A Growing Concern: Wolves Lane Flower Company on seasonality, sustainability and taking things slowly
Five years into running their organic flower-growing site in north London, Marianne Mogendorff and Camila Romain are well-versed in the pleasures and pitfalls of low-intervention cultivation. The results of their hard work, we discover, are blooming marvellous
- Ellen Hancock
Taking in the flush floribunda and foliage at Wolves Lane, it’s hard to believe you’re inside London’s North Circular. It’s similarly incredible that, five years ago, its caretakers, Marianne Mogendorff and Camila Romain, had nothing to do with horticulture. Marianne was working in theatre, Camila in fashion. As producers, both were, as Marianne says, “used to facilitating another creative mastermind’s vision”. But then the friends had a vision of their own.
Camila, increasingly disillusioned with the wastage and lack of sustainability inherent in fashion shows, quit her job, with no plan for her next steps. Marianne, who’d recently moved to Wood Green, was one day exploring the local area when she discovered Wolves Lane horticultural site, a three-and-a-half acre growing site with 1970s glasshouses, not far from her house. At the time, Haringey Council was looking for people to take over the running of the whole site. “It just felt like a special opportunity,” says Marianne – who a few years previously had done the flowers at her own wedding, using only sustainable, organic blooms. “I rang Camila, who was in San Francisco, and we just put a business plan together.” Camila jumps in: “With little idea about what we were doing!”
Happily, the pair say, they didn’t win the commission. “We had a very naïve plan to turn it into a huge multi-use event space. It would have been impossible,” says Marianne. They did, however, get to know the people that took over the site, who allowed them to take over one of the glasshouses and some outdoor space – now the home of Wolves Lane Flower Company, the most central growing site of its size and type in London. “That was when we set the parameters for what became our business,” Camila explains. “That we would always grow with an organic approach, that we would never work with imported flowers or floral foam, which is very damaging to the environment, and that we would impose a seasonal fallow period, during which we’d work with flowers we’d dried.”
The pair seem quietly taken aback by the deserved success they’ve had in the intervening years. “We started growing in the April of 2017 – which as any gardener will tell you is a terrible time,” Camila continues. “In our first season we produced just enough to supply local pubs and cafés, but by the second we had ample stock to supply florists and do our own wedding work.” They slowly built the business up, moving into subscriptions, running workshops and now, for the first time, commercial contract work. They’ve also published a book, How to Grow the Flowers: a sustainable approach to enjoying flowers throughout the seasons.
“Because we’re organic – which means we’re at the mercy of pests and diseases – we’ve learned to be sanguine, to accept things that are out of our control and to be light on our feet as a company,” Marianne adds, “diversifying when we need to.” They’ve found clients who accept that seasonal local stems have to cost more, that the installation of them (using flower frogs, vines and chicken wire, as opposed to foam) takes longer, and that that’s the price of sustainable British flowers grown in a pre-industrial way. With brides, they say, it’s all about nurture – “talking to people about how much meaningful care has gone into their flowers is really helps people understand the price point.”
The pair grow a great mix of things, as we learned on our visit, partly because it’s much nicer to have lots to choose from, partly to protect themselves from losing too much stock in the event of failure. “Failure is unavoidable when it comes to growing like this,” Camila says. “It’s part of the process – and I think that’s one of the things you have to learn to accept if you’re going to grow in an organic way.” Inherent in flower failure, however, there’s always hope: for the next, better crop – and for a healthier, better world. One of Camila and Marianne’s great hopes is that more and more people starting thinking – and growing – in this way. With that in mind, they share their tips for the budding sustainable grower below.
Wolves Lane Flower Company’s sustainable grower’s starter pack
Compost, compost, compost
Camila: “Everything in gardening starts with soil – and composting is the easiest way to give back to the earth. No only does it means a reduction in food and garden waste too, which is of course brilliant, but homemade compost is the best you can use. You can’t buy anything of that quality really.
“Insulated hot bins, which raise the temperature of your compost so it degrades more quickly, are a bit of an investment, but they’re so worth it. You can put everything in there: veg, bones… My dream would be for councils to subsidise them for people who have gardens. In the end it would save them money.”
Marianne: “I can’t believe how few people compost. It’s so easy and you don’t need lots of space. There are lots of different options, from hot bins to wormeries and bokashi tubs. One thing you do have to remember, though, is it does take time. You can’t make compost overnight – so if you are having to buy some in, make sure you get peat-free compost, as the loss of peat bogs is a big ecological problem.”
Think about how you dig
Camila: “Old-school horticultural teaching says that plots need to be rotavated. In fact, evidence shows that no-dig methods are really effective in keeping soil’s carbon locked in, rather than releasing it into the atmosphere. It’s something we do here. Instead of weeding, we cover over weed-infested patches with cardboard, starving them of light till they die off. It also means we don’t disturb the other ecosystems in the soil.”
Marianne: “But be flexible. Sometimes, there’s no option but to dig – with really thuggish things, like creeping thistle, for instance – so you can’t be too dogmatic.”
Harness the elements
Camila: “Sometimes when you’re growing organically it can feel like the world’s against you. You get infestations, flowers won’t grow, the weather’s wrong… But it’s not the case; you just need to work with nature. One really simple way of doing that is by collecting rainwater, which you can do with a simply kit you can buy to attach to your gutters. Plus, all plants (except for tender seedling) prefer rainwater to tap. And it’s free!
Think about your ecosystem
Camila: “Something Marianne talks about in the book is how we – as humans – are not separate to nature; we’re part of it and its complex web of life. So, if you have a garden, consider yourself part of that ecosystem.
“Sustainability starts at home. It’s incredible the amount of wildlife you can attract into even a tiny garden with only pots, if you garden a certain way. Start by letting your grass grow and sowing plants that pollinators love. And don’t use any chemicals!”
Wolves Lane Flower Company on Instagram
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