Thursday, 31 July 2014

Sweet peas and sweeter memories

I heard about a wonderful tradition of wedding guests making their own buttonholes from sweet peas in the garden and kitchen foil. After further discussion, I’ve been told the story that goes with it. It’s a touching, personal tale from Claudia Jordan, whose flower memories are very much associated with her Welsh grandmother. You may have seen Claudia’s work – she is the events director for Best Brides (which organises wedding fairs all over Kent) and she often writes for wedding magazines.

Oh, and you may need a tissue – this brought a tear to my eye when I first heard it!

Claudia’s grandmother, Nana Betty Holloway, moved down from South Wales to Eltham (in South London) during the war, in order to marry Claudia’s grandfather, Kenneth Holloway.

Many of us who weren’t around during the war have heard of the Dig for Victory campaign, which encouraged people to grow their own food during those times of hardship and rationing. This short film was part of the campaign. It's from the Imperial War Museum archives, and was produced by the Ministry of Information and then the Ministry of Agriculture. I love the step-by-step guidelines to creating your own vegetable plot, and the calm voice of the narrator as he says, “The exciting time comes when the first seeds must be sown.”

Claudia’s grandparents fully embraced the idea of growing their own. As Claudia says, there was the added factor of their being teenagers and newly-weds – so they made best use of what was available and naturally seasonal. By the time Claudia was born, her grandparents had a beautiful, 150 foot garden at their home in Welling, not far from Eltham. This is a photo of Nana Betty in the garden.

Claudia thinks this photo may have been taken soon after Kenneth died, as the garden still looked beautiful, but the stripes weren’t so prominent.

Here, Claudia shares her memories of her grandparents and the flowers that connected her to the nana she cherished.

“By the time I was born, my grandparents had a home with a 150 foot garden in Welling. The garden, maintained by my fastidious grandfather, was immaculate. There was a stripy lawn, well-trimmed and stocked flower beds, along with a vegetable patch behind the shed and a greenhouse which held the most wonderful aroma of tomatoes during the summer months (and led to the inevitable abundance of green tomato chutney in the autumn and winter). I still don’t buy tomatoes unless it has the heady sweet scent I recall from the greenhouse.

“Every year my nana and I would paint white the two little stone statues of a rabbit and kitten that were nestled next to the purple and pink snapdragons that she would let me pick and use to “bite” her fingers. She came from a large family and was a member of Eltham Bowls Club, so it seemed she was regularly attending weddings in the summer months. I’m not sure if it was traditional for her generation, but she would always choose her outfit and then go into the garden with her scissors and cut a few stems of sweet peas, pinks, or a rose. She would then soak a little tissue and play with the stems, cutting them to different lengths and then wrap them in silver foil before getting a pin to attach them to her dress.

“Colour and scent were key to my nana. Yellows and golds were her favourite. Being Welsh, she always had an abundance of yellow daffodils chosen over tulips in the months after Christmas. Each Mother’s Day I would walk to the Bridge Florist shop in Welling and buy a small bunch of yellow freesias, which she adored. The florist there was always very kind and despite the fact I only paid 50p would always put a bit of ribbon round them to make them pretty. When I gave the freesias to my nana she always inhaled them deeply and commented on what a lovely smell they had before placing them in a vase in the hall.

“She died 12 years ago, and as we were very close I miss her a lot. To this day the scent of sweet peas and freesias absolutely take me back to my childhood memories in my nana’s garden.”

Claudia has kindly shared photos of her grandparents, along with her and her brother when they were children. You can see the buttonholes that her grandmother made.

There’s so much about this story that I love – the vivid memories of loved ones who have died, the power of scent to transport you back to another time and place, the attachment between grandparents and grandchildren. Of course, the snapdragons in Welling made me smile too – by a strange coincidence, that’s where I grew up as a child and where my own snapdragon memories lie. I lived in South Wales for a few years during the turn of the millennium, so the daffodils made me smile too. Claudia makes Welsh cakes with her own children now, using the same bakestone that her grandmother used with her.

Does anyone else recall this tradition of making your own buttonholes for weddings? It sounds like a lovely tradition to bring back. Get snipping in the garden and you can create something beautiful for you and your family to wear to the next wedding in your diary!

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Three thunderstorms and a heatwave

The hot weather has encouraged a lot of flowers to whoosh ahead and open quickly. But the first thunderstorm was a bit of a shock - I don't ever remember a storm being so loud and going on for such a long time. I certainly was not one of the people who went outside to catch a photo of the lightning! Despite the lashing rain and hailstones (hailstones in a heatwave - how does that work?!), my flowers survived.

There were lots of new flowers to enjoy - I started to cut the borage, and before long there was cleome, cosmos and ammi. I used some this weekend - but I'll save that for another post. I planted out some cleome and panicum - they look great together. Both are such explosive, unusual textures.

