The fields around Common Farm near Wincanton, in Somerset, were part of the land categorised under the Act of Enclosure in 1821, hence its name denoting democratic ownership by the people. Now home to the flower farmer, Georgie Newbery, and her husband the artist and sculptor, Fabrizio Boccha, it is also a demonstration workshop for floristry, cookery and gardening.
I am visiting Common Farm at the height of summer, at the beginning of July, and Fabrizio takes me round to show me the plantation. There are seven acres in total and the farm is divided into several sections. There are raised beds for rows and rows of cutting flowers, a poly-tunnel for bringing sweet peas on early, a wildflower area to encourage biodiversity of aphid eating insects, a vegetable garden, a rose garden, a bee hive section, metres and metres of native hedging and three ponds, filled with frogs, toads, newts and dragonflies hovering in mid-air.
It really is astonishing to see such an array of beautiful flowers, growing organically, without a heated greenhouse in sight or any chemical fertilisers.
Fabrizio explains that when they arrived the house and garden at Common Farm were both in dire need of tender loving care.
“It was back breaking work. We not only refurbished and redecorated the whole house, but we decided that we wanted to become self-sufficient in terms of food. So we individually dug out beds and mixed in tons of compost to revive and nourish the soil.”
Fabrizio and Georgie both shared a common love of sweet peas. “That’s when it all started” Fabrizio tells me. “We started growing sweet peas and because we were quite successful at growing lots of different varieties and colours, we decided to sell them in bunches to the local community.”
As I walk out onto the curb in front of the house there is a beautiful, rusty old wheelbarrow filled with plastic containers full of water. From soft pink, to dark violet, ivory white and raspberry red, beautiful bunches of big, fragrant sweet peas are set out on the road for all passers-by.
From a small cottage industry the business just grew and grew. Soon the couple were planting borage, phacelia, lavenders, chamomile, daisies, roses, nigella, alliums, chrysanthemums, dahlias, cosmos, calendulas and delphiniums, all from seed. They worked day and night to build a customer base, and in just one year they have managed to exceed their business plan expectations and are now private florists to people from all over Somerset and beyond.
Weddings, birthdays, Valentines days, Mother’s Days, dinner parties and small posies, Georgie and Fabrizio have seen and done it all. Using Twitter and Facebook as their marketing tools of choice, Georgie established a chirpy, chatty presence on the social media circuit, telling all her followers about what flowers she was harvesting and when, which seeds were germinating, showing photographs of bouquets and bunches on Twitpic and answering all manner of horticultural and wildlife questions.
“I don’t do technology” confessed Fabrizio. “If I am out on the flower farm picking, watering or digging I have to focus on my schedule. I cannot be distracted by anything or anyone because I have to achieve a certain amount every day. If you don’t pick the sweet peas every day by a certain time in the day, they are going to wilt, and then that is a whole day’s income.”
The vagaries of the British weather are mitigated by the poly-tunnel and also the fact that they plant their seeds in succession, so whilst some flowers are in full bloom now, there are younger plants that will be ready in a few weeks’ time.
“We take our responsibility very seriously. If we have an order for a wedding bouquet, we have to make sure that order is fulfilled absolutely on time. We cannot let anybody down, ever!” he explains.
In between the flowers there is an array of fruit and vegetables: Swiss chard, asparagus, beans, herbs, zucchini, salads and potatoes are all ready for picking.
There is a great deal going on all around us. Inside the house Georgie is busily trying to get her two young children dressed and ready to go out, the nanny has arrived to help look after the younger of the two, still in nappies, and a raw diet course is about to start in the front room in an hour.
Georgie learned her floristry skills from her mother, who is a very accomplished flower arranger and gardener, opening up her borders for the National Garden Scheme no less. She was also once responsible for the flower arranging at the Dorchester Hotel in London.
“We started trying to sell our flowers at the local farmers’ market, and no disrespect to them, but the amount of money customers were prepared to pay for really beautiful flowers was never going to be enough to set up a sustainable business. So we decided that we would sell to customers by post, by direct collection and through referrals” said Georgie.
The bouquets are accompanied by a pretty, colourful card on which Georgie has written:
“At Common Farm in Somerset we grow all kinds of cut flowers: from roses and sweet peas, to wildflowers grown especially. It’s rare that one of our bouquets leaves the house without a touch of meadow in it.
We garden organically because, as Fabrizio says, “If you look after the invertebrates the rest of the food chain will look after itself.”
So we have a flourishing grass snake population, all kinds of bees, and of course rabbits and slugs in abundance (against whom we do wage ecologically friendly war).”
The reality of succeeding in this kind of business, selling highly perishable flowers, depending on Royal Mail, the British weather, the ups and downs of the economy and raising two small children all at the same time has taken its toll on both of them.
“It’s a 14 hour day for sure. There are no days off, but when you do have a few hours off you do really enjoy it. Sometimes we stop work on a Sunday afternoon and go to the beach with the children. We are living this life, above all for them. We get to work from home, we do not have to commute, we live in a very beautiful village in the middle of wonderful countryside. We want to enjoy our children growing up and we want to give them a really healthy, happy childhood.”
From Georgie’s desk she can see the wheelbarrow full of sweet peas. “That’s where it all started” she pointed. “And just look at us now.” The future holds great plans: more flower and cookery workshops, more home improvements and wider ranges of flowers, more wedding bouquets and, possibly, another poly-tunnel.
Just like the food revolution, I believe that more and more consumers want locally, seasonally, organically and sustainably grown flowers, where the provenance and the ethics of the business go hand in hand with a much more environmentally aware zeitgeist. No flower miles, no child labour, no pesticides and no monoculture: I have a feeling that at Common Farm there is no dream, vision or ambition enclosure.
Common Farm’s website: www.commonfarmflowers.com
Follow Georgie Newbery on Twitter: @TheFlowerFarmer