Thursday, 27 February 2014

Clear up and clear out

As my study was slowly filling up with what can only be politely termed as crap, yesterday was the day to push back the rising tide of clutter and clobber which threatens to overwhelm us. My paper recycling is now overflowing and at last I have space on my shelves.  I've finally embraced the digital age and decided that my back catalogue of gardening cuttings and old magazines can be pulped to generate new newsprint.

Time to clear out old gardening articles in the digital age.So why throw away my carefully hoarded and meticulously filed ring binders of  gardening wisdom and inspiration? The dust on the folders alone states the most obvious cause for this drastic action. And how has this dust come to accumulate? As my knowledge of gardening has increased, my need to refer has dwindled and when I do need to check something, these days I have quite a wel-thumbed library of reference books on horticultural topics.

Reference book collection has grown over the years.Also, since I started these files about 20 years ago, a awful lot has changed and things once deemed the apotheosis of garden fashion now have the stylistic resonance of 'the mullet'. It brought a smile to my face looking at the clippings and articles as I consigned them to the recycling bin: seeing a youthful Toby Buckland with gelled blond hair beaming over a 'water feature' made from a terracotta urn with blue glass beads spilling out of it to represent gentle rivulets; chuckling at those 90s paint effects which daubed every bit of exposed woodwork an interesting shade of Cuprinol; and reflecting on my own experimentation in that era with my bright blue fence and wine bottle lawn edging - a contemporary marvel until it was time to actually get the mower anywhere near it...

But not only have hairstyles, gardening themes and plant fashions changed over time, also the way we keep notes and records of our gardening life has been massively influenced by the availability of technology.  Digital cameras mean we can record the changes in our gardens weekly without the expense of having to post strange torpedoes of unexposed film to Truprint, only for them to be revealed a week later as a collection of murky hued shots, blurred due to being tripped up by a cat or to our subjects being blown by a gust the wind as we depressed the shutter.

My narrative garden diaries have been replaced by this blog (and its much easier to find things by searching the labels, rather than having to guess the time of year when I might have thought enough about something to actually write it down).

Wishlists still exist (how could they not with so many gorgeous plants out there) - but I was very surprised to find that I now possess most of the flowers I once dreamed of as I surveyed my pocket handkerchief London garden in the 1990s.  And now my wishlists are electronic too - Pinterest is the place where I put them as it provides the same visual bookmarking system as my folder, without consuming the same quantity of shelf space or poly-pockets, and enabling me to navigate straight to the place I can actually buy the plants from. Dangerous...

Outside the virtual world, my next big task in the garden is to perform a similar sort of purge on my plantings.  I'm going to be casting a critical eye over the specimens which are really now past their best. Woody, leggy lavenders will get snipped for cuttings and chucked out.  Perennials will be divided to reinvest them with vigour and whole patches will be cleared, fed and replanted with annuals later in the season.  Old tulip bulbs can have their last small headed fling and then they will be quietly removed and spirited away to the compost bin. The only question that remains is whether the early fart of colour provided by the 1970s purple and yellow primulas will be enough to keep them in the flower border. I hate them, but love them because they remind me of being a kid (and I obviously like to pretend I only have tasteful plants in my garden, because the only photo I have of them is the one below where they are hiding beneath a gorgeous anemone!).

Purple and yellow primulas with more restrained spring flowers in a bunch.

Friday, 21 February 2014

West Midlands Meet Up - Flowers from the Farm

We came, we saw, we ate lots of cake. And along the way we discovered that most of us were career changers with a major crush on flowers.  Some had started from the flowery end and got into growing, others from the growing end and had got into arranging but we all ended up here in the Tuckshop today, swapping tips under broad golfing brolly otherwise known as the network of British flower growers, Flowers from the Farm.

I'll try to sum up the wide ranging discussions under a few broad headings, or this post could stretch on into late summer….

Social Media
The topic that seems to preoccupy every business these days.

One key discovery:   before you do anything else, make sure you set up Google+ page as this is the first step to getting ranked by search engines. No Google+ page = invisibility for you and your website (otherwise known as appearing on page 27 of search results).  Even without a website or any other online platforms, you can set up a Google+ page and personalise it with photos of your flowers and a profile of yourself and what you do. Lots of people leave theirs as the generic map  and headings only, so make yourself stand out by making the effort to make it look great. It's no harder than putting pictures into a Word document and makes a much better first impression.

Joining Google+ will also give you access to the Britishflowers Google group.

SEOs and Keywords
When choosing keywords for your website for Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), check Google Keywords to inform yourself about what search terms are the most commonly used by potential customers.

Website packages
You can build a reasonable website using one of the many readily available templates available out there. Webs, a sideshoot of Vistaprint, have a reasonable selection and offer regular cheap deals for their premium packages which also get you a domain name.  Other suppliers are, of course, available and a quick online search will probably give you plenty of options.  But they do take time to build, and you do need to be comfortable with writing copy and to have an eye for what is a good quality image to use.

Image Tools

I shared my recent discovery of an cheap app called 'Rookie' which is great for adding text, frames or various sticker details to photos - great for sharing or for quickly creating promotional materials.

