Edible flowers from a cottage garden in Congleton

PUBLISHED: 21:36 20 July 2020 | UPDATED: 13:02 21 July 2020

Delicate blooms of vibrant violas

Delicate blooms of vibrant violas

Zoe Smith

Green-fingered Zoe Smith tells us about her Congleton cottage industry that’s blooming lovely

Zoe Smith grows blooms of edible flowers in her Congleton gardenZoe Smith grows blooms of edible flowers in her Congleton garden

Programmes like The Great British Bake Off and MasterChef have catapulted the popularity of edible flowers. Beautiful blooms are the fashionable garnish of choice on Instagram, and chefs across the country are regularly out ransacking herbaceous borders in search of the unusual flavours carried in these little bursts of colour. Pretty pansies sit atop cupcakes and delicate rose petals float in cocktails in cafes, restuarants and bars with brilliant blue borage swirling in the most stylish gin glasses.

When Zoe Smith began growing edible flowers in her canal-side cottage garden in Congleton, she had no idea she would soon be supplying some of her favourite bars and restaurants. In fact, such is the demand for flowers to colour and flavour dishes, Congleton-based Zoe has been inundated with requests for her violas, nasturtiums and marigolds. It first started when she had an allotment - a little haven where she loved to grow fruit and vegetables. But she had to give it up when they moved to Congleton.

“The issue with an allotment is that unless it’s very close to home, you can’t always be there every day, and gardening is best when you do it little and often,” says Zoe, 46. “You tend to get gluts, too, with everything ready at once, so you are trying to work out what to do with 50 onions or 30 bulbs of garlic. I gave a lot of it away, but still there were times I’d have to throw things out, and that was a bit disheartening.

“When we moved I had to give it up, but our new house came with this lovely big garden, and I started thinking about what I could grow in it.

Zoe Smith pots up pretty blooms for her canalside cottage garden in CongletonZoe Smith pots up pretty blooms for her canalside cottage garden in Congleton

“I was buying cut flowers every week for the house, so I started to grow some roses, zinnias and foxgloves, this lovely old cottage garden flowers.”

As her sweetly scented garden was beginning to bloom, Zoe discovered a magazine article about a market gardener who had started companion planting for her salad crops. She had started by growing a few flowers alongside her vegetables to attract bees, nature’s pollinators. They also acted as organic pest control, warding off predators with their polyphenols.

“She’d started putting a few marigolds into her salad bags to brighten them up a bit,” laughs Zoe. “Before long the people she supplied were asking for more of the pretty flowers and fewer salad leaves, until that’s all she was selling.”

Zoe started to grow some edible flowers alongside her decorative ones. It started with just a few, but as soon as she started posting photos on her Instagram page, people were asking where they could buy them.

Pot fresh: Many of Zoe's blooms are sent to restaurants, bars and cafes in CheshirePot fresh: Many of Zoe's blooms are sent to restaurants, bars and cafes in Cheshire

“Flowers are so beautiful, and they brighten up any dish you make, whether you use them in a salad or on a cake, or even in a cocktail,” says Zoe. “Suddenly people were starting to ask me about them, and I started selling the extra ones I was growing.”

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Zoe launched her cottage industry, Delicately Edible , three years ago, and was quickly supplying some of her favourite restaurants and cafes. She has worked with a many local independent businesses, including Peck’s fine dining restaurant, Goodey Box, which has a pop-up at Altrincham Market, and Wild and Wild, Cheshire Life’s current Café of the Year award winner. Her flowers have also been sent further afield, for collaborations with Penhaligon’s for a fragrance launch, and a feature on Laura Ashley’s website.

Unlike some of the larger commercial suppliers, Zoe’s flowers are grown organically and packaged in re-usable glass Kilner jars. She does as many deliveries as she can on foot, so each delivery is as environmentally-friendly as possible.

“I can often have them from the garden to the restaurant in about 20 minutes,” says Zoe. “I pick them, carefully wash them, put them in jars and then drop them off. Because they are fresh – as opposed to the tubs of slightly brown ones you can buy from a wholesaler – the quality and flavour is very different.

“Restaurants and bars say when they bought in bulk they were having to throw half away because they’d gone off. But when they get them on the day they are picked they can last up to two weeks.”

The glass jars have been a big success and her most popular order is purple violas, although she has lots of requests for nasturtiums, marigolds and borage.

“It’s interesting for me as a supplier, because different places want different things,” explains Zoe. “The fine dining restaurants might just want one flower to use on a dessert, whereas a vegan cafe might want loads of bright ones to use in a big bowl of salad. I love watching what the chefs create with the flowers I deliver.”

There’s very little waste from the whole process. Even the non-perfect blooms find a use: “Sometimes the insects will come and take a tiny bite out of each one, so you’ll have a huge, beautiful flower with a tiny nibble out of one petal. I’d never sell one like that, and I haven’t got the heart to put them in the compost, so I dry them to make confetti. It’s amazing how many petals it takes to make one little bag.”

But, like many business, the lockdown and shutdown of the hospitality industry had had an impact. Zoe usually growns from April to September but, impossible to predict what summer yould bring when lockdonw was brough in in March, she planted just a quarter of the flowers she had planned. Good weather has meant she has been able to pick some and despite being a new business and weathering a global pandemic, Delicatey Edible is becoming increasingly established in the bustling Congleton food and drink scene.

“I love living here, and I love being part of the independent business community here,” she says. “I had no idea what to expect, and I was nervous about approaching places, but I’ve been overwhelmed by the level of encouragement I’ve had from other small businesses.

“I’m very lucky to have had so much help from my husband, Dave and daughters, Harriet and Ella. They do everything from watering plants to helping with deliveries. I do all the picking and the washing of the flowers, because I’m a bit of a perfectionist,” she laughs. “Plus there’s something quite relaxing about the process of cutting, checking, washing and then packaging them up, looking beautiful in their jars, ready to go and brighten up someone’s plate. I never get tired of looking at them.”

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