Friday, 12 July 2013

New blog and website

Ducks & Daffodils blog can now be found on my new website at www.ducksanddaffodils.

Look foward to seeing you there!

Friday, 8 February 2013

The less sunny side

The hardest part of being self employed and running my own business, for me, is not the lack of, and subsequent search for, time, money, knowledge or customers but the 'something' within my self which makes me prone to bouts of depression.

Much is written about the subject, and many people suffer with depression at some point, so I will just write briefly about how it affects me and my attempts to be a self employed cut flower grower.

It's been a long term problem for me, although I wasn't aware of it's existence until just a few years ago. I always assumed all my negative thoughts and feelings and my deep, dark moods were who I was, part of my personality. I wish I had been more aware, or that someone had picked up on my problems - especially with postnatal depression - because I can see now that the illness has cost me a great deal in terms of relationships with friends and family and my own ability to enjoy life. But it has always been a family trait to keep one's thoughts and feelings locked away, so that's what I did.

In the past, work has been my saviour. Working in retail, in a close team, in busy shops, it's been a relief to put on my happy face and be a confident cheerful person for the duration of the shift. Lots of friendly social interaction and feeling wanted/liked/useful is a real boost. Returning to work after a long time off being a stay at home mum was unbelievably good for me. I suppose that's why I always enjoyed that type of work, a temporary respite from what I was struggling with deeper down.

So working on my own for the past two years has been difficult. Its fantastic to be outside in a wide open space, listening to birds, feeling the breeze, doing something I really enjoy - on a good day. Horticulture has great theraputic benefit: we are supposed to be the happiest group of workers. On a bad day, however, the solitude and enforced conversation with myself just magnifies all problems, worries and insecurities to unreasonable proportions.

The depression affects my business when it tells me I can't do things, when it removes any confidence I have in myself, when it fills me with doubts and the feeling that I'll never do well or be any better than I am now - so why bother trying. At the end of some days I'm filled with ideas and get-up-and-go but in the cold light of the morning after, it's another story. I'll procrastinate, dither or simply give up the idea, feeling stupid for ever thinking I could succeed at anything.

I don't know what the solution is, if there is one. At least I'm more aware of the situation now, I can distance myself from the thoughts and feelings sometimes, look down on myself and see that it's just the depression talking and it will pass soon enough.

And I feel better for longer lately, this winter has been a breeze compared to ones in the past. There are a lot of triggers around Christmas and New Year and into January and February. Talking is good but it's hard to start the conversation, and I don't know many people I would trust or feel comfortable talking to. I do like talking and being with people - going back to my 'other self' of sociable shop girl! I'm glad that my new plot of land is going to bring me into regular contact with other people. I miss having some banter, and it's always good to get other perspectives on situations which would otherwise leave me chuntering away to myself.

I must keep in mind there are brighter days ahead, literally and figuratively. A little success and encouraging progress in flower farming will give a great supportive push from behind. Of course there'll always be darker days, everyone has them, but I do hope I'm going to have fewer.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Flowers Only!

It seems that 2012 wasn't a great year to start a new business growing vegetables and flowers. It's not hard to guess why! However perhaps 'trial by fire' - or rather, by rain - was a good way to start in terms of experiencing growing at perhaps its lowest point.

I didn't get round to blogging much last year, mainly because, despite the wet weather, I was too busy/distracted to think of anything worth writing about, and when I did have an Interesting Thought I lacked the impetus to get it down and posted so it just floated away. I suppose my late New Year's resolution has to be regular updates on my blog: it's all to easy to go to Facebook and Twitter to put out a brief sentence or two but I think it's good to have a place to get into a bit more detail and depth.

I've blogged before about my intention to make a change to my business: to do what I really want to do after my career change - grow and sell flowers - and not what gets in the way of being able to do that - growing veg for veg boxes. I started to hunt around for a new plot where I wasn't tied to vegetable production and have been lucky enough to fall on my feet! Caroline at Goodness Organics has offered me a plot of land to rent from April, so this week I have started to move plants across in preparation for a new season of flowers only. Of course there's plenty of work to do to get started there, as well as still working on the veg side for another couple of months, but despite the cold, grey weather conditions I can definitely see that chink of sunlight I've been hoping for.

(I also have a little side project lined up for the summer months - but more of that nearer the time.......)

The lesson from this episode is: sometimes it pays to ask for what you want (something I don't tend to do!).

