It's early on Sunday morning and I"m tucked up in bed as I write this, surrounded by catalogues of Bloomsbury Group paintings, with a peach coloured poodle...Read More
Filtering by Category: Floral design
I am little bit surprised that it's taken me quite so long to write this post. I really wanted to call this "A Week in the Country" as I didn't think I could possibly...Read More
Wisteria Hysteria, Tulip Mania and the curious incident of the dog passport in the night-time - Five days in Belgium for the Primaveral Workshop
It's been a while since I actually sat down and tried to write a blog post - so much has happened with house moves, funerals, weddings and even an exciting project to work on and so I'm terribly behind with all my posts. I have five half written drafts stored in my website. I was deciding which one to actually finish this week, when a set of the most beautiful images by Louise of Taylor and Porter dropped in my in box, and suddenly I thought of so many things I wanted to say.
April marked exactly a year since I decided to try and make a go of some sort of floral career, and this time last year I headed off to St Giles in Dorset for the Ponderosa and Thyme workshop. Lots had happened since then, and it's already well documented just how wonderful and positive that experience was, and how many dear friends made - and yet, setting off from St Pancras International, I still had my fair share of nerves, but there was also plenty of excitement too.
It's a difficult thing to decide which kind of workshop to go on. After all, it's a big investment in oneself, and (for me anyway) a lot of thinking has to go into it. Last year's retreat was a huge step forward for me and, as I had very little experience, it had been easy to fall for Katie's incredible style, and her compassion that was conveyed in all her images. But this year, I knew I had to build upon those foundations. I first found out about Emily of Fleuropean's business from Susanne at The Blue Carrot when she gave me some of her ribbon to tie my bouquet. That ribbon had many other lives before being cut into smaller pieces used to tie Christmas decorations onto the tree. There was a degree of protest from the Bowen household when I changed the entire colour scheme for the tree in order for it to work with this one piece of ribbon. Luckily some competitive family members came round and expressed such admiration for said ribbon/ decorations and colour scheme, plus a determination to do the same to their tree next year, that my husband had a rare moment of proverbial chest beating, and what had been a sore point soon became one of great pride. I am already wondering what I can get away with this year, but armed with the knowledge that competitive festive decoration can be an excuse for a little bit of prop shopping, I'm mentally making that list. The festive tableaux could well be amazing.
But I digress. When Emily posted that she was doing a workshop in Belgium that involved a class in natural dyes for ribbons, I immediately saw an opportunity to try out a new skill. When I saw she was hosting it jointly with Madison of Hart Floral - who has a lightness of touch in her work that I so admire but could never replicate - I could immediately see the potential to take my craft forward. I mentioned on Instagram that I was thinking about it very seriously when some other people, whose work I had been admiring and following some time (that's you, Sarah, Betany and Jasmine) all said they were going and please could I join in. And so I did.
After gathering at Liege station, we were whisked off to the most beautiful Belgian farmhouse. We ran off and chose our rooms, bunking up in doubles and triples, and after an explore sat down to a wonderful dinner prepared by Eric, under a blossom chandelier erected by Madison. The real work started the next morning, though, beginning with a foraging trip to find materials both for making natural dye from and for our arrangements to be made later on. We went up and down the gently rolling (ha!) countryside, and collected meadowsweet, alder and dandelions, shouting across to Emily "will this work?" every time we found an item we hadn't previously asked about.
Back in the farmhouse kitchen, we set about making dyes for the ribbons, runners and aprons that had been given to us. Emily had already prepared some other dyes (walnuts, avocado stones and many others), which were boiling on the stove in readiness for us. Given how many of us there were around that kitchen table, I have to say just how proud I was of us all that there were no serious spats as to who was going first, and who was using which dye. This was probably because it was all lovely, and if we ran out of anything, Emily cheerfully made another batch, but still I think this was the first time I caught a glimpse of the teamwork that was going to get us girls though the next few days.
As our ribbons were hanging out to dry in the garden... or in some cases, flapping around in the ground after not being secured properly (ahem!), we had grabbed some lunch and then headed off to Emily's home to raid her garden for some tulips and other floral delicacies for the afternoon's arrangement making. I am still a little ashamed of just how many tulips I gathered up that day (sorry, Emily) but I did use every one and having unfettered access to the garden was an absolute highlight of the trip to Belgium for me. It's hard to describe the pleasure of picking tulips in Belgium, on a sunny spring day, in beautiful countryside with cows mooing contentedly - and such fresh air! - and anyway I don't want to sound too much like Gray's Elegy so I'll just get back to the task in hand.
Once we had headed back with our spoils, Madison did a demonstration of the most considered placement of dogwood and tulips. I was pretty amazed at how such an impact could be made with a small bowl and such a limited number of ingredients. I was also concerned about whether or not I would be able to restrain myself from throwing all the amazing pickings I had together in one huge, splendid gesture, which is a basic instinct for me, but perhaps not what I had come to learn. It started well, with dogwood on one side and darker elements on the other, but soon my old friends the fritillaries and hellebores were making their way into the arrangement... however, I can honestly say that the arrangement I made was, for me, so restrained and understated that I was really surprised that I had achieved it. As Madison herself said, she didn't want to see a dozen Madisons, but I could clearly the influence her demonstration had had on my work. In fact, we all filled our custom made glazed bowls with a lightness of touch and level of concentration that was quiet impressive. (Footnote: I say "all", there was one notable exception to that statement, as the sassy one amongst us chose her own vessel in the kitchen and recreated the entire Belgian countryside in her corner of the workshop, but my goodness, it was amazing and we all loved her for it!).
