East Yorkshire flower grower Gill Hodgson campaigns for British blooms

One woman's love of home-grown flowers has blossomed into something special as Lucy Oates discovers

A green-fingered East Yorkshire farmer’s wife with a passion for traditional, British flowers, has become an industry champion after setting up a national support network for growers around the country.

Gill Hodgson has always enjoyed growing clary, sage, Bells of Ireland, larkspur, zinnias, sweet peas, godetias, Nigella and countless other cottage garden favourites in the grounds of her family’s farmhouse just outside the village of Everingham, near Pocklington.

Her transition from keen gardener to businesswoman came about quite by chance. ‘Four years ago, a friend asked me to grow some flowers for her wedding,’ she said. ‘I ended up with far more than she needed, so I put out a table at the end of the drive and was surprised how many bunches I sold to passers-by.’

Word quickly spread and, before she knew it, Gill was being approached by local florists struggling to find British flowers and brides-to-be keen to recreate the traditional cottage garden look for their wedding day. These days, Gill also sells her flowers at farmers’ markets at York Livestock Centre and Driffield.

‘I’ve not had to try too hard to market them; the business has grown organically through word of mouth,’ said Gill. ‘I think my timing was good; supermarkets had got people into the habit of buying flowers regularly but now people are starting to appreciate something different and which is more season-appropriate.’

Last year, Gill, whose family have been arable farmers at Everingham for four generations, was surprised to learn that there wasn’t a national body to support British flower growers and so established one herself called Flowers From the Farm.

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It’s now a network of more than 100 farmers, growers and small-holders scattered across the country, a number of which are based in Yorkshire. Growers pay an annual membership fee which is used to run the official website and to raise awareness of British flowers. The network also helps members find outlets to sell their flowers.

Rachel Wilkes of Bishopthorpe, York, who grows dahlias, Cosmos, scabious and other traditional British flowers, said she joined Flowers From the Farm because as a one woman business she wanted industry support.

‘Being in the network gives me a great advantage. I’m just one small grower, but Gill has the set up to put my information on the internet so that I don’t have to meet the cost of creating my own website. It’s a bit scary starting out, so it’s nice to have someone you can approach for advice. I tend to grow the kind of flowers that your grandparents might have had in their garden. This year I’m starting to supply florists with things like hybrid tea roses and lavender.’

Since the network was launched, Covent Garden Market in London has approached Gill with view to supplying more British-grown flowers. She has also forged links with the British Florists’ Association and speaks at high profile regional events, such as Harrogate Flower Show. ‘I think that the network has given us more kudos. Previously there was no organisation to champion or promote British flowers,’ she added.

A highlight of Gill’s sudden rise to prominence was when she was asked to produce a buttonhole for the Prince of Wales and a corsage for the Duchess of Cornwall when they attended the Great Yorkshire Show last year. ‘It was terrifying, but quite a coup for British flowers. I used Nigella, lavender, astrantia and wheat, and it did look rather beautiful.’

Flowers From the Farm was recently awarded �10,000 from the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE) Leader funding, a European Community grant scheme, to help 15 new East Yorkshire-based growers get started this year.

‘The new growers will attend a series of practical workshops covering everything from marketing their flowers to the horticulture and floristry side of things. It’s a pilot project and we hope it will become a blueprint for how to set up as a flower grower that can be rolled out across the country. It will help us understand what sort of support new growers need to get started.’

Gill grows her flowers from both hardy annual and perennial plants on less than an acre of land, but insists that growers can set up in their back garden or on an allotment-sized plot.

‘The set up costs are low so long as you don’t mind growing from seed and bulbs. Around 25 years ago, 50 per cent of the flowers on sale in Britain were grown here, but that figure has fallen to just 10 per cent today. I think there’s room in the market for a bigger profile for British flowers and plenty of room for more growers.’

The print version of this article appeared in the March 2012  issue of Yorkshire Life 

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