A visit to Ravenshill Flower Farm in full bloom

The garden has lovely views over open countryside towards the Malvern Hills.

The garden has lovely views over open countryside towards the Malvern Hills - Credit: © Mandy Bradshaw

A private Gloucestershire garden has become the base for a sustainable flower business. Words and pictures by Mandy Bradshaw

On reflection, the long, rough track leading to Ravenshill Flower Farm was an apt introduction to one of the area’s newest cut flower growers. Far from a hi-tech enterprise, it’s a business that embodies the eco aims of the British Flowers movement – local, sustainable and, above all, seasonal. 

There are no huge glasshouses or even a polytunnel to extend the season, and it has the feel of a garden rather than a money-making venture. 

Agastache 'Blue Fortune'.Note Agastache needs to be in italics

Agastache 'Blue Fortune' - Credit: © Mandy Bradshaw

Calendula 'Snow Princess' is a favourite annual.Note Calendula needs to be in italics

Calendula 'Snow Princess' is a favourite annual - Credit: © Mandy Bradshaw

In a way that’s not surprising because Michael Hardy is growing in the garden of his childhood home near Newent. However, he has deliberately kept the private garden feel with stunning views over countryside towards the Malvern Hills unspoilt by the usual paraphernalia of commercial crops. 

‘A big part of how I grow here is wanting to respect the site and the feeling of the site,’ he explains. ‘I want it to feel natural and rural, and I don't want it to feel like a productive space.’ 

It’s an ethos that feeds into his flower style, which he describes as ‘garden-inspired’. He prefers simple, small flowers and dislikes things that are grown because they are fashionable. 

‘As soon as something becomes a phenomenon, or it becomes on trend, I’m not interested in growing it any more. I'd rather grow something else.’ 

Helichrysum bracteatum 'Scarlet' is loved by the bees.Note Helichrysum bracteatum needs to be in i

Helichrysum bracteatum 'Scarlet' is loved by the bees - Credit: © Mandy Bradshaw

The delicate flowers of Eurybia divaricata.Note Eurybia divaricata needs to be in italics.

The delicate flowers of Eurybia divaricata - Credit: © Mandy Bradshaw

Most Read

Michael had never planned to grow flowers for a living. Indeed, he was studying for a PhD in classics when the realisation that he was on the wrong road took hold. 

Someone suggested the National Trust’s trainee gardener scheme and he started at a property in Cumbria before spells with the NT in Scotland and then work in the private sector. 

While he was at Dodington Park in south Gloucestershire, he took on the cut flower garden. 

‘I'd never really thought about cut flowers or felt that it was something I'd be particularly interested in,’ he recalls. ‘As soon as I started working on it, it just felt really good, and I had some good results and feedback. It just felt instinctively like something I knew how to do.’ 

The cut flowers are grown in raised beds.

The cut flowers are grown in raised beds - Credit: © Mandy Bradshaw

Larkspur 'Limelight'

Larkspur 'Limelight' - Credit: © Mandy Bradshaw

He launched his new business in spring 2020 – just as the pandemic started. Part-time work as a gardener and a flower subscription scheme saw him through the first year, although he has given up both now. ‘I found the subscription service wasn’t an efficient use of my time.’ 

Early on, he decided against doing weddings or events, not wanting the stress or restrictions of growing for them. 

Instead, he supplies florists, farm shops and garden centres, including Over Farm near Gloucester, with both freshly cut and dried flowers, and grows what he likes: ‘I grow what appeals to me and that seems to sell.’ 

He has already held a flower festival with sessions on floral arrangements, table styling and hand-tied bouquets with how to grow days planned. 

There are two main cut flower areas, with the second gradually being planted with shrubs as he earns the money to buy them, among them spiraea, twisted willow and ceratostigma, favoured for the bronze tinge to its foliage in autumn. 

Both areas are rabbit-proofed – the only real wildlife problem he faces despite the rural nature of the site. 