After another evening of wine, chat and delicious food from Eric, the following day our tasks were to do an installation involving wisteria that had mysteriously appeared overnight, following a trip made to a car park somewhere in Belgium under the cover of darkness, and also to make our bouquets. Madison gave us direction as we suspended the wisteria from pieces of string that we tied across the room, and watched patiently as we created shapes through a process of trial and error. The result was a light and delicate wisteria wonderland type thing - it was just so pretty! We then watched as the beautiful Anneleen modelled under and interacted with said installation - such a joy to watch so much beauty in one room.
Later on, it was Emily's turn to demonstrate, and this time we watched her make the most beautiful bouquet from her homegrown Brownie tulips, with forget me nots and pansies and I think I am going to print a copy of Louise's photograph of it to stick on my wall - some people stick aspirational photos on their fridge of women they would like to look like... well, I am planning to put pictures on my wall of bouquets I wished I had made. That said, I was unusually happy with my own one, and even more so when I saw the photos of Anneleen modelling it in a stunning vintage bridal dress. If I ever start a wall featuring pictures of pieces I'm proud I made, it will definitely be on there. It would only be gracious of me, however, to apologise for the panic I had at the beginning when I realised that the overnight death of my dogwood meant that I was lacking in branchlike structures - thank you to Betany, Melanie and Nora for keeping me calm (and tolerating my distracting concerns when they had their own thing to do) and to Rachel for lending me some of her previously foraged greenery. I was very grateful and remain so.
At this juncture, there was a brief interlude as photography by the wonderful Taylor and Porter was in progress, and it was suggested that we form a breakaway group to take some of our own, slightly less serious and infinitely less professional photographs. We skipped off up the road, armed with flowers and a camera and photographed each other... there was the honking of car horns (Belgians are nowhere near as restrained and conservative as I had imagined them to be!) and leaping though fields and mainly, a lot of fun. I don't have room to share all the images here here, so i'm posting just a couple to give you a feel for what happened at this point;
By this stage, it will come as no surprise that Eric cooked us another delicious supper. By night three, polite conversation had been replaced by giggles and chatter, which as we all know, is infinitely preferable. We had sussed each other's senses of humour, found that we had lots in common and really liked each other quite a lot. But by far the highlight of the evening was Betany's singing. An accomplished Opera singer as well as ridiculously talented floral designer, Betany will be known to many of your as Chloris Floral. This is probably a good moment to mention that one doesn't, as I had erroneously imagined, pronounce that "claw-riss", but rather "Clore-reese". I can see why, it's much more elegant and frankly, I felt a little parochial when I discovered this, so I"m letting you know in advance in case you come across this kind and talented lady. I am gutted that I didn't video her performance under the wisteria, but she brought tears to my eyes and made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.
The following morning, we checked out of the farmhouse and headed down the road to Emily's farmhouse for the final furlong - more installations and a night of camping in the garden. The installations were to happen in Emily's attic - if indeed that is the correct word - it's a vast space at the top of the building filled with ribbons that you can only dream of, with huge wooden beams just begging to be covered in flowers. As we cleared Emily's props to one side, I felt a little bit like I was moving some sacred or holy relics - you all know the ones I mean - the birds' nests, the dried grasses, the brass trays and everything that makes her account look so amazing. But soon we were ready to go and again Madison - after reminding us to please not all talk at once (fair point well made!) directed us as we split into two teams to fill the space with blossoms and lilacs. As with ribbon dyeing and wisteria hanging, I like to think we did a good job of helping and directing each other, whilst lovely Jen of Nectar and Bloom cricked her neck at the top of a ladder (if in doubt, send the flexible yoga instructor). The results were as follows:
At this point, there was one last task - to create a a floral walkway in the fields of Belgium whilst Anneleen wafted through it in another beautiful dress. But I was dead beat and opted to stay in and chat with both Anneleen and Edlynn (the talented make up artist) about life in Belgium. And I'm kind of glad I confessed to being well, older than everybody else and tired and cranky with it, because it gave me just enough energy to get through the final and most fun evening I've had in a quite a while. It was interrupted by my husband, due to catch the Eurotunnel the following morning with Hilda so that she could meet Team Primaveral before travelling en famille to Luxembourg. Having assured me that he absolutely knew where both his and Hilda's passports were before I set off earlier in the week, he called me to ask where I had put said dog's documentation. I reminded him of our earlier conversation and he suggested that I had possibly moved Hilda's passport (remotely, from another country?). Luckily for him, I was distracted by wine and a new fun game taught to us by Rachel which involved zooming in on the least attractive feature in a portrait photograph, taking a screen shot and zooming in again. (I think you had to be there, but if you want a lesson, I'll send you Rachel's account details).
Emily, Madison, Louise, Sarah, Amber, Jasmine, Jen, Rachel, Amber, Melanie, Betany, Nora, Frances, Misa, Jime, Steffi, Edlynn, Ruth, Anneleen and of course, Eric - thank you for amazing few days that I won't forget. I loved working with all of you and I hope that our first meeting won't be our last, And I'm sure you'll all be pleased to know that my husband called in the morning to let me know that he didn't blame me for losing Hilda's passport - which meant that he stayed at home whilst I travelled to Lieges and then completed a further four and half hours by train with all my bags to get to Luxembourg. In fact, he blamed me even less when i got home a few days later and found it exactly where he had left it, next to his glasses (oh, the irony!) on the desk in his office. He totally plans to make amends by buying you all lots of drinks the next time we get together. Until then, dear friends...
