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A blooming great love for growing flowers and shrubs

Published 14/06/2016

Barbara Irwin of Foliage Works, Hillsborough, and some of her flowers
Barbara Irwin of Foliage Works, Hillsborough, and some of her flowers
Flower grower Shane Donnelly at his business in Craigavon
Lesley Bell, a flower grower from Rathfriland
Billy Plunkett at Plunkett Nurseries

Buying local food is a growing trend, but what about flowers? As British Flower Week kicks off, four members of the NI Flower and Foliage Association tell Linda Stewart how their fascination with commercial growing blossomed.

‘People say our flowers last a very long time’

Barbara Erwin (71), of Foliage Works,  Hillsborough, is married to David (72).

It was only on her retirement from Stranmillis College 10 years ago that Barbara set up her business, after racking her brains for something to do with an overgrown field next to the house the couple had bought two years previously.

"We took advice on what was the best thing to use it for. When we moved in, it was grass buttercups waist-high," she says.

Barbara had been going to courses at CAFRE's college at Greenmount and decided to take the unusual step of growing foliage commercially for use in wedding bouquets.

"People are starting to realise that foliage is a very important part of a bouquet. If you look at a M&S bouquet, more than 50% of it is foliage," she explains. "I actually grow 19 different sorts of foliage, mostly eucalyptus - and 36 types of flower."

Barbara grows cut flowers in her polytunnels and outside in the cutting patch. "Last year I put up a second tunnel and the business is expanding and expanding. It's focused on growing flowers for weddings," she says.

There is also a growing market for flowers for DIY weddings, she says. "It's a big thing where they do their own arrangements in jam pots - they take the flowers from me in quantities and do them themselves."

Last year, Barbara put up her second polytunnel and she has two 'eco-mowers' to keep the grass short around the foliage beds - a pair of Shetland ponies called Meg and Tilly.

"My main crops would be in spring. I grow scented narcissus, alstroemeria, scented pinks, chrysanthemums and a range of other bits and pieces which wedding florists like to have to buttonholes and things like that," she says.

"It's flowers in the summer and foliage in winter.

"I have an honesty box on the Ballygowan Road and customers will stop and say 'we love your flowers - they last so long'. That is the important thing - recognition that people are getting good value for money and stuff that lasts."

Barbara describes her business as the "most expensive hobby in the world".

"I reinvest the small amount that I have made over five years back into the tunnels and I'm hoping that this year is the one where I actually turn a profit," she says.

"The people that make the money are the people who do it in a very big way. I do all the work myself - I don't employ anybody.

"This time of year is a panic because stuff is starting to grow, the flowers are starting to come. I'm busy cutting them and putting them into bouquets to sell at the honesty box and deliver to local florists. It's a very busy time of year."

Barbara's top tips:

1. Cleanliness, cleanliness, cleanliness. Seed trays, composts, benches, tools, flower buckets and vases all need to be clean.

2. Prune trees and shrubs often so that they grow fresh young leaves.

3. Weed control - use mulching to keep down weeds, whether bark chippings, newspaper or landscape fabric.

‘When you drive past you can smell them from a mile away’

Shane Donnelly (40), of Greenisland Flowers, Portadown, is married to Therese (35)

Fresh out of college in 1994, Shane Donnelly was looking for something to diversify into from the family business of salad growing. Now the business is growing an incredible 1.4 million stems of scented stock this year, supplying to M&S stores across Ireland, Scotland and into the north of England.

"We grew salads - indoor lettuce and celery and outdoor lettuce and celery.

"We had to stop growing outdoor lettuce because there was no money in them and it would put us out of business if we kept growing them," he says.

"I had been looking for a few years at growing either flowers or strawberries. M&S came to Greenmount, looking for them to do trials on flowers that have seasonal extension in Northern Ireland and there were a couple of types we could grow.

"In 2003, we started to grow cut flowers. In our first year we grew 30,000 stems of scented stock as a trail - that's 1,500 a week over 20 weeks."

Then came a big break - M&S came to visit in August that year after unseasonally hot weather caused a market disaster.

"All the English supplies had been destroyed because it was too hot. They gave us an order for the next year of 250,000 stems," Shane says.

That has expanded to 1.4m stems this year, but the business has also extended into other flowers, including lilies and sweet william. Shane says they already had supermarket customers for the salads, so it was a matter of approaching the cut flower buyers to see if they were interested in new product - and they always were.

"In our area, when you are driving past, you can smell the flowers from maybe a mile away," he says.

Shane says his proudest moment was back at the beginning when they were just putting bunches of flowers into the car boot to bring for sale at the local filling station.

"We were selling about three buckets every two days. One day I saw a lady coming out and she had three bunches of stock and that was my proudest moment. It was the only real time that I'd seen somebody buying them," he says.

"Another nice moment was when some of the English growers phoned up and complimented us on how well our stock looked."

Shane says he would love to do more gardening at home, but there just isn't time because they supply flowers every day and produce all year round.

"I can get my grass cut but that is as good as it gets for me," he says.

"There is a good margin on scented stock, but it can be a tricky crop. If everything is going well, you get a good 20% on your investment.

"It's tight because stock is the one thing where there are more things trying to kill it than helping it grow."

The flower doesn't grow if it's too warm or too cold and has no resistance to mildew or botrytis, he says.

