17 December 2021
2021 was a weird year for growing flowers. Late frosts and a dry spring meant the season started late, while a very mild last few months of the year (here in Cornwall!) has meant some of us were working in t-shirts yesterday, despite being a few days from the winter equinox. The result of this has been that we were still cutting chrysanthemums from our polytunnels in December and are expecting our first flowers of the new season in February. This despite many of them trying to pop out of the ground now! The result will most likely be that January is the only month we aren’t cutting flowers.
This, while not leaving much time for a rest, is great for us so early in our growing journey. It means we can keep the enthusiasm for Cornish flowers up almost all year round. This begs the question – couldn’t you just use British flowers all year round? There are a few answers to this question, some to do with practical business stuff, some to do with the realities of growing flowers.
Firstly, there is an issue of quantity. Though we cut chrysanths late in to the year and will have bulbs just round the corner, these represent the tail and the early shoots of a new season and the quantities involved aren’t enough for us to use them in our gift bouquets. This is something that is possible right in the middle of the crop, but at these beginning and ending stages the quantities we have are better suited to sending them out in their own dedicated Field Flowers boxes. For now there is a bottleneck here but our hope is that the new fields we are taking on for 2022 will allow us to better manage these quantities and stretch the season is which we can grow in such quantities even further.
The next issue is one of diversity. One of the things people like about our bouquets is that we don’t just send out 20 roses. In a normal Petalon bouquet you’d expect to see at least 10 different flowers and foliage. The time our florists spend arranging these in to a whole is something that sets the business apart from the competition and if we suddenly started loading them up with the one flower we have lots of in the field then questions would quickly be asked! By the Spring this starts to become possible as lots of different things come in to season together and we can use multiple stems of our own flowers that complement one another in the bouquet. The greatest challenge here is then changing our bouquet colour palettes each week and using similar flowers from the fields, but it’s a challenge we are game for! Again, more land means more space for different flower crops, so our hope is that our extra acreage will go some way to solving this.
So how do people get cut flowers in the winter? The answer, as you probably know, is that they are imported. We all know the southern hemisphere has the reverse seasons to our own, but actually the vast majority of the flowers we import, even in the middle of winter, are from our neighbours in Western Europe. These flowers are grown indoors, often under lights and with protection from the cold either by the structures they are housed in or sometimes by supplemental heating. We can’t bring this part of the process “in-house” because of the infrastructure and economies of scale involved. The sheer scale of these operations is what makes them possible, and their increasing scale actually makes them more and more economical and less and less environmentally impactful per flower grown. This is not to say that they do not have a toll on the environment. They do, and we are careful to measure and offset that impact.
This means the proportion of flowers that we import rises in the winter and falls in the summer. Our pledge is to keep working to increase the proportion we grow ourselves across the whole year. Offsetting is not as good as not having created those emissions in the first place.
One final question that needs addressing is whether we might just not send flowers when they aren’t available from our own soil. There are two rather important reasons we won’t do this. Firstly, our staff. They deserve year-round employment that isn’t at the mercy of frosts, strong winds or other freak weather conditions. The other reason is our customers. Though we know some would go to the lengths of not ordering flowers in the winter, for most they would like the option year round. Our hope is that we can provide a means of doing that that is honest about its supply chain and that has achieved certified carbon neutrality with those inputs in mind.
We won’t be getting any giant heated greenhouses any time soon but we will get smarter with how we grow year on year, taking advantage of our mild climate and learning from what does and doesn’t work right at the beginning and end of the year to maximise both our quantities and diversity even as the mercury drops. Who knows, one of these days maybe we’ll even cut something in January (there is a very eager Icelandic poppy in the tunnel we’ve got our eyes on)!
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