Sweet Peas for Spring


A flower farm without sweet peas just doesn’t seem quite right. We grow them every year with the first batch in the polytunnel flowering from the end of April through to early June. Planting the sweet pea seed really heralds the start of the new season for me, putting seed in the ground and watching it grow and climb through the coldest months of the year seems like a visual demonstration of faith that Spring will come, and with it the sweetest blooms.

This is how we grow our Spring Sweet Peas at Mill Pond Flower Farm in the Scottish Borders:

  1. Dig a trench approx 8 inches deep in the polytunnel, where they will be able to climb to the highest point

  2. Line the trench with food - I’ve used manure, homemade compost, comfrey leaves and this year it was pond weed. It just needs to be something to slowly break down and feed the plants over a long period. Don’t mix it in, just leave a deep layer.

  3. Water well. Let the water sink in.

  4. Add a layer of soil, a couple of inches.

  5. Add the seed. You can pre-soak if you like but I don’t find it makes any difference.

  6. Cover with 4-5 inches of soil. Don’t skimp on coverage.

  7. Water generously.

  8. Firm the soil well. This is really important as mice love love love sweet pea seed and will dig up and eat it.

  9. Wait for the sprouts - it usually takes a couple of weeks.

  10. Water only if it’s unseasonably warm and the soil is looking very dry

  11. Wait till Spring, cut, sniff, appreciate! Oh, and sell them, don’t be tempted to fill your house with them all, no matter how great that would be.

Review Your Dahlias

The peachy aisle!

The peachy aisle!

I was picking dahlias in the rain today. No choice sadly, it wasn't forecast so I didn't cut ahead and the florist was coming to collect this affternoon. 

Last year, I found that I didn’t have enough white dahlias to supply complete wedding orders for all-white weddings. I needed to be able to reliably cut at least 100 white dahlias at any one time. So this year, I wanted to have more white dahlias of different styles and sizes. I bought some new varieties. I haven't really assessed them yet, as they have all been good so far. I have two varieties of white ball dahlias - one is Snowfllake and I think the other is Boom Boom White. I can’t remember which is which and the plants are so densely planted that its a real effort to find the labels. No matter, I’ve been cutting both happily. 

A good mix of whites

A good mix of whites

Today, I noticed that one variety had brown markings as a result of the rain, but the other was fine. So….suddenly the non-marking one is the better variety. Otherwise they are equally productive, similar size and usability. Given that we’re likely to get rain in September in most years, I need to make sure that I keep the better one, and propagate more of that one, and get rid of the browning one. September is the perfect time to review your dahlias - decide which plants to get rid of, which to propagate from. 

Brown markings on petals - this was the worst one, but all on this variety

Brown markings on petals - this was the worst one, but all on this variety

I use a label code system to mark the plants. I know they have a cultivar label, but its not always easy to find until I come to lift them. So, to be easy, I have some coloured labels - Red for get rid, Green for best ones that I want to propagate from; blue for ok - keep, but not the best examples. This means I can easily go through them and push in a label at the base of each plant. Then when I come to lift them, I know which to keep in a ‘propagate’ box and which to chuck out.

This year too, I’ll be marking some to collect seed from. Paula Baxter has done this and inspired me to try it. For this though, I’ll be tying a piece of ribbon round the heads I'm keeping so I don't snip them off. See her blog before this one to read more.

Why get rid of any? A few reason:

  1. Just poor examples - even plants of the same variety can be very variable. I have selected the best examples over many years, and I've got good sturdy plants that do well in my conditions, and with a flower form and colour that I like. They may not be true to type, but if I like them, then that’s more important to me - I'm growing them to to use, not to show. For example, we all know Wine Eyed Jill can vary from lilac to yellow. I’ve just kept the ones that stayed the best colour for me, in my conditions, and got rid of the ones which I didn't like. The white dahlias which turned brown in the rain will be in this category.

  2. Ones I didn't plant and don't want - either I’ve been sent the wrong variety or some tubers were accidentally left in the ground and have come through winter, or wrongly labelled last year and I’ve carefully lifted, stored and planted the wrong plants.

  3. Disease - I will get rid of any plants which aren't thriving. If they're not thriving now, they are unlikely to improve next year. In particular, I look out for yellow mottled leaves which is likely to be a sign of virus and take these out straight away and burn them.

  4. Lastly, and perhaps most difficult - the varieties that I haven't sold, or aren't productive enough, or too short stemmed or whatever. Even if I like them.

Mottled leaves looking a bit like virus

Mottled leaves looking a bit like virus

Finally, I do a plan for next year. How many do I want to have of each variety, and what gaps or missed opportunities that I want to fill - for particular shapes/size/colour.  Thats where the fun starts!