"Scented stock is a magnet for a whole range of diseases. You have to be prepared for losses - that's the big thing. If you can get them harvested and away, you are a happy person," Shane says.

Shane's top tips

1. Don't over-water the garden - but don't underwater it either, especially in hot spells.

2. Plants are hungry. Don't shy away from feeding them - it makes a huge difference and you will get much better results.

3. Get your soil tested.

‘This is our 10th season, we’ve done very well’

Lesley Bell (55), of Moorfield Flowers, Rathfriland, married to Barclay (60)

It takes five years of growing a peony rose before it blossoms into full production but it's worth it, according to Lesley.

From setting up her business in 2007, she is now supplying peonies to M&S.

"I had a mother and grandmother who were great gardeners. In my day, there were no flowers in the shops, so you picked them from the garden, you picked flowers by the season," she says.

"We always had seasonal flowers - spring flowers, summer flowers and so on. Nowadays you can buy whatever flowers you want all year round. But it's nicer to have them in season and then you have something to look forward to."

In 2007, Lesley was looking into a way of working from her home in Rathfriland. At the time she was doing some work with oriental lilies at Greenmount and she began looking into flower growing.

"I thought maybe I could have a go at this. We put up our first polytunnel in spring 2007 and for the first year I grew lilies and alstroemeria, just a couple of flowers to see what it was about and could I do it," she says.

"It was a very steep learning curve. I like trying different things - I don't like to do the same thing, so every year I set myself the challenge of adding a new flower, such as stock or delphiniums.

"Gradually from growing one flower, I grew 35 to 40 different types of flower during my growing season. I would classify myself as a small grower who grows a nice selection for local florists."

In 2009 the opportunity to grow flowers for supermarkets came along and Lesley and Barclay planted just over an acre of Sarah Bernhardt peonies in a field. About 95% of these go to supermarkets.

"They take up to five years to come to full production, so it's a long-term thing," she says.

"But it's now one of the main crops we have on the farm.

"Our peony season is probably middle of June through to early July."

Lesley also grows stock, lilies, sweet william, sweet pea, annuals and foliage, selling most of these to florists within a 40-mile radius.

"My biggest achievement is probably seeing the pleasure on people's faces when they receive my flowers. This is our 10th growing season and we've done very well - we've worked very hard at it.

"Flower growing in Northern Ireland is a new growth area in horticulture and I think it has a bright future. Like all businesses it takes time to bring back the initial investment.

"We sell most of our flowers within that small radius and a lot of people get to know who you are and where you are. You build up a reputation for growing a good quality flower.

"People want to know it's local - they want to know its provenance. There is a great revival in Northern Ireland with the local food scene and the flowers are a part of that - it's a growing area at the moment."

Lesley's top tips:

1. Don't plant peony roses too deep - just around an inch beneath the surface.

2. Cut the blooms of peonies off for the first two or three years to let the plant mature.

3. If you're cutting flowers from the garden, do it early in the morning or in the early evening,

'If you work very hard there is a decent living to be made'

Billy Plunkett (68), of Plunkett Nurseries, Newtownards, is married to Isobel (67)

Billy started off growing tomatoes when he went into the family business which was started by his father in the 1940s.

"I was going to school with the idea of possibly going to university but I realised it wasn't what I wanted to do. I wanted to get my hands dirty. And it's been a nice business to be in, most of the time," he says.

The business has been subdivided into two parts with Billy taking charge of the cut flower end and his brother concentrating on bedding plants.

Billy concentrates on five main crops - spring daffodils, tulips, scented stock, lilies and chrysanthemums. Most of the stock - amounting to half a million stems a year - goes to two large flower wholesalers who supply florists across Northern Ireland.

"It was an interest I had as a tomato grower," he explains.

"It's difficult to grow something if you're not interested. Tomatoes as a crop never appealed to my brother and myself. Now I'm hoping to grow a few tomatoes for my own consumption! Producing cut flowers is reasonably profitable - we make a decent enough living out of it.

"I've been sticking at this for 51 years and I think that if you are going to stay in business you have to stay on top of things. There's never a year goes by that we don't try something new.

"There's a very good market for cut flowers but competition is very stiff. When I started out the main competition was other nurseries in this area - now our competition is the Dutch growers. A lot of the flowers are coming from all over the world but they are coming through Holland.

"Our biggest achievement is remaining in competition with the world market. Provided you are happy to work hard and stay involved, thinking all the time and making minor changes, there is a decent living in it."

Unlike other forms of farming there is no subsidy whatsoever for growing cut flowers.

"We are on our own, competing in this world market," Billy says.

"But if you're prepared to work for it and stay on top of the game, there is a decent living to be made. I'll never make a fortune, I'll never be a millionaire, but I and my brother have managed to raise our families out of it."

Billy says the most important thing is to have a good reputation and one of the benefits of being a small business is quality control - as they personally care for the plants.

"We have a product which is on the market within 24 hours as opposed to the Dutch stuff which could have been on the road for a week," he says.

"One of the great blessings I have in life is that when I finish work at night, the way I relax is going and working in my own garden. The business can be really hectic but half an hour in the garden really puts life in perspective."

Billy's top tips:

1. You have to be patient.

2. You have to be diligent. Dutch growers are renowned for attention to detail - it's important.

3. Try to enjoy it. If you're doing a simple thing like cutting a flower, stop and look and think how wonderful nature is. It can bring us all up short to think of how blessed we are.

Belfast Telegraph

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