Another issue which came up in various forms was the need to develop a consistent online presence.  This means using the same name, logo etc across the whole range of social media platforms.  Choose which furrow you're going to plough and stick to it - make sure potential customers know who your are and can find you on twitter, Facebook, on your website etc.  Don't appear as different things in different places (says she, Tuckshop Gardener and Tuckshop Flowers!!!! - think this may be a bit of a giveaway as to which path I followed to arrive at my current position)   

Following other people is one possible way to find new leads. Follow local organisations and businesses and if their ethos is similar to yours, think about following some of their followers too. Think of it as marketing, rather than...well...stalking...They may look you up to see if they want to follow you back, and you're waiting there with lovely photos etc to just drag them into your network. And of course, you can follow other flower growers -  a welcoming bunch of other flower powerers in the form of #Britishflowers hour on Mondays 8-9pm.  

There is a big buzz around British flowers in the media at present, and people get very excited when they discover they have a local person involved in this broad movement.  If you are a member of Flowers from the Farm, make sure you display the logo prominently on your market stall, website or wherever else you are selling from - it generates lots of positive feedback and interest.  Also don't forget you can also download the Great British flowers logo from the FTTF website.

We also discussed the role of packaging in positioning ourselves in our markets - do we want to be Skoda, VW or Audi?   We can't compete with supermarkets so we have to be careful about defining who we are and what we do if we are to gain a return on our work. 

For classy packaging, consider getting boxes printed - Atlas Packaging design bespoke boxes and offer alternative artworks based on your designs for you to choose from.  The Carrier Bag Shop offer a range of strong twist handled paper carrier bags in a range of colours which can be used to gift package jam jar posies with a little ingenuity - they may need a snip  down the sides for more floriferous things, but come in a great range of colours.

Farmers markets and fairs
These were discussed as a way of getting out and making a name for yourself in your local area, but it was generally agreed markets alone will not generate enough income to be the sole source of business success. However, always presenting a lovely stall can be a great way to pick up wedding and other work and will make local people aware of you as 'that one who does the nice flowers'.  Add a website so that people can find you outside market times and they could be a good place to start. But... and there is a but... make sure your pricing is right from the start and factor in your packaging, overheads, time and all the other sundries.  You don't want to price so highly that you won't sell, but you do want to be generate some income and can't expect to sell every item on your stall.  Don't sell off cheaply at the end, or everyone will soon start coming to you five minutes before you pack up every month! Better to do a 'lonely bouquet' with leftovers and leave them around locally with all your details attached!

Pricing in general, and for wedding work in particular, was a topic we discussed at some length and it was very useful to have a florist to hand to gain her input into this.  A useful link on this topic was also highlighted as it discusses the benefits of being transparent with clients about how costs are calculated - not only have you got to cover the flower costs, but you have also got to charge for the time spent consulting, cutting, conditioning, arranging and for being available to see to the details and clear down on the day of the wedding itself. 

Participating in wedding fairs may be a cost effective way to market as you don't have to make a tableful of flowers - just a few stunning arrangements to display your wares.

This is a tricky area for flower suppliers to get into as most funeral directors seem to work closely with a specified florist and often there may be percentages to be paid for referrals.   We thought that for what we do, green funerals and natural burials might be the best market to target and that this could be one thing to promote on our websites and to try to create links with via social media.

As small growers, we all need to embrace the fact that at some points in the year, or for very large events, we will need to buy in British flowers.  Now we have each other to turn to for local flowers and discussed the issues of how to price - most of us plumping for a 'by the bucket' appproach.  Other suppliers we'd had positive experiences of were of the Cornwall based Clowance (who have the benefit of allowing small, mixed orders rather than having to go for boxes of one variety) and Tregothan who are said to be particularly good for foliages. Locally, Birmingham Horticultural Market is home to Vitacress who seem to carry a larger range of British flowers than most other wholesalers.

We also talked flowers (of course) and it's that time of year when dahlias are very much on our mind.  Judith, the florist amongst us, uttered an "ooooh" at the thought of Cafe au Lait, and we looked at pics of other varieties we'd enjoyed last season - amongst them Witteman’s Best, Peaches, Rip City and the Karma series.

Sweet peas are also pre-occupying our cold frames etc and Owls Acres was recommended (via a Green and Gorgeous flower growing course) as a supplier of tried and tested cutting varieties.

How to keep our flowers looking lovely, once cut, came up - all of us agreed that whenever we sell them, we condition them properly for 12 hours before selling or arranging and had a bit of a debate over whether to use chemicals or not. Some people opt for a sterilising tablet or a spot of bleach, others for fresh, clean water and a care recommendation to customers that they change the vase water daily to keep the flowers looking their best.

We also discussed results of our accumulated September sowings, and the consensus was that in recent winters, only seeds sown under cover have been successful. Amongst these were ammi, cerinthe, cornflowers.  The unpredictable nature of spring has made these early sowings invaluable though, so busy greenhouses will abound later in the year.

The ranunculus debate rumbled on from last week's #britishflowers hour about whether they grow better under cover or outdoors. We thought we'd just monitor them and report back on our findings later in the season then compare notes again.