Saturday, 20 October 2012

A Little Late Season Diversion

One of my favourite aspects of gardening is spotting the varied wildlife that makes its way onto the plot, whether my tiny backyard, my half allotment or the market garden. The 'goodies' and stars of this year include bees, ladybirds and their larvae, robins and fluffy baby robins, peacock butterflies, swallows, toads and frogs. The 'baddies' have amongst their forces rabbits, ants, onion-set-pulling birds and, of course, the never-ending hordes of slugs which are revelling in this wettest of wet weather.
Organic practices in growing and gardening emphasise the importance of encouraging and welcoming beneficial creatures into the garden and creating (or rather, not destroying) habitats to help maintain a natural balance and so create a healthy growing environment. It has always been my intention to create a wildlife pond in the market garden but it's been way down on the list for a long time now.
 During my preparation for winter polytunnel planting I've disturbed a number of tiny frogs when pulling up the grass along the back edges. There's a fine toad who lives under a sheet of material below one of the benches. There are also a number of slugs and snails in there - relatively easy to control as long as regular patrols are carried out! So this week I decided to amalgamate my desire for a pond with my requirements for natural pest control and made a mini pond inside the polytunnel. It's quite a small space, about 15m x 10m, so growing space takes priority. However, I found a spare corner, dug a hole about 60cm in diameter and 20 cm deep. The hole was lined with some spare polytunnel plastic, weighed down around the edges with bricks. I filled it with rainwater (freely available!), added full and half bricks for different levels in the pond and finally placed a useful plank for easy access or exits. Two oxygenating plants will be added next week, hornwort and European frogbit, or pennywort. The plants will also provide some shade and hiding places I hope.

I must have done a good job because the following morning, less than 24 hours, later my mini pond had its first resident! I don't know how to breed frogs but I'm hoping nature will take its course and I'll have frogspawn in the spring to make a froglet army to send out into the world of slug overlords.....! But to be honest I'll be more than happy to just have a little pond with a frog or two enjoying the watery environment. It's already my autumn/winter picnic spot of choice.



Monday, 20 August 2012

Late summer: time to ruminate.

That mid-August feeling of tired weary slowing down. In a good year the hot dry weather makes it an attractive proposition to sit and watch, maybe take time off, relax for a little while. To have a brief respite from sowing and planting with attention turning to spotting the treasures lurking amongst the lush green growth. A good time for reflecting on the previous few months before sowing and planting for winter and spring harvests begins, as well as planning for next year's crops. What's been good, bad or indifferent. What to avoid next year. How to do it all better (weather permitting....).

Also a time for personal reflection and assessment and planning for my own future. Am I doing what I really want? I seem to be running to stand still, if not slip backwards. I'm not so naive to think that immediate results and success are possible after such a short time but have I just spent 3 years studying to be in this situation? Have I started off on the actual right path that will lead me to my destination? If not, is it possible to adjust things into a position where I am, and where I can continue to develop myself, my skills and my business. Not to mention developing my bank account.....

I like growing vegetables, that's what led me to study horticulture in the first place. However, at present I'm not enjoying it because it takes me away from doing what I want to concentrate on now - growing British cut flowers. The flower side of things hasn't taken off in the way I would have liked as I've had to spend most of my time prioritising veg boxes, leaving little time for  planting, tending, promoting and selling. So something has to change or my business isn't going to be viable and I'm going to get fed up.

So I'm taking the initiative, not sitting back and waiting and not just plodding on but going on the lookout for a way in which I can do what I want and be what I want. After all, there's no point in changing your life and still settling for less.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Who will buy .... ?

Poised for imminent relocation
I'm now, at long last, in a situation where I have a decent supply and variety of flowers in the cutting garden. They look great blooming en masse but I haven't sown and planted so much for my visual delectation. So I need to start selling more than I currently do. This throws up all sorts of problems and questions such as what, how, where, to whom, and for how much!

General selling options for flower growers as far as I can see are: direct to customers either as individual orders or at markets and fairs; wholesale to market or florists; to shops as bunches for resale; to establishments such as hair salons, bed & breakfasts, restaurants/cafes for prettifying their premises. All of which give different levels of returns, of course.

Early summer mixed bunches ready for sale
The options for me personally are individual sales or selling large amounts to shops or other businesses. I had wanted to grow flowers that would be suitable for florists but - due to a degree of naivety on my part - that isn't going to happen this year in the way I had hoped. Florists want excellent vase life and excellent quality; there is wariness about buying from a local grower, it seems, as the florists I've spoken too like the guaranteed longevity that comes from buying imported flowers. I've been told that Dutch tulips last far far longer than British grown, for example. When a florist's reputation and therefore trade are at stake these kind of things are important. In addition, I simply don't have the production technology to compete in this area. I have sold some stems to a freelance florist who wanted cottage garden type blooms for a situation where vase life wasn't an issue. So that side of potential sales will need either rethinking or dismissing. Similarly, selling to wholesale flower markets isn't going to be realistic yet as I don't have the space to grow in large enough quantities and anyway, I want to grow a wide variety of annuals, perennials, bulbs, woodies, foliage and dried flowers.

I have to concentrate on finding retail outlets to sell on bunches or places who want to use fresh flowers on their premises and on getting my name known in the local area for direct sales. These may be the most difficult options as I have to do all the legwork, getting posters and flyers out into the world, passing on business cards, giving away freebies to friends and visiting what I think are businesses who fit the customer profile. Many people say how pretty the flowers are, how interesting the business sounds and wish me good luck but 99.9% of the time the compliments don't translate into sales, regular or one-off. Which is a little disheartening. It doesn't help that the product has such a short shelf life, I suppose. However, last week I had two orders for bouquets, one from a previous business card & freebie recipient and the other from a person who'd bought a bunch of my flowers at the local shop I sell to. Which is more than a little encouraging!

