Chelsea Flower Show…. at home

Chemotherapy, due to breast cancer meant that I missed a visit to Chelsea Flower Show. But I was inspired to start growing my own flowers. Find out how by reading on.

Photo by Sue Lacey Photography

I’ve always loved cut flowers, and usually have a vaseful somewhere in my house.  Flowers are one of the luxuries that I have always treated myself to  – they add so much to a room and are full of colour and scent.  Flowers are the reason for the “blooming” part of this blog’s title and I hope they are going to provide enjoyment, beauty, employment and income for me for the foreseeable future.  You see, I’m making plans to become a cut flower farmer, growing sustainable, organic, British flowers.  Amazingly, my plans grew from a tiny seed planted in my brain by my husband, Liam, whilst I was recovering from one of my chemotherapy sessions.

Home grown dahlias

I had bought tickets for me and my Mum to go to Chelsea Flower Show on her birthday at the end of May 2016.  They were part of her Christmas present and I had bought them before I was diagnosed with breast cancer just a few weeks after Christmas.  Still, I thought that I’d be able to go and that it would be a restorative and rejuvenating day out.  This was when I didn’t know that I’d have to have chemotherapy or how ill and miserable that would make me feel.

Everyone with breast cancer has individually tailored chemotherapy drugs and regimes.  My drug cocktail was Taxotere and Cyclophosphamine given intravenously – I would much have preferred a Moscow Mule but these aren’t provided by the NHS!  I would have four treatments at three weekly intervals, meaning that my chemo experience would only last twelve weeks.  I think I got off very lightly even though it was a very difficult twelve weeks in many ways.  Another drug, Herceptin, was also added into the mix; given as a subcutaneous injection every three weeks for one year.

My first chemotherapy session was set for April 14th 2016, with three more scheduled at three weekly intervals.  This meant that my 3rd infusion would take place on 26th May – just two days before the much anticipated trip to Chelsea.  I was still confident of going, but I didn’t realise that the effects of my chemo would be cumulative, meaning that I felt more and more fatigued, ill and depressed as the weeks went on.

After my second treatment, I told my Mum to think of someone else to go with, as I just wouldn’t be up to the day out – one more thing that cancer had taken away from me.  This is where Liam comes in…

I managed to get out of bed on the morning of 28th May and was greeted by a huge array of horticultural goodies.  Packets of seeds galore, bulbs, plants and pots to grow them in, and a rather wonderful kneeling pad for my chemotherapy ravaged knees.  I was surprised and thrilled in equal measures.  Liam had decided that if I couldn’t go to Chelsea, then Chelsea would come to me.

It turned out that my amazing husband had emailed and Facebooked friends and family, explaining the situation, and asked them to send me one packet of seeds.  Instead of one packet, my wonderful gardening Good Samaritan’s sent multiple packets, nets of bulbs, actual plants and all manner of horticultural supplies.  It really was an beautiful sight, and I was overcome with emotion at all of the love and support that had been showered on me.

I sat on my sofa for most of the spring and summer, trying to summon up the energy to get out into the garden and tend to my plants, but mostly having to be content with looking at the flowers that we already had.  Luckily Liam had planted some dahlias and we got an amazing crop of those – they really filled my heart with joy.  I felt myself being drawn towards flowers and not just in the garden. Flowers in books, flowers in magazines, flowers on Instagram and Pinterest & of course gardening television programmes.

I really wanted to be involved in the flower world but I didn’t know how.  Then I had two flashes of inspiration.  I discovered that there are people all around the world who grow flowers for the cut flower market – some large scale and some on one or two acres. And there’s a flourishing market in sustainable, local British flowers; the kind of flowers that don’t travel well and are easily damaged – Sweet Peas, Dahlias, Cosmos, Nigella, Scabious, Ranunculus, Anemones, Larkspur, Zinias  Why couldn’t I become a cut flower farmer?  I then realised that I could practice by sowing the seeds that I’d been given, potting them on and then holding a plant sale in aid of my local cancer centre, The Lynda Jackson Centre.

plant sale
Plants for sale

So that’s what I did.  Bear in mind that I’d never sown a seed before, and knew nothing about propagation and potting on.  But….I did it and went on to hold my plant sale almost a year after the aborted trip to Chelsea.  Yet again, my friends and family came up trumps.  Not only did I have about fifty visitors to the sale, but I also was the recipient of delicious home made cakes from The Cafe in the Park, and some very enthusiastic baker friends.

I had been given so many seeds that I decided to dig up a patch of my lawn and sow some more direct into the soil once it had warmed up.  Again, much to my surprise, this was also a great success and i grew enough to keep myself in cut flowers all summer, and also to give to my family and friends.  I was hooked!

flower patch
My cut flower patch

Last autumn, Liam and my brother in law, Pete, dug up even more garden and I now have a bigger space for my flowers.  I’m about to divide my dahlia tubers and pot them up, and to sow the first of my annuals in a makeshift seed rack in my son’s bedroom. (He doesn’t live with us anymore, by the way).  I’m under no illusions that this is going to be an easy option. I’m determined to make it work, but I want to take it slowly.  Partly because I don’t have much land to grow on, partly because I still have limited energy, and partly because I’m learning as I go along.

Early on in my my apprenticeship I invested in courses run by two British flower farmers. Claire Brown at Plantpassion allowed complete novices, including me, to have freedom to roam her beautiful flower field in Surry and cut some stems with which we later learnt to make hand tied bouquets – I need a lot of practice with this skill!!   I then attended a Flower Farming for Beginners course run by Rachel Siegfried of Green & Gorgeous.  What an amazing and slightly scary day that was; made even better by the delicious home mad lunch and cakes!

I’ve just finished a fantastic online cut flower workshop, written by a United States flower farmer called Erin Benzakein who runs the Floret Flower Farm.  It has been so  inspiring and has really fired up my imagination and desire to dig into this new venture.

So that is the story of how a fledgling cut flower farming venture grew out of a breast cancer diagnosis.  Time spent on the sofa, a wonderful thoughtful husband, many generous friends and family members, and of course the beauty that can be found in flowers, all combined to start me on a completely new and exciting journey of discovery.


12 thoughts on “Chelsea Flower Show…. at home

  1. Pingback: Blooming Cancer

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