The Story of An Irish Flower Farm
“I still remember that intense amazement when they grew, an eruption of leaves and orange flowers,” describes Fionnuala Fallon of the first time she grew nasturtium as a child. “To me, it really was like magic.” And it continues to be for Fionnuala, a qualified horticulturist working as a garden writer, columnist and author for years, who, in 2015, opened a flower farm with her photographer husband Richard Johnston.
Taking over half of a courtyard garden in Wicklow, it’s become the perfect combination of their passions for ornamental and kitchen gardening, plus sustainable growing. Like the slow food movement, flower gardening is all about promoting seasonality and organic produce, creating bouquets that reflect and capture the scent and sights of the local landscape.
The idea first sprung to life when she received a call from Trevor Sargent, friend and former minister for agriculture and passionate organic gardener, about friends of his running a flower farm in Leitrim. “It was with the view of featuring them in my Irish Times column and it was the first time I had ever heard the term,” says Fionnuala. “So we headed down and were just so impressed by what they were doing. Up until then, I had always wondered why I couldn’t buy Irish garden flowers in a florist, it seems like such a disconnect that the flowers that were running riot in my garden weren't available to buy.”
The more Fionnuala researched into the modern flower industry, the more horrified she was by the use of chemicals to grow flowers and the oil and refrigeration that goes into transporting them vast distances. “The average flower is 97 per cent water, so if you’re shipping in flowers from somewhere like Kenya, where water is such a precious commodity, it makes absolutely no sense.”
At first, they began growing in their own garden, but quickly realised they didn’t have enough land to make it viable. Coincidentally, a family friend with a garden nearby was looking to rent out half of her sheltered, south-westerly facing walled garden, and Fionnuala realised it was the perfect place for flower growing. They were lucky too, to have friends in the industry to call on and quiz, organic growers like Dermot Carey and Jim Cronin. “Dermot came in once the garden was ready to rotate the soil because we had been digging by hand and we realised it was ridiculous, we were taking a garden-scale approach to what is really field production.”
Now, in their wide rows of beds and a few polytunnels, they grow flowers for harvest all year round, though the main season runs from early March to November, supplying weddings, events, film sets, hotels and a few private clients with buckets of seasonal, fresh-cut flowers. And while it might appear a dreamy day job, bumbling about the greenery cutting stems, it continues to require no small amount of hard work tackling the weather, slugs and organically extending the limited growing season as much as possible. “This year has been really, really hard because it’s been exceptionally cold and the growing season is at least 3-4 weeks behind schedule, but we’re still cutting flowers like anemones, and now the ranunculus and narcissi are out, we’re finally underway. We also potted about 600 dahlia tubers this week and have I don’t know how many thousand seedlings growing around us.”
Growing garden-cut flowers for local communities and businesses also allows Fionnuala and Richard to produce a wider selection of blooms. Most flowers available in conventional florists must be hardy enough to endure long-distance refrigerated travel, but many of the more fragrant Irish blooms, like sweet pea, Fionnuala points out, won’t survive that kind of move but they will grow in swathes in Ireland if you give them something to climb up. “I can’t look at wedding cakes decorated in roses anymore. All I can think about how many times that rose has been sprayed in chemicals and then shipped over here to be plonked on a wedding cake that people will eat.”
But there are Irish florists out there who are turning to Irish blooms more and more. “People like Mark Grehan from The Garden in Powerscourt Townhouse, The Informal Florist, Jenny Murphy from Flowers by Moira and the Appassionata ladies, but there are nowhere near as many as there could be,” explains Fionnuala. To encourage more florists to use Irish flowers, and encourage people, brides, event planners to ask for anything Irish grown, she and twenty other Irish flower farmers have set up the Flower Farmers of Ireland, an association to encourage the use of locally grown, seasonal fresh blooms. “I think so few Irish people know how many flowers can be grown and are grown in this country, they don’t really think about it. That’s what we’re trying to change.”
But really, Fionnuala’s passion stems from her love of gardening and growing. “I think gardening is probably the closest thing to magic us adults will never get,” she smiles. “You put these little dry specks of dust in the ground and they grow into plants of incredible beauty or delicious food. It’s transformative, it still amazes me every time.”
WORDS Lauren Heskin PHOTOGRAPHY Richard Johnston
For more on Fionnuala's gorgeous homegrown blooms, including what to grow for different seasons, pick up Garden Heaven 2018, available here.