2016 - when Donald Trump became President Elect and then told Americans how he didn't mean much of what he said during his campaign, when we voted to break up the EU after a contest largely centred upon some lies written on the side of a bus, and the moment when "post-truth" was named Word of the Year by the Oxford Dictionaries. I find this latter concept especially difficult as, to my mind, putting a hyphen between the prefix and the noun makes it two words rather than one, but I've double checked online and that's definitely what they're calling it/them. I've watched enough editions of Pointless to know that Richard Osman wouldn't allow a hyphenated word in one of his "words ending in -ent" rounds, but then nothing much that has happened this year makes any sense anyway.
It is perhaps fitting, then, that having declared at the end of October that Autumn is by far my favourite month, and in the same blog post gently mocked the idea of using some of Keats's most often cited lines to illustrate this, that I should write now, at the end of December, that today I took a walk on the most, beautiful, crisp day, during undoubtably my favourite time of year. Furthermore, the title of this post is stolen from a collection of Laurie Lee's essays of the same name, contained within a book I finally began reading this afternoon. It was like taking the perfect walk, in the most perfect weather, in perfect company, before coming home to read the most beautiful prose ever written (or very nearly...)
"Today is winter as it always was, and when it wasn't it was not remembered. Forgotten, now, are the small freaks of weather, the offbeat heatwaves and wet-warm Decembers that have cropped up now and then in the past. Winter was always like this since the beginning of winters, since the first man learned to sneeze". Laurie Lee, it seems, understood about post-truths long before most of us were born. (Though I don't think he would have approved of that hyphen either).
And so it was today. Whilst our Christmas involved more than a week of older relatives who were either very sick or bad tempered - or both - this morning we woke to an empty house, no fixed agenda and a bouncy little dog. We rose early and headed off to Ham, by Richmond Park. The sun was low in the sky, and the frost had covered the ground and trees so completely that I really thought (hoped) that Tilda Swinton might come around the corner in The White Witch's sleigh, or that Mr Tumnus might pop out from behind a tree. And I finally began to feel festive. And happy.
We didn't talk much during the course of the few hours it took us to complete our circuit, we were so busy stopping to look at the light coming through the trees, or to listen to the dripping sound of the ice melting, or to take endless photos on our iPhones, but when we stopped for a congratulatory drink at the pub, we had plenty of thoughts to share.
We talked through our goals for 2017, both the big ones and the small. Most of all, we discussed our plans to move to the countryside, the move I had hoped we would have made some time ago, but events got in the way. Realistically, though, we are few months away from this, and I have been trying to decide how best to use the quietest months in the flower year which also coincide with remaining in London. The temptation to devote two or three months solely to Agatha Christie and Dorothy Whipple is very strong indeed, (and it has happened before), but this year I want to make sure that at least some of my hibernation period is productive.
Two of my New Year's Resolutions are to see more art and to read more books. Whilst in London, it makes sense to spend more time in The National Gallery, The Victoria and Albert Museum and I can't remember the last time I visited The British Museum. Having lived in the Capital all our lives, we take for granted these places on our doorstep, and so rarely visit them, partly because every day life gets in the way, also because we think there will be another time that we can go. Temporary exhibitions always take precedence over permanent collections, and so trips to galleries focus on those works only there for a finite period of time. The next three months seem like a good time to begin to remedy this.
Likewise, this is a good time to be reading books. I have made a fairly extensive list, and I doubt I shall get through them all in the next 12 weeks, but I intend to pay particular attention to the Bronte Sisters (in anticipation of a trip to Yorkshire to visit Simply by Arrangement). Other possibilities include Gilding the Lily by Amy Stewart of course The Tulip by Anna Pavord, which I hope to have read in time for the beginning of the British Tulip Season in the Spring. Other cold weather and rainy day activities include practicing my calligraphy - I own a vast array of metallic and coloured inks, and beautiful parchment like paper from Silk and Willow, and yet I have done so little with them. I am going to dig out my copy of Ink and Nib and my practice notes from Alice Gabb and I shall keep practicing the -y- in that makes my Honeysuckle look so wonky when I write it. And -k- too. I can't seem to master -k-.
I also plan to arrange a meticulous library of images, currently spread out across various memory cards, Drop Box, the hard drive of my old laptop and iCloud. But most of all, I am looking forward to taking the time to catch up with other people's blogs and hopefully discover new ones. I am a regular subscriber to the one written by Aesme, and of course Simply By Arrangement (no surprise there), and I am also a big fan of A Quiet Style. I have more recently discovered Mademoiselle Poirot - I have treated to myself to a day's workshop with her in April - and am finding more and more styling blogs really useful. I still look forward to the postings on Miss Pickering's blog, though rare and far between, her economy with words and understated humour are to blogging what the Japanese haiku is to poetry, and every one unique in its own way.
Today, however, I finally signed up to Floret Flower Farm's blog. It's a funny thing, but I so want to be able to grow my own flowers that I have been holding off doing so. I can't really explain why. It's not jealousy, per se, that has stopped me from doing so, more a deep rooted (if you'll pardon the pun) frustration and not being able to plant my own tubers any time soon. But finally, it feels like it is time. I won't be using any of my own flowers for weddings this year. I've already missed that planting slot. But if I am putting my own tubers in the ground in the Autumn of 2017 in readiness for the following year, that could be super exciting.
