The Flower Farmers’ Big Weekend is taking place this August, and a gardener based in Portgate on the Cornwall-Devon border is giving local people the opportunity to come and have a look around her two-acre garden which she describes as a constant ‘work in progress’.
Hilary Stevenson, also known as the Devon Cottage Gardener, is taking part in the weekend to show the public how flower farming works, from seed to bloom.
Flower farming is not a term well known to us compared to other methods of agriculture, but the Flower Farmers’ Big Weekend will be a fantastic chance for people to dive into this mysterious yet beautiful world, learning about the art of growing sustainable blooms for everyone to enjoy.
When Hilary and her partner purchased their 13th century former farmhouse in 2016, she soon realised the garden would be a huge challenge.
When they purchased the property, it was a derelict farmhouse located in the glorious countryside of Portgate in the ‘Golden Triangle’ of Launceston, Tavistock and Okehampton, sitting on almost two acres of land.
The two acres was covered in bramble, pieces of old farm machinery, rubble, tyres and silage wrap, so Hilary knew tackling the outside of the property was going to be a challenge - perhaps even bigger than converting the derelict 13th century home that sits on the land.
Hilary said: “Although I maintained my gardens in previous properties, I had never had to start a garden from scratch, or indeed one on this scale.
“The house was easy. A listed grade 2 building, we knew it had been thatched many years ago and the planners agreed that the asbestos roof and concrete render should come off to be replaced with thatch and lime render.
“The garden was a different matter. I knew nothing about plants or growing them but could envisage a very informal cottage garden. I also wanted to ensure that whatever I did encouraged biodiversity and wildlife.”
Three years on from the initial project and Hilary has thrown herself into the world of gardening: “Fast forward three years, I have been on a horticultural learning curve like I never imagined and have become a complete plant addict. My illusions of deep, red garden soil had been replaced with the knowledge that the land had a thin covering of soil on shillit. No spade gets through that, only a pick axe! This naturally led to establishing the garden using ‘no dig’ principles and formed a basis for sustainable growing.”
The first two years of the project were spent clearing the land and putting in borders for the cottage garden, sowing wildflower areas and establishing a pond. Within this time, Hilary discovered a 13th century tithe map that showed the original farmstead which indicated a pond had been there at this time, but was boggy, overgrown and inaccessible.
Funds had not allowed for garden designers or bulk buying of plants, but a digger was brought in to clear the undergrowth from the pond area and a natural spring was found, as the map suggested. The pond, which is 20ft deep, is now home to moorhens, wild ducks, frogs, newts and fish, and is also visited by Canadian geese, Kingfishers and even otters. Stoats, weasels and voles live around the banks and bog areas.
During the initial three-year development of the garden, Hilary was often asked by people if they could have a look around the gardens, and last year she was asked to supply some cut flowers.
“This got me thinking,” she said. “At the time, we were in lockdown and as I was working predominantly remotely as a HR consultant and coach, I had some freedom of time. The plan for The Devon Cottage Gardener was born.
“My aim is to bring the delight of the cottage garden into the home, by supplying sustainably grown cottage garden bouquets and arrangements. This year has seen me supply flowers for restaurants, hotels, subscription customers, weddings and events.”
All the flowers grown and cut by Hilary are seasonal and dependent on the weather, but thanks to the formation of the Cutting Garden with a poly tunnel, the growing season can start earlier and finish later. In fact, the land now comprises the Cottage Garden, Cutting Garden, Prairie Garden - of which the first phase was completed last year, making way for 4,500 plants and grasses. Hilary uses no pesticides and allows customers to come and choose the flowers they would like on an appointment basis.
On Sunday, 15th August, Hilary will be taking part in Flowers from the Farm’s ‘Flower Farmers’ Big Weekend’, which will see flower farmers across the country open their gates to run tours of their flower operations, from small allotments through to large farms as a means of informing the public on buying local, sustainably grown British flowers.
With an estimated 90% of flowers being imported to the UK from Holland, but flown in from growers as far afield as Ecuador, Colombia and Kenya, Flowers from the Farm seeks to encourage the growth of cut flowers for market in the UK and to promote British grown flowers. Flowers from the Farm is a not-for-profit organisation and works to support British flower farmers by providing opportunities for them to share their passion for what they do, as well as their skills and experience.
Hilary added: “When I look back I would never have dreamed that saving this run down property would have led to such an all consuming passion. The garden continues to be a work in progress but what is wonderful is being able to share the flowers with the local community.” On 15th August, the gates will be open for a limited number of visitors to find out about how the flowers are grown on the site. Full Covid restrictions will apply. Details can be found via the Flowers from the Farm website: https://www.flowersfromthefarm.co.uk/flower-farmers-big-weekend-2021/
There will be no entry fee, but donations will go to the Devon Wildlife Trust.