Seduced by Stokesay Flowers’ ravishing Instagram pictures, I was excited about meeting Victoria Martin, who with her husband, Barney grow thousands of cut flowers every year in south Shropshire. I wasn’t disappointed.
‘It’s all about romance. Everything we do is supportive to wildlife. We don’t use any chemicals,’ says Victoria, a sensitive soul who has had an intriguing horticultural career – including at one time creating English style gardens in Shanghai.
Stepping into the walled garden at Downton Hall, on a dreamy estate in South Shropshire (the couple took on this second walled garden two years ago as they were running out of space at Stokesay) reminds one of that magical children’s book The Secret Garden. It is a quintessentially English scene. On a gentle slope immaculate ‘no-dig’ beds brim with gaily coloured dahlias (‘I grew them from seed,’ Victoria says proudly) and old roses amidst a cluster of old apples trees and a line of clipped yews. We sat looking out over the garden in an immaculate shepherd’s hut discussing the story of Stokesay Flowers.
Victoria and Barney studied Chinese at university (‘I love willow trees and silk’) and met when they were working as translators in London. But second careers beckoned. Victoria did an internship at the Chelsea Physic Garden. ‘I learnt what it was to be a professional horticulturist. She went on to volunteer for the Bermudian National Trust (her parents were living in Bermuda at the time), and at one time worked as a WRAG (Work and Retrain as a Gardener Scheme) volunteer in Kent. Barney took a Masters in surveying at Cambridge, moving to Shanghai a year before Victoria joined him. Initially she worked for Justin Jencks, a landscape designer, before setting up her own practice designing gardens for roof terraces and villas. After two years they had had enough of expat life and moved back to England, landing in Derbyshire. Victoria grew bio-dynamic herbs for Weleda, the green beauty brand, and Barney worked on a bio dynamic farm. After further studying at Harper-Adams Agricultural College, Barney got a job with the land agents, Balfours.
One day he was sitting in a meeting and the question arose of what to do with the one-acre walled garden at Stokesay Court near Ludlow, a state of the art late-Victorian plutocrat’s country house. (It was used in the film Atonement.) Stokesay Flowers was born. Built in 1892, ‘at the zenith of walled gardens,’ says Victoria, ‘the slope is at just the right gradient with perfect drainage (there are four pipes) and very high walls.’
At first Victoria grew loads of annuals, selling the flowers at local farmers’ markets. They also supplied flowers to Mr. Underhills, a Michelin restaurant that used to be in nearby Ludlow, expanding to perennials such as campanulas, geums and hydrangeas in the second year. Gradually she began to supply other florists. ‘Florists are very friendly and often freelance for each other.’ Through NB Flowers, the couple provide flowers for 5 Hertford Street, the exclusive private members club in Mayfair. ‘Our customers love getting the long stems that no-one else does.’
Between the two walled gardens (15 minutes drive apart) the couple now grow more than 100 different varieties of mainly old roses, pre-1920, along with some David Austin roses, types of foxgloves and ten different kinds of jasmine as well as hyacinths, Japanese anenomes and a host of other delectable blooms. Clematis tangutica and honeysuckle adorn the Stokesay walls providing welcome foliage. I was interested to discover that there is a huge demand for jasmine, and ‘we never have enough roses.’ Peachy and pink coloured flowers are the most popular. Such is Victoria’s passion for old roses that she has written Favourite Roses for Cutting which is available from the website.
Victoria is justly proud of the no-dig beds at Downton. ‘I wish we had known about no-dig when we began – we rotavated the ground at Stokesay. It seems so old fashioned now.’ At Downton they mowed the grass as short as possible before laying thick sheets of cardboard over the ground followed by three inches of municipal compost.
Following the birth of the couple’s first child Victoria found herself struggling trying to juggle the business with motherhood. She enlisted Barney’s full-time help. ‘We drew up a list of all the different aspects of running the business, putting V or B by each task.’ Miraculously the result was evenly divided. ‘I do the fluffy bits whilst Barney does the invoices and man things such as being team manager and staking.’ Their team of 7 part-timers are all self-employed. They deliver to London every week and elsewhere, including a lot of customers in the Cotswolds. ‘An order for 60 buckets of stems is not unusual’ which gives one an idea of the volume of flowers and foliage grown on both plots.
The flowers are picked first thing and are immediately plunged into water to rest for a couple of hours. At Stokesay this happens in the Old Boiler House which is ideal, being stone-built with a dark interior.
The success of Stokesay Flowers – they have appeared on Gardeners World – is proof that the British cut flower business is burgeoning. At the last count more than 1,000 British florists are registered with Flowers From the Farm. Anyone will be enchanted by Stokesay Flowers.