A precious direct sale! 
I suppose to be truly competitive and enter the market I will need my own website and may need to offer flowers delivered outside of the local area. At the moment I can't imagine getting into that complicated territory! However I must mention the Flowers from the Farm website. I'm a member of this organisation and as such have a page with my details and information on. It's been well worth the membership fee as the vast majority of orders and enquiries have come after people have visited the site. Obviously someone who wants what you're selling and has sought you out is more likely to buy as opposed to me approaching endless not-quite-interested-enough businesses.  It's those who want local grown British flowers versus those who want cheap supermarket flowers. At present I've provided buckets of flowers for one wedding and have a potential 4 more lined up with enquiries starting to come in about next spring too. Unfortunately owing to the poor growing season this year I've had to turn down a few early requests as I didn't have what was needed at the time. And it seems that once you've had to turn someone down they don't call back.

A wonky stemmed bunch posing by the back gate
The other major dilemma is how much to charge. It's all very well looking up current wholesale prices and going in a little cheaper but I think it's worth stopping for a moment and considering what I'm actually competing against. Again, the flowers on wholesale markets are from large scale commercial growers which are on a completely higher level than my flowers. That's not to put my flowers or myself down, it's just a fact. My casually loose, occasionally wonky-stemmed flowers are just different - beautifully different though. The bunches I make up are stunning in the sense that they are so unusual compared to supermarket bunches. But is that beautiful difference worth charging for? Well, yes it might be, as long as people - enough people - are prepared to pay....

I also have to consider the market I'm selling to. My corner sweet shop takes a few bunches of sweet peas two or three times a week for which I charge a minimal price because it's no effort for me to deliver and because it's a local corner shop - people don't go in to spend big money. The wholefood shop likes stocking my flowers because they're attractive outside the shop but there is a limit to how much the shopkeeper is prepared to pay because he knows how much he can sell a bunch of flowers on for. In direct sales it's hard to know what to charge. I'm not a florist so I can't charge florist prices and anyway, the point is that I am a local grower selling to the local area. It may well be that I underprice and overfill but so be it! I'd rather people were happy with getting value for money and maybe that will encourage word of mouth growth of business.

While I ponder on all this, this song from the distant past seems suddenly relevant : If I grew them, who would buy my sweet red roses?

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Wetness, Weeds and Wildlife

A fan of wet weather earlier today

Now then, I don't mind a bit of rain. The gently persistent rain that falls overnight so that flowers and vegetables wake up refreshed and revitalised so that I don't need to spend valuable time using valuable water outside. I'd even be friendly towards a shower or two at tea time so that plants don't go to bed thirsty. But gallons of the stuff falling down semi persistently - and interspersed with the odd sunburn-hot day - has effects which, frankly, rub me up the wrong way. I'm talking about weeds growing at alarming rates while I'm not looking - yes, you thistles, and you grass. And although I do like my cauliflowers not drying out and my cabbages hearting up nicely I do not like those slimy fat creeping little creations commonly known as Bloody Slugs (that's the polite name obviously). However, as plenty has been written on the subject over the last month. I would just like to put out the message that my preferred method of dispatch is snipping in half and chortling over the guts spilling out. Keep off my radishes too - apparently people aren't keen on buying pre-nibbled produce. (Although personally I think the occasional surprise discovery within a lettuce adds a note of authenticity....)

Lovely strimming dear!

I must admit that I have been feeling overwhelmed the last few weeks. I seem to have lost control of things. At times I just haven't known what to do first - sowing, planting, weeding, slug and pigeon damage limitation, grass cutting, trying to make some money out of all of this..... There has seemed so much to do and only me with a limited amount of time to do it in. But as with most problems, they are manageable if broken down into small tasks and tackled one step at a time. That's the theory behind the advice of certain 'helpful' people of my acquaintance anyway! My problem is that I look at the entire plot, see all the problems that need tackling and all the jobs that need doing immediately and panic! But taking that helpful advice seems to have been beneficial. After two and a half weeks of strict prioritising, realistic list making and allocating jobs to days I think I can see a little chink of light getting closer and a little bit of order reappearing. And of course I must mention that my helpful friend is a dab hand with the strimmer too......thank goodness!

To end on a positive note then. It's been lovely this month wildlife spotting around my plot. I knew I had frogs in the big polytunnel but I've also seen one in the new small tunnel. While moving some weed prevention carpet last week I was delighted to see a fine fat toad camping out underneath - even more so to find a finer fatter bigger specimen just next door. Bees are regular visitors to the comfrey, borage and alliums - hopefully they'll find the bean and squash flowers when they appear too. My favourite discovery has been masses of ladybird larvae in the polytunnel - all over leaves of turnips, cucumbers and tomatoes - which bodes well for a high ladybird population shortly. And finally my new best friend Bob Robinson, a robin who must have the hungriest and/or largest family ever, as over the two days I spent weeding my roots bed 'he' was constantly coming down to gather big beakfuls of goodies. However Bob was kind enough to sing me a few catchy little numbers from time to time, so I thought that was a pretty good deal.