The majority of this West Midlands meeting had done floristry and cut flower growing courses – arranging largely at local colleges, and further workshops at Green and Gorgeous in Oxfordshire, which were highly recommended.

And this was just some of what we discussed.....

Taking a deep breath and clutching our notebooks to our chest, we decided to aim for quarterly meet ups, with the next one taking place in May. We decided to take turns in hosting meetings so that we get to see the scale of different operations and hope to visit experienced growers as part of this.

We did a broad brush plan for future meetings and decided that vase life trials, 'making' workshops as well as visits are on the hit list.  But most of all, by the end of the meeting, we'd made new contacts who we can call on for extra help, support and spare hands and flowers for big jobs. Invaluable for us one-woman bands.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Eclecticism in action

A rare blue sky moment last Friday saw me grabbing my fleece, donning my wellies and venturing out to clear, weed and sow sweet peas in the greenhouse.  It was also one of those rare occasions when a morning outside coincided with a fully charged iPod and newly uploaded tunes on a playlist.  (The words 'playlist' and 'newly uploaded' whilst tripping so lightly off the fingers into that sentence are still recent immigrants into my mental world - and the achievement of either of them is still a rare and biennial event… mind you, I could say the same of 'fully charged iPod').

When I think of the soundtrack to my own childhood,  the lung-busting projections of Dave Betton, a local club singer leap to mind, as does the tuneful parping of the local colliery brass band.  Mixed into this aural landscape is a large helping of trad jazz and Ella Fitzgerald, intermingled with fairground organs and the insistently chirruping bird from the Cornwall Museum of Mechanical Music.  (I can still whistle that tune 40 years on.)  I feel I can safely challenge all comers to form the most bizarre top 40 of tunes from one's formative years.

But back in the garden, with earphones in place, I found that to music, even digging out ground elder could be fun.  Rythmic attacks to the beat of Abba's 'Mamma Mia' were followed by aggressive uprooting accompanied by Motorhead's Lemmy repeatedly rasping "No Class", loudly in my ear.  Methinks I even sang along in parts, much to the alarm of the neighbour who had, I spotted rather too late, ventured outdoors on an ill-timed errand.

Ah well.  Better to just let the muse take you on such occasions.  And so she did, with the Stranglers, Frank Sinatra, the Skids and Sister Sledge, all tumbling after each other (and out of my mouth) in best iPod shuffle fashion. I'm sure, on reflection, that my own children must find my playlists totally weird, yet find myself equally delighted with eclecticism as a thing to be cherished.

It's true also in gardening. Why limit yourself to a restricted palette? You can, after all, get away with virtually any colour combination if you do it with enough panache - ask the late great Christopher Lloyd.  While you may not choose to mix a pink skirt with a yellow jumper, that doesn't mean you can't do it in the garden - there's enough green about to form a backdrop which somehow makes it work.

And it can be done in a bunch of flowers.  Reading my birthday book 'Vintage Flowers' by Vic Brotherson, I came across a page of cheery art deco jugs filled with pink and orange ranunculus, knobbly blue muscari and egg-yolk yellow narcissus.  And why not?  There's a time to cheer, as well as a time to tone. Long may it reign!  There are plenty of occasions when we have to be sensible after all.

So here's to eclecticism and that Cornish bird.  And to pink and yellow as a new combination….

Release your inner narcissus and let that orange trumpet blow!

Monday, 3 February 2014

Clearing out the dead things whilst sticking to the paths

Emerging bulbs and new aquilegia foliage are welcome signs of regrowthWet.  That's the only word which describes the squelchy state underfoot in my garden.

But yesterday the sun shone and although fearing I might be sucked into the bog that passes for a lawn, I nonetheless ventured out to remove all the brown floppy things that are slowly sliming into nothingness in the borders. Secateurs in hand I snipped.  Out went the black mouldering leaves on the lungworts, off came the rotten necks of gladioli and into the compost they went, along with the strawlike wisps clinging to the newly reshooting clumps of aquilegias. Luckily I have some solid paths to work from, so my compressing feet didn't have too spend long in contact with sodden soil or lawn and hopefully I've managed to do more good than harm in the garden by giving in to the urge to clear and prepare for spring's arrival.

All in all, things are looking tidier and closer to being ready for action come March, but I still have stretches of self-sown forget-me-nots to tame and small battle groups of creeping buttercup to repel from their new footholds in the borders.

Every time I look out of the window at my raised bed, my tulips seemed to have poked their noses a little higher through their covering mulch of compost and the snowdrops under the apple tree are readying their pearly globules, without daring yet to open.

Today heralded a trip to the garden centre (imagine my delight at getting two replacement springs for my secateurs for a quid!) and a couple of nets of seed potatoes for the allotment.  I hardly dare think how wet it will be in my plot at the bottom of the hill and just how rampant the buttercups will be after all this rain and my prolonged absence.  At the allotment however, I can't garden from solid paths and slithering around in the mud on towering platforms of clayey clods will benefit neither me nor the plot, so it will have to wait for drier times. Whenever they may be…..