Yvonne's Plants is based in Gosport, Hampshire, and run by Yvonne, an avid gardener and allotmenteer, who has been busily growing her own food for around 30 years. It came about almost by accident really, back in 2010, with 2 paste tables at a local car-boot sale, as a way of shifting a few plants that were surplus to requirement in my back garden, but as with all things in the garden, it grew...
In 2013 I approached the Bishops Waltham Garden Fair, told them my humble origins, and they took chance on me. The gamble paid off and I was blown away by the response from the gardening public. I couldn’t have survived the day without the help I had from family, fellow stall-holders and the organizing committee in helping me keep up with the volume of customers that day. It was on the strength of that one day that we then found ourselves being invited (at only 2 weeks notice) to the Stansted Park Garden Show, something I had never dreamed of at that point. 2013 was certainly a baptism by fire, and each year things steadily got bigger.
The next big thrill came at the Bishops Waltham show in 2016, with winning the 'Best Plant Stall', where I was surprised to be ambushed by gardening guru Andy McIndoe and several ladies on the events organizing committee. It had been so busy on the stand that I had been unaware of the tannoy announcement until I was summoned to the front of the stand for the obligatory photo! It was a far cry from our first attendance at that show just 3 years previously when I had no idea just what I'd gotten us into and survived by the skin of my teeth! Since then, many lessons have been learned and I now have a small army of family and friends come and support me on the day.
My little garden didn’t have elastic fences to keep expanding with my needs - even my shed roof was used for growing strawberries - but a chance introduction lead to another big leap forward for the 2017 season, when I seized the opportunity to relocate to a commercial greenhouse in Bishops Waltham.
It was a dilapidated shell when I took it on, but now it's got a new lease of life. With the increased space also came the challenge of managing extreme temperature changes and keeping up with the increased watering needs in a completely different growing environment.
On the positive side it also afforded me the opportunity to grow much bigger and stronger plants, which meant we could look to keep growing and selling plants beyond our usual finishing point in June, and this saw our first appearance at Chilli Festivals later that summer.
By this stage some of our chilli plants are upto 3ft tall, and covered with ripening fruit, and also giving customers a chance to buy freshly picked chillies harvested from our greenhouse.
2018 saw us winning ‘Best Plant Stall’ at the Gilbert White Unusual Plant Fair, capitalising on our success in the Chilli Festival scene, and attending even more prestigious events, like the Blenheim Palace Food Festival and the Great Dorset Chilli Festival.
After trialling fresh produce the previous year we brought much more of it to the summer events, and the reaction to our bags of brightly coloured tomatoes and chillies was fantastic, as it gave people the chance to taste all the different varieties that we offer for sale as young plants earlier in the spring.
2019 saw us attend even more Food Festival events and summer Farmers Markets, having grown even more fresh produce. It also meant that we had people growing their own tomatoes for the first time, based on the strength of our fresh ones they tasted last year, and having even more produce for sale in the summer months meant we could entice even more people away from the super-market veg aisles. It’s fantastic to get such positive feedback from so many customers, and that makes all the long hours worth it.
As part of the 'chilli scene' I got to know Bernie, of 'Chef Bernie Sauces' fame, and I'd been able to supply him with a small amount of Trinidad Scorpion chillies (scary hot ones, believe me!) in 2018.
So when he asked me to grow a whopping 30kg of them the following year, I embarked on another experiment.... You could say it was a success, with the plants reached around 8ft tall, nearly as wide, and dripping with blistering hot Scorpions!
Another little sideline was selling chillies picked to order, via my Ebay shop, giving me the chance to reach a whole nation of chilli-heads. I'm not yet ready to tempt fate by subjecting the plants to the mercies of the postal system, but it isn't something I'm completely ruling out. So if you are after fresh chillies by post, the Ebay shop (called 'Yvonne's Chillies' will be back online in the summer).
The next new venture came about completely by chance when I was approached at an event to see if I would come and do a talk for a gardening group, and I said 'why not...?' Public speaking was certainly not something I ever envisaged doing, but it was a fantastic chance to enlighten keen veg growers just what goes on behind the scenes in a small nursery, and to encourage them to shop locally with small artisan growers who are passionate about what they grow.
2020 was certainly a year that none of us will forget. It certainly brought some challenges when all our events were cancelled with just 5 days before the first event, and over 15,000 plants sat waiting on the greenhouse benches. So instead of customers coming to events, I took my van on the road and started my own delivery service for customers all across Hampshire, while those living closer to home came along in the evenings to collect their orders directly from me.
We all made it through lockdown safely, and it was so good to see everyone again at the summer markets, even if the bigger events weren't able to go ahead. The kindness and generous support from so many people made it all worth the struggle of working 120 hours a week to get through lockdown.
There was a sting in the tail of 2020 for me though, as my business was made homeless when I had to move out of the big commercial greenhouse site. I'm still hunting for a 'forever home' for my business, but in the meantime I've returned to my garden-based roots and will be operating from home again. To get through this tight spot, some wonderful friends are helping me out with some temporary space in their garden while I continue my search for a permanent base.
This means that in 2021 I will be able to continue pretty much as normal during the March-June period, and at a reduced capacity for the remainder of the year. I simply won't have enough space to grow all the fresh produce that people have come to expect from me at the summer farmers markets, so I've had to reduce those events and stick mainly to the chilli festivals for the summer months.