“The flower farming industry is incredibly supportive,” says Lucy Clayton, founder of Dead Head flower farm. “It completely surprised me. TV can be quite ruthless, and I just assumed this would be super competitive too, but I’ve found it very nurturing and supportive.”
Lucy Clayton is a Somerset-based florist, flower farmer and the founder of Dead Head. Lucy says sustainability is at the core of how she manages the farm and growing spaces. “We use no dig methods and peat free compost. We farm without chemicals or pesticides and we grow seasonally.” Here, Annie Ridout asks her about what it’s like, running a flower farm business…
When did you launch, and why?
After the birth of my first son in 2014, I left my job working in TV and never returned. I couldn’t juggle family life with the industry I had known for so long, but finding the next step was tricky. I took on lots of small part-time roles for other people once my son was at nursery but none really filled me with joy.
I took a career change course in flower farming, in 2018, to see if that would strike a chord as we were lucky enough to own land but by the time the course came round, I was pregnant with my second son. The course leader, Georgie, was adamant that shouldn’t put me off, and so quite naively I started the flower farm in 2019.
Tell us about your previous career?
My career pre-flower farm and pre-children was in TV. I worked my way up to be a Production Manager in Factual programming (mostly documentaries) which was brilliant, varied, exciting and fun – but just too demanding for me personally to juggle alongside kids. I got to work with some incredible talent, go to many an award show, and help produce some brilliant TV. I’m very proud of that part of my career.
What do you wish you’d known, when starting out?
When I started out, I wish I’d known how to run a business! I was very naive to the ins and outs of everything to be honest, but they say the best way to learn is to do and that’s what I did – and I am still learning of course as I go.
I also wish I had known a little more about the benefit of very careful planning – I can be quite impulsive and when you’re working with mother nature, and a natural product rather than something you can just order in from the wholesalers, you really need to plan things carefully.
Tell us about an average day, as a flower farmer…
Flower farming can be a really varied job, and is almost always dictated by the weather and the time of year. It is also, most definitely a year round job, although I think people assume it’s spring and summer only.
If you’ve a crop to cut, ideally that needs to be done in the morning or evening – away from the warm sun, and ideally not in the rain. Watering crops is best done in the evening so they have all night to absorb the water, and it won’t be evaporated by a sunny day. If it’s a scorcher though you may be watering twice a day.
Seed sowing happens at various times in the year, depending on the type and variety of plant. You need the right conditions – enough daylight and enough warmth (not too much!) for them to successfully germinate and grow into strong plants so this requires lots of planning. Some plants need to receive cold stratification to germinate which is a mix of cold spells and warm spells, some don’t like any light to germinate. Some enjoy total neglect and others need mollycoddling along.
In the field there is always a job to tackle – fencing, compost bags, staking, weed matting, mulching, weeding (I don’t do much of that!), planting out, harvesting. I prefer to do my field work in a half day rather than a long day as it helps my body and back, in particular, not get too tired and destroyed.
As I predominantly sell dried flowers, I then have to think about that additional process in my business. Once crops are cut, they need to be prepped and hung for dried, and then once dry they are added to bunches or wreaths that I hand-make.
I also try and factor in each week some content creation, product photography, finance updates and any other admin that crops up – such as quoting for jobs or ordering in packaging.
It’s a healthy split between outdoor physical work, indoor creative joy and then the nuts and bolts of the business side of things – admin, marketing and finance. Each season brings a slightly different working balance.
What is the flowing-growing/selling industry like, is it a supportive space to be in?
The flower farming industry is incredibly supportive. It completely surprised me to be honest. TV can be quite ruthless, and I just assumed this would be super competitive too, but I’ve found it very nurturing and supportive. So many growers give you expert advice, help you out, big you up, and become sounding boards when things are going awry. I’ve also found a great network of friends through flower farming, which was a complete bonus.
What would you love to see change, in your industry?
I would really love the movement of transparency around flower origins to get stronger – there is still a huge amount of greenwashing in the floristry industry. Flowers that British consumers buy are most likely to be flown in from abroad, but I don’t think most people realise that’s the case.
The carbon footprint of imported flowers is terrible, the conditions they are grown in are not natural at all, the workers wear full on protective gear including masks due to all the chemicals used in the growing and preserving process. I could go on.
If people were to ask more questions about where their flowers came from, I’d love to think they’d then choose to shop local and only buy British grown, chemical free flowers. It is true that you cannot get them all year round, but doesn’t that make their fleeting beauty all the more special?
Greatest business success?
I think quite frankly the fact that I’m still going after having launched the first flowers sales in March 2020, just as the pandemic began, is a great achievement in itself. Overall though I would say being quite agile in business has proved to be really successful for me.
The pandemic certainly put that to the test, but it’s a great skill to have as a small business owner, and it’s meant I can keep tweaking and honing in on the best direction to go in – which is most definitely as a dried flower specialist. That has by far been the most successful side to this business.
Oh tons of different products have flopped I suppose, or just not sold as well as I’d hoped but you just have to crack on and try the next thing, and try not to take it to heart. There will always be lots of things that people love, so as long as you keep moving forward, I think you’re doing ok.
That lack of planning in the first year also caused me to be the proud owner of beds filled with cornflowers – a gorgeous flower, and an easy one to grow, but it takes an age to cut (which makes it less profitable) as it’s so fiddly and of course no-one really wants to buy it as they grow it in their garden. So yes, fields of cornflowers could also be seen as a flop.
What advice do you have for budding flower-growers and florists?
I would start small in terms of growing until you really have a grasp of how flower farming works as a business, and what direction you’re going in, otherwise you’ll make yourself a busy fool. Look after your soil, look after your back and trail blaze the most eco-friendly path you can. Florists – use British only, that would be my only advice.
Lucy’s beautiful flowers: www.deadheadflowerfarm.co.uk
Follow Lucy on Instagram: @deadheadflowerfarm