Cutting edge flowers without the airmiles

Fresh local blooms are a lot more lovely than chilled flowers flown in from afar

Garden flowers from  Floret Farm’s Cut Flower Garden: Grow, Harvest, and Arrange Stunning Seasonal Blooms, by Erin Benzakein and Julie Chai. Photograph: Michèle M. Waite

Garden flowers from Floret Farm’s Cut Flower Garden: Grow, Harvest, and Arrange Stunning Seasonal Blooms, by Erin Benzakein and Julie Chai. Photograph: Michèle M. Waite

 

If you’re a regular reader of this column, then you will know that I have more than a “bit of a thing” about cut-flowers. By this, I mean the seasonal, sustainably produced, locally-grown kinds that are freshly picked, perfume-filled and brimming with life rather than those sad, unseasonal blooms grown with the intensive use of chemicals and dipped in biocides and floral preservatives before being shipped vast distances in refrigerated containers from far-away countries.

The environmental and ethical concerns associated with the modern cut-flower industry aside, there’s also the worrying issue of its lack of seasonality. How and why did we get so disconnected from the ebb and flow of each growing season that we started demanding roses and peonies in December, hydrangeas in spring?

Why is the wealth of floral beauty contained within any particular season not enough for us anymore? When, oh when, did we start thinking that home deliveries of refrigerated, imported, flat-packed flowers delivered through the letterbox was a good idea?

Fresh, local blooms

Because a thousand times more lovely are fresh, local blooms that are true to the Irish gardening year, whether that’s a bunch of fragrant daffodils and bluebells in spring, a perfumed posy of fragile sweet pea flowers in summer, an armful of jewel-coloured dahlias and scabious in autumn, or a dainty handful of snowdrops in deepest winter.

 In the autumn of 2015, I took this love of seasonal, sustainably-grown cut flowers to another level, when my husband and I established a small, sustainably-managed flower farm (The Irish Flower Farmer) in a Victorian walled garden in Co Wicklow.

To say that people thought we were mad would be a bit of an overstatement, but many were baffled. “What is a flower farm? Why would we bother growing flowers when blooms can be shipped from the Dutch flower markets in a matter of days? What was the point, the purpose, the idea . . . ”

 While we knew the answers to those questions, I don’t think we would have dared take the plunge if others hadn’t shown us that it could be done. A visit to the flourishing flower farm of Kealin and Ciaran Beattie of Leitrim Flowers back in 2012 for the purpose of writing about them for this column was our first eureka moment.

Hand tied blooms, from Floret Farm’s Cut Flower Garden: Grow, Harvest, and Arrange Stunning Seasonal Blooms, by Erin Benzakein and Julie Chai (Chronicle Books, £19.99). Photograph: Michèle M. Waite
Hand tied blooms, from Floret Farm’s Cut Flower Garden: Grow, Harvest, and Arrange Stunning Seasonal Blooms, by Erin Benzakein and Julie Chai (Chronicle Books, £19.99). Photograph: Michèle M. Waite

The writing (both her books and former garden column in the Telegraph) and website of the British flower grower Sarah Raven of Perch Hill Gardens in Sussex was another. So was stumbling across the brilliantly informative blog and Instagram feed of Erin Benzakein, aka Floret, the Washington-based organic flower farmer and one of the people who has revolutionised the conservative and chemically-intensive world of cut-flower growing in recent years.

Flower farmers

Benzakein’s impact is such that The New York Times described her as a “superstar” in a recent article on the flower farmers and flower arrangers leading the  floral revolution taking place across America. Others named in the same piece include the New York-based florist cum flower-farmer Sarah Ryhanen, her friend Nicolete Camille, and Sarah Winward; all women who share the same nature-inspired aesthetic where flowers are celebrated for their uniqueness and their seasonality rather than their uniformity of size and shape.

There’s a growing tribe of flower farmers across the country producing seasonal, scented cut-blooms for farmers markets and home deliveries, as well as for restaurants, hotels and events

Here in Ireland, that same movement has also begun to take root. Leitrim Flowers and our own little flower farm aside, there’s a growing tribe of flower farmers across the country producing seasonal, scented cut-blooms for farmers markets and home deliveries, as well as for restaurants, hotels and events, many (but not all) of whom are members of either the recently-founded umbrella organisation, The Flower Farmers of Ireland and/or the Irish Country & Cut Flowers Growers Association.

