A BLOOM­ING SUC­CESS

Country Living (UK) - - Contents - Words by ruth chan­dler pho­to­graphs by an­drew mont­gomery

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.

TER­RIFIC TEAM­WORK

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

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