It has been the longest winter. Every year the same platitude. Just when you think you can't stand it any more - the late snow (deadly for the emergence of early hopefuls in the garden); the sea-fret fog that billows inland, stealing up across the fields, along the lanes and motorways, spreading its grey and wearying cold among the buildings; the feeling of being held underwater - you are thrown one day that sweeps it all away. A life raft. That first day that you wake to birdsong, and you know it's finally spring.
Every year I try to fight the bleakness that accompanies these first three months. I have tried to fill them, to ignore them, to compensate with plans and busyness, to somehow counter-balance that void-feeling they have, particularly acute in contrast to the aromatic, boozy flavours of the festive period that precedes them, the glittery ornamentation and togetherness, that rushing wave of anticipation that recedes in January, leaving a rather desolate landscape behind - a long stretch of scuzzy beach, and no signs of life anywhere to be seen. Sometimes I think perhaps I am better suited to warmer climes. California, perhaps, or Greece. I often dream at night of being back in East Africa, in the little house on the ledge overlooking Lake Naivasha, of sleeping beneath the warm gauze of mosquito netting to the whirr of an electric fan and the sound of cicadas. The line of ants encircling the sugar bowl in the morning. Fresh melon for breakfast. The musky, honey-ish smell of jacaranda blossom.That particular expatriate thrill of waking with the light, throwing on a light sleeveless dress and dusty plimsoles in January.
But I've come to know that this is an inevitable, inescapable part of being from where I am from. The melancholy, the colourlessness; standing in the field looking at a milky horizon with your boots sinking into the mud, again. It seems to go on forever; each year you think you'll go mad. But you have to accept it, and you have to go through the motions. I was listening recently to a podcast about grief and it resonated with me, that the way you heal is by resisting resistance, to go into the waves, to be swept along with them. That's something that I think is applicable to so many things in life - sometimes you just have to look directly at the cause of whatever the pain is, and accept it as part of being human, as a stage in the journey. Those first ten to twelve weeks of the year are, for me, an exercise in acknowledging my own impatience, but also accepting the necessity of waiting, the yin and the yang. And recognising that the sunlight-deficient prevernal period is what makes spring so deeply glorious and welcome when it eventually comes. For gardeners and growers of flowers, or herbs, or vegetables - whatever it is - those first annual fruits of our earlier labour (for us, the bulbs of tulips, anemones and narcissi planted late in the autumn) are so prized and cherished. Each bloom is turned over and over in our hands, we bury our heads in their petals, notice the nuances of colour, the shapes of the leaves. Later in the year, when there is a seemingly endless supply of abundant flowers and leaves, branches and fruit, we become almost careless - what's one individual specimen among thousands and the promise of more tomorrow? There's a cavalier attitude that comes in summer, but spring is different, it dances to the beat of a slower drum.
In my garden at home my beloved Japanese maple gently eases into leaf. It seems tentative, it doesn't happen all at once, but slowly, over a couple of weeks. The new leaves come from the bud folded, like little fans the colour of cinnamon. A week later and they are three to four centimetres across - lime at the centre, tipped with a raspberry-pink line around the edge.
In the tunnel at the cutting garden our first anemones show through the crumbly soil, in clusters, as if they feel safer doing so in numbers. With the rise in temperature we are expecting the tulip and narcissi beds outside to come into bloom in the next week or two. And so begins the long season of back-and-forth between Hampshire and London, bringing the old-fashioned flowers and wild branches we love into the city, for glittery parties and humble kitchen tables, for weddings and workshops and restaurants. I am most excited about the various varieties of fritillaries, which we haven't grown for cutting before; the bell-shapes of Fritillaria assyriaca and the more bulbous Fritillaria persica are coming along well in the shady bed beneath the far hedgerow. Then there will be alliums and lilies and foxgloves, and bearded iris like sugared almonds - another longed-for moment in the seasonal year.