As we sat in the pub at the end of our walk, my husband told me that I am "much nicer" when I have been for a long walk in the fresh air and countryside. This evening I read him a passage from Laurie Lee that had made me feel a pang of longing as we negotiated our positively urban Christmas:
"Now the time had come for us to go up to the woods and collect leaves for decorating the house. Among the black and bare trees we shook the snow from the undergrowth with frost-reddened fingers, seeking the sharp-spiked holly, bunches of laurel and ivy, cold clusters of moon-pale mistletoe. With these, we transformed the familiar kitchen into a grotto of shining leaves, an enchanted bower woven from twigs and branches sprinkled with scarlet berries".
For me this is the dream. And this is what I shall be hanging onto for the next few months as I organise my photos, bite my bottom lip at the kitchen table whilst pouring over my badly shaped consonants, whilst I read up on the cut flower industry, and devote myself to flower related admin. There will be flat lays too, for sure, and foraged things in new vessel from Petersham Nurseries (a Christmas present to myself). But mainly I shall be daydreaming of the countryside and hoping that 2017 is the year I can finally make my floral aspirations a reality. And with that, Happy New Year.
Styling by: Honeysuckle and Hilda
Photo by: Claire Bowen
There can be no denying that 2016 has been The Grand Tour of floral designers, worskhops, retreats, 121s, and garden visits. In this respect (i.e. outside of the year that saw the deaths of I don't know how many talented artists whilst the rest of the world hit the auto destruct button), it has been a wonderful year. It was preceded by about two decades of office jobs I didn't enjoy, and a pretty bumpy three years more recently, so I do feel like I earned this one. And whilst Rome has been burning, I have most definitely been fiddling (with flowers).
Most of my studying has been in relation to the flowers themselves, how to make do large scale arrangements, make beautiful bouquets of various shapes and sizes, buttonholes, garlanding, wreath making, archways and even a bit of botanical jewellery. And in days gone by, that would have been enough. But in the social media driven age that we live in now, it simply isn't. In order to make our businesses credible, we need to attract followers, and thus the public holds us accountable, measuring our success on Instagram, Pinterest and the like. So it is not just a question of having a lovely product, we also have to be able to present that product to the outside world on an almost daily basis. We need to know our Planoly from our Unum, and to be able to produce a Gorillapod in any situation.
In some ways, this is an amazing thing. We can, to a large extent, market ourselves. We don't need to employ PR gurus, or court magazines in the hope of editorial as the only medium through which our works will be seen. I wonder how may florists who don't have a shop would be enjoying so many bookings from their workshops if it wasn't for Instagram. On the other hand, though, we do find ourselves slaves to hashtags (interestingly, my spell check always changes the word "hashtag" to "hostage") and worrying a lot about the images we post. I tell the outside world and other florists that I don't really care, and we laugh about it over a cup of tea from time to time, but when I reached 1,000 followers I was so excited. I was out in Richmond Park when a text flashed up from another florist friend congratulating me on reaching the first milestone. I stopped trying to pose Hilda in amongst some ferns and and a tree trunk to check my account, and sure enough it had happened. Hilda seized her moment and escaped down a river bank, and so was almost as excited as me. I could hear her woofing in celebration about 200 yards away and she was definitely saying "1,000 followers, woohoo!" and not "finally, I can have some fun without being poked with bits of fauna whilst sitting in bits of prickly stuff under the tree".
At the Ponderosa and Thyme retreat we had a session on photography led by the wonderful Maria Lamb, as well as one on styling from Katie herself. It was early days for me and at the end of a long week, and I ended up plonking a the wing of a pheasant whose carcass we had found whilst out foraging, next to a lovely piece of mossy bark I came across, with lots of lovely spring blooms. I added quails' eggs for good measure as everyone else had done and of course a pile of old books. Katie was as encouraging as ever, but I could see there was work to be done. Maria took artistic shots of my scene in sections, perhaps because the grouping as a whole was a little overwhelming. When I got home, I purchased Silk and Willow ribbons and fabrics en masse in a sheer fit of enthusiasm, and practiced furiously with both flowers and props. Annoyingly, one of my favourite images came about when I turned my back and Cecil the cat destroyed my taxidermy butterflies. I should have been annoyed, but he told me he was collaborating on a piece about shattered dreams and the fragility of life. And of course, Instagram loved it.
A few months later, I asked Miss Pickering for some help with my photography during a 121 session. We talked about light sources and exposure and I did make a little progress. But I still had work to do. It occurred to me that, sometimes on a course I am so relieved at the point I have produced something beautiful, that by the time it comes to learn how to document it, I am already emotionally exhausted. Or something like that (perhaps a bit less dramatic, but along those lines). So I made what turned out to be an excellent decision in that I booked two days that focussed on photography and styling, ones that didn't require me to first pour all my energy into creating something. I attended first of all, the Green and Gorgeous flower photography day, led by the excellent Clare West (which focussed on photography with some styling) and then a day of Styling for Florists hosted by A Quiet Style (which started with a little photography but focussed mainly on styling).
Both days were revelations. I could pass on all the tips that were given to me by Clare and Emma, but they have courses to run and livings to earn! However, three top tips that were common to both days:
1. When considering the ever present and much discussed triangle of exposure, for us floral designers, it is the depth of field that matters the most. That's the F stop thingey. It is really important, especially when photography moody photos of dahlias (see above).
2. Choose backgrounds carefully. The bouquet above is set in front of a really lovely textured and weather beaten grey wall. The styled board at the beginning of this post is in on top of some lovely coarse jute. Wooden boards and linen also work well.
3. Obey the Rule of Thirds. I knew this already, but when I actually put it into practice rather than just thinking about it, it really does make a difference.
The above is just a very small sample of what I learned from Clare and Emma. Clare succeeded where so many others had failed before her, in that she got me to focus as well as my camera, no mean feat. And if you want to know your flat lays from your uprights, I can't imagine a better teacher than Emma.
