We speak with Bella Butler owner of West End Flower Farm, Hampshire.
1. Tell us about West End Flower Farm and how you have had to adapt your business over the past few months.
The farm is based in Upper Froyle, Alton in Hampshire (just 45 miles from New Covent Garden Market). Our family have been farming since 1920, recently converting to flower farming in 2016. We have learnt a lot in these last four years.
Last year, we went from a flower farm with a six-room bed and breakfast to opening the flower farm five days a week to the public with a farm shop and kitchen. We source locally and grow our own vegetables to get fresh and low food mile dishes in the kitchen, as well as selling 100% local and British produce in the farm shop.
Customers of the farm shop and the kitchen are warmly invited to take a walk around the farm, pausing by the rose field, sitting by the lake and wandering amongst the flowers beds of the main field. This has allowed us to reach a whole new customer base – walkers and passers-by who see a coffee sign and come in to discover a hidden gem on the side of the A31.
Since the Coronavirus pandemic hit we have had to adapt a lot of our farm. We removed a percentage of flowers beds, which would have been used purely for wedding work; we put down green manure to feed the ground instead. If there was to be no income from the flowers, we made the decision to downsize the workload and help the ground at the same time.
We have however continued to plant the ‘Pick Your Own Patch,’ which is new for 2020. It will be open to the public soon – there will be restrictions but this won’t stop the enjoyment of picking your own flowers for the kitchen table.
2. Which flower varieties do you grow and what are your customers favourite?
We grow a number of varieties but our main crop features are English Scented roses, dahlias and snapdragons. We also grow a lot for event florists including ammi majus, orlaya, cornflowers, grasses, sweet pea trails, cerinthe, scabious and much more.
Our customer’s favourites are swathes of ammi to create the perfect meadow look and our roses – their scent is to die for! The rose field never fails to make me smile even when covered in mulch in winter. The prospect of buds is always exciting.
3. What is your personal favourite and why?
I’m afraid I’m disloyal – I love the newest flower in the field. This week it’s the Darcey Bussel Rose. They are a gorgeous colour between dark red and pink, but not carmine and impossible to photograph. Last week it was strawflowers – our new crop has just begun and they’re fascinating. Will, my husband and business partner, is quite different he is a true loyalist – sweet peas all the way.
4. Who do you sell your flowers to and have you seen an increase in demand for British flowers?
We sell flowers to florists either by contacting us on email or collecting from the farm. We plan to expand our growing area a lot by next spring and will be selling to market; cornflowers, calendula, cerinthe, ammi majus, salvia, scabious, snapdragons, dahlias and roses.
We also sell direct on the farm from our in-house florist, Hannah from Hannah Berry Flowers, who is with us for the summer. You can order online at www.westendflowerfarm.co.uk for local delivery or collection or you can visit us in the flower shop. Farm posies are just £15 and bouquets range from £40 – 60.
When the UK went into lockdown, around Mother’s Day, we gave away all our spring crop. We felt it was important to raise smiles at the time so we gave out bunches of ranunculus, anemones, tulips and narcissi at the front gate, on the footpath and in the village. This did result in a lost crop of income however we have been really surprised by the villagers who now come to buy a weekly bunch of flowers and weren’t aware of the pretty things we grew often which many find more beautiful than the supermarket alternatives. We no longer feel it’s a loss but are pleased it has been an excellent education tool for our local village.
5. Why would you recommend British flowers over imported?
During the flower season I wholeheartedly recommend British flowers. We have to support farmers in the UK to see the next generation of growers survive. British flowers are more unique. I have worked with imported flowers and they’re often symmetrical and have little character. Whereas British have stacks of character, from the wonky stems to the imperfect frilly petal in an otherwise smooth flower.
The fact that British flowers do not have to travel so far must also be considered. At our flower shop, customers ask if the flowers will last until the next day – of course they will, they were only picked 9 hours ago. We have all been led to believe that international flowers have much more staying power but that is incorrect and flower farmers are shouting it from the rooftops.
6. What about British flowers in the autumn and winter – what can people do?
In autumn we still have tonnes of flowers from dahlias to chrysanthemums. Chrysanthemums are not just garage flowers, they have exceptional colour, shade and tone perfect for autumnal events. I personally love to see florists using them in their scheme all autumn long.
In winter British flowers for us take a back seat. We celebrate our foliage during this time however British growers in Lincolnshire are still producing some excellent stems.
7. What do you see as the future of British flowers?
There are so many small growers out there, like myself, who worry that customers may return to the supermarkets for imported flowers, or to the online Dutch agents. British Flowers Week raises awareness annually but we need to do more to remind the country to look in your town for your local growers. You can find your local grower using the map on the Flowers from the Farm website here.
However, I like to think the interest in flowers is now like food and that customers will seek out British or locally grown where possible.