At the studio we move outside as the temperature rises, painting and planting. We open all the doors, letting the warmer air sluice any loitering winter dampness away. The greenhouse fills with delicate seedlings in trays and pots and root-trainers. Every few days Jess beckons me in to admire the latest developments. 'Loooook!', she whispers, pulling a tray from the top shelf, 'Aquilegia!' and I can see the familiar groupings of three leaflets on miniature stalks. We buy trees - olive and cypresses and silver birch - for the forecourt, and climbers for the garden which is a sun-trap for several hours during the middle of the day. We chose woodbine honeysuckle and a large Clematis montana rubens, which covered our childhood home in Wiltshire with its light pink flowers every summer, to climb up the back wall. Pansies, too, in soft ice-creamy shades of coffee and mauve. The camellia, after remaining tight in bud for weeks, finally blooms. Its flowers are as flawless as fine pink porcelain.
With the studio kitchen now finished we stock up and finally start cooking proper meals, after months of sandwiches and takeout food. When we were designing the space this was an essential aspect of making our work-place feel more like somewhere we'd want to spend time, somewhere with aspects of 'homeliness'. The kitchen is set out along one wall of the largest part of the space, the open-plan workshop area, and I like the sense that you can wander over and make a plate of toast and marmalade, or an omelette, and that the smells of coffee in the morning and the warm aroma of garlic from a smoking frying pan at lunch-time infuses the rest of the room. With the arrival of the warmer weather we eat alfresco in the sun, pasta and salads with torn bread. It is so good for the soul, to sit around and eat together, I love that sense of family and collaborativeness that cooking and sharing a meal brings to the day. A favourite already for spring is a moreish tortilla recipe, bastardised from Anna Jones' cookbook The Modern Cook's Year - you heat up tortillas individually in a pan with olive oil/butter. Once one side has browned, flip it over and add a healthy sprinkle of parmesan, followed by sliced cornichons (or capers), followed by butterhead salad leaves along the centre. Let the cheese melt and then fold in half, like a calzone, and then slice into two. Make a few in quick succession and then pile up on a plate with a side of lemon-drizzled salad and some yoghurt, or a fried egg, for dipping. So simple and so good!
The first wedding of the year is, rightly, pale and delicate. Anemones and tulips, ranunculus and lilac, hellebores and muscari. Spiraea, peppered with the tiniest white flowers. Faded fritillaria. This bouquet was held by the loveliest and prettiest bride, married to her love last weekend at Westminster Cathedral. After 18 months of planning and countless emails, to hand a girl her bouquet, as she nervously smooths her skirts and veil before stepping into the next stage of her life... there is something so brave and humbling about it, I find it very moving.
As the growing season begins, so our flower school sessions start up simultaneously. Working seasonally in this way it is always a bit of a jump-start to get going again, design-wise. After almost four months of down-time, an awful lot of admin and only the odd sporadic floral project, I'm a little rusty. Jess, on the other hand, has seriously upped her bouquet game; I'm going to need to book in a 1-1 with her myself in the next few weeks!
We're going to be hosting many private classes, small intensive workshops and group classes this year and we're so excited to open our studio up to visitors from all over the world, who share our love and enthusiasm for garden flowers, unusual foliage and foraged branches. It's been a year of pretty intensive refurbishment to get to this point but with more and more flowers and plants arriving weekly the studio is coming into its own.
This week we were joined for a two day private class by an incredibly glamorous visiting florist from Singapore. We talked a lot about flowers, and weather, and animals and made bouquets and arrangements and drank endless cups of tea. Mavis adored her. Sarah made this beautiful urn arrangement, a foundation of apple blossom, magnolia and spiraea, with fritillaries, butterfly ranunculus, hellebores and tulips, her favourite flower.
And so the year moves on. The fog is lifting and the evenings are longer and lighter once again. Across London the trees are awash with blossom. It is Sunday evening and I write looking out of the French doors from the sitting room to our little courtyard garden which is becoming greener by the day. The sky is still blue, sunlit clouds move west to east and out of sight beyond the green shutters. Mavis, in confinement during her first season, intently watches the squirrels leap around in the tree canopy, occasionally emitting her low, gravelly growl. My husband is next door tinkering with the washing machine, which has broken down again. The wisteria and lilac are in bud, the maple leaves rustle softly in the breeze. All is right with the world.
Don't forget to join us next Friday 27th (11am to 8pm) or Saturday 28th April (10am to 1pm) - we're hosting a spring Pop Up at the studio with block-printer Molly Mahon, day dress designer and House & Garden editor Gabby Deeming and jeweller Emma Chapman! Come along to browse all the gorgeous wares, meet the makers and chat all things flowers with us!