It's a much better year for my flowers than 2013, when I certainly didn't have enough for orders or gifts, except the occasional small posy. This year, when I cut from the garden, I usually fill several buckets - it's wonderful. Stems have been much longer this year too, which means I can used them for handtieds and big arrangements, not just small posies and short-stemmed funeral work. The phlox and 'Penny Lane' dahlias are a metre tall, the verbena a metre and a half, and the zinnias and cosmos are 85cm!

The spring-sown 'Polka Dot' cornflowers are quite short and soft-stemmed, but that's ok - I know to nurture my autumn-sown ones better in future! And anyway, they still look beautiful.

I've done a few handtieds similar to this one.

It uses borage, Nicotiana 'Lime Green', Panicum 'Frosted Explosion', Zinnia 'Early Wonder', Salvia 'Hot Lips', sweet peas ('Harlequin Mixed', 'Leominster Boy' and 'Dot Com'), hebe, hydrangea, verbena bonariensis, Scabious 'Pink Mist', and a 'Penny Lane' dahlia. That's one of the great things about using a garden or flower farm - you can have fewer stems each of a wider range of flowers and foliage, rather than wraps and boxes of the same species and variety.

I was asked to do casual, colourful flowers for a family gathering - so I did this grouping in Portmeirion Botanic Garden vases and bowls, a Dartington Little Gems vase, a La Mortuacienne bottle, and a tiny green bud vase. I took these photos in a hurry as I heard thunder rumbling in the distance! I quickly took everything indoors and photographed the Portmeirion pieces together.

The roses are back! I used a few to make this red, white and peach posy, and I cut a few 'Jude the Obscure' David Austin roses for their incredible scent. Mixed with flowering Moroccan mint, salvia, phlox and nicotiana, these were two sweet-smelling additions to the group.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

RHS Hampton Court Flower Show 2014: Deadly sins

The conceptual gardens at this year's show were all themed on the idea of the seven deadly sins. The first thing I saw when I walked in was Sheena Seeks' garden "Sloth: Quarry of Silences". It won a gold medal and best conceptual garden.

Each tool was different and represented a person. There was a huge golden rock at the top (each person's goal), but if you went around to the back, you could see that there were three graves to fall into, representing the mind, body, and soul.

There didn't seem to be as much planting as I'd have liked, but I did like the wild landscape around the quarry.

Then there was "Lust", designed by Rachel Parker Soden. It won a silver medal, but I think it deserved better.

As you walked through the garden, you peeped into the glasshouse. There was a red sofa, exotic red and peachy flowers such as gloriosa lilies, anthuriums and orchids, and a red neon sign that said "Peep Show" at the front (and "Live Show" at the back). I loved it - it reminded me of two things I adore: Marion and Ted's secret relationship in The Go-Between, and the sit-com Peep Show. Even Sam Bain, who writes Peep Show with Jesse Armstrong, appreciated the "Lust" garden's sofa.

The planting outside was beautiful. There were roses in pretty pinks and passionate reds, dark brown chocolate cosmos, red and pink achillea, and tactile plants including fluffy grasses and delicate ammi. There were also succulents, kniphofia, and a river with a crossing.

A brilliant conceptual garden was "Pride - The Stonewall Garden: Breaking Down the Barriers" which got a well-deserved gold. Designed by Amanda Miller, it was inspired by her troubles growing up as a gay teenager in a small town in Australia.

I thought the smashed wall, and the black and white painting at the back were powerful images.

The garden itself was beautiful, with gorgeous, colourful planting.

Katerina Rafaj created a Pop Art style garden called "Gluttony: E123", showing the excesses of food consumed and discarded in some countries. It won a gold medal for its Andy Warhol-style tins of food, giant jelly beans, and the planting which included roses, and a pond in a sardine tin.

A conceptual garden that really drew the crowds was "Wrath: The Eruption of Unhealed Anger". It won a gold for designer Nilufer Danis. Inspired by volcanoes, with occasional eruptions of smoke or water, it was a fantastic garden to take in all at once. The stunning red echinacea, yellow kniphofia, and orange achillea looked amazing, and certainly evoked strong emotions. As a trainee counsellor as well as a florist, I enjoyed this garden a great deal - the idea of quiet anger simmering away and then erupting is a powerful one that was well executed here.

A silver-gilt winner was "Greed: Dichotomy Garden" by Sara Jane Rothwell and JoanMa Roig. It was a garden in two parts, and as such, I couldn't really connect with it. One side was supposed to be the judge's garden with neat box hedging and a throne, and the other was wilder as a result of the "sinner's greed". There was a wall with a small mesh partition to see into the other side of the garden.

The "Envy: The Grass is Always Greener" garden was inspired by the idiom "The grass is always greener on the other side" and won a silver medal for the designer Marcus Green. I couldn't see inside the green Perspex box (apparently it housed an artificial lawn), but I did love the grasses growing outside it.

