An Oasis of Traditional Village Life - Going Foam Free with the Church Flower Committee
We had been living in our village for just over a year when I was invited to the annual meeting of The Church Flower Committee. When I first wrote a post about our arrival I noted that we were viewed by the residents here in much the same way as the newcomers in Marghanita Laski's "The Village" . Essentially people wanted to know: who were we, where had we come from, and what benefits could we offer to the village? Charles, by far the more extrovert of the two of us, has been happily singing in the choir and directing traffic to the car park on such occasions as demand it, whilst I quickly discovered that living in cottage so set back from the road that no courier company can ever find it, is no deterrent to being fished out of the kitchen by more determined members of our community. A friend recommended Agatha Raisin's adventures to me, and I laughed my way through many hours as I not only realised that many villages are in fact quite similar in their archetypal residents, but mainly as I recognised myself as the newcomer who missed the anonymity of London whilst also taking comfort in a more relaxed existence in the countryside.
And so I found myself at my first ever Committee meeting. It was largely as I had imagined it would be with tea and cakes and a very efficient looking agenda. Rotas for the year were discussed, as was the annual Flower Committee outing, and I successfully kept my head down until the subject of flower equipment and specifically floral foam came up. Complaints were made that it was being reused and perhaps not stored in the tidiest way possible and solutions were being sought. I asked if we really needed to use floral foam at all. I'd been working up to asking the question anyway, but feared it might be an unpopular one, but when the opportunity presented itself to gently enquire about it, I couldn't help but ask. I talked a little about why it really wasn't good for the environment, trying to engage rather than to lecture. To my surprise, no one was against the idea of doing away with the nasty green stuff, but on one condition - that I should give a demonstration of working with chicken wire on an appointed date.
I mentioned to the lady behind the No to Floral Foam account that I had been asked to make this presentation, and she asked me to let her know how it went and if I had any thoughts afterwards. So the purpose of this post is really to share some thoughts with anyone thinking of doing the same thing. It was definitely a worthwhile thing to do and I'm very grateful to the Flower Committee for coming along and taking the time to listen to my thoughts and suggestions. That said, there are a few things it's worth knowing before embarking upon such a venture.
At the outset, it's probably worth starting by perhaps stating the obvious. A Flower Committee is quite unlike any other audience I've had. I knew it might be a tough gig for a numbers of reasons. Firstly, many of the ladies there have been doing the flowers for a lot longer than I've been posting on Instagram - many remember using chicken wire when Constance Spry first made it fashionable and before the availability of floral foam. So I tried to remember this at all times as I made my creations - respect is definitely key. No one wants a young pretender telling them with a flourish things they might have known for decades. So far so good, I like to think I gauged this part correctly.
As this was something I was doing for the Church, rather than an exercise in which I hoped pay myself money, as I might ordinarily hope to, affordability was key. There are many ways in which this can be approached. A small contribution was sought by the Head of the Committee from those attending with the majority/deficit being paid by me as a donation to the Church. To try and keep control of costs, as well as buying local flowers from growers, I spent many hours foraging in nearby hedgerows having been given kind permission by the local landowner (who is conveniently married to the Head of the Flower Committee). In total it was effectively two days' work and cost me a little over a hundred pounds. Looking back, I can see that if I had asked for help in certain areas, I could have been more effective in controlling this. If I were to do the event again (which I'm not, but you might be thinking about it), I would definitely ask more forcefully for help with getting everything set up and also I would ask those who had beautiful gardens with flowers growing in them to bring anything that they could spare. Had I made those requests, I'm sure I'd have been met with a positive response, but because I was much in the same mindset as I would be when doing a normal class for which I was charging, I didn't adopt a more collaborative approach. But I should have done.
Thirdly. Doing a demonstration in front of a group of people who know each other well, have not had to travel far, and in some cases are attending because they had been asked to, is not the same as doing one in front of a typical class who will be more heavily invested. When teaching the latter, attendees will have made a specific decision to pay money and travel to hear what you have to say. As such, they are likely to be very engaged as you arrange - though hopefully with some friendly chat, no one likes those first ten anxious minutes as everyone is concentrating so hard that they don't say a word! However, an event like a gathering of the Flower Committee - on this occasion hosted in the most beautiful Vicarage with tea and a delicious gluten free, potato based, lemon cake on a sunny afternoon - is a rather different affair. Some people really will be very engaged and join in, other people will be excited to see one another, have news to catch up on, things to talk about and so on. For me it was a good lesson in carrying on regardless of distractions going on around me - I also picked up far more information than anyone realised as they all assumed I couldn't hear as I was so engrossed in my flowers. Luckily for them, I'm terribly discreet.
So, caveats aside, what did we actually do? I opted to demonstrate two types of arrangement - one urn type one, and one longer one that might go, say, in a window sill at the side of the Church. I used a Beswick vase that had handily been rescued from the Vestry, plus a zinc window box brought along by one of the attendees. I purchased chicken wire and floral tape which, at the end of the afternoon, went to live in the supplies cupboard in the Church for future use so that as each team did their own flowers, they had everything that they needed.
As I didn't want it to a "preachy" affair (preaching is for Vicars after all, and not florists) I tried to focus on the positive reasons not to use floral foam. Of course I touched briefly on why it isn't good for human health or the environment, but I also presented it as a cost saving opportunity. Chicken wire can reused over and over again which means that the cost of buying floral foam is no longer an issue. Additionally I focussed on the fact that putting the stems directly into water meant that a broader range of flowers could be used, as softer stems which wouldn't necessarily withstand being poked into floral foam, in fact sat very nicely in wire. As well as demonstrating that this meant more natural looking arrangements with more movement, I also focussed on how a wider range of foraged ingredients could be used. I took some philadelphus that was growing at the side of a road and plucked of nearly all the of the green foliage, to show it then looked more like a focal flower. This, I am reliably informed, is the thing that most people planned to take away from the afternoon (as well as cake and scandal, one assumes!). I also acquired some pot plants such as begonias and petunias, which I guessed might be on some people's patios, to show how these could also be used as cut flowers too. In doing so, I focussed on saving money as well as the environment, and this, I think, went down well.
As to the end result? Well, overall I think it was a success. There has been a clear out of the church flower cupboard, which is now equipped for chicken wire arrangements. There may well be some who choose to stay true to their foam based arrangements, but the large majority seem to be giving this technique a good go, which is as much as I could ask. If we are all really serious about trying to eliminate (or vastly reduce) the use of floral foam, and we are doing it not just for the sake of a hashtag but for the greater good, then maybe it's worth sparing a bit of time to help spread the word amongst those who wouldn't typically attend a workshop that you might be running. As mentioned above, it's possible to be more efficient with time and cash than I was (as in so many other areas of my life!), and it might just help to reduce the community's footprint that little bit. If you're lucky like me, you'll also get some excellent cake and maybe a few other juicy titbits too! Hilda fulfilled a year long dream of an afternoon spent rolling on her back on a croquet lawn she'd been desperate to investigate further, so from her point of view, that's as good as a summer afternoon gets.