Grabbing a dozen roses at the supermarket to brighten your home this weekend might seem innocent, but most bunches are the tip of an eco-embarrassment iceberg. Although the UK has the perfect climate for cultivation, we now import a shocking 95% of our cut flowers and spend £1.7 billion on them each year. The majority arrive from Kenya, Ecuador, Columbia and Holland, with most of them heading for our supermarkets (which represent 77% of the UK cut flower market).
This was not always the case – once upon a time cut flower farming was big business in our country. Back in Victorian times regions such as Cornwall were famed for their flower farms – fields of narcissi formed a yellow patchwork across the county in spring, and consumers could enjoy the best of in-season British flowers, such as violets in March, lilac in May and roses in June; each bunch an explosion of perfume.
Today we are sold scentless roses all year round. Most of these come from Kenya, where the water used to irrigate the rose farms exacerbates the drought problem, causing water shortages for locals and wildlife such as hippos. Our roses also come from Colombia and Ecuador, where a recent study found 66% of flower workers had work-related health issues, such as respiratory problems, as a result of exposure to strong pesticides and fungicides.
But who wants roses all year round anyway? They belong to the colour and song of June – in autumn it’s more natural to have a generous bunch of burgundy and orange dahlias, and in the depths of December why not decorate your home with the red jewels of holly and the scented foliage of pine.
A bunch of out-of-season flowers has a shocking carbon footprint – lilies bought in January, for instance, have probably come from the vast greenhouses of Holland, maintained by both power and chemicals, and that bunch of Christmas carnations you might be tempted to give your mum will have been raised on the hot fields of Africa, where chemicals such as DDT are still used; (and then there is the carbon cost of getting them here.)
Weirdly, even the Flowers & Plants Association states: “the UK is a small and crowded island and there is not enough land to grow crops to meet the demand.” This is absolute rubbish.
Proving them wrong is a colourful bunch of UK flower farms, some long established and enjoying a resurge in consumer demand, and some newly formed. Happily, many are organic growers. You can buy their wares from local florists and markets or via mail order (of course to be as eco-friendly as possible choose a flower farm close to you); a few even let you pick your own flowers. Here are 12 of the best:
*Cut Flower Gardener, North Yorkshire, English country garden flowers, 07949 364950, cutflowergardener.co.uk
*Apple Tree Flowers, Cheshire, traditional blooms such as cornflowers, 01829 782438, appletreeflowers.co.uk
*Lavender Blue, East Yorkshire, clove-scented pinks, 01430 421805, lavenderandpinks.co.uk
*Real Cut Flower Garden, Herefordshire, gorgeous seasonal flowers by mail order, 01497 831177, cutflowergarden.co.uk
*Catkin, Lincolnshire, an eco-friendly cutting garden, 01400 272344, catkinflowers.co.uk
*David Austin Roses, West Midlands, fragrant roses with old world charm, 01902 376301, davidaustinroses.com
*Country Roses, Essex, gorgeous scented roses, 01206 273565, countryroses.co.uk
*Home Grown Flower Company, East Sussex, range of seasonal British blooms, 01825 830194, thehomegrownflowercompany.co.uk
*Blooming Green, Kent, a wide range of flowers, mail order or pick-your-own, 01622 745 917, bloominggreenflowers.co.uk
*Common Farm Flowers, Somerset, beautiful bouquets of seasonal flowers by mail order, 08458 946770, commonfarmflowers.com
*Flowers of Hatch, Wiltshire, this is a pick-your-own flower farm, 01747 852498, flowersofhatch.co.uk
*Green and Gorgeous, Oxfordshire, mail order flowers and a cutting garden where they offer courses, 07977 445041, greenandgorgeousflowers.co.uk
FIND YOUR LOCAL GROWER
Flowers From The Farm is a new nationwide network supporting the cultivation and sale of locally grown flowers – their aim is to “put British flowers back into every vase in the country”. Visit their website (flowersfromthefarm.co.uk) to find your nearest supplier.
The supermarkets compared
The Ecologist asked all the major supermarkets to reveal the percentage of imported cut flowers they sell. Only three obliged: Waitrose, who import 60% of their cut flowers, The Co-operative, who import 85%, and Sainsbury’s, who import 80%. Additionally, Waitrose only buys UK-grown orchids.
5 reasons to buy British (or grow your own):
*In season – enjoy English flowers in the month they’re meant to be enjoyed – peonies in May, sweet williams in June and delphiniums in July.
