Full bloom in the flower business

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Charlotte Tombs’ successful flower farming business grew out of one packet of sweet pea seeds and some Instagram inspiration. Tracie Beardsley reports

Flower farmer Charlotte Tombs in her little flower garden.
Featured flowers – tight pale pink balls are dahlia Megan Dean, and the flamboyant peachy pink ones are dahlia Labyrinth
All images: Courtenay Hitchcock

ucked away near Sturminster Marshall is Northcombe Flowers, a professional flower farm squeezed into less than an eighth of an acre. Six years ago this land was bare, save for a few ancient apple trees.
For owner Charlotte Tombs, the initial outlay was a £2.50 packet of sweet pea seeds, some back-breaking digging and the foresight to transform her back garden into her business. Now it’s a flower-filled landscape for at least ten months of the year.
Huge Café au Lait dahlias – a charming mix of subtle cream and dusky pink and a 2022 bridal favourite – jostle for space with cheerful sunflowers, alongside a kaleidoscope of colours from old-fashioned English roses. Achillea, snapdragons, feathery cut-and-come-again cosmos, scented geraniums, nicotiana, feverfew, sweet Williams, larkspur – every inch of space is jammed with flowers and herbs.
A fruit cage of raspberries droop under the weight of their burgeoning harvest. The fruit will end up in Charlotte’s kitchen, the leaves will make ideal foliage in her flower displays.

Charlotte’s guilty pleasure is ‘Aimlessly wandering around the garden with a G&T, picking flowers just for myself.’

Flowers all year
There are no militaristic lines of the same flower on Charlotte’s farm. The ethos is simply growing a variety of British flowers without the need for pesticides or air miles. Charlotte explains: ‘It’s possible to grow flowers in the UK all year round – even more so now frosts come later. UK growers used to provide all the flowers for the British market. Narcissi would come from the Scilly Isles as early as December and flower trains would come from Cornwall to London, taking precedence over passenger trains. It was only after the war, when the Dutch government threw lots of money at their flower industry, that the UK got left behind. Now we import flowers from huge industrialised farms that use all manner of chemicals.’

A packet of sweet peas
After a career in sales, Charlotte was inspired by a non-profit organisation, Flowers From The Farm, on Instagram. Set up by a farmer’s wife looking to diversify, the site encouraged like-minded people to grow British flowers.
Charlotte recalls: ‘I was inspired by Georgie Newbery’s book The Flower Farmer’s Year. I made notes and pored over seed catalogues. I just did the maths. You can sell a sweet pea stem for £1.25 if you’re growing out of season. A packet of sweet pea seeds costs £2.50. I literally started my business from that one packet and now have sweet peas in bloom as early as March.’
When the pandemic hit, Northcombe Flowers was only in its second season. Charlotte says: ‘I was busy. People wanted to send flowers to loved ones, and florists couldn’t get funeral flowers. At first, I felt guilty about jumping on the bandwagon when the world was gripped in such an awful situation. But it made me realise how much pleasure and solace flowers bring to people.’
She now harvests eight buckets of flowers every other day. Her natural approach is on trend, appealing to DIY brides wanting a wildflower wedding.

Charlotte behind a stand of dahlia Arabian Nights

value: retail buckets are £75 for approximately 90 stems of mixed flowers and foliage, and wholesale a bucket sells at £55 for 75 stems.
Charlotte’s sales background shows in her confidence. ‘I can stand by my product. I’m more than happy to walk into a florists and ask them to trial my flowers’, she says.
As the cold weather sets in, Charlotte’s focus turns to dried flowers – a trend enjoying a huge revival – and she’s rounding off her flower year with Christmas wreath workshops.
On New Year’s Day, she sows her first sweet peas, starting the cycle all over again. ‘There’s so much pleasure all year and I never tire of seeing a seedling grow.’

Six years ago, Charlotte’s land was bare save for a few ancient apple trees.

www.northcombe.co.uk Charlotte’s social media is a delicious flower feast: IG is @northcombeflowers and Facebook is @Northcombe

Charlotte’s Café au Lait dahlias are very popular with brides this year

Quick-fire questions with Charlotte:

One flower to a desert island?
Cosmos. I love the simplicity and feathery foliage. There’s nothing prettier than a jug of white Purity. Cosmos are also great for pollinators.

Guilty pleasure?
Aimlessly wandering around the garden with a G&T, picking flowers just for myself.

Dinner party A-list?
Plantswoman Ellen Willmott, an influential member of the RHS in the 1800’s. She used to carry eryngium seeds when she visited friends’ gardens, strewing the seeds surreptitiously as she walked among the beds, hence the plant being called ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’. What a great calling card!

Charlotte tests the vase life of her flowers – this is one of her ‘test’ bunches from July. Image: Charlotte Tombs

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