Sunday, 20 December 2009

Happy Christmas

Happy Christmas. It has been an interesting year, lots to think about now a thinking space is hoving into view ( a whole ten days off over Christmas before getting stuck back into a book project and planning next year's flowers!).

I've just walked the dogs through a fabulous frosty morning, could not help but feel elated, possibly particularly because there is no mud in evidence. No we didn't get quite all our bulbs in, No I didn't get organised to do any of the wonderful Christmas fairs on offer, No I haven't started doing any preparation for our own Christmas yet as I still have flower orders to do this week, No I didn't get the grass cut or the place tidied up as I should have done before winter really set in. But I'm sure most things will happen as they need to because that is the nature of things. (I hope)

I'd like to thank everybody who has supported us this year, every customer whether you have bought a small bunch of flowers from a market stall or filled a church and marquee for a wedding. There are too many lovely brides and grooms to mention, weddings have ranged from fairly formal to fairly freehand and special thanks have to go to Claire for asking for crowns and allowing me to make an asparagus headdress for her husband! Catherine and Jamie's wedding stands out as the one with the smiliest photographs, Sarah must have been the most relaxed bride ever and of course we'll remember Jess and Neil's cowparsley and wildflower wedding for ever because it was a family affair. The strangest request of the year must have been the 12 edible bouquets, and the company have never paid me for the extra delivery charges despite about ten reminders. Very bad form. Ditto the frightfully pleasant lady who bought flowers for her daughters' weddings and whose cheques have bounced and bounced and bounced. Definitely not on. But they are a tiny tiny minority among all the very appreciative customers.

Thanks to businesses who have taken a punt on us particularly the Jigsaw clothing company who took us on at a particularly difficult time of year when their 45 shops were hot and bright providing a rough environment for real flowers. Thanks for your business and it was interesting solving a last minute christmas request for you!

Meg has been utterly brilliant all year and is still here and taking on more of a Head Gardener role when we get going in February with a new helper. Thanks Meg, I am very very lucky to have you working with me and putting up with every day's new plan and my mad chaotic expansionism. And thanks to everyone else who has helped here over the year, with special thanks to my husband David who built me a wonderful flower studio this year and has to put up with my growing obsession while setting the world on fire!

We have all sorts of exciting ideas for the coming year, and quite a few national magazines and newspapers have promised publicity, starting I believe with a small feature in Wedding Flowers magazine in February and continuing from there. One of the most exciting ventures will be at the beginning of July. Gardens Illustrated have kindly asked if we'd like to exhibit in their Pavilion at the RHS Flower Show at Hampton Court Palace, and they have an article about us the same month. I've never thought about doing a big show before and am already terrifically excited and dreaming about what the stand is going to look like and what's going to be on it! (Yes I know, it's quite a long way away and people who do these kind of stands all the time would think I'm crazy but it's a big deal for me and I am genuinely excited!). But there's a lot to do before then as we're almost doubling the size of the growing area again now the first bits are beginning to get established. And that probably means more than doubling the amount of weeds as well as hopefully doubling the amount of orders. It's going to be busy.

So thanks everyone for your support, have a wonderful christmas holiday and come back and visit next year. The website will be revamped over the next few weeks and we start sending out flowers at the end of March, but there should first be beautiful dynamic decorated dogwood hearts for Valentine's day.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Wiltshire Winter Wedding

What a lovely one to finish the year - bride and groom wanted all natural, just home grown and hedgerow so we went to town dressing the main beam with ivies, spindle, honesty, eryngium and allium heads, mistletoe, jewel-like bryony berries.... there was a huge basket of different dogwoods and magnificent seedheads by the registrar's table and dogwood decorated hoops. Then the long tables were full of ivies and seedheads, and other beams were garlanded with greenery and seedheads. Buttonholes were (rather spiky) eryngiums, bouquets were from the hedgerows and a few hellebores and late late stocks. Every place name on the tables was attached with a silk thread to seedheads of poppies, scabious, eryngiums, nigella that I had supplied weeks before.

Camera had a fit as too often but I am promised a whole set of photos later which will go up here or on my new revamped website when I get round to revamping it as son as possible.

But the star of the decorations was nothing to do with me, it was the cake - the groom is an artist with a fascination for pillboxes so he had made an industrial style metal cake holder and the bride's mother had made cakes decorated with dark grey and white icing, the whole surrounded with pillbox-style undergrowth that rather matched the tone of all the other decorations. I thought it was fantastic!

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

and finally...

Thanks Meg and Steve and to David for pitching in today. Tulips are finally in the ground so we can get on with other things. It was very claggy but not actually raining so I decided we'd go for it today as it's been hanging over my head for a while. And now it's on to preparations for the final wedding of the year on Saturday, and then only a week of mailing out christmas arrangements and a couple of markets (I know I wasn't going to do them but people do really appreciate it when I do turn up and I have had a lot of requests so felt it would be very churlish to dig my heels in) and then it's christmas and then as far as I know there are no events until a wedding in mid January. Phew, it does tend to feel quite busy round here!

Monday, 7 December 2009

Big day in the packing shed

A late order came in on Thursday afternoon for over 2000 ilex stems and 45 Christmas arrangements. I don't have the required quantities but found a Uk supplier to provide all the ilex, and we used eryngium, seed heads, hazel, eucalyptus and other bits and pieces in the arrangements. So it was one of those 4am starts as everything has to be made, packed and sent out on the same day to arrive tomorrow. As it's the season for flu and general busy-ness I couldn't get my usual help but thanks so much to totally wonderful Val for stepping in and being generally brilliant. Other help was very well-meaning but I concentrated on packing the arrangements and general sorting and sadly the berries did not get well packed as I took my eye off what was going on, and by the time I got back to them most had been packed without appropriate wrapping so I'm afraid there will be considerable berry fall on their journey from here to store.

It's sometimes hard to accommodate every request however much I want to, and I do feel a bit fed up that everything wasn't as perfect as I would have liked, but the reality is that there are only so many hours in the day and sometimes late requests are hard to fit in - this would have been fine if my usual help had been available and I definitely did the best I