Neil Thomas meets a woman whose life-long love of floral beauty has blossomed into an exciting new business.
The Covid pandemic left lives at a crossroads. Thousands suffered the ultimate personal tragedy. Millions more saw their livelihoods destroyed with businesses closed and a tidal wave of redundancies. Lockdowns brought social isolation with the bulk of life spent at home. Many re-evaluated their lives and, literally by terrible accident, discovered a more fulfilling future.
So it was with Katie BriggsThomas. Pre-pandemic, the mother-of-five ran her own successful business in the cosmetic beauty sector as a skin waxing specialist. Nine years of building up a large portfolio of regular clients disappeared at a stroke in March 2020. The intimate nature of her work, with its close-up one-to-one contact, meant she had to shut down immediately to meet tough social distancing rules.
“In fact, I was forced to close down four times in the next two years. Like many people, I was anxious about my livelihood, worried about the future,” she reflects.
Fortunately husband Adam’s agricultural engineering business was largely unaffected so the family at least had an income.
For Katie, though, clients no longer visited her studio, at the family’s converted farm cottage home at Monkhopton, near Bridgnorth. The daily interaction with adults – the “chance to chat to my lovely clients and hear about what was happening in their lives” – was replaced by the demanding challenges of overseeing home schooling.
Katie’s world was dominated even more than usual by the needs of daughters Danni, (then aged 17 and in the middle of a bakery course, now 20 and away at Harper Adams University), Indigo (then 6 now 9) and Peony (then 4 now 7), and sons Ashton (then 13 now 16) and Braxton (then 8 now 11).
Like that of millions of others, the family’s world was turned on its head. But, as the perennially apposite proverb has it, every cloud has a silver lining.
“That first lockdown gave us the gift of time,” recalls Katie. “The weather, if you remember, was lovely with countless warm, sunny days and I had many precious moments with the children outdoors.”
The family home has a large garden commanding wonderful rural views of open fields and it was here that Katie reconnected with her deep childhood love of flowers.
“We planted bulbs and tubers, developed a vegetable patch and generally spent many happy hours in the garden growing things. I had never grown pumpkins before and found it really rewarding. It was idyllic.
“I’ve always had a love affair with flowers from when I was a child growing up in Lincoln. I used to love helping my grandparents in their potting shed.”
A significant blot on this idyllic childhood was Katie’s hay fever. “Every time I went to visit my grandparents I would always get what seemed like a terrible cold. But then the symptoms got worse – they were horrendous, my eyes didn’t just itch, they used to swell. Even heavy medication seemed to make little difference. I put up with it for years until in adulthood I had an injection, which is rarely given because of the possible side-effects. It worked and my life has changed because of it.
“At one time, I could only admire flowers from afar and my hay fever wouldn’t allow me to have blooms in the house. Now I can tend to them up close.”
It meant Katie was able to enjoy the garden as much as she wanted in that warm spring and early summer of 2020 and as she dug, weeded and planted with her own children, the memories came flooding back.
“There is a nostalgia connected with gardening for me that is very powerful. Sweet peas evoke such memories of my granddad that I end up getting quite emotional.
“Finding precious time during lockdown to truly immerse myself in something new, combat the hay fever, and evoke all those memories and emotions that growing, seeing and smelling flowers can bring was deeply fulfilling.”
From it all came, pardon the pun, the seed of an idea. What if Katie could pursue this passion to the point of making a living out of it? What if this hobby could become a business? What if those early lockdown steps were part of a journey to creating a flower farm?
Well, fast forward three years and the dream has come true. The Petal Passion Flower Farm is blossoming into a delightful little business, with regular orders from retail outlets and private customers alike.
When the idea first started to take shape, Katie took the eminently sensible step of seeking out expert help to see what was involved in running such an enterprise.
She signed up for a three-day course at Common Farm Flowers in Charlton Musgrove, Wincanton, in Somerset, run by Georgie Newbery.
“I left absolutely exhausted, overloaded with information and absolutely exhilarated. I knew this was what I wanted to do.”
In late 2021, Katie and Adam bought one and a half acres of a seven-acre field behind their garden to enable her to launch the business the following March on a viable scale. The step was made easier by their established relationship with the selling farmer, having previously rented their cottage from him before buying that.
