For Fiona and Chris McLeod, moving to the Chiltern Hills in Buckinghamshire sparked a love of gardening that turned into a successful business. Here, Fiona also provides top gardening tips to try out yourself
Set in glorious Buckinghamshire countryside, Chiltern Sky Flowers is a bustling hive of horticultural industry. It may be small scale but this cut flower farm is exceptionally popular, producing everything from beautiful blooms to ornamental grasses, as well as herbs, foliage, dried flowers and more. It’s a labour of love from husband-and-wife team Chris and Fiona McLeod. “Chris and I did not actually start off life with a love of gardens, gardening and growing,” laughs Fiona. “It was only when we moved out of London, more than 20 years ago, to our cottage and two acres of land in the Chiltern Hills that we slowly fell in love with the landscape around us. It happened gradually but, surrounded by natural wildflower meadows, it was easy to become more connected to the natural world. Our love of gardening started here.”
A Member of the Professional Garden Photographer’s Association and The Garden Media Guild, Fiona is a garden photographer by trade, with her images appearing in magazines and books across the world, including Gardens Illustrated and The English Garden. Her transition from garden photographer to flower farmer was somewhat fortuitous. “In order to supplement my income as a garden photographer, I worked as a propagator in a local perennial plant nursery. It wasn’t long before I was growing many of the perennials for our own garden and when that became full, I ended up giving plants away to friends, family and neighbours. A florist friend of mine suggested I investigate growing cut flowers. Once I looked into it, I knew I had found out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
After carrying out some research, Fiona found out that while there was a handful of Buckinghamshire flower growers, there were none within a five-mile radius of their home in Bledlow Ridge. She decided to experiment with growing just a few cut flowers to begin with. “To be honest, I didn’t know whether I could do it reliably and regularly enough. Growing annuals for cut flowers is quite a different process to growing perennials from seed,” she says. “However, I was looking for a work-life balance that had a connection to the land around us. I needed a much more mindful life, to be grounded, to be challenged and to be more hands-on creative. I also wanted to learn more about the healing power of nature because I know it has a huge influence on my life.”
Their two-acre plot of land was the ideal place to start the flower farm. “We had allowed the land to develop on its own, with as little intervention as possible — a process known as rewilding. It was an instinctive decision; it seemed natural to allow our plot to be a safe haven for wildflowers, native trees and shrubs growing at their own pace, and to offer a protective environment for birds and other wildlife. Today, we share our land with roe deers, muntjacs, rabbits, stoats, pheasants, badgers — all sorts.”
The first thing we did was to fence off the entire flower farm plot — an area of approximately a quarter of an acre. “We chose this particular spot in the field because it is sheltered by ancient hedgerows and trees — it even has its own microclimate and is always five degrees warmer,” Fiona says.
“I knew I had found out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life”
2019 was the preliminary trial year for Chiltern Sky Flowers. “We live in a small village and it wasn’t long before word of mouth provided enough orders to keep us busy,” says Fiona. The farm has since gone from strength to strength and now provides flower arranger’s buckets, seasonal gift bouquets and bunches, DIY wedding flower buckets and, new for 2021, pick-your-own flowers days. “This will also be the first year we are going to need to have help from a local gardener on a regular basis — I can’t do it all on my own,” reveals Fiona. “I only get to ‘borrow’ Chris at the weekends — and sometimes I don’t even have that luxury.” As an agent in the film and TV industry, he is often away. “We have been to the Oscars on a number of occasions, though. Sometimes when I am covered from head to foot in mud and bugs, I reflect on the glamour of Hollywood and what a different side of me that is!”
When it comes to choosing what to grow, Fiona has learned over the years which flowers grow well on their soil, and she combines this knowledge with the flowers her customers keep asking for. “I do a huge amount of research,” she explains. “I look at Instagram, read books, talk to florists, talk to customers and talk to other growers. I also use a great reference book called The British Flowers Book by Claire Brown, published by Flowers from The Farm. However, it’s important to grow the flowers your customers want as well as the flowers you love.”
And as for those particular favourites, “I love all of the flowers I grow!” says Fiona. “I am particularly drawn to flowers that have colour, movement and texture, such as umbellifers and little fillers like Achillea, Ammi and Daucus carota. Dahlias always come up in my top five, because who doesn’t like a dahlia? This season, I have invested in a range of new varieties and am slowly sussing out which ones work, which ones our customers like and which ones we will begin to propagate from.”
Trends come and go with flowers, but Fiona is sure that after what has been such a difficult period for many, people will be looking for bright, inspiring colours to bring cheer and joy. “And there is definitely a trend for a garden-gathered style of floristry, with meadow-inspired flowers that put seasonality first,” she says.
“British-grown flowers are becoming more and more important as we try to navigate around our national global emissions, carbon footprints, Brexit and Covid-19. It’s important we learn to change the way we buy our flowers and to recognise the importance of embracing and sustaining our local communities,” implores Fiona. “Supporting your local flower farmers will provide a much more sustainable approach to buying flowers. Flowers grown without chemicals or any air miles are definitely the way ahead.”
Fiona’s tips for growing fabulous flowers
1 Respect your soil
Take soil samples and top up with the recommended nutrients for optimum soil health and growing
conditions. Because if you feed your soil, the flowers will look after themselves.
2 Save your own seeds or share with friends
You don’t always need a whole packet, especially if you are not growing on a large scale.
3 Plan your plot
Research and choose easy to grow “cut and come again” flowers initially. Take records so next year you have something to compare against. Concentrate on learning how to grow good-quality flowers rather than overstretch yourself and grow too many varieties you can’t look after.
4 Cut your flowers either in the early morning or late afternoon
This allows for maximum hydration. The more hydrated your flowers are when you cut them, the longer they will last in the vase. Learn how to condition your flowers and be sure to use clean tools, clean water and clean buckets.
5 Listen to podcasts, find inspirational people on social media and attend flower-growing workshops
Yes, some of them can be expensive, but consider what you get in return. If you are serious about flower-growing, it will save you so much time, plus you will then have access to a supportive network of like-minded growers and be able to ask as many questions as you want. I took part in a fabulous course called The Business of Growing Flowers and another named Advanced Flower Farmer’s Workshop, both run by members of Flowers from the Farm. This amazing group of independent British flower growers and florists was established to promote British flowers and provide useful networking friendships.