Sunday, 16 February 2014

Home is where the heart is

This morning I read a brilliant blog post from Duck Egg about decorating a rented home. Duck Egg does lots of gorgeous, vintage-inspired pieces for the home, from animal silhouette fabrics and lampshades to herb pots and kitchen tables. The post included ideas such as getting long, bright curtains, propping up framed prints if you can't use nails on the walls, and brightening up the room with flowers or plants. It's well worth a read if you are renting but want to make some changes to feel like your home is really home.

I had a look through some photos from when I was living in a small flat that felt bereft of personality. I love colour so much, I found it truly depressing to live in a place that was all cream and brown. I didn't do that much, really, partly because I had barely any budget for decorating, but the little things I did - displayed flowers I'd grown or bought, kept a pot of seed-grown basil in the kitchen, made a table runner and tablecloth, baked cakes and served them along with tea in pretty cups and saucers, and put up some cotton bunting that my florist friend, Auriol, had made me - made a difference.

This all reminded me of an interview I read with Jonathan Harvey, the writer of the play and film Beautiful Thing. I can't find it, but I'm sure he said that even though the main family, Sandra and her teenage son, Jamie, lived on their own in a council flat in Thamesmead, Sandra would have made it look as nice as she could. If you watch the film (and I recommend you do - it's very nineties...which I like...but it's such a tender love story, it's my third favourite film), you'll see for yourself.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

(Mostly) British Grown with Love

At the beginning of December, a group of British flower farmers and florists were on a mission. The mission was to find an alternative to the imported red rose for Valentine's Day.

#Britishflowers hour is a community that shares ideas on Twitter about British flowers most Mondays from 8pm until 9pm. There is usually an agenda for each week, which has included suggestions for plant suppliers, Christmas flowers, and dealing with unseasonable weather (which is, sadly, particularly problematic for growers now). The next one will be on 24th February, so do join in if you like the sound of it! The title of the post was the result of a British flowers hour discussion about a slogan to use for Valentine's Day.

Back on Monday 9th December, there was a flurry of Valentine's Day talk, which may have confused some people, barely able to focus on Christmas! There were discussions about what would be available on British flower farms in early February, the symbolism of the alternatives to the red rose, and which colours represent love. It was a great way to plan ahead for growers and florists.

The suggestions included bulbs such as anemones, tulips, narcissi, hyacinths and snowdrops, pussy willow, viburnum, hellebores, blackthorn and myrtle, and planted gifts such as rose plants and planted bulbs. Purple was a popular colour as an alternative to red, and I think purple anemones, hyacinths and tulips would make a passionate and enchanting bouquet of British flowers!

This year, I decided to take the challenge, and told my customers I wouldn't be using imported roses for Valentine's much as I love them. Fortunately, they trusted me, and I even had a few orders for 'platonic' Valentine's bouquets and posies for customers' friends. I used delicate, creamy-yellow, scented Cornish narcissi for everything, except for one posy of tulips.

The romantic bouquets and posies had red Lincolnshire tulips, and Japanese quince blossom and flowering viburnum from the garden. They also had asparagus fern, blue flowering rosemary (I don't know where this was from, and the men at the wholesaler were rushed off their feet, so I didn't bother to ask), white bouvardia and hot pink veronica.

The platonic bouquets and posies had pink Lincolnshire tulips and South London viburnum, and the bouquets had 'Penny's Pink' hellebores that I've been sheltering in the greenhouse (scared that the wind will damage the beautiful flowers), while the posies had a few stems of lily of the valley. I attempted to grow lily of the valley from scratch a few years ago to no avail, so this winter I cheated and bought some plants. I got quite a rush when I put those famous, tiny, precious flowers in my basket and took them to the counter...other women might get a similar rush from diamonds or expensive shoes! I was sad to cut both the hellebores and the lilies of the valley...but they look wonderful in the arrangements and of course lily of the valley smells exquisite.

I had thought about the symbolism of the flowers when the subject came up for discussion in December. I decided against anemones and snowdrops, despite their seasonality and their beauty - anemones mean 'forsaken' and although snowdrops represent hope, it was considered a bad omen to bring them indoors as the white flowers resemble a shroud.