The ‘Passion’ in the business’ name is very apt, for Katie has a driven approach to building an ethical and ecologically sustainable business.
“I deeply believe that change is needed within the flower industry and reducing the carbon footprint of cut flowers by reducing our reliance on importing them is one thing that it is within my power to help change, one locally-grown sustainable bloom at a time.
“It is a big issue – 80 per cent of cut flowers bought in this country are imported, not just from well-known producers like The Netherlands but from much further afield like Ecuador, Columbia, Kenya and Ethiopia. The air miles involved in importing flowers from South America and Africa are illogical when we can grow lovely flowers in this country. My customers are essentially within a 15-mile radius.”
Just as damaging, Katie says, is the heavy use of chemicals in mass production, with the over-spraying of crops with pesticides leading to a change in the ecological balance and the decline in numbers of pollinators.
Bees, butterflies, moths, flies, ants and other insects are continually threatened by this process.
“I’m proud that The Petal Passion is pesticide-free and I even plant flowers especially for the bees and other visiting wildlife.”
The use of peat-free compost and other such products is also a vital part of protecting the ecosystem, she adds.
“Nature is so important to us. For me, being at one with nature is essential to health and wellbeing.”
In her ethical approach, Katie is part of a growing movement. She belongs to Flowers From The Farm, an association with 1,000 members which champions artisan growers of seasonal UK cut flowers.
“They are a variety of growers – some have 20 acres, some half an acre, some are using their back gardens, others walled gardens on estates. The organisation’s figures show that 80 per cent of the UK population lives within 30 miles of a flower farm. There were 300 members at their most recent conference which I went to. It’s a great support network. Knowing there are other people out there trying to make a difference, no matter how small, is very inspiring. And it all adds up. Together we can make a big difference.”
Katie believes we all have a duty to protect the planet for future generations and pass on the natural beauty that we have enjoyed ourselves.
“Nature is such a wonderful thing; feeding the birds in your garden, watching butterflies flock to a buddleia bush, the delight of flowers coming into bloom and the wonderful colours.”
She says of her farm: “I was quite nervous when I started. I went out and bought over 100 David Austin roses, got all my perennial and biennial stock in and set to work. I’m growing over 50 varieties and have got more than 260 dahlias.”
Though she is very much the driving force, Adam lends a hand as groundsman, machinery expert, moral support and added muscle while the children provide bags of love, laughter and helpful little hands.
Also providing plenty of joy and laughter in the family are Labradors Skye and Sonny, who arrived as pups in May 2022.
Her previous experience as a sole trader has given her invaluable experience as she works to a measured business plan. “I am just over a year in, reinvesting what I make in the business and on track to make a return within three years.
“When you are trying to start a business, social media is a great source of free advertising. As is word of mouth from satisfied customers.”
Naturally gregarious, one aspect of her new career that Katie admits she has struggled to adjust to, is its solitary nature.
“There are hours spent alone and while I don’t mind the solitude most of the time, I do occasionally miss the regular company I enjoyed with my waxing business.”
Her clientele all wanted to return, in fact, after the pandemic so Katie continues to run a scaled down version of the business on one day per week.
“It means I still get to catch up with my clients and hear the latest instalment of their lives, so I get the best of both worlds in a way. The flower farm is full on so it’s actually quite nice to step away for a day and do something completely different.”
While orders are delivered or collected from The Petal Passion, the farm itself is not open to the public. However Katie does run the occasional workshop, as well as giving talks to WIs and other local groups. She will also be at this year’s Burwarton Show on Thursday August 3
“I’ll be taking my newly-refurbished flower float which is an old milk float and sharing a stand with Adam and his business BriggsThomas Engineering LTD.”
Katie adds: “I’m very happy with my lifestyle and am trying to share some of that joy and enthusiasm.
“I create arrangements, from bouquets to funeral wreaths as well as selling buckets of blooms for customers and floral designers to create their own arrangements. I like the idea that my flowers are not only a part of special celebrations like birthdays, anniversaries, Mother’s Day, and other occasions but also simply brighten up people’s homes.
“A lovely vase of flowers is a real source of joy and a passing glance can truly raise the spirits.
Visit www.thepetalpassionflowerfarm.com for more information. Email email@example.com, or call 07799 893300.
You can also follow The Petal Passion Flower Farm on Facebook and Instagram.