Small Blooming Changes; Big Bloomin’ Difference!
Susi Seward - 13 September 2013
As a senior certification officer for Soil Association Certification I have daily contact with a range of growers who work hard to produce delicious organic fruit and veg, sometimes with a few flowers on the side for decoration and companion planting. Therefore for a while now, my interest has been piqued by licensee Jan Billington who specialises in growing organic flowers to eat.
Whereas most people think of flowers as purely decorative, Jan grows over 250 edible varieties in her 1.5 acre garden, and harvests up to 90kg a week at peak season for use in floral salads and decorating cakes (see Jan’s blog for a host of ideas). She has really made a name for herself amongst chefs and wedding caterers, even recently appearing on Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch. Keen to learn more about this niche enterprise, I headed down to Maddocks Farm Organics near Cullompton in Devon to meet the edible flower guru herself.
My tour of the garden was an extremely pleasant assault on all of the senses; a profusion of colourful blooms vibrating with humming, pollen-drunk insects, and wafts of basil perfuming the air. Jan passed me a constant stream of petals and flower-heads to nibble as we went around and I found it impossible to keep track of the heady and delicious array of flavours, let alone the names!
Jan’s motivation is multifaceted – she adores working outdoors and gets up with the sun each day to head to the garden and enjoy the solitary company of her flowers and insects. She is also a self-proclaimed perfectionist and derives great satisfaction from producing a top quality product; fresh, organic, and local. She highly values a good relationship with her customers, and a compliment from a hard-to-please chef will make her day.
Throughout her life Jan has sustained an interest in horticulture, cookery and art, which has culminated in this thriving edible flower business. Integral to its success is supportive hubby Stuart, who she met in London and spent an unorthodox first date with, digging a wildlife pond in her ex-council flat garden in Clapham. It was a harbinger of things to come, and eleven years ago they gave in to the call of the countryside and relocated to Maddocks Farm with their two young children.
They started with a veg box scheme where the salad bags proved incredibly popular and so gradually became the focus. Experiments with companion planting led to the discovery that nasturtiums were more effective in adding colour and flavour to the salad bags than they were in attracting caterpillars, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Maddocks Farm is a striking example of commitment to organic production methods, where the small changes that Jan has made over the years have made a huge difference overall. Eleven years ago there were no newts in the pond, slow worms in the compost or grass snakes and lizards hiding amongst the flowers. Today these abound, supported by a host of insects too numerous to name (including at least ten species of bumble bee!), alongside the resident hedgehogs, bats, owls, and most recently, sparrows.
Inspired by Jan, my small change this Organic September is a pledge to plant some bee-friendly flowers in the garden. I can hardly hope to recreate the oasis of Maddocks Farm overnight, but one has to start somewhere… I think I’ll give Jan a call to get some hints on what to choose…
Find out more about Jan and her edible flowers online at www.maddocksfarmorganics.co.uk
Susi Seward is a senior certification officer for Soil Association Certification, responsible for a number of our small-scale horticultural licensees, including those in Scotland and Northern Ireland. She studied the anthropology of food and farming, as well as gaining a certificate in organic gardening and volunteering on various organic holdings across Europe. She is interested in both the cultural and practical aspects of our food systems, with a particular passion for community and education based farms.
You can follow her on twitter: @SusiSeward