I love the texture and movement of grasses - there's something quite primal and childhood-evoking about them - so I took several photos of grasses at the show. Partly for my own enjoyment, and partly for Sara Willman of My Flower Patch, who loves grasses too.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

RHS Hampton Court Flower Show 2014: Flowers from the Farm

As I mentioned in my last post, Flowers from the Farm is a network of flower growers in the UK, who have their first display at the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show this year.

Some have small plots in a garden and some big farms, but they are all passionate about growing flowers and foliage that local people can use rather than importing flowers from another country or even another continent. In the same way that we've gradually been getting the message about buying local, seasonal food - Kent strawberries in June rather than November imports from Spain or China - the network hopes that we will also get the message about buying seasonal, local flowers. Many others promote this idea of using local, seasonal flowers too (see The Lonely Bouquet ethos).

As well as the air miles and the carbon emissions involved, there is also the freshness of the flowers to consider. Sometimes flowers spend days being transported from one country to Holland for the flower auction, and then transported to Britain. There are chemicals used to preserve them, but preserved or not, imported flowers are sometimes several days old by the time they get to the customer. The chemicals and the time factor mean that if you hold the flowers up to your nose, they are less likely to be scented. For instance, I had no idea that phlox was sweetly scented until I started growing my own. There's British phlox in the photo below, along with British snapdragons (antirrhinums) which are also scented sometimes.

There's also an ethical dilemma with flowers produced in conditions that would cause an outcry in they happened at a place of work in the UK. I think this could be helped through legislation and transparency, such as including the provenance of every wrap and box of flowers on the packaging, but I don't know if this will change unless customers demand it. I feel as though market forces place more value on the product and the cost rather than the people and environmental factors.

Back to the Hampton Court show - you can find Flowers from the Farm in the Roses and Floristry marquee, at the opposite end of the tent to the floristry theatre (stand RF3). There will be Flowers from the Farm members at the stand, happy to talk to you about the beautiful blooms on display and about the work they do.

When I visited on Tuesday I saw Claire from Plantpassion, who I mentioned yesterday, whose sweet peas and alliums, amongst other flowers, were included in the display. I met Frances from Moat Farm Flowers and Fiona from Purple Daisy Flowers for the first time. I just missed Sara from The Handpicked Flower Company, who has just started her own flower farm but was able to contribute some of her flowers, including delicate Gypsophila 'Covent Garden', to the display. Great work for a new grower! If you follow #Britishflowers hour on Twitter on Monday nights, you'll have seen Sara hosting some nights, alternating with another Sara (Willman, of My Flower Patch, who supplied some gorgeous grasses as well as flowers).

All of the pictures in this post are my photos of the display, but photos don't really do it justice, so if you are lucky enough to be visiting the show this year, do go and see it for yourself. When I went, they had a posy of scented sweet peas at hand for people to smell. If you're not used to scented flowers, as I hadn't been (apart from roses and hyacinths) until a few years ago, then the first time you smell sweet peas, you are likely to fall in love with them!

There was such an abundance of flowers, it was hard to know where to look first! There were scented beauties such as roses (including a mystery rose - which turned out to be 'Elizabeth Harkness', grown by Frances Boscawen), sweet peas and stocks, showstopping lupins (which were Paula Baxter's), sunflowers and one of Sara Willman's artichoke flowers, and delicate prettiness in the form of dill, ammi and cosmos. There were also some of this year's popular flowers used in the gardens and displays: achillea, crocosmia, echinops and eryngium.

You can see a detailed list of the flowers used for each arrangement here. There is also a list of growers who contributed to the display, which I'll copy here. Next time you need British flowers, you know where to look!

Arrangements created by:

Willow horse supplied by:

Circus caravan supplied by:

Flowers supplied by:

  • Sheila Hume – Blue Hen Flowers
  • Emily Rae – Fletchling Flowers
  • Cel Robertson – Forever Green Flower Company
  • Frances Boscawen – Moat Farm Flowers
  • Fiona Ringwood – Purple Daisy Flowers

With additional seasonal flowers provided by:

  • Juliet Bennet – Babylon Flowers
  • Rachel Petherham – Catkin Flowers
  • Julia Bigham – Farm Flowers
  • Rachel Siegfried - Green and Gorgeous
  • Heather Clark – Green Cottage Flowers
  • Sara Davison – The Handpicked Flower Company
  • David and Julie Clark – Hillcrest Nurseries Cut Flower Garden
  • Sue & Wendy – Holme Flowers
  • Paula Baxter – Mill Pond Flower Farm
  • Melinda Newbery – Little Strode Flower Farm
  • Sara Willman – My Flower Patch
  • Claire Brown – Plantpassion