Photographs: Charles Francis
December 2015: Last December, Beth and Simon Hillyard turned their lounge into a temporary packing shed, and filled more than 1,000 boxes with freshly-cut flowers, destined to be sent all over the country as Christmas gifts.
“We thought it was better to pack the boxes in the house rather than in damp Cornish sheds,” explains Beth. This year, the couple, who run the Cornish Blooms flower farm, are looking forward to despatching their Christmas orders from a new purpose-built shed. It is the latest development for a flourishing family business.
It is five years since they took over the farm, in the hamlet of Drym, between Camborne and Hayle, from Beth’s parents, Roger and Liz Jackson. Roger was a scientist, based at Rosewarne Experimental Horticulture Station, a few miles from Drym, and in his spare time, grew flowers for local organisations and to send to Covent Garden flower market. “After Rosewarne closed in 1989, he and my mum decided to grow flowers full-time,” Beth recalls. “Then a friend of theirs was sent flowers by post and said to them: ‘You should do this’ — so they did.”
When Roger and Liz started to think about retiring, their daughter and son-in-law were living in Worcester, but were keen to return to Cornwall — particularly after the birth of their first child, Daisy. “We could see there was scope for expanding the business,” says Beth. “My mum and dad used to grow narcissi in winter and pinks in summer, which were very popular, but we thought people would like more variety.”
They were convinced they had the skills to grow Cornish Blooms — Simon has a business degree and Beth professional fundraising experience — even though, as Simon admits: “Neither of us was particularly green-fingered. We’d had a little vegetable patch in Worcester, but I didn’t know anything about flowers. I just got stuck in with whatever needed doing. Roger gave me little tasks, like planting a polytunnel.”
Although Beth had grown up at the farm, she was not familiar with the day-to-day running of the business. ”We’ve had a five-year apprenticeship in growing flowers,” she says. “It’s exciting when a new plant starts to flower, and it’s particularly rewarding when you’ve grown it from seed.” They now send out 8,500 boxes a year.
“Cottage garden flowers are the ones people love, things like snapdragons and campanulas. The freshness is the thing: once the flowers are picked, they have a good drink, and then off they go, to be with you the next day.”
The most popular item Beth and Simon sell is the mixed Cornish bunch. “Because our flowers change as the year goes round, people can have a subscription for six months or a year and get a different bunch each month,” says Beth. “Husbands order it for wives, and grandchildren club together to buy a subscription as a gift for Granny.”
Customers can also add a box of Trenance chocolates or Roskilly’s fudge to their order. As Simon says: “Flowers and chocolates just go together, and as we’re called Cornish Blooms, we wanted to use Cornish chocolates”.
They begin the growing year by carrying out essential repairs on the polytunnels and picking and sending early narcissi. “In January, people like to order flowers to cheer up themselves or someone else,” says Beth. ‘Erlicheer’ — a double scented daffodil — is one variety we use, with eucalyptus foliage.
As we go into February, we’re picking other varieties of narcissi, like ‘Avalanche’, which is white, and yellow ‘Matador’. We also divide and pot on kaffir lilies, ready for planting in the summer.
“By March, we’re spending a lot of time answering the phone, getting ready for Mother’s Day. Along with Christmas, it’s our busiest time. When that’s over, we pick the last of the narcissi, and the scillas, and start sowing the seeds for our summer flowers.
“We pick sweet William in June — it’s very popular, and it mixes with everything to make a very impressive bunch of flowers. Pinks, cornflowers and campanulas are also ready for picking in June, and Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ and asters in July and August. We plant sweet William seeds and cuttings from pinks in September and October, and start lifting bulbs. We’re still picking pinks, anemones and snapdragons into October.”
In November, the countdown to Christmas begins. A mailshot is sent to all previous customers, flower boxes are constructed, and wreath-making begins. “We do a fragrant wreath with eucalyptus and holly,” Beth says, “and a traditional one, which also has holly, with ivy, bay, box, Christmas tree fir and pine cones.“
“We’ll be taking orders up to 4pm on December 21,” adds Simon. “We’re always rushing around at the last minute. But Roger and Liz are here to help, as they are throughout the year. They’re the kind of people who can’t stop working.” “I don’t think they ever will!” their daughter says.
The next generation of the family are already learning a little about the business, even though Daisy is only five and Bobby three. “They love making little bunches from flowers which are broken or too bendy for us to use,” says Beth. “When we have a chat with our regular customers, they sometimes ask about the children, and tell me they used to order from my dad. And it’s really nice when they say: ‘It’s become a family tradition to have your flowers on our table on Christmas Day’.”