But tulips are a declaration of love - as with roses, red denotes passion, and pink is a more graceful love. They were brought to the rest of Europe from Turkey at the end of the 16th century, the name taken from the Turkish word for turban which the flowers were thought to resemble. The popularity, especially in Holland, resulted in a tulip market crash in 1637! The north of England and the Midlands particularly took to growing tulips - in fact, The Garden magazine for April 2013 had a feature on the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society.

"Here tulips bloom as they are told;
Unkempt about those hedges blows
An English unofficial rose."
Rupert Brooke, The Old Vicarage, Grantchester

Narcissi represent new beginnings for me, but on this occasion that other meaning, 'self-love', doesn't sound so bad. Personally, I think it sounds rather unbalanced to have loads of love for someone else but none for yourself, so narcissi are a nice way of balancing out the tulips, and representing the give and take of a relationship (whether that's a romantic one or a friendly one).

Fern is a sign of sincerity, and although I bought the delicate, wispy foliage on a whim when I saw it at the wholesaler, remembering the flower meaning from when I had planned to use it for my wedding, I read more about it last night in Mandy Kirkby's wonderful book, The Language of Flowers. Apparently it was used in Victorian Valentine's posies to show that one's love was true - hurray! I used viburnum as it is one of the few things flowering and glossy in the garden at the moment; I can't find the meaning in any of my books. Rosemary is for remembrance (just think of Hamlet's Ophelia), and the tiny blue flowers at this time of year are pretty.

Bouvardia stands for enthusiasm, so I used it for most of the flowers. Looking at the photos now, that's one thing I might have changed - I think red bouvadia for the romantic flowers and pink for the platonic ones would add a bit more colour.

Quince symbolises temptation, so I used it in the romantic flowers! The quince blossom didn't flower this early last year, but this photo was taken a couple of weeks ago. I also used hot pink veronica for fidelity.

Hellebores stand for different things, as many flowers do, but I like the meaning 'ease my anxiety'. It's what friends do. And lily of the valley, which usually flowers in May, means the 'return of happiness'. There is a legend connecting lily of the valley to St Leonard's Forest in Sussex many centuries ago, where the flowers are said to grow wherever St Leonard spilled his blood while fighting a dragon.

As Mandy Kirkby says, the Victorians "would be aghast if only red roses were sent on Valentine's Day, and quite horrifed at the modern belief that the showier and more expensive the flower, the stronger the feeling conveyed." Hopefully, some of these posies would be more pleasing to them?!

I had a Tiptree Lincolnshire blossom honey jar, which I couldn't resist using for the posy of Lincolnshire tulips. Other Tiptree jars were used for the platonic posies, and dramatic red Tate and Lyle treacle tins were used for romantic ones. One golden syrup tin was used for a simple posy of narcissi, and I think the colours tied in nicely.

I did receive one unexpected surprise yesterday. The postman brought me an envelope, with writing I recognised, which made me smile. My friend Grace had sent me a card. As she said, Valentine's Day is a load of nonsense, but it is big enough to include the love of close friends. The card she gave, with colourful irises, reminded me of the book she bought me for my birthday when were out charity shopping. It's a sweet RHS book called The Lore and Language of Flowers by Anna Trenter, with flower fairy drawings by Cicely Mary Barker, an early 20th century artist from Croydon in South London. I left the price's a habit I have with books and CDs! I looked up the meaning for iris in the book, which is helpfully arranged by season. It means 'I have a message for you'.

The book and the card are wonderful reminders of a friendship I am lucky to have. When my bulbs and seeds flower, I'll be able to deliver some kindness back to Grace. And they will be entirely British Grown with Love!

Friday, 14 February 2014

Happy Valentine's Day

I have a long post about today's flowers that is nearly finished, but for now, here are a few Valentine's flower photos.

Whether you are single or attached, I hope you have had a lovely day, and haven't been too caught up in the storms that are raging outside as I type.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Never mind the Valentines; here are the flowers!

I am not fussed about Valentine's Day. There. I said it.

