Making a living out of what you like doing best is a good wheeze. Charlie Ryrie loves growing stuff and launched her new business, The Real Cut Flower Garden, to justify growing even more. She saw, also, a gap in the cut flower market. "We mail out bunches of the kind of flowers you might pick in your own garden, if you had one," she explains. "It's very different from the stuff you find in the average florist's shop. And our stuff hasn't flown halfway round the world to get to the customer." She cuts much of her greenery from the hedges round her Herefordshire garden; the pony paddock behind is lined out with vast quantities of annuals and herbaceous perennials.
I'd seen this new venture as a wonderfully romantic affair; I hadn't quite got as far as dressing Ms Ryrie in a gingham smock, but I was close. An e-mail which arrived the day before I went to see her put a different perspective on the business: "I'm struggling with rotavators to get the new annuals area sorted. I blew up my trusty old (very, very old) Titan, which is a super old workhorse, so hired another which was useless and had to be swapped for another which broke down. Another is apparently about to arrive this morning. Much swearing at machinery has gone on."
But by the time I turned up at her place, set quite high with a wonderful view out over the River Wye, the rotavating had all been done. She was still juddering with the effort of hanging onto the machine while it did its work, but the ground was turned over. Her friend Meg was even sowing sunflower seed in it. Blocks of tulips for picking were blazing away on the far side of the field – the gorgeous, complex kinds of tulip you scarcely ever see for sale as cut flowers – and rows of rudbeckias were just leafing up. It was an impressive sight, considering that only last year, this had all been rough paddock.
Not only rough, but north facing, windswept, with heavy, acid clay soil under the tussocky grass. Not easy in winter, as Ms Ryrie graphically explained. Those 10,000 tulips now blooming so prolifically had to be planted when the soil was at its coldest and wettest. "But think of the advantages," she said. "No bugs. No pests. No diseases." Even the rabbits seem to prefer more sheltered places to eat their supper in. Her flowers grow on sturdy, strong stems, well conditioned to survive.
The business started in a small way, in the flower beds carved out of the lawn of the cottage which Charlie Ryrie and her husband have turned into something that looks more like an upturned boat. Then she expanded into an area behind the garden, planted an enclosure of hedged hornbeam to provide extra shelter and put up a big, strong polytunnel. Her husband built a shed, which Charlie quickly took over as a packing house. Here, the freshly cut flowers are conditioned in tall galvanised buckets before being made up into bunches and packed in cardboard boxes with damp moss round the stems. The local post office sends the boxes out by special delivery.
Then she acquired the field, six acres of it. In keeping all this ground in a fit condition to grow her flowers, she reckons she's used 30 tons of mushroom compost as well as 50 tons of composted municipal waste. "The mulching is critical. It helps to keep down weeds. It feeds the soil. And provided we get it on at the right time, it keeps in moisture. I can't get water out to the field. Once those things are planted, they've got to survive on their own."
But how does she choose what to plant, I wondered? "People just get what I like," she replied. "The fun bit is in making up really interesting bunches." So she grows camassias and astrantias, alliums and delphiniums, alchemilla and cornflowers, dill and stocks, sweet peas and lime green tobacco plants. She sows masses and masses of ammi. Bishop's flower (Ammi majus) is good, but she reckons annual Ammi visnaga is even better. "The foliage is completely stunning, much lacier than the other kind and a lovely dark green. The heads start off a good green, too, and are wonderfully configured, intricate whorls and spirals of perfection." I was glad to hear this because I sowed it last month and have just been pricking out the seedlings into pots.
She's also been putting in things she can cut for foliage, recognising that her hedges can't go on providing all she needs. So she's set out plenty of asparagus crowns, for the fern as well as to eat.
She's planted shrubby hare's ear (Bupleurum fruticosum) for its shiny evergreen leaves as well as its heads of greenery-yallery flowers. There are clumps of pussy willow to cut early in the year – Salix hastata 'Wehrhahnii' is her current favourite, but she has also got Salix purpurea 'Nancy Saunders' with dark shoots and silvery leaves. I'd add Salix x savensis, the most dramatic of all the pussy willows I saw staged at a London flower show earlier this year.
She's got eucalyptus of course, which provides an endless supply of waxy, grey rounded foliage, provided it is cut back regularly. She's also planted cotoneaster, the dark-leaved elder and Physocarpus opulifolius 'Dart's Gold' for its brilliant young spring leaves. Charlie also sent me away with a branch of something she's been picking from a friend's garden. She wants to start it off herself, so needed to put a name to it, but I didn't know what it was. Fortunately, the next day I met Alan Leslie from the Cambridge Botanic Garden, and he identified it as stephanandra, a Japanese shrub with elegant arching shoots.
The ultimate aim is to have 80 per cent of the ground covered with perennials: she's already got impressive amounts of gaura and dahlias (which survived the winter in the ground), lots of different phlox, banks of achillea, veronicastrums, scabious, eryngiums, cardoons for their late summer seedheads, loads of gladdies "really dark velvety red ones – fantastic with acid green".
So are things going to plan, I asked cautiously? "I haven't got a plan," she replied. "I just know that I like doing this better than anything else I've ever done. It's hard work but it feels good. After a winter like the one we've been through, things can only get better. I'm just refusing to worry about it".
Charlie Ryrie can supply two sizes of mixed bouquets, made up of seasonal flowers and foliage cut from her Herefordshire garden. A Cottage Garden bunch costs £30 (£34 for Sat delivery); a Country bouquet costs £42 (£46 for Sat delivery). Order online at cutflowergarden.co.uk or by phone on 01497 831177 or 07977 907533. See the Real Cut Flower Garden in the Gardens Illustrated pavilion at the Hampton Court Flower Show (3-9 July)