We’ve just been celebrating the first anniversary of our cut flower farm Black Shed and what an extraordinary roller coaster ride it's been! It’s been incredibly hard work bringing our acre into full production but with the fantastic support of our partners, Peter and Amanda Hunt and our two wonderful Workaway volunteers, Alice from Adelaide and now Ilenia from Venice, we’re getting there. To be honest, we’re a bit surprised by how far we’ve come in these last twelve months.
It started with an acre of raking. That got us fit. We are blessed with fantastic virtually stone-free soil here at Blackmarsh Farm, so this was considerably easier than it could have been, nevertheless it still took a months hard labour under a blazing sun!
Then we had to call upon the geometry skills that, as a pop up book designer and paper engineer, I have kept fresh since my school days when Maths was definitely my favourite subject. The gardens are laid out on a strict 8 metre grid. It really helps us to calculate how many plants any given bed will need and subsequently how many flowers that will then generate. This gives us great blocks and strips of particular species. Which also, slightly accidentally, looks fantastic. I was told not to try and design the plot like a garden but I simply cannot help placing my favourite species together for effect. The pure joy of walking between beds of head high Delphiniums and Foxgloves justifies this! First thing in the morning or catching the last rays of the setting sun, alive with the thrum of insects and the singing of the birds, I simply can’t stop drinking it all in. Even after an exhausting day, it’s difficult to leave, there's always something else bursting into bloom, jostling for our attention.
It’s been a steep but very enjoyable learning curve. We took our seed sowing skills to the next level in order to grow the thousands of plants we need. Only a few thousand last year but tens of thousands this year, it’s a major logistical exercise. We’re still sowing, a few quick annuals to take us up to the first frosts, then biennials and perennials for next year. Tulips, Ranunculus and Anemones have been ordered in bulk, one of the many benefits of being members of Flowers from the Farm, whose generous members are always happy to share their knowledge on everything from aphids to marketing. Their closed Facebook group contains a wealth of information and support. Very necessary when your Ranunculus are wilting or you’re despairing at the never ending winter and yet another unexpected frost!
Our floristry skills got honed on the job, we must have made hundreds of bouquets to order last season. It really is a joy to use the flowers that we grow, we already know them well and it’s such fun to extend this knowledge into floristry. We had to get up to speed with all things wedding, from barely knowing our pew ends from our corsages to the point where weddings are a large part of our business.
Any idea that flower farming is all about wafting around a glorious garden, stylishly dressed in retro workers clothing under a crisp panama hat with a trug full of glorious perfect blooms ala Monty Don is very far from the truth. Mud splattered waterproof trousers, shoes so caked with dirt that they weigh a couple of kilos, layer upon layer of thermal clothing beneath the ubiquitous and very necessary stormproof coats and hats. Hands chapped and cracked with cold, aching knees and backs, you get the picture. From November to late April that was our lot. Now the better weather has arrived it’s easy to forget all that but nonetheless we are constantly grubby. The washing machine is permanently running, our car and even the road outside our house has taken on the exact colour of our soil. I try not to leave muddy footprints around Waitrose, I don’t always succeed.
Has it been worth it? Oh yes. It’s been incredible to see the garden grow and thrilling to share it’s glories and bountiful produce with all our visitors, customers and clients. Our 9 year old daughter, Tabitha, now knows how to create a beautiful bouquet and most of the aspects of running a flower farm. Mum and Dad are not quite ready to put aside their old day jobs though. Helen is still the smiling face of Winstone’s bookshop and in the midst of all this activity, with my children’s books hat on, I’ve visited around 40 schools in the UK, spent three weeks working in the botanist’s paradise Singapore as visiting Author and Artist at the American International School. More locally, I've just finished an Arts Council funded project with the children of St. Michael's Academy in Yeovil. I doubt I’ll ever stop that work, I love working with children but for now a long season of growing fabulous flowers beckons. What a wonderful prospect!
©Paul Stickland This article was first published in The Sherborne Times June 2018