I stuffed a bag full of my favourite props at 6.05 am and grabbed some hellebores from a jug in the kitchen before jumping on a train to Brighton. After an hour of listening to Emma, I emptied out my bag á la Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club and created the image at the start of this post in less than 20 minutes. Later on, after more tweaking and listening, I created the scene below in just under 15 minutes. I still don't really know how, but everything Emma said made so much sense and I was surprised that I hadn't panicked or even needed much help (ok, just a little) when putting her advice into practice. I left feeling so happy and inspired - and I may also have come a full circle since, just as my first attempt with Katie had me hitting the Silk and Willow website really rather hard, so today I have been adding to my props stash at an alarming rate - expect to see 19th vintage French secateurs, a white linen and lace tablecloth, even more flower books and botanical illustrations and of course some vintage ribbon spools coming to an Instagram account near you very shortly. Meanwhile, I'm off to organise my grid.
Two weeks ago, the world celebrated National Vegan Day. As a vegetarian of more than quarter of a century, it is a day that makes me feel uncomfortable, like an end of term report card that reads "Must try harder" or "Ok, but must do better if she is to reach her true potential". Whilst being a vegetarian is definitely better for the environment and saves animals' lives, I can't get away from the fact that, no matter how many times I have my Joseph Cheaney shoes resoled in a worthy, eco conscious kind of fashion, as I rely on artisans to rework my hand made footwear, said items were once part of a cow. Fact. I have considered making a pledge, as part of my new veganism, only to buy vegan clothing items forthwith once my shoes have walked their last, and the moths have eaten such large holes in my alpaca jumpers that they become irreparable and my silk dresses have all died a death. It wouldn't be such a difficult one to keep, given the size of my wardrobe, and I could well be a good few years away from difficult aesthetic choices. So far so good. Except... I really, really like cheese. Cheese is delicious, a trip to La Fromagerie is my ultimate middle class treat - since you asked, Cathare is my all time favourite, followed closely by a nice runny Saint Marcellin, or a Perail. And we are just entering the best part of the season for the Vacherin Mont d'Or....
And so it is with British flowers.
When I began my blog and wrote my "About" page for Honeysuckle and Hilda I was very focussed on the importance of using only British, seasonal flowers. And I still am. Absolutely committed. But, goodness me, it can be difficult at times, and already I have fallen off the wagon once or twice. A quick glance at the photograph at the top of this post reveals some delicate mini protea floating around my 1950s Beswick vase. I didn't intend to buy them, I was chatting to Azar in The Blue Lavender one day and they just caught my eye. "But they're not British" I whined "I can't...". She pointed out that I wouldn't have chosen the South African imported flowers if I had gone to the wholesaler, but as I was in her shop, and she had made the decision to buy them in, really it didn't count. I succumbed almost immediately. It was a rare blip, but it made me think more carefully about my formerly smug use of #britishflowers.
Which brings me to the Amaryllis. Depending on your sources, the Amaryllis originates in either South Africa (Wikipedia) or Brazil, as discussed in an article by Sarah Raven in The Telegraph a few years back. Either way, it does not trace its origins back to the UK. But, these days, Amaryllises are most definitely grown in the UK. So, do they earn a #britishflowers or not? Or are they merely #grownnotflown?
A few weeks ago, I posted an arrangement of the last of the British roses, along with echinacea, rosehips, dahlias, Queen Anne's Lace and locally foraged foliage. #britishflowers and #grownnotflown both proudly accompanied this post. Underneath a dear friend, with whom I regularly discuss politics, Brexit and the US Election had written underneath #Britishflowersforbritishpeople #Notofloralimmigrants. I found it very funny, but quickly added a note underneath in case anyone reading it who didn't know me, made the mistake of thinking I was in favour of building walls or any such nonsense. In doing so, my gut reaction in fact answered my own question "this is to do with avoiding pollution and of course avoiding the equivalent of flower sweat shops abroad". And so, for me, the Amaryllis, wherever it may in fact have originated, is, for me, as long as it has been grown here, as British as The Royal Family or a Friday night curry. Which is just as well, really, as recently I have discovered a real love for these flowers.
It wasn't love at first sight. Not by a long way. Rather like my husband's view of me when we first met (it took him eight dates to make a pass at me and a further four years to propose), I wasn't at all sure to start with. I tended to put them in the same category as Poinsettia and supermarket flowers and didn't have that much time for them. It was only two years ago, on a Christmas workshop with the arbiter elegantarium of flowers, Miss Pickering, that I even tried putting them in an arrangement, and then only because she handed them to me and I didn't dare not to. She told me to cut them short and put them at the outside edges of my vase. I did as I was told and they looked wonderful. Last year, I came across what has become my favourite online image of a winter arrangement on The Blue Carrot's website - a mixture of pines, hips and amaryllis - I love it as least as much as any high summer extravaganza of peonies, foxgloves and roses, quite possibly more. Then I sort of forgot about them until a month or two ago when I bought some bright red ones for a specific piece. And then I spotted some amazing striped ones in Daylesford on our anniversary (I bought two, I didn't feel I could afford three at that price, but I still regret my stinginess). And every week since then, I have been incorporating them into whatever I do. They are such big, impressive blooms. As such, they give me an excuse to "go large" in everything I do. And now I don't know what I ever did without them -in floral terms at least.
