Sunday, 26 November 2017

How to start a cut flower business

Well, this is not exactly my specialist subject: I wrote the book about how to be a self-employed gardener, not a cut flower grower.  But questions are questions, and someone has just written in asking me if is it possible to start a cut flower business in your own back garden,  and what tips would I give for starting it, and for finding customers.

I must admit that I wouldn't have thought of starting a cut flower business without at least an acre of so of land, but I don't see why you couldn't at least start in your back garden.

A first step would be to ask friends and neighbours if they have a spare area that you could either rent cheaply, or use for free: I have a friend who "rents" the large back garden of an elderly neighbour for a peppercorn rent, the owner being housebound and unable to do anything with the garden.  It might also be worth approaching your local council and asking them if they have any unused areas: allotments are cheap, but cannot be used for commercial growing, but the council might have other areas of land which they might rent to you.

Also try all your local churches - they are massive landowners, and it is often surprising what they own. I know of a chap in the next village who rents a one-acre field from the church, he keeps animals on it, and grows veg, and apparently it's a very cheap rent.  So there are a couple of avenues you could try, to get more land, before having to take the step of buying some.

Even though my book (below) is aimed at gardeners,  everything in it about tax, bank accounts, responsibility etc is very valid, and I would advise anyone using it to springboard into a variation on the theme of gardening to go through each chapter and topic, working out how it relates to your chosen business.

 First is going to be research (predictably): who are going to be your customers? What sort of flowers are they going to want?

Are you going to just grow the flowers, and sell them loose (in which case, to the public? Or to florists?) or are you going to make up the arrangements yourself, thus maximising  your profit.

Have you already done a course (minimum requirement, I would say), or obtained a qualification (better) on flower arranging? At the very least, have you watched as many youtube tutorials as you can find, and have you successfully made up some arrangements?  Will you need to deliver them - and is your home suitable to allow people to collect?

That last one, by the way, is a nod to Vicky's Seeds, who used to be Vicky's Flowers until - apparently - the neighbours complained to the council about the number of visitors clogging up their road. The council investigated,  and told Vicky that she needed planning permission in order to run a business from her home, and that they would refuse such permission, as she did not have adequate parking for visitors. She, being a lady of intelligence, stopped selling plants and converted to selling seeds instead, which can all be done by post. No more enraged neighbours! But the point remains, if  you intend to have members of the public come to your house to collect products, then you need to be able to accommodate them, you might need permission from the council, and you might also want to think about the personal safety aspects of publicising your home address to all and sundry.

What is going to be your speciality?

You would need to decide on a speciality, I think,  in order to reduce the number of species you would need to grow: if land is limited, then you need to concentrate on plants which give reliable flowers and/or foliage for your chosen market. Which leads on to...

Are there any gaps in the market that you think you could fill? Wedding flowers are the obvious one, but that maybe too obvious, as you would be competing with large numbers of established businesses. Plus, a wedding is vitally important, so what would you do if the flowers didn't open in time? Or if some wild weather demolished your cutting beds two days before the wedding? You would probably need insurance of some kind, to avoid being sued by distraught brides if their promised wreath turned out to be a handful of mis-matched roses with a clump of laurel leaves for greenery. At the very least, you might find yourself having to rush out and buy blooms from florists, which would ruin your profit margin completely.

So apply some lateral thinking - who else buys cut flowers? What about funeral flowers, office blocks, local florists (which should be your first call, I would have thought: ask them if they are looking for any new suppliers, emphasising your local credentials, and ask them also if there are any specific flowers/foliage which they find it hard to source), dentist/doctor receptions, small boutique hotels/b&bs - I used to do the garden for one of the latter, the owner spent a fortune buying in posh smart flowers for the rooms. If you can offer a delivery service, you could find yourself with a nice regular income, supplying weekly flowers all year round.

Talking of all year round, what will you do in the winter? Apply some thought as to how you can extend the season: can you fit a small polytunnel into your garden? Is there a sheltered corner or side passage which gets the low sun in winter, where you could fit in a line of small plastic greenhouses? What about foliage - it's not just about the flowers, and this is where your friends and neighbours might come in handy again, if some of them would let you plant some specific foliage shrubs, on the understanding that you will on occasion have to rush round and pillage them.

Think about how people use the internet to find suppliers - what do they type in? When you have created your own website and blog - which you need to do NOW, right now, as it takes several months for new internet content to be viewable - make sure that all those words and phrases are featured within the text of your website/blog.

Having done all that research, you can then turn to the actual products: which are the best flowers to grow? Do you already know what you plan to grow, or do you have a somewhat vague idea of beds full of massed colour? You will need to determine how long a flowering season each species has: is it worth growing five-minute wonders, or would you do better to stick to the less exciting but more reliable ones?  Will you grow annuals from seed? Perennials for year-on-year cutting?

What about irrigation? Soaker hose or low-level drippers are essential, to avoid water damage that you would get by spraying the blooms from above, so  you would need to think about the costs and practicalities of setting that up.

What about pests? How will you deal with slugs, snails, earwigs, beetles, weevils, rabbits, deer, and the neighbours' grandchildren kicking footballs over the hedge? Are you planning to present yourself as being organic? This might open up more markets for you, but it might severely restrict the spraying and bug killing that you can do, which in turn might affect production.

All these things need to be considered.

I would assume that the person asking the question has already taken the basic step of putting the phrase "how to set up a cut flower business" into a search engine: I found two from Saga, of all people, one about a cut flower garden and one about how to start a business in cut flowers:  there was some interesting information from Hobbyfarms, and even Country Living have an article on the business side of things. This demonstrates that there is no shortage of information out there.

Another point I make in my book is the value of "easing into" being self-employed by overlapping it with your current job: you can do all the set-up and the first steps while still working at your "day" job, and it can take several months for adverts to be published, so it is worth deciding on your advertising budget and how you are going to use it, well before you actually leave your day job.

In addition, it can take months to establish any sort of planting: even if you plan to grow only annuals, you will still need to clear the beds in your garden,  get rid of all weeds, maybe move some of the beds in order to make the most of the sunny side of the garden - all this can take months, and you might as well be earning while you are preparing.

My book also has chapters on how to research and decide on a business name for yourself, avoiding the major pitfalls: one of my favourite stories about choosing a name relates to a friend of mine who decided to use her own name for her business, but when she googled it, she found it was also the name of a minor porn "star".  Not really the sort of fame for which she was hoping....

So it's true: a book about how to be a self employed gardener can indeed be useful to anyone starting a similar sort of business!

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