Thank you very much to those who emailed or messaged following our last post. It is invaluable to have our readers thoughts on subjects to discuss here on the blog and we will do our best to think of ways to share sourcing recommendations, styling/photography tips, discussions on brand authenticity and online plagiarism, and how to tackle foam-free installations in our future journal entries. One of the topics that came up was seasonality and the use of garden-grown materials and I thought I'd start with that today as I share a few images from our studio classes in May and June that really celebrated the use of garden materials and the wild, foraged elements that we love to use to create naturalistic designs.
Jess and I whole-heartedly believe in the extraordinary, ancient power that plants and flowers have to make people feel happy, and to connect them with nature. We find the most exquisite flowers we can for our clients throughout the year and we dedicate the months we call the 'growing' season, when there is an abundance of exquisite, perfumed bounty locally available, to celebrating our English heritage of gardeners and gardens by working exclusively with truly seasonal, garden-grown & foraged materials.
The flowers we most love to use are garden flowers - natural and imperfect, quirky and unique. They are not straight or complying, they bend, fork, arch, their leaves are freckled, the petals may be faded in colour, the shape of each flower contrary, the stem length inconsistent. Wayward and dainty, garden flowers have a hauntingly beautiful quality that is peerless. It is our belief that beautiful floral design starts with the materials and sensible sourcing and that flowers should be arranged artistically with season and a sense of place in mind.
Every arrangement or bouquet we create, whether in the studio or for an event or wedding, is in some way inspired by our garden, by the season and the surrounding landscape, and the process of growing our own flowers has organically influenced the way we design. Aesthetically, flowers look best when they are arranged with how they are grown in mind. Are they tall and spectral, or do they cluster, low to the ground? Do they look right with this element because they would naturally grow together in a hedgerow or look beautiful together in a border? Do they combine well with other varieties, or do they dominate? Or perhaps they appear better massed, without anything to distract from their beauty.
‘Garden-inspired’ design is the term that I think most accurately describes both our style and our method of flower arranging, and garden design and floral design naturally share many similarities, one being the direct product of the other. Gardens are cultivated, not wild. Even though you may have gardens contrived to ‘look’ wild, they are not. They are enclosures, where man arranges plants to create an aesthetically pleasing, inspiring and practical space. They are often part of a property we buy or rent and are sometimes considered an essential element, an extension of the home. Here, nature is tamed, controlled and regimented for our own enjoyment. Looking out of the window at home across a beautiful garden is part of being civilised, no matter how small or stately, how simple or elaborate, gardens make us feel richer, calmer, healthier, happier. Garden designers may take elements of the surrounding natural environment and incorporate them into a garden as a part of the design, but this is a considered choice; mostly gardens are manipulated, weeded and pruned and mown in order to keep the inevitable at bay: overgrowth, encroaching nature. Conversely flower arrangements are contrived, they are not naturally occurring. They are an artistic creation using natural materials.
A frequent comment we receive about our flowers is ‘are they real?’ It’s a genuine question, and though meant as a compliment, it goes to show that we are so used to seeing flowers tortuously contorted and static in decoration that we don’t recognise those that are probably growing under our noses in our own gardens, once they are separate from the plant. As though flowers in a vase should, by rights be calla lilies and bear grass in a glass cylinder. But, just as gardens can be ‘wild in style’ but are quite the opposite in real terms, so floral arrangements can incorporate elements of wildness but are in effect taming them, using them as materials, the same way that an artist manipulates his paint.
Flower arranging is an artistic medium, the practice of a skilled use of flowers, leaves and branches to create arrangements intended to showcase some of the most beautiful gifts of nature that will be appreciated by those who see them not only for their beauty, but also their power to evoke emotion. We believe, like any art form, that the best flower arrangements are not purely decorative, they are also evocative, they speak of the season, the place they came from, the hands that made them. While they make use of a natural product, they are contrived, designed to look a certain way, they may also have been influenced in that design by another art form - a ballet, an oil painting, a piece of music.
I am always moved by arrangements that include unexpected elements, dried seedpods, spindly grasses, delicate leaves on the turn, how the most humble roadside ingredient can evoke a time and a place sometimes more than the most exquisite of June roses. Often it is just a case of looking at the offerings of your surroundings until, among an unremarkable clump of briars, you find something that sparks the imagination - the way the stems arch or fork, the way the leaves, seen from below, have a silver-white underbelly etched with fine veins.
Bringing elements of the wild into the city, branches and blossom and vines, is incredibly exciting because they really sing in contrast to the dense, urban landscape around them. Some of the most beautiful weddings we decorate are not necessarily those in quaint ancient churches or majestic country homes, they are bars, restaurants, pubs in the city, where a spread of enchanting, just-gathered flowers and foliage transforms the space utterly. One of my favourite memories of decorating a wedding reception was the first time we dressed the tables at St John Bread & Wine, a dining room, bakery and wine shop in Spitalfields that specialises in British food. It was a hot summer’s day. The whole space is white - white walls, white bar, white tablecloths - but in a beautiful old building. We ransacked the cutting garden of its abundant supply and dressed the tables with scores of antique vases, goblets and tankards in tarnished pewter and brass, spilling with scented garden roses and Californian poppies and bearded iris, long, spindly trails of wild clematis loosely connecting them. It was a prime example of how effective simplicity and seasonality can be; all garden-grown, flowers simply gathered in complimentary colours, diversely collected vessels, tall elegant candles, a smattering of ripe, seasonal fruit, sparkling glassware. Nothing too showy or themed or enormously contrived, just an unfussy celebratory feast, with delicious food and a lot of very good wine. The images from that wedding spurned so many requests for the same we couldn't quite believe it but I think it was the fun effortlessness that came across, the mix of colour without any particular 'scheme', the lack of hierarchy among the materials. It was authentic, and not overly curated. Sometimes things can be too 'styled'!