And people have been making kind remarks about my Amaryllis based posts. One florist confessed that she too had some lined up for an event, (beautiful, soft "Mocha" ones) and checked in to see how long it takes for them to open fully. I even heard from someone who is growing them but until then hadn't decided how to use them. A picture editor got in touch as she planned to use them for some publicity shots and wanted to know where mine had come from. And so, as a conversation starter, these big, bold flowers have quickly become my favourite British flower for this time of year. The fact that they facilitate my propensity to err on the large scale side of flower construction only adds to their appeal. I think I might even introduce a new hashtag #rockmeamaryllis to see if I can drum up some support for this most worthy of species. Because what Instagram definitely needs right now is more hashtags!
When I began this post, I wasn't sure what it was I really wanted to say, except "I really, really like Amaryllises". It has sort of evolved into musings on the difficulties on sticking rigidly to one's principles, with the briefest of allusions to recent political events around the world that have left me feeling very sad, and a plea for one genus whose reputation has perhaps faltered in the fickle world of floral fashion. And not for the first time, I found myself with rather more to say than I realised. Thank you for listening.
My heart still skips a little beat when I see the image above. There was time when a small, hand held bouquet was my nemesis but I have been working hard on this to some effect. However, when I went down to meet Susanne of The Blue Carrot on the Rosehead Peninsula, I didn't expect I would or could produce something like this. It is also now my most liked picture on Instagram, which is surprising as the tiny brown Schnauzer is nowhere to be seen, and Planoly tells me that her presence in an image can increase audience appreciation by up to 40%.
I ventured down to Cornwall without my Head of Marketing for my long awaited date with Susanne in mid September. Aware of just how many floral designers had gone ahead of me, I was full of trepidation as to whether or not I would be able to come to close to matching their creations. Yes, I know that comparison is the thief of joy, because Sara of Wedding Sparrow told us so. However, when you know that florists including the likes of Kirstie from Ruby and The Wolf, Sarah of Simply by Arrangement, Jenn of Jennifer Pinder Flowers, Vic of Foxgloves and Glory and Lucy The Flower Hunter have all gone ahead of you, and that Brigitte of Moss and Stone is not far behind, it does make for a certain amount of pressure.
If anxiety was a strong emotion at the outset, it was quickly overtaken by excitement. Susanne's garden is full of the most beautiful flowers you can imagine, and her workbenches were lined up with cuttings of the most gorgeous palette I have ever seen. If my lesson in colour psychology taught me that green has many positive attributes, Susanne showed me just how many shades of green there are, and I quickly understood which greens I wanted (the sort of limey ones that are going yellowy brown). My beloved corals were all lined up with the palest of pinks, café au last dahlias, darker dahlias, dogwood roses, chocolate cosmos, spindleberries and, my new favourite thing, hops. So many hops! Lovey crisp, gristly, low hanging, lime green hops.
Given my hopes to soon be growing my own flowers, I was keen to know how Susanne achieved so much loveliness on her plot. She doesn't use pesticides, apart from the odd organic slug pellet. I asked her if she ever buys in any flowers. She told me that she does - she sees herself as an artist (rightly so) and thinks that to deny herself a flower just because it is not available in her garden is like a painter denying himself a particular shade of pigment that he needs to complete his picture. This is an interesting point, and one that I need to give more thought to in my quest for a sustainable floral design company. If I ever get to anywhere near the level of sufficiency I have witnessed in this little paradise, I think I can feel pretty pleased with myself.
By the end of the morning, having first photographed Susanne's demo bouquet just in case I wasn't prepared to publish my own (!), I had actually created something I was really very proud of. With the best array of flowers and foliage available anywhere in the UK, and Susanne's tips on shape, it would have been difficult not to. We headed off to The Hidden Hut for lunch. A big beach clean up was in operation at Portscatho that day, with marine biologists taking all sorts of readings for good measure. Many of Susanne's friends were out there and a few stopped to chat. I explained to them - as they amazingly seemed not to know - that coming to see The Blue Carrot is a rite of passage for most floral designers. Everyone looked suitably impressed except for Susanne, who was not familiar with the term. I don't know how much of this down to Susanne's innate modesty, and how much to speaking German as a first language, but if Alanis Morissette were to reissue a version of "Ironic" for the 2010s, I would demand a line of the refrain was adapted to include Susanne's unawareness of the rite of passage. It definitely wouldn't rhyme and I don't think it would scan either, but it is right up there with rain on wedding days and free rides that have been paid in advance, and as such demands inclusion.
We spent the afternoon working on arrangements, much more delicate and smaller in scale than my usual creations and the realisation that I can make a big impact with about 20% of the flowers I sometimes use was a very helpful revelation indeed. We sang along to the radio and Susanne introduced me to the amazing Gregory Porter (what a voice!). It was one of the happiest days I have had in a very long time. Which isn't to say that I lead a sad and miserable life - far from it - just that this was a particularly happy one.
A rite of passage is defined as a ritual or ceremony signifying an event in a person's life indicative of a transition from one stage to another, as from adolescence to adulthood. My day with Susanne was so relaxed that I don't think I could describe it was something as formal as either a ritual or a ceremony, but certainly a process took place that day which took me further on my journey in floral design, a step closer to knowing where I wanted to be and how best to achieve it. I am so excited that Autumn is here and, thanks to my trip to Portscatho, I have new knowledge with which to enjoy it even more. Thank you, Susanne, for sharing your garden, your talents and your sense of humour with me on that wonderful September day.
If Miss Pickering was the one who renewed my interest in flowers and piqued my curiosity with her blog, then it was five days with Katie Davis of Ponderosa and Thyme that made me believe I could have a future in flowers. Our group of sixteen met back in April and, five months later, I still miss them and look back fondly on those days as some of the happiest - and most tiring! - I have ever had. We are still in touch on social media from our respective corners of the globe, and I have seen three of them again (unsurprisingly, the three that are based in the UK). In fact, because of the many and various postings on social media, lots of people have been in touch to ask me what I thought of the course and if I would recommend it. The short answer to that is "Hell, Yes!".
