the sloping fields will be filled with drumstick primulas and sweetly-scented varieties of daffodil and narcissus.
As for the three polytunnels, they’re used intensively to grow an ever-rotating range of flower crops, in much the same way that another grower might cultivate a range of vegetables or salad crops. On the day I visited, I spotted frothy gypsophila, lacy tangles of Love-in-a-Mist, magenta achillea, the carmine-pink, daisy-shaped flowers of cosmos, even the delicate white umbels of the fashionable Bishop’s weed, Ammi majus – a plant that was the star of several Chelsea show gardens a couple of years ago.