Garden-inspired floral design is not only achieved by using garden-grown ingredients, it also involves referencing the provenance in the overall composition and use of colours and textures to reflect the setting and the season in a cohesive way. For a June wedding in the Hertfordshire countryside last summer we used briars of wild roses arranged to appear blown sideways by a week of strong wind buffeting the hedgerows. For a late August dinner party in a room overlooking an orchard you could use Japanese anemones and piles of windfall, Ellison’s Orange and Claygate Pearmain apples, Avalon pears and cobnuts. Just by looking around and exploring the surrounding environment you will have a different mindset when you come to approach your arrangement and the materials you use to make it most effective. For us, visiting gardens old and new, near and far, is a constant source of creative nourishment; it seeds so many ideas and discoveries and fills our notebooks with design references and lists of varieties we'd like to grow the following season.
According to a report I read recently, around ninety percent of the cut flowers sold in the UK are imported. As a culture, as with many around the world, we have lost a sense of seasonality and a connection to where our flowers come from. This is why we’ll often, oddly be asked for ranunculus in the summer, or a bouquet of peonies and ‘freshly-picked’ flowers in December. Our society is used to instant gratification, whatever we want at the click of a button. The products we buy, the clothes we wear, most of the food we eat, is produced hundreds or thousands of miles away. We can order almost anything we want, day or night, by going online. In this globalised, technologically-advanced world, working with a natural product can be challenging. We are often faced with impatience, when we explain that a particular flower is unavailable that month, or that a dahlia is not a wild meadow flower. One quixotic request we once received was garden roses in February, but they mustn’t be imported because the celebrity client was ‘very eco’.
It is emblematic of how disconnected we are from nature that the tokens we have of it in our homes - tokens that are intended to pay tribute to nature’s beauty and bounty - are often grown across the world, in another climate, with the aid of chemicals to enhance the colour or improve vase life. These tokens are then refrigerated and transported in vast numbers, all designed to look the same and perform the same way. That we buy straight, tight Ecuadorean roses for our tables in June to signify summer, when there are abundant blooms just outside the window, is an extraordinary paradox, when you think about it. Neither Jess nor I would call ourselves 'eco-warriors', but we are increasingly conscious of not only our own desire to reflect nature in a genuine way, but also of the emergence of a wider awareness and a growing thirst for knowledge about where flowers come from, how they can be more sustainably sourced, how they can reflect the season or a particular place. This year we committed to becoming 'floral foam free' (i.e. no Oasis) - we'll talk about this more in future posts I promise! - and composting our floral waste. These are just two small steps in the right direction; there will no doubt be many more on the road ahead.
Besides growing many of the flowers we use, responsible foraging has also become a large part of our sourcing practice. Foraging has become a bit of a modern fad, particularly in the food world, but it is an ancient practice, and, for our ancestors, would have been a necessary way of life.
If you buy a bouquet in the UK between spring and autumn you will most likely see that the foliage options include Italian-grown eucalyptus or ruscus, salal or pittosporum. I have nothing against those ingredients per se, but there is a wealth of exquisite wild foliage that is indigenous and prolific to be harvested if you make the time and have the inclination to use local and seasonal materials.
On the farm where we grow our flowers, we regularly cut metres of wild clematis, Clematis vitalba (otherwise known as old man's beard and traveller's joy, which is one of the most common invasive weeds, and grows simply everywhere, to such an extent that in new Zealand it has been declared an "unwanted organism"); in the spring and early summer it bursts fresh green shoots, followed by white, felty buds and scented white flowers midsummer, with the feathery seed-clusters resembling grey-white beards later in the year (hence its affectionate nickname). Rosa canina or dog rose, is a similarly beautiful and useful resource, with sweetly scented pink flowers in May and June, and then gleaming red hips that provide flashes of bright colour through the autumn.
Our role as both growers and arrangers is multi-faceted; we are the suppliers of the product we use (whether it be own-grown, sourced or foraged) and we provide an artistic service, designing those elements and combining them to create maximum decorative effect for a room or an event. To an extent, because we exist outside the conventional sphere of the floristry industry, educating people about the flowers and plants we use is a prerequisite, and it is also one of the most fulfilling aspects of our jobs. When a client is not only happy with the service we have provided and moved by the beauty of their flowers, but also excited to learn more about plants, or inspired to grow a particular variety in their own garden, this is the greatest compliment we can be paid. When we teach workshops our students will sometimes write to us afterwards saying how keenly they are now spotting the dog rose in the hedgerows when they never noticed it before, or excitedly sharing a photograph of a beautiful wild flower they saw growing in a crack in the pavement. Encouraging people to look and see the gifts of nature that are all around us, even in cracks between paving stones in the city. These are the instances when we feel we are making a connection, a contribution beyond the merely superficial. The aha moments.