29 April 2022

Scaling Flower Farming

One of the biggest challenges for us over the coming years is how we ramp up our flower growing capacity. We’re lucky enough to have gotten off to a good start. This year (our second) we’ll cut more than twice as many flowers as we did last year. But to reach our goals we’re going to need to move things up a gear.

We started with 5 acres, this year we have 25. Next year we’ll have around 85.

In our first field we grew (grow) in raised beds, laid out a lot like you would do them at home. We use cardboard laid flat on the ground to suppress weeds and grass, then load green waste on top. Given a little while to intermingle this makes an excellent growing medium. This is a “no-dig” way of bed building that is common in gardens and allotments across the land. We ended up building about 2km of these beds in a 2 acre field and they produce the lion’s share of the field flowers we sell today.

Our second growing field is a lot bigger, so we’ve gone for a slightly different strategy. Tomorrow we’ll lay another growing square on it. It’s 30 metres square and much like the beds in our smaller field it’ll be composed of cardboard covered in green waste. The scale is very different though. To cover an area of ground the size of a one bedroom flat takes about a cubic metre of cardboard and 60 tonnes of green waste. These squares sit amongst long grass which has brought its own challenges, not least slugs! We’ve moved our Indian Runner ducks up there to keep them at bay and our having our sheep graze the edges down but we suspect these are just the first in a series of new challenges this scale will present.

In many ways this larger field still has a lot in common with garden-growing in the way that we do it, there’s just a lot of it. The next 60 acres we take on will take something bigger. To start with, around 25 acres will be left to be wild habitat. The rest of it is going to need the help of a tractor and a seed drill but we don’t want to lose the benefits of that domestic-scale growing. Most commercially farmed fields are monocultures – wheat, maize, whatever, in uniform rows. The issues with this are well documented but range from issues with disease and pests to a near-obliteration of life in the soil. The forest garden principle is one where a multitude of different plants are intermingled and grown together. This symbiosis leads to healthier soil, a more vibrant microbial community and also has advantages for weed exclusion. By pairing taller plants with ones that cover the ground lower down you provide a “nursery” for those taller plants in their infancy, without the risk of weeds crowding them out. Then when they are more developed they are able to grow up through that lower canopy.

The challenge for us now is designing the seed mix to match both our local conditions and those complementary behaviours. The wrong balance will lead to plants being excluded, crowded out, or stunted. The right balance would mean growing utopia. We obviously won’t nail it to begin with, but our plan is to try a few different combinations and refine them as we grow. Let’s be honest – we’re going to have some excellent failures in the short term. When this happens we’ll have the animals graze it down and start again. We’re in this for the long haul and the promise of what might be possible is just too good to resist. We know that it’s possible to grow good flowers without pesticides, herbicides and artificial fertilisers.

We’ve done it by hand, and we understand the theory of how it can translate to a full-field scale. What could go wrong?

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