Joe Stuart-Smith, from Dunn Street Farm just outside Ashford in Kent, bet his daughter £5 that she would not be able to bring a prize home from the Westwell Garden Show. She was 12 at the time, which made it even more impressive when her first attempt at competitive flower arranging was judged Best in Show.
“I think I must have put a few adult noses out of joint at the time, but before long I found myself being asked to decorate the church for weddings and funerals,” she recalled. “I used to really enjoy the tranquillity of being in church on my own.”
Fast-forward to today and Jennifer is using those same skills to earn her living, having set up Blooming Green with her cousin, Rebekah Bibby on the family fruit farm at Loddington Farm, near Maidstone.
But while she is still involved in floristry, the ethos behind Blooming Green is a long way from the traditional world of imported, out-of-season, high air mile cut flowers.
Blooming Green is rooted in a sustainable approach to floristry that is based on locally produced, seasonal flowers that are grown on organic principles that have the least possible impact on the environment.
“People are finally starting to question the way the flower industry in general is run,” said Jennifer. “It’s about ten years behind the food industry. These days people are up to speed with the arguments about food miles and seasonality and generally think carefully about where their food comes from and how it gets here.
“With flowers, though, that awareness is far less developed. People are only now starting to think about the fact that flowers are imported from overseas in chilled aircraft or trucked in from Holland. They are treated with chemicals to delay blooming, which means workers overseas have to endure dangerous working conditions, and the air miles involved can be astronomical.”
Blooming Green was set up on entirely different principles. Rebekah – the hands-on, practical member of the duo – grows virtually everything the business sells on a one acre plot at Loddington Farm, while the bouquets Jennifer creates for weddings and other events are based on what is available at the time.
Everything is grown outside – either on the plot or in the pair’s own gardens – and nothing has to travel halfway around the world in a chilled aircraft just to be part of a bride’s bouquet.
The business partners – known to friends and customers as simply Bek and Jen – represent an intriguing diversification for the family business. Rebekah’s brothers James and Paul Smith run the fruit side of the business at Loddington Farm, having taken over the bulk of the farm management from father Alan, now ‘semi-retired’. They are the fifth generation to farm at Loddington Farm.
The family firm grows top fruit on 200 acres at Loddington Farm and another 100 acres at West Pike Fish Farm at Laddingford.
Although they set the business up ten years ago, both Rebekah and Jennifer continue to pursue other careers in tandem with Blooming Green, not least because its seasonality means that at this time of year the garden is in maintenance phase.
It comes into its own from April to October, when the business offers an innovative ‘pick your own’ option on Friday afternoons and some Saturdays, with customers invited to wander around the plot with snippers and fill a galvanised container with as many blooms as will fit in it – for £10. The flowers are then taken out of the container and wrapped for the customer to take home.
For most gardeners, the thought of crowds of people – including children – wandering across their plot armed with a pair of snippers would be torture, but both Rebekah and Jennifer find the experience inspiring and, in a sense, life-affirming.
Horticulturalist Rebekah has a degree in environmental biology and conservation but also has “a dream job” working at Bedgebury Pinetum as a youth and community officer with the Kent High Weald Project.
“I love growing plants but I also love interacting with people, and to see people get such enjoyment out of seeing and cutting my flowers and taking them home to put in their houses gives me a real buzz,” she explained. “Most of the flowers benefit from being cut as they bloom again, and it’s remarkable how careful people are when they are allowed to go where they like.”
As Jennifer added: “Children, particularly, have often grown up being told not to pick flowers, and they love being given the freedom to go and collect the prettiest ones they can find. One bride-to-be who came here to pick her wedding flowers told me it was the most fun hour she had ever had; that really was a special moment for me.”
Blooming Green aims to be inclusive by providing two options when it comes to weddings. The company has ‘wedding sized’ buckets that couples on more restricted budgets can use to collect the blooms they need for the big day, but Jennifer also offers a high-end service which involves a consultation, following which she will create the bouquets and arrangements required.
Whichever route the happy couple chooses to take one thing stays the same. They can only choose from flowers that are in season, and while the bride can specify the colours she would like, she can’t specify the specific blooms as it will depend on what is growing at the time at Loddington Farm.
One thing is clear, though; the effect is stunning. “When you go to weddings where people have spent a huge sum on imported flowers you tend not to notice them,” said Jennifer. “For some reason, however, when you go to a wedding where the family has used in-season, home-grown blooms, people always comment on how wonderful they look.”
They are less expensive, too. Jennifer estimates that a £53 wedding bucket will provide enough flowers for ten tables at the reception.
About two-thirds of the business is now related to weddings, either self-picked or with Jen’s help, and the remaining third is the ‘pick your own’ trade which is proving increasingly popular thanks to the impressive Blooming Green website and Jennifer’s active social media work.
“We used to have an online bouquet business, but the logistics involved were too complex and the risks too high, so now we focus on encouraging people to come to the plot and spend an hour or so picking their own flowers,” said Jennifer, whose marketing, creative and communication skills perfectly complement Rebekah’s green fingers.
As the business continues to develop, Rebekah is now planting 500 rose bushes on one edge of the plot in a joint venture with the farm business. The idea is to provide sprays of ornamental rose hips and the venture could be the start of a move into a small-scale wholesale business.
The partners are also planning to grow more foliage to complement the delphiniums, sweet williams, dahlias, tulips and other annuals, bi-annuals, perennials and bulbs that turn the plot into a riot of colour in the summer.
While the pair run Blooming Green as a business, it is clear that the sustainability aspect is important to both of them. They also work with a mental health charity to provide therapeutic volunteering opportunities to people who benefit from tending plants in the fresh air.
Blooming Green was started with the cousins’ own savings and some grant cash and is designed around their commitments, families and other work in what Jennifer sees as “a different way of doing business” and one that reflects different values.
While Rebekah is the hands-on gardener, Jennifer made sure she could contribute on a practical side as well as with the marketing by studying horticulture and floristry for a year at Hadlow College and by attending a Jane Packer floristry course in London.
With a degree in Italian and the history of art, she has had a varied career and currently divides her time between Blooming Green and editing and writing for The Times.