I’ve sold all of this variety…

I’ve sold all of this variety…

A Different Way to Grow Dahlias


The traditional way to grow dahlias is either from tubers or cuttings. Both methods rely on duplicating or cloning a particular flower, making more of the exact same one. We cover both propagation methods in detail in The Business of Growing Flowers Module 8: Growing Techniques to make you Profitable, and they are certainly essential to developing a stock of fabulous saleable varieties. But there’s also another way of growing dahlias…

Every year I grow dahlias from seed, just for the joy of it. Dahlias don’t grow ‘true’ from seeds, they will create a new variation from the genes of the original plant and the one it is pollinated with. You don’t know what you’ll get when growing from seed, it’s a real lottery. Hybrid dahlia seed is sold by most seed companies and you can also save seed from plants you particularly like.

Now’s the time to collect the seed, before it gets too cold or damp and the seeds rot on the plant. The seedhead masquerades as a bud, it’s a similar shape and size but has more of a pointed shape than a bud. Either find some seedheads or let a flower go to seed (I know, it goes against the grain to let a flower go over without being cut and sold) then collect the seeds once the head ripens and goes brown. Store the seed in a cool dry place until the spring.

In March or April, plant the seed in modules, trays or small pots and put in a warm place. They will germinate speedily and grow fairly quickly so I tend to sow seed into small pots then they don’t need to be moved on.

Once they’re through the seedlings will grow on nicely so long as they are

  • kept moist - dahlias don’t like to dry out

  • frost free - any sign of frost will kill them dead

  • away from slugs - dahlia seedlings send out a siren call to slugs, they are a delicious treat and slugs can smell them from miles away

You will need a sheltered spot to grow the seedlings on until it’s safe to plant out, once your last frost date has passed.

Then, it’s just a waiting game to see what you get. My seed grown plants were the first dahlias to flower this season, easily beating the tubers and cuttings into bloom. I’ve been delighted by the new varieties, great colours, lovely shapes and long, strong stems. Some of the seeds I collected last year have come true to the original plant, a dark red single flower called Mexican Black.

I’ll be keeping all the seed grown plants as tubers and hopefully will propagate more plants from them in the Spring, as well as collecting more seed for surprise tubers next year. It’s the never ending possibilities and new plants for very little money, what could be better!

Ranunculus and Anemones and the art of planting for spring

ranunculus pink picotee.jpg

This week i’m off to York for a Flowers from the farm meeting. I’m lucky because it coincides this year with the Ranunculus and Anemones arriving from Italy for our bulk buy, so I can distribute them in one go.

This means that there will be thousands and thousands of ranunculus and anemones around the country waiting to be planted in the coming weeks so how should they be dealt with?

We cover this in depth in Module one of our Business of Growing flowers course starting next week - along with other forms of Autumn propagation, but here are the basics to get you planning for when yours arrive.

They arrive with you as shrivelled claws

These need to be soaked well for just the right amount of time to get them plump but ensure that the water doesn’t get murky. Running water is often recommended, but as I don’t like to waste water, and I don’t have mains drains at my farm, I just refresh the water several times.

You can then either

Plant into prepared ground

or Chit the ranunculus in Vermiculite or a peat mixture. This creates roots and the stems will start showing, so it’s easy to see how to plant them

chitted ranunculus.jpg

Chitting them is great to give them a head start, but it isn’t absolutely necessary, just planting them straight into well prepared ground is fine, if you’ve bought in good quality claws, the viability of them is high, so you will get good results.

They can be planted quite close, I get 5 across a metre row, which means you can get 25 per metre square.

Here’s a video to show you how the claws change in size when soaked, and how I plant up previously used claws.

The Business of Growing Flowers course : Why should you join us?

In just over a week’s time, on 16th September, our second online course, The Business of Growing Flowers will begin.

Hosted by Claire Brown, Carol Siddorn and Paula Baxter, this online programme is designed by 3 flower farmers who are constantly evolving their businesses to provide a sustainable income and to suit their lives. Flower farming is hard work and over the years we’ve worked together sharing techniques and strategies to help our productivity, efficiency and quality, without sacrificing our quality of life. We’re keen to help other growers to work in a thoughtful way, developing businesses that grow quality flowers, and also sell them at a profit!

Have you ever thought any of the following?

  • I can’t work any more hours

  • I’ll never get all the jobs done

  • I'm working all the time but I’m not making much money

  • I don't seem to have the right flowers for my orders.

  • I don't have a life beyond flowers!

  • How can I sell every flower I grow?