Ok, the truth is a bit more complicated than that. When we learned about St Valentine at primary school, we were told that 14th February was a day to secretly let someone know that you admired them. At secondary school, this became a competition to see how many cards a girl received (and it was usually girls who received them, which didn't seem fair to boys). Then, as adults, it turned into a day for couples, not shy admirers, and it seemed that people were expected to go out on dates which were conventionally 'romantic' (such as dinner at the expensive Italian in town and then the blockbuster romance at the cinema, even if you both prefer fish and chips and horror films) and give presents that were flaunted by the high street. Oh yes, and there was a general assumption that all couples were boy + girl. For those young women who were more egalitarian, this meant two things: we received corny presents that our boyfriends would never normally have bought for us, and we were stumped as to what to buy them because there weren't big 'What to buy him' displays in the shops. Was it ok to buy a Black Sabbath CD, even though it didn't seem very romantic? I can't even remember the presents I've bought boyfriends, which makes me think they might have been awful.

And then, of course, there are the flowers. I'm sure I must have been given a bunch of roses or carnations at least once on Valentine's Day by the boyfriend who worked at a petrol station. I may have been given flowers on Valentine's Day by the poetic and kind boyfriend with brilliant taste who introduced me to hyacinths (scented flowers - what a change!). I didn't know it when I was twenty, but plenty of men do like flowers. I've given flowers to several men since I started working as a florist, and 90% are very happy to receive them! (The other 10% are polite but perplexed!) Have a look at the 20th photo in this gallery.

But there are two Valentine's Days that I remember well. One was when I was single. I'd had an upsetting hospital appointment, which I went to alone, and I wasn't sure what to do afterwards. So I went to a nice but inexpensive Italian place that I like, and listened to the lunchtime chatter around me. I heard two waitresses talking about flowers - one complained that her husband never bought her any. This was before I'd trained as a florist, but I had one thought in my head: "Buy yourself flowers! Don't wait for someone else!" I didn't say that, of course. The waitress hadn't been talking to me, and why would she care what I thought?

However, I did take my own advice. I went to a gorgeous shop that was filled with florists making and packing beautiful, scented, textured handtieds, and I asked if I could have something for my chosen budget. I was told it would be a two-hour wait for a bespoke bouquet, or I could choose from the range of bouquets that were ready and on display. I picked one, and I remember it was all white and green, which is unusual for me as I love bright colours so much. I suppose those were the colours I was feeling that day. It's the only time I've bought myself a handtied from another florist, and maybe that's why it still makes me smile. If you're single, as I am again this year, I do recommend buying flowers for yourself. You could track down flowers from a local grower. Or you could just buy one stem of your favourite flower from your local florist or a £5 bunch of British tulips like these.

The next year, things had changed a lot. I was doing my floristry diploma, I was doing work experience at different florists, and I was doing the long-distance thing, travelling up to see my lovely boyfriend in the Midlands every few weeks. I was given a week's work experience at David Austin Roses, for the Valentine's Day rush, and my boyfriend and I stayed at a lovely B&B in Albrighton and commuted to work from there. It was a sort of oddly romantic, working holiday, only instead of wearing cute date outfits, I wore thermals and multiple layers because of the cold. I made lots of bouquets using gorgeous, scented roses. This huge bouquet was one of my favourites.

On V Day itself, I had a posy of flowers in a plastic bottle by the window in the B&B - there were roses, including the hot pink and highly scented Emily rose, hypericum and skimmia that had broken and couldn't be used in the handtieds, so my supervisor let me take them. They were perfect. And our 'date' that day? Pot Noodles and Dairy Milk in front of Hollyoaks and Eastenders. That's the not-single Valentine's Day I remember the most fondly.

Peaches and cream

My favourite local florist is a wonderful lady called Julie, who runs The Flower Grove. When I got my first regular job, working on Sundays and school holidays at Boots, I would always go there at Christmas to buy flowers for my mother. I didn't spend much of my wages most weeks, but being able to buy flowers as a present was a new, grown up treat. Funnily enough, I never bought flowers for my mother for Mother's Day or her birthday; just Christmas. I'm not sure why.

