Despite the wide abundance of flowers at our fingertips (many of which are imports), seasonal springtime flowers continue to be popular - perhaps this is why tulips and daffodils make up over half of the ‘seasonal’ flower market in Britain.
After spring, the British flower story is far from over. There is a wide range of varieties including gladioli, stocks, sunflowers, sweet Williams, peonies and asters to look forward to as the year progresses.
We took some time to talk to Sue Lamb who runs Lamb’s Flowers Ltd - a small family business - with her husband Roger and son Gareth. They have been commercially growing flowers for almost 30 years.
Q: Hi Sue – First of all, have you always been flower growers?
A: No not at all! Roger used to work in agriculture, but my career was in engineering. We bought a 4.5acre field and built our own house before deciding to quit our jobs and try our hand at flower growing.
Q: How did you get started?
A: First of all we erected some poly tunnels so we could grow Dianthus (known more commonly as pinks) outside and under cover. Then we put up 1/4acre of new glass which we filled with Alstroemeria.
Q: What kinds of flowers have you grown?
A: We’ve tried to growing lots of flowers – some work better than others. We’ve gradually increased our growing area over the years and now have 10acres of glasshouses, plus cold stores and a pack house on site.
Q: That’s a large area! Surely you can’t manage all that yourselves?
A: No, we employ people to work on the farm too. We currently have 18 full time staff plus 15 seasonal students - over half of them are returnees.
Q: Can you explain the growing process from start to finish?
A: Each year we grow 14–15million tulips hydroponically (using mineral nutrient solutions, in water without soil) and they flower from mid Dec – late May. We buy the bulbs from Holland as we need them.
First the bulbs are planted on pin trays which act as an anchor. The trays are filled with water, and put in a rooting room for 2–3 weeks at a temperature of about 6 deg. This allows them to develop nice white roots before they’re taken to the glasshouse, laid out, and topped up with water daily. They continue to take up water but also get an oxygen supply. In a further 2–3 weeks they are ready to crop.
After cropping, a machine removes the bulb from the stem. Each stem hangs upside down as it travels round the machine and is analysed using both camera and x-ray. The machine bunches together stems of the same maturity in the requested configuration (8’s, 9’s and 10’s).
Each bunch is cut to length, fed to a collection belt, and taken to a sleeving line where it goes into a labelled sleeve and is mixed with other colours. Next it’s placed in a box ready for delivery to supermarket depots where it is distributed to stores for sale.
Q: What technology have you adopted on the farm?
A: The machine we use means we can process more than when the handling was done manually, and enables us to up skill our work force. We also operate a packing service for other farms who bring their locally grown products to us for packing.
Q: How many flowers do you grow a year?
A: Each year we grow just over 20million stems! That’s made up of 14–15million tulips, 4million stocks, 0.5million Lisianthus and Antirrhinums, and 300,000 ornamental brassicas.
Q: Do you grow flowers in the winter too?
A: During the winter we mainly grow tulips. It’s a bit more restrictive because of the low light levels.
Q: Where do the flowers you grow end up?
A: The majority of our flowers are sold to big supermarkets. Our main customer is Waitrose, and then Asda, but we also sell to several direct mail companies.
Q: What makes British flowers special?
A: British flowers are a day or two fresher than imported stems, which is important when the product has a reasonably short vase life. Our growing methods are less intense than other countries in Europe. For example our Stocks are stronger because we don’t plant them too close together – the plant gets more light and makes it stronger. The British climate results in slower growing and a better vase life.
Did you know...
If all the pin trays we used for a season of tulips were placed end to end, they would reach from our nursery near Spalding to Peterborough shopping centre and back - over 45 miles!
With just 10% of flowers sold in the UK being home grown, how do you know that you are buying British?
Look at the label
Unlike many other European countries, the British cut flower market is dominated by supermarkets. There is no legal requirement to label the origin of cut flowers, but many retailers are proactive when it comes to labelling British (although less transparent when it comes to the country of origin for imports). Next time you buy cut flowers from the supermarket, look for country of origin by checking for a Union Jack sticker or ‘Grown in the UK’ on the label.
The New Covent Garden flower market has put together a seasonality chart for British
Flowers Week (which runs from 13th – 19th June this year). This showcases what flowers are in season throughout the year. Support British growers by looking for these seasonal products and asking for them specifically.
Some flowers (and arguably very popular ones, such as long-stem roses) have largely been outcompeted by trade from overseas, whose warmer, lighter and more predictable climates allow them to grow and import flowers at a lower price than it would cost UK growers.
However, our cooler climate is perfect for many other flowers and foliage.
Ask your florist
Florists occupy a smaller proportion of the British flower market compared to supermarkets, but to make sure you are backing British growers, ask them if they stock British flowers.
FloraBritain is a collaboration of larger British growers that sell their blooms under one label making it easier for florists to source British flowers.
Visit Flowers from the Farm to find a local flower grower and florists that use seasonal British-grown flowers.