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In bloom: An interview with Georgie Newbery

David Nieper
Behind The Scenes
Georgie Newbery Georgie Newbery

Georgie Newbery is a flower farmer, florist, and author living in Somerset. She and her husband, Fabrizio Boccha, established Common Farm Flowers in 2010, and over the last ten years it has bloomed from a wheelbarrow filled with sweetpeas into a successful floral business delivering bouquets, subscriptions, workshops, and more.

You might have seen our interview with Georgie in the latest issue of Behind The Seams. This is the unabridged version, filled with even more growing and floristry tips. It’s perfect for reading in the sunshine...

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Have you always been a flower farmer?

No – in fact, I used to work in fashion! In my 20s, I worked in Paris for American Vogue and John Galliano. I then lived in London as a writer, and in 2003 I moved to Somerset after meeting Fabrizio on a walk in Stourhead. My mother had always been a wonderful gardener, but until then I’d never had a garden of my own.

You started in fashion – so how did you turn to floristry?

One day a neighbour sent me a bunch of flowers, and it was a real lightbulb moment. I thought I could grow more flowers, make bouquets and send them from home all while looking after my two young children. At the time I was already selling surplus sweetpeas from a barrow at the front of the house. It seemed a no brainer for me.

All of your flowers are either grown on your farm or elsewhere in the UK. Why are British flowers best, in your opinion?

We’re lucky to live in a gentle climate where flowers flourish. When we can grow the best quality flowers in the world right here, all while living in beautiful gardens and feeding our environment, it seems crazy to fly planes filled with flowers from Venezuela – many of which return to South America empty. British grown flowers are more sustainable and better for the environment, and seasonality in flowers only makes them more beautiful.

You’re an advocate for sustainable and organic farming. How do you grow cut flowers sustainably?

Fabrizio’s ethos is: look after the insects, and the rest of the food chain will look after itself. To this end, we actually only cultivate our cut flower patches on half the land here at Common Farm.

Our patches are widely spread out between sections of wildflower meadow, wooded areas, areas of orchard and so on. Paths are mown in the long grass so that the wildlife has motorways to connect them to the next place for them to visit. We also have a number of small ponds so that there are lots of damp places for amphibians, and we have piles of horticultural debris everywhere for the hedgehogs, toads and grass snakes to live in. Our neighbours might not love our swathes of nettles and thistles, but they do love the flourishing gangs of goldfinches and array of butterflies!

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Besides wildlife gardening, how else do you reduce your impact on the environment?

We never use peat based compost, and I have become allergic to plant labels. In fact, I now label nothing and just rest assured that, if I liked the idea enough to plant it in the first place, I’m sure it’ll grow into something wonderful. I’m quite good at identifying seedlings, which helps!

I also never use floral foam in my floristry, and we even run eco floral workshops for those interested in sustainable flower arranging.

How do you cope with pests when gardening organically?

If you garden organically, eventually, while you will have slugs and other pests they won’t cause disastrous damage. One has to be patient, but in the end the patience is richly rewarded. In the spring, for example, I hold my breath while the greenfly proliferate, and about two weeks later I’m rewarded by thousands of ladybirds munching them all away.

Never use slug pellets to control slugs. Some people swear by oats, but I don’t want rats. Cooked egg shells are a good soil conditioner, but I’m not convinced they make a brilliant repellent. Coffee grounds, for me, are a bit sour. Ultimately, the answer is to garden organically and you’ll soon have enough predators to help keep on top of the slugs – and I’m afraid I do sometimes go out in the evening and cut them up with scissors. They are out marauding usually at about 7pm, so a quick sweep round the beds with a mower at that time is effective!

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Growing flowers from seed is thought to be tricky. Do you have any advice for anyone thinking of trying it?

Growing flowers from seed isn’t difficult if you use fresh seed with good quality, peat-free compost and don’t sow too much, or too early. Try sage, cosmos, ammi majus, bupleurum, sweet peas to start with. With fresh seed you should get 95% germination, so only sow roughly what you need for your garden, in a small tray, and water from underneath so that you don’t swamp the seed.