With a relatively small space under cultivation, every seed and every inch has to count so there’s little direct sowing and, apart from biennials such as Sweet Williams and hesperis, sowing is done in the spring rather than autumn, trading slightly earlier flowers for not having to get young plants through winter. 

Alongside familiar annuals, including calendula, nigella, and cerinthe, there are many perennials, something Michael, like a lot of cut flower growers, is increasingly growing because they are more sustainable. Among them are scabious and aquilegia. 

Iris sibirica is good for early in the year and he’s starting to grow more tulips to plug the gap before summer flowers begin. Other bulbs include triteleia, or triplet lilies – ‘It’s just one of the best cut flower bulbs. I don’t know why more people don’t grow it.’ 

Helenium autumnale gives vivid colour.Note Helenium autumnale need to be in italics

Helenium autumnale gives vivid colour - Credit: © Mandy Bradshaw

Antirrhinum majus 'Chantilly Bronze'Note Antirrhinum majus needs to be in italics

Antirrhinum majus 'Chantilly Bronze' - Credit: © Mandy Bradshaw

Michael likes the soft shape of Echinacea pallida.Note Echinacea pallida need to be in italics

Michael likes the soft shape of Echinacea pallida - Credit: © Mandy Bradshaw

Echinacea pallida is favoured for its drooping shape – ‘I think the more standard echinacea look a bit rigid.’ – but, surprisingly, he doesn’t grow sweet peas believing they are too labour intensive. Nor does he favour dahlias, regarding them as looking overly cultivated, and those he does grow have all been gifts. 

Herbs such as mint and feverfew, and self-sown borage are also used in his hand-tied bouquets and posies. 

The commercial nature of the operation means he has to be quite ruthless. Helichrysum cassianum is not going to be repeated because the stems are too short, while Zinnia ‘Zinderella Purple’ has turned out shocking pink and won’t be grown again. Conversely, atriplex is ‘a keeper’ having proved to be a good starting point for a bouquet. 

Zinnia 'Queen Red Lime'note, Zinnia needs to be in italics.

Zinnia 'Queen Red Lime' - Credit: © Mandy Bradshaw

Astrantia major 'Shaggy'Note Astrantia major needs to be in italics

Astrantia major 'Shaggy' - Credit: © Mandy Bradshaw

Without the demands of wedding or event orders, he can grow the colours that he likes rather than to a specific theme.  

‘I'm not growing as a florist,’ he says. ‘I do put bunches together but I'm basically a grower. I focus on getting things to grow and not thinking too much about colour.’ 

What he does try to avoid is the ‘seed catalogue’ appearance of his stock. 

‘Sometimes I see picture after picture of work put together by cut flower growers and I’m thinking ‘This just looks like a collection of seed packets.’ You can see through to the process of how it’s come to be.’ 

What stops his bouquets being like that is ‘the immense privilege’ of having a mature garden to pick from, something that gives his arrangements greater depth. 

‘I like there to be that level of individuality in what I put together and it’s not just the cut flower growers’ manual of annuals.” 

He also likes to seek out things that are a bit different and not fashionable: ‘Things you grow because you love them.’ 

In particular, he is keen to give the feel of the English countryside. 

‘What I hope is distinctive about my florals, is that they really are rooted and connected to their surroundings, and I suppose a kind of Englishness, and just the richness in this place.’ 

Apricot-gold blooms on Rosa 'King's Macc'.Note Rosa needs to be in italics

Apricot-gold blooms on Rosa 'King's Macc' - Credit: © Mandy Bradshaw

For more information about Ravenshill Flower Farm, please see the Instagram account @ravenshillflowerfarm 

It will be open for pre-booked visits on Sunday, August 7 as part of Flowers From the Farm’s Big Weekend. For details, and information about other events, see the website flowersfromthefarm.co.uk

Twitter: @ChattyGardener 
Facebook: The Chatty Gardener
Instagram: @thechattygardener