I wanted to wait a few weeks before sending Katie my feedback on her wonderful workshop. I left on such a high that I wanted to wait for my feelings to settle a little so I could be pragmatic about all the things I enjoyed and also gained knowledge from - the morning foraging, the Dutch Still life I created, the bouquet way too large to carry (not compulsory, mine just ended up that way)... I planned to talk about how helpful I found it to meet Flowerona and to listen to Sarah from Wedding Sparrow - a stellar cast. Their advice has proved so helpful in the months that have followed as I have been working out my own brand identity and what my own business should look like. Of course I mentioned the gorgeous setting we worked in, the beautiful home of the Earl and Countess of Shaftesbury, the most gracious hosts you could imagine, in Wimborne St Giles, and how warm and friendly all of Katie's team were. I came home with the most beautiful images from Maria Lamb Photography and Hunting Ground Films. You know, all the things I would want to know before investing in a course like this.
It has been five months now and my feelings haven't settled. The glow I had when I left Dorset that day hasn't faded at all. The love and encouragement from Katie especially, as well as my fellow students, hasn't diminished. I arrived feeling uncertain of my own abilities and reluctant to let anyone see my work. Since I got home, I have taken time to practice every day - even on the rubbish ones when I was sure I was too tired or too busy - and have been proud of what I have done, publishing the images and finding that other people liked them, too. My brain hasn't stopped buzzing, not even at night, and each day I have taken another step towards growing my own business. I know now that I can do this, and I can do it well. (You see the American influence coming through there, I didn't even use the word "probably" in that last sentence).
I fully intend to go on other courses with other floral artists as I work to further refine my own style. And I'll enjoy them and learn skill sets from them and probably absorb a little bit of their style into my own along the way. I'll even blog about them if anyone is interested (let me know!). But it was five days in Dorset with Katie that made me believe I could do it, and know that I really, really wanted to.
Postscript: Since the time of writing my blog, the wonderful Pilar of Gorgeous and Green has written a much fuller account of her time on the same course. For anyone who is interested, or thinking of going on a future retreat, I would highly recommend having a good read.
Meanwhile, here is a photo of the beautiful Pilar on a morning foraging trip. I think the joy on her face sums up how we were all feeling.
I wondered if the title for this blog was a little over the top. Would it embarrass the subject of this little foray into floral adulation? Then, a few days ago, I noticed an article in The Week entitled "An Ode to Tom Hanks's Upper Lip". I feel Miss P's many talents are at least equal to Forest Gump's philtrum, and so I continue unabashed.
Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am a big fan of Miss Pickering. Hers was the first blog I ever read "Florist. Blogger. Whatever". Her photo showed her with a camera, eyes just peeping over, and a flower crown on her head. She was a bit mysterious and I kind of wanted to hang out with her the way you do with one of the kids at school who are much more popular than you are, so you don't dare to ask, you just sit in the background quietly. Eventually, a Christmas flower workshop popped up on her site and I signed up and took myself off to Stamford. I had only had Hilda for about 8 weeks and I was also so pleased to meet Miss P that I barely noticed that the arrangements and wreath I made actually weren't too bad, I was too full of excited chatter. (Apologies to anyone else on the course that day who had hoped to get a word in edgeways about something other than my dog). As well as wreaths and arrangements, there was a candlelit lunch, the swagging of Christmas garlands on a staircase and an incident involving some peppercorns. A pretty special day.
Eighteen months later, reasonably confident that I would return from a holiday in Italy with a ring on my finger - not least because I had chosen said ring - I attended a DIY wedding flower day. I looked at my flowers, I looked at Miss Pickering's... I'll let you guess what happened next.
So really, this is just a thank you to the mistress of floral design and a very dear friend. Thank you for being the inspiration for my journey and for some truly stunning wedding flowers that I hope one day I will be able to match.
Much to my Mother's disappointment, I have always been a bit of a goody two shoes. At school I rarely got into trouble, and even when implicated in a trick involving a piano that could play itself, a nervous new matron and the subsequent exorcism of an entire boarding house, no one imagined that I could really have been involved. As an adult, I was punctual at work, I stood up for people on buses and tubes... When the Council started handing out recycling bags, I fulfilled my civic duty and filled each bag with the appropriate materials. I was amongst the first to swap plastic bags for canvas totes, usually from a bookshop to show I also supported local businesses. Of course. I have been a vegetarian for over 25 years, but I try not to be too boring about it, though I have recently become tearful when I see my husband eating bacon. (I think it has something to do with the micro pigs I have following on Instagram). When the Government introduced a new, virtually free, road tax band for cars with incredibly low emissions, I acquired a tiny and very eco Fiat 500. In other words, I towed the line, in my own moderate way.
I didn't take drugs. I never even smoked a cigarette, which is why doctors probably ignored my cough for so long. When they found a tumour, they told me that air pollution in London is so bad, that it kills thousands of people each year. Millions more are fine, but some, like me, are unlucky. I started to read more about the environment and the role we play within it. I filled my home with house plants to help filter the air. I thought about how wonderful nature is and how, when allowed to do what it is supposed to, unhampered by humans, it in turn helps us to flourish too.
