‘Get growing’: two city farmers explain how to cultivate

‘People just need to try it,” says Camila Romain, one half of urban flower farming duo Wolves Lane Flower Company. “We get emails from people saying, ‘I want to do the learning, and then I want to start’; we’re always trying to get them to just get growing.”

Romain and her business partner Marianne Mogendorff are passionate about British-grown cut flowers. Taking its name from the north London street where they set up shop in 2017, the business has evolved from a flower farm offering local, organically cultivated and subscription-delivered bouquets of seasonal flowers – from dahlias and cornflowers to nicotiana – to a micro wholesaler selling direct to florists.

The first things they grew were cornflowers. “Cornflowers give you a lot of confidence; it’s good to start with something easy like that, rather than something fussy, like bupleurum, that you’d probably spend a lot of time crying about,” says Romain. Other flowers sown that first year were cosmos, zinnias and sunflowers.

For first-time flower growers, Mogendorff suggests keeping things simple: “Maybe prioritise three easy crops rather than buying everything in the seed catalogues. Try something like a sweet pea: they germinate easily and overwinter just fine. Cultivars such as ‘Nimbus’ and ‘Wiltshire Ripple’ are real crowd-pleasers.” They also recommend the many newer cultivars of calendula, and the delicate white laceflower Orlaya grandiflora: “We dry it: the seed pod is beautiful, as well as the flower itself.”

Interestingly, it is the pastoral, hedgerow-like quality of these blooms that increases their value. “There is almost a fetishisation of nature and wildness in London,” says Mogendorff. “We provide a wild aesthetic that we’re all yearning for in the city.” This includes UK natives such as corncockle and wild carrot, and the naturally “wiggly”, irregular stems increasingly favoured in floral design.

Like many career-change horticulturists, Romain and Mogendorff were motivated by a desire for more interaction with the natural world. “We were both producers before we did this job,” Romain says. “I was working in fashion and broadcasting, and Marianne was in theatre and dance. We hit a point where we were living very urban lives with tiny gardens, and we really missed the connection with nature that we both had growing up.”

They stumbled on a vacant glasshouse and adjoining outdoor growing space in the Wood Green area. However, growing organically came with certain challenges: redundant heating pipework in the glasshouse had to be angle-grinded away to make room for beds; aphids and greenfly smothered early crops of anemones and roses; and the initial lack of an irrigation system meant long hours of watering. In the absence of chemicals, ladybirds soon returned to the glasshouse, naturally predating on the aphids; their “no-dig” approach to preparing productive beds – and the application of homegrown compost – nurtured a healthy soil teaming with micro-organisms.

The Wolves Lane Flower Company city farm. Photograph: Carlotta Cardana/The Guardian

Because they are local growers, Wolves Lane’s flowers last longer, as they haven’t travelled far. “Florists won’t buy dahlias at the flower market because they go over immediately – they have been cut and transported, and are already three or four days old before they hit the market. When they buy them from us they often say, ‘Oh wow, they lasted five days’. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t.”

This underlines the importance of seasonality: that blooms grown in harmony with the seasons, rather than artificially in hothouses, have more vitality. In spring they might supply narcissi, ranunculus and forget-me-nots; in summer, bright stems of zinnias and cosmos. Dahlias are at their best in late summer and autumn, while winter is a time of seed heads, viburnums and winter-flowering clematis.

We’ve never needed British growers more. In the UK, the cut-flower industry is worth more than £1bn, and the thirst for blooms has only increased post-pandemic, as we focus more on our homes and gardens. The majority of wholesale cut flowers sold in the UK are imported (roses from Kenya, carnations from Colombia, all manner of stems from the Netherlands) at a high environmental cost: miles of travel, heated glasshouses and heavy chemical and fertiliser inputs.

According to a study published by Lancaster University, an imported mixed bouquet produces 10 times more CO2 than a British-grown equivalent. British flower farmers – those growing local, seasonal blooms – are now in increasing demand.

Ponpon dahlias ‘Silvia’ and ‘Cornel Brons’.
Ponpon dahlias ‘Silvia’ and ‘Cornel Brons’. Photograph: Carlotta Cardana/The Guardian

When Romain and Mogendorff sowed the first seeds of their business in 2017, environmental issues were paramount. The key issue, Mogendorff says, is that cut flowers are not a convenience product. “That is the everyday reality of flowers. And those packed roses you pick up to sniff – those ‘Avalanche’ roses grown in Kenya – are very likely to be covered in pesticides, insecticides and fungicides. We set out to be both seasonal and sustainable, chemical-free, and uncompromising about not taking shortcuts.”

Wolves Lane has just published its first book, How to Grow the Flowers, an informal manual for growing, harvesting and arranging. The title is a nod to How to Do the Flowers by pioneering mid-century florist Constance Spry.

Intended for first-timers, the book is brimming with encouragement, inspiration, owned mistakes and tried-and-tested horticultural wisdom. It proclaims that “anyone can grow flowers”, however small their space.

Spry, who revolutionised modern floral design with her creative use of unconventional material – plants like kale, bramble, willow – is a significant influence on Romain and Mogendorff, who have had to adapt their own cut-flower business around the constraints of motherhood. In the context of buttoned-up interwar British society, Spry was unflinchingly progressive, leaving an abusive husband and forging an independent career.

Cornflower
Cornflower

“When you look at the flower industry, men are still dominating,” says Mogendorff, “and much of that is connected to the reality of what women are often doing – raising children and having their career checked by that. But the majority of the flower growers in our Flowers from the Farm community (a non-profit network of artisan British suppliers) are female and that gives me hope – career changers, older women running successful businesses and providing a different road map for how flowers can be consumed. I do think growing flowers in the UK is a radical thing to do, and it’s no coincidence that that radicalism is being driven by women.”

How to Grow the Flowers by Camila Romain and Marianne Mogendorff (HarperCollins, £20). To order a copy for £17.40 go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Five early autumn jobs for spring blooms

Ammi majus.
Ammi majus. Photograph: mauribo/Getty Images

Sow hardy annuals
At this time of year, cut flowers like Orlaya grandiflora, Ammi majus and larkspur can be germinated in a cold frame, greenhouse or warm windowsill, pricked out into individual pots and overwintered in a sheltered spot.

Mulch beds
Regular harvesting requires regular giving back to the soil, so top your growing beds with a thick mulch layer of organic matter (composted leaf, manure or plant material) to help protect plants against freezing temperatures.

Tidy up
As with any crop, access – for watering, staking and harvesting – is key. Autumn is a good time to clear paths of weeds and lay fresh bark chippings.

Lift dahlias
Dahlias left in the ground over winter can start to rot. As stems begin to die back in late autumn, cut them to roughly an inch and lift the whole tuber. Wash off soil and store somewhere dry, cool and dark.

Plant bulbs
Wolves Lane recommends bulbs for small gardens, “as you can really pack them in, spaced just slightly further apart than eggs in an egg box”. Suggested varieties include the orange-centred Narcissus ‘Altruist’ and Allium siculum for its height and magenta colour.

How to Grow the Flowers by Camila Romain & Marianne Mogendorff (HarperCollins Publishers, £20). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com