Can you describe a typical spring or summer day at Common Farm?

In the summer I’m up with the lark as early as 5am. Having made a cutting list the night before, I’ll pull my trolley around the garden (under the watchful eye of my border terrier, Tea Cake) cutting what I need for that day’s floristry. I can cut 400 stems an hour, so I’m usually finished by about 10am, when I have breakfast and do some admin. Floristry is after lunch, and the flowers are all collected by the courier at about 4.30pm – and they arrive on the recipient’s doorstep the next day. If I’m on my own working I have a strict radio regime too: Radio 3 ‘til lunchtime, Radio 4 for some news, then Classic FM in the afternoon.

On workshop days I may cut the night before, then get up early and do the flowers so that by the time the students arrive at 10am they’re all finished. Workshops here take place in our beautiful studio barn and there’s nearly always a need to go wandering around the flower fields too, to see what’s growing, or cut some flowers.

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For those of us with smaller gardens, what plants would you recommend for containers?

You can grow cut flowers in pots, but they need more water and more food; every time you water them you wash away nutrients. I grow details for my bouquets and posies in pots around my back door: rosemary, lavender, scented pelargoniums, and sages all do well in pots and make fine extras for a cut flower patch.

Gardening is full of trials and errors. Can you tell us about a time you’ve learnt from your mistakes?

I believe in taking advantage of happy accidents. When we started we still had a lot of slugs, and I planted out a row of cornflower seedlings which were mown by the slugs that very night. In a panic I just sowed the rest directly into the ground, and had a great cornflower crop in just the same time as I would have from the planted out seedlings. I’ve never sown a cornflower in a tray since!

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Do you think gardening is good for your wellbeing? If so, how?

Absolutely. For mental health, you are forced to slow down, concentrate, and allow nature to take charge. Sowing a seed is a declaration of faith in the future no matter what’s in the news. There is also evidence that working with earth releases serotonin in the brain, which makes you happy. Outdoor exercise, however mild, makes you feel brighter, sharper and better able to handle the business that life throws at you. For me, time in the garden is time to think. I lose myself in the repetitive necessities of making flowers grow, and after a couple of hours I come back to the house totally refreshed.

Farming flowers is one aspect of what you do. The other is floristry. What are your top tips for cutting and arranging flowers?

The most important thing is to cut straight into water, stripping the stems of foliage as you go to prevent rotting. Snip the stems of your flowers most days to keep the cellulose drinking cells open, and ensure the water is fresh and the vase clean. Don’t cut flowers when they are fully open if you want them to last. And for a balanced bouquet, cut a third showstoppers, a third filler, and a third foliage. It’s worth coming to one of our workshops for more ideas.

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Given free reign, what’s your perfect bouquet?

I love colour, and I love rust coloured foliage, so I would team hot pink dahlias and rusty rudbekias with a dash of real blue – it sounds like it would clash, but it’s glorious! I also love scent, so I might cool this mix down with scented, blue-edged white sweet peas.

If you could only have three flowers, what would they be – and why?

Sweet peas and roses for scent, and dahlias. Dahlias are my all time favourite. They’re the hardest working flower in the garden, the most giving, the most glorious – the can-can dancers of my cut flower patch!

Lastly, what’s your top flower farmer tip for growing beautiful flowers?

For the lushest, healthiest blooms, look first to your earth. Feed your earth, mulch your earth, be kind to your earth, and it will repay you a millionfold in flowers to keep you smiling all summer long.

Would you like to hear more from Georgie? You can visit Common Farm Flowers for day trips and workshops, which cover everything from growing and arranging flowers to running your own small business. Georgie also delivers fresh flowers anywhere in the UK, and her books are available to order now. Or, for a little floral inspiration, just follow her on Facebook or Instagram! And if you’re in the mood for all things floral, take a look at our floral print collection – just the thing for a spring afternoon.

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