And then another funny thing happened. I was out walking on London Fields and I noticed that last year's wild flower meadow was not nearly as abundant as the year before. It looked sad, sparse and rather brown. Posters started to go up in shops in the familiar type face of a well known fashion designer and environmental campaigner warning of the dangers of herbicides and in particular glyphosates. I needed to learn more and asked how I could help. I went home and read papers presented by leading scientists to the All-party Parliamentary Group on Agroecology about the many disastrous consequences these chemicals can have. I devoted my days to managing a campaign on 38 Degrees to ask Hackney to stop spraying these chemicals over the Borough. I wrote to the Mayor and pleaded with him. I asked residents of other London boroughs to do the same. I went with the same designer (the one who had taken Margaret Thatcher by surprise in the 1980s with her No to Pershing T shirt) to the Houses of Parliament and, together with the Anti Pesticide Network, we met with Zac Goldsmith and Caroline Lucas. The Mayor of Hackney didn't help us, but before long the chemical was designated as a "probably carcinogenic" by the World Health Organisation and banned completely in France and other parts of Europe.
The study into pesticides led to more reading around the sad truth of the cotton industry and a talk by the Head of the Soil Association on how organic farming could eradicate global food poverty. I listened to Romy Fraser, founder of Neals Yard, explain the healing powers of nature untainted by chemicals. I watched Vivienne Westwood lead a demonstration against neonicotinoids in Central London.
As a result of the first campaign I met another group who were opposing the plans to turn part of Hackney Marshes, well known for their bio diversity and home of much wildlife, into yet more car parking. Hackney had been given the green light to go ahead by planning authorities, but after a spirited campaign and ten long days in a public enquiry overseen by a member of DEFRA, we were successful insofar as we had plans for one of the two car parks over turned and rejected.
By now I was not just a dog walker who loved nature and flowers, I was also a committed environmentalist. I am still muddling through what this means for my business. Some of the implications are obvious. I cannot in all good conscience use plants that have been in contact with pesticides. I need to do everything I can to ensure those flowers are in turn transported in a way that involves the fewest emissions possible. (If you see me looking at you delivering flowers in your Land Rover, don't worry, I will be envying, not judging, and wondering if I really had to set myself such stringent goals). #grownnotflown is a popular hashtag, as is #britishflowers, and I need to do what I can to be true to these handles. I have spent two years acquiring old vessels from Etsy, Ebay and charity shops. Other things are trickier. Oasis for instance. Of course we can use chicken wire the majority of the time in urns and arrangements, but there are some structures - like candelabra and table runners - that are just BETTER with oasis. I haven't found a biodegradable alternative and I don't know how I remedy this aside from using as little as possible. A little research into offsetting might be my next project.
So there we are. I have set myself what some florists have already told me is a near impossible task - to work with nature as much as taking from it. To help create weddings and events, which are by their very nature, fleeting and to some extent wasteful, into celebrations that leave as small a footprint as possible. But I wouldn't be being true to myself if I didn't at least give it a jolly good try.
My Instagram feed shows an interest in two main areas: dogs and flowers (well, three if you include micro pigs. And everyone really should include micro pigs. If you don't already, start immediately). I spend hours each day following the work of floral designers around the world and following the daily lives of dogs in all four corners of the globe. I follow a daschund living in London that recently holidayed on the Isle of Harris before dropping in to see another daschund I follow in Edinburgh for tea and walkies. I get tearful when I see the little French bulldog who was rescued from a puppy farm when she was no longer of use for breeding, but who now lives a life of luxury in down town New York with her new Frenchie sister... I love Sophie Gamand and her Pitbulls in Flower Crowns campaign against BSL. Best of all, I love to read about dogs belonging to florists. Luckily there are plenty of them - Miss Pickering and the dashing Valentine, Florence of Petalon and the truly delicious Huxley, Emma of Martha and the Meadow with, well, a beautiful spaniel named Martha. Hilda herself is still sulking after being separated earlier this week from Matilda, the cutest and sweetest poodley thing belonging to Jennifer Pinder. And have you even seen the photos of Daisy, the new addition to Brigitte of Moss and Stone's family? Or Wilson who now resides with Lucy The Flower Hunter? So, to the outside world, there is nothing remarkable about another florist and her attachment to her hound.
It is also true to say that, in my case, the flowers wouldn't have finally happened without Hilda. In 2012 I had one of those life changing events that means you simply can't go back to your life as it was before. The aftermath had left me bedridden and reliant upon opiates for over a year and I couldn't even imagine what I was going to do with myself. I was convinced, however, that life with a dog would be a big improvement and after long negotiations and a decision to overrule my partner, Hilda entered our lives in the winter of 2013. The very act of acquiring a dog, whilst improving my spirits, didn't make the pain go away. But it did mean remaining bedridden wasn't an option. No matter how I felt, there was a tiny brown dog relying on me to take her out and to look after her. And so it began, the walks along Hackney Marshes, across Hampstead Heath, through Highgate Woods... and increasingly, further into the countryside with weekends in the Cotswolds, trips to Wales and beyond.
Somewhere along the way, when not looking adoringly at the dog, I started to notice my surroundings, to take interest in nature again, and to notice the colours of leaves, the shapes of branches, the textures of moss on a damp winter's morning, birds singing from the trees. A few months later, I was taking secateurs with me on my country walks, and visiting florists' shops in the afternoon for flowers to accompany what I had already gathered. I started to realise that and then arranging things made me happy and gave me another small sense of purpose. And so with foliage, flowers and a 4.5 kg Schnauzer my recovery began.
Every dog is very special to its owner (s), and we couldn't do without them. But this is my story and why I couldn't have Honeysuckle without Hilda. I'll try not to go on about her too much, but if I do, I hope you will forgive me.