A BLOOMING SUCCESS
Rachel Siegfried’s Oxfordshire cutting garden has grown from strength to strength
Rachel Siegfried’s cutting garden in Little Stoke, Oxfordshire, has grown from strength to strength
Margaret Merril is blushing. Her complexion is otherwise as pale as ivory and she wears a delicious perfume. Flower farmer Rachel Siegfried is a big fan of hers, despite her tendency
to bow out of a performance at the last minute if it rains: “She often turns brown in the damp but, at her best, she’s hard to beat – so light and airy.” It’s a cool, quiet start to the morning on Rachel’s Oxfordshire plot and she is alone among the roses, which include the repeat-flowering variety. At this, her busiest time of year, the early hours offer a chance to plan the tasks ahead before her company Green and Gorgeous opens for business.
One of the principal themes for June is weddings and, it being a Thursday, Rachel and her team, made up predominantly of local women, will shortly be picking for the weekend’s celebrations, not just roses but an array of other cottage-garden favourites. “It’s a race to get the flowers in at the right time – once the dew has dried off but before the day warms up,” Rachel explains. The air is alive with the trilling of birds and the buzzing of pollinators feeding on the abundant nectar on offer here. At 8.30am, the team heads to the ‘far field’ and gather the delphiniums, a heavenly mix of pink, lilac, purple and blue spires that swing gently back and forth in the breeze. They tower above the women who cut them and hold as many as 20 in their arms, hoisting them over to buckets in
which they’ll later be stored in the chiller at 8ºc. By the end of the month, the team will have harvested thousands of stems. “This work takes a huge amount of stamina,” Rachel says. “It’s farming, not gardening.”
SEEDS OF CHANGE
It was while she was looking after the two-acre walled plot of an 18th-century Cotswold country house ten years ago that Rachel first knew she wanted to be a cut-flower grower. She already had extensive plant knowledge from studying garden design under Chris Beardshaw at Pershore College and from previous jobs in ornamental gardens, but a talk she attended by cutting-garden expert Sarah Raven proved inspirational and well timed. Shortly afterwards, the estate where she worked with her husband, plant biology graduate Ashley, was sold and they both lost their jobs. While Ashley went on to work at nearby Daylesford Organic, Rachel decided to use her redundancy pay to establish her own
Farm-fresh vegetables, eggs and posies; enamel jugs are perfect for informal displays; whippet Jessie; Rachel arranges roses, clematis and sweet peas in her signature ‘just gathered’ style
business. “The slow food movement was gathering momentum and I knew that, with their love of gardening, Brits would be interested in where their bouquets came from next.” In 2007, the couple became tenants of a farm in the village of Little Stoke. With the floristry expertise of Rachel’s friend Jo Wise, who became her business partner, they set to work growing cut flowers and summer vegetable crops on two acres.
The farm’s busyness ten years later proves that Rachel’s instincts were right. Jo left Green and Gorgeous in 2013, but Rachel now employs 12 women who live in the surrounding area, half of whom work in the garden while the others do the arranging. She also has a team of volunteers, many of whom are retired and come not only to learn and exercise but to enjoy being with like-minded gardeners. The members of staff range from part-time florists to artists. Pub owner Alessandra Nolasco, who is in a tunnel deadheading and cutting sweet peas, sums up the appeal of working as a group: “When you’re in a team, jobs seem less daunting – you don’t struggle to feel motivated.” Her current task is an enviable one due to the uplifting fragrance although her own passion is growing vegetables. “But I am learning to fall in love with flowers here,” she says, holding up a bunch of bright-red sweet pea ‘Winter Sunshine Scarlet’.
“I started out taking sweet peas to Henley farmers’ market. They were hugely popular as people feel nostalgic about them,” says Rachel, whose firm belief in her venture fortified her and Ashley for the three years it took to make a profit. “They’re still our bestsellers and now we offer pick-your-own.” The site has been extended to six acres since then, around a third of which is rested each year and sown
with clover, a green manure. It’s part of the couple’s uncertified but whole-hearted organic farming approach, which they believe is responsible for the wealth of bees, birds, butterflies, ladybirds, lacewings and hedgehogs that thrives on the land. There are now two acres of annuals, bulbs and perennials, a 100-metre-long cutting hedge for foliage, three tunnels to extend the growing season and a large greenhouse where whippets Jesse, Louis and Violet hang out. One acre is devoted to fruit, herbs and vegetables, tended by Ashley, who, today, is harvesting trugfuls of fennel, courgettes and lettuces, as well as keeping on top of the weeds with a wheel hoe.
FROM THE FARM GATE
Alongside eggs from 30 pure-breed hens that roam the orchard, single stems and posies, Ashley’s vegetables and punnets of soft fruit are displayed in the Saturday Shop, held in the packing shed, when Green and Gorgeous is open for farm-gate sales. “It’s very social and relaxed – we have regulars who come because it makes an enjoyable day out,” Rachel says, proud that the farm has become a community hub. She seems happiest sharing her beautiful plot and knowledge with others and hosts informal monthly Flower Clubs when anyone – from semi-professional florists to amateur
gardeners – can come to pick a bucket and create an arrangement. She also offers structured workshops, including one designed to teach complete beginners how to set up an enterprise like hers.
Rachel doesn’t have a day off from April to October but, during the occasional lull, indulges in her passion for putting a posy together in the Flower Studio. This afternoon, she is filling a stoneware jar with roses, sweet peas, clematis, astrantia, campanula and eryngium in her signature ‘just-gathered’ style. As if her natural arrangements and seed-to-shop method weren’t enough of a contrast to the ‘fast flowers’ of the average high-street florist, she even uses her plants to dye silk to make subtly hued ribbons with which to bind her posies – the ultimate way to tie the whole business together.
THIS PAGE, CLOCKWISE
FROM TOP LEFT Seed heads of Allium ‘Mount Everest’; Ashley creating plant supports; freshly cut roses; towering cardoons; self-seeded poppies; Alessandra Nolasco and Irene Wrigley picking sweet peas OPPOSITE Rachel gathering delphiniums, which she grows in a spectacular array of blues, purples, lilacs and pinks