Julie has been wonderful during the past few years as I've been finding my florist feet. She's given me feedback on my work when I worried that it wasn't good enough, she's given me advice on the best wholesalers to use, and she's even given me lifts to New Covent Garden Flower Market to save me breaking my back carrying a box of flowers home on the train!

That period in between Christmas and Valentine's Day can be a slow one for lots of businesses, not least florists. I went to see Julie in January and we talked about the reasons for the lull. While she was understanding, saying that when people reassess their budgets, flowers aren't a priority, I think that the money that some people spend on gym memberships which don't get used would be better spent treating themselves or their loved ones to flowers once a month!

I bought some Miss Piggy roses from her, as I adore the bright colour, the scent and the name, and some waxflower, which I like for its longevity and its lemon scent. I combined these with some sage and some viburnum - pretty much the only thing flowering in the garden at the time - and used an old peaches jar to link with the peachy colour of the roses.

I also made some wintry-looking peppermint cakes and some summery chocolate and orange blossom cakes with peachy-coloured icing. With this weather, I don't know if the seasons are coming or going!

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Time to Talk Day - what to do if you can't talk

Today was Time to Talk Day - organised by the charity Time to Change to get people talking about mental health, and encouraging people to give a little bit of time for a chat with someone who might be struggling.

Unfortunately, both my sister (who is severely autistic) and I have depression and anxiety, which can be unnoticeable or overwhelming, depending on how things are going in our lives. There has been much discussion about the mental health benefits of gardening and being outdoors, and I think both have been a blessing for us.

Whether it's going for a walk on a beach in Brighton...

...or spending an hour or two in a garden or park, there lots of ways to make the darkness a little less intense. This is a picture from her Brighton garden last August. She often sat outside in the summer.

Last weekend, she came back to stay with the family, and she was ever so quiet. But she seemed to enjoy watering the autumn-sown nigella, cornflowers and Aquilegia 'Nora Barlow'.

None of these are a cure for mental illness. But for people like my sister who can't really have conversations with others, these are ways of making the days a bit brighter. And for someone like me, who appreciates thoughtful talks with friends and family, these are ways to help myself.

Bride Cilla

If you are planning to visit wedding shows in the next few months, here are some of photos of famous wedding dresses from the exhibition at Brides the Show last autumn to give you some ideas if you want something different. These are the ones that stood out for me for one reason (beautiful dress) or another (legendary bride).

Being a short dress kind of woman, this was one I really wanted to see - Cilla Black's 'traditional' wedding dress for her church service (following her red velvet dress for her civil service) – it’s so Cilla!

Then there was the incredible Darcey Bussell. The David Austin 'Darcey' rose is named after her, and her dress was no less pretty. I saw her at the Royal Opera House in Song of the Earth, her last ballet performance, and for me this dress, with its frilled cuffs and tiny daisies, captures her English rose beauty and her warm persona.

I was too young to be excited about Charles and Di’s wedding (the only celebrities I was interested in at that time were Shakin’ Stevens and Kim Wilde), but I do remember Sarah and Andrew’s wedding. Sarah Ferguson was the person who first got me wishing I had long, red hair! I remember her grin and her vivaciousness. She was also the patron of a charity, The British Institute for Brain-Injured Children, which helped my sister when she was young. So this dress was the most ‘famous’ for me…though I can’t say it is remotely my taste! They did have a dress by another famous Fergie at the exhibition, but this will always be Fergie to me.

I may have mentioned before that I adore blue dresses (see 500 Days of Summer), so Dawn O’Porter’s beautiful, vintage dress was one of my favourites. It’s not particularly bride-like and is rather little girlish, but that’s its charm, I think.

This lavender dress is from another 80s icon, Joan Collins, who I remember for her catfight with Krystle in Dynasty in the 80s, back when Snickers was called Marathon! I love the boldness of the colour and the cut.

Finally, this dress is a guilty pleasure. I am not the princess type – I prefer dresses that you can run and outsmart villains in (a la She-Ra) – but I am partial to a bit of pink prettiness, and Portia de Rossi’s dress was very pink and very princess-like.