Examples include west-Cork based Hanako Floral Studio (hanako.ie), Lydia Bushby of Vintage Cut Flowers (vintagecutflowers.ie, also west Cork), Seonaid Renton of Carlow-based Mad About Flowers (madaboutflowers.ie) and Kildare-based Amelia Raben of Amelia’s Garden Flowers.

Similarly, the work of Irish floral designers such as Dublin-based Mark Grehan of The Garden (thegarden.ie), Claire Ryan and Patsie Wrafter of The Informal Florist (informalflorist.com), Belfast-based Abigail Bell of Petal Studio (petal-studio.co.uk) and Wicklow-based Sally Horn of The Sally Garden (thesallygarden.com) is inspired by that same concept of seasonality.

If you want further proof of how the flower farming movement is slowly but surely transforming the contents of your vase, then you’ll find it in the sales figures for Erin Benzakein’s first book, Floret Farm’s Cut Flower Garden, which was published just last month (Chronicle Books, $29.95). Such was the demand (the first print run sold out within days) for this gorgeously illustrated, hugely informative publication that it is already on its fourth print run.

Astonishing success

Its astonishing success is entirely justified; if you’re new to the world of cut-flower growing but would love to know how to get started on your own small cut-flower patch, then this handsome volume covers it all, from site selection, weed management and propagation to selecting the best, most floriferous cultivars. Plus, it’s not just about the growing. Benzakein also includes a host of useful tips on getting the longest vase life out of your homegrown cut-flowers, as well as illustrated guides to creating hand-tied bouquets, flower crowns, garlands and wreaths.

So ditch that bunch of Stargazer lilies. It’s high time we started celebrating seasonal, Irish-grown cut flowers instead.

THIS WEEK IN THE GARDEN…

 Remove faded flowers from daffodil plants, making sure to neatly cut each one away at the base to avoid the look of unsightly stalks. To help the bulbs to fatten up again and ensure a good display of flowers next spring, always allow the foliage to die down naturally over the coming months rather than cutting/mowing it or using an elastic band to knot the strappy leaves into a bundle as some gardeners do. For the same reason, keep watering container-grown daffodils until the foliage have faded. A fortnightly potash-rich liquid feed given until the foliage has died down is also beneficial.

 Start hardening off young tomato plants to prepare them for cooler temperatures by taking them out of the heated propagator or off that protected, sunny windowsill that they’ve been sitting on and putting them into a well-ventilated polytunnel/glasshouse during mild, sunny days. It’s still a little too early to plant tomato plants into their final positions unless you live in a milder part of the country, but now is a good time to prepare the ground in advance by adding lots of well-rotted manure, some organic pelleted fertiliser and a generous sprinkle of dried seaweed.

 If you sowed seed of annual flowers or vegetables earlier this spring, then it is important to prick out, pot on the young seedlings or baby plants to keep them healthy and happy in preparation for planting out into their final positions in a few weeks’ time. Use a good quality seed and potting compost to do this and make sure the seedlings are watered well both before and after the process, as this helps them to quickly establish vigorous root systems. If you’ve direct-sowed seed outdoors in the garden, then be vigilant as regards watering during dry spells, protecting emerging seedlings from slugs, birds and weeds as well as late harsh frosts, and then thinning out the seedlings to their correct spacing.

DATES FOR YOUR DIARY

Friday, May 5th (10am-6pm), Saturday 6th May (10am-6pm) and Sunday, 7th May(1pm-6pm): St Nicholas Collegiate Church, Galway, Jewels of the West: A Festival of Flowers, a celebration of Galway Garden Club’s Jubilee Year with floral displays by the Chelsea-medal winning floral designer Richard Haslam, and well-known Galway gardener and writer Lorna McMahon as well as many members of the Association of Irish Floral Arrangers and local flower clubs. Admission €8, with proceeds in aid of Galway Hospice.

Lorna MacMahon will also be hosting an open day at her five-acre garden, Ardcarraig, Oranswell, Bushypark, Galway, on Sunday, May 7th, 2-6pm. The garden will also be open on May 5th and 6th by prior appointment (086-8862594).

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