*Vase-life – just like locally-grown fruit and veg, locally-grown cut flowers stay fresh for longer.
*Low carbon count – organic homegrown flowers don’t strain the environment via fertilisers, pesticides, fungicides, greenhouse power and travel.
*Scent – so many imported supermarket blooms are depressingly odourless. Bury your nose in a bunch of English roses and feel happy.
*Free – if you grow your own, you only have to pay for a packet of seeds.
Growing cut flowers at home
Cultivating your own small crop of flowers for the vase is easy, enjoyable and rewarding. Traditionally British cut flowers (such as sweet peas, pot marigolds and dahlias) are grown in the veg plot, but they don’t have to be. If you have the room, why not create your own cutting border.
Annuals are the best vase flowers if you have a limited amount of space. Because they only have one year to set seed, they will keep producing flowers if you cut them. This is called a ‘cut-and-come-again’ habit. For example if you don’t consistently cut your sweet peas and your pot marigolds, they won’t flower for very long. There isn’t much that’s more satisfying to snip a bunch of flowers from your own garden of a summer’s eve, so this is no bind.
10 STEPS TO A HOME-GROWN VASE OF FLOWERS
1 Your mini cutting garden should be in full sun.
2 Dig some organic matter (such as compost) into the soil and rake it to a fine tilth.
3 Divide the area into sections with lines of sand (you can do this by cutting the end off a plastic water bottle and filling it with sand; then run the mouth over the soil to leave lines).
4 Next plant or sow into each section. Of course put larger flowers such as sunflowers at the back of the border.
5 When seedlings emerge thin them out so they have room to grow.
6 If the flowers are things that are likely to flop (such as dahlias or cornflowers) erect a support for them to grow through. You can buy ready-made supports (plant-supports.co.uk) or fashion your own from hazel branches tied together with twine. You want a crisscross square atop four long legs, which plunge into the ground around the newly emerging spring growth. You could use bamboo but it doesn’t look very pretty, unless you paint it green.
7 Water when required to keep the soil moist.
8 When the plants are blooming, cut the flowers with sharp secateurs or scissors, early in the morning or at dusk.
9 Collect them in a bucket of water rather than a basket.
10 Cut the stem again (at an angle) before immersing it in the vase water and add a mix of lemon juice and sugar as a substitute for flower food (one teaspoon per litre of water).
10 CUTTING FLOWERS TO GROW TOGETHER
The following is a mix of orange, pink, green and burgundy flowers – plant them together to create a mini cutting border.
1 Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus ‘Black Ball’) – burgundy beauties. Sow direct into the ground in sun before the end of May. Don’t add fertilizer. H75cm.
2 Zinnia (Zinnia elegans) – cheery annuals that flower in candy shades of orange and pink; sow direct into the ground in sun May-June. Don’t over-water. H60cm.
3 Cosmos (Cosmos sulphureus) – flame orange annuals that light up the border all summer long. Sow direct into the ground in sun before the end of May. H70cm.
4 Tobacco plant (Nicotiana alata ‘Lime Green’) – gorgeous green stars. Sow direct into the ground in sun or part-shade by end of May. Keep well-watered. H50cm.
5 Verbena bonariensis – a perennial that can be direct down into the ground in sun in May. Sprays of airy lilac flowers that attract butterflies. H120cm.
6 Rosa ‘L.D. Braithwaite’ – a deep crimson shrub rose that repeat-flowers during the summer. Plant in full sun during autumn, winter or spring. H1m.
7 Sunflower (Helianthus annuus ‘Claret’) – deep port red flowers on tall stems in late summer. Sow direct into the ground in sun before the end of May. H1.8m.
8 Dahlia (‘Bishop of Auckland’) – single velvet red flowers with dark crimson leaves. Plant the tubers in sun May-June. Mulch in autumn. H90cm.
9 Geum (‘Princes Juliana’) – small sunny tangerine flowers all summer long. Plant in May in sun or part-shade, in well-drained soil. H60cm.
10 Bronze fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) – plumes of feathery copper foliage that looks metallic in the light. Sow or plant in sun during May. H1.8m.
Sarah Raven, 0845 092 0283, sarahraven.com
Thompson & Morgan, 0844 2485383, thompson-morgan.com
Hazel Sillver is a freelance journalist and a contributor to the Ecologist Green Living section; email: email@example.com