  • I need more plants, how can I get them without major investment?

  • I’m muddling along but really don’t feel I know what I’m doing

  • I love what I do but I’m utterly exhausted

  • I don’t know how to work out how many plants/bulbs/seeds I need

  • I’ve walked up and down this path 20 times today, is this really necessary?

If you’ve thought any of the above, The Business of Growing Flowers is for you! It will provide you with the tools, techniques and support to go into the 2020 season knowing how to get the most from your farm and yourself without working more hours., to make a profitable business, and also have time to have a life.

So what do we cover?

The course consists of 10 modules, each focusing on a different element of running a flower farm.:

Module 1 is all about Autumn preparation - It will help you think about the work that you can do in the Autumn that will save you time when the season is underway, giving you earlier, stronger and better flowers.

Module 2 is about planning for your market. Who will you be selling to next year? and what does that mean for what you’re going to grow. We’ll get you thinking about what and how many flowers to grow.

Module 3 is growing more flowers for less work. Yes it is the dream scenario, but what work can you put in to make your growing and you more productive and less wasteful in time and inputs.

Module 4 is what to grow? To ensure you get an edge on your competitors and thrill your customers you need to be on the cutting edge of trends, and know the minds of those who haven’t yet come to you. We’ll help you out.

Module 5 is about managing customers and suppliers. How do you make sure that everyone is happy, and stress levels stay low. How do you deal with feedback (both good and bad).

Module 6 is about making yourself more productive, how can you take care of yourself and yet get more out of what you do?

Module 7 is about record keeping. How do you know what you’ve done, and how that will effect what you do in the future. How and where do you keep records.

Module 8 is growing techniques to make you profitable. Even if you grow all the “right” stuff, is it going to make you money.

Module 9 is cutting, conditioning and presentation. Just ahead of the start of the spring season, we’ll cover this so important topic to ensure you are confident about how you are going to cut and present your flowers at top quality to your customers. .

Module 10 is about planning for the future. What are you aiming for in the next 2/5/10 years. Do you still want to be flower farming? We’ll talk about contingencies, succession planning and work / life balance

We are all based in the UK, but grow in very different conditions - Claire is in the South, on chalk soil, Carol is in the West growing on sandy soil, and Paula is in Scotland on the east coast working with heavy clay. We do some things differently and the options we consider, plus the thought processes we use to make decisions are built in to the course. We don’t consider there’s a right or wrong way to grow flowers, but we can explain how we do it and why.

We all spend a lot of time and energy growing our flowers. To be successful, we also need to nurture our businesses and ourselves. If you want flower farming to be more than a hobby, invest some time, effort and a bit of hard earned cash in learning this autumn/winter, and set off into 2020 more confident, focused and organised!


Is Free ever a good price for your flowers?


Spring buckets of flowers.jpg

It's a word that's used a lot. Gifts that are given away as marketing promotions.

But do they work?

Over the last 7 years I've given away a lot of flowers. Some have gone to promote #britishflowers as a brand, some have been leftovers that I've given to customers as extras, some have been for local charities or groups. They've meant my flowers have been in front of a lot more people than they would have been.

But have they got me more business?
Well what I've found is that if you know exactly how much value's worth of flowers you are giving away, and if the recipient knows how much value's worth they are receiving, then a "freebie" really works. But if they are just "free flowers" then a) no-one knows where they are coming from, and b) if they wanted more, would that be a good sample of what they would get?

Think about it, have you ever been walking through a train station, or a shopping centre, and been given a free sample to eat? Remember what it was?

The chances are, you've no idea what it was, and even if you liked it, and didn't throw away the wrapper, you couldn't find that size sample in a supermarket.

Here’s a flowery example.

For the last 4 years, i’ve provided table flowers for my local “Horsley in Bloom” event. 10 tables of mini posies. It’s an evening in July that celebrates the winners of this local competition, all obviously keen gardeners. It takes part in my village hall which is about 200 metres away from my front door. I was congratulating one of the winners a couple of weeks after the event, and they admitted they didn’t realise the flowers were mine…..

However for exactly the same amount of flowers, For my local school fete, I offered a Silent Auction prize of 3 Subscription buckets of flowers to be delivered in July, August and September. The Value was £90, and the school got a bid of more than half that to put to their funds. The “winner” knew that they’d paid less than full value, they loved the flowers, and realised I had provided flowers and pruned shrubs in their garden for the previous house occupants. They are now on my customer list, waiting for this year’s flowers to start and have told me they are looking forward to a “significant” Birthday as an excuse to get the subscription again.

So before you give away "Free" flowers this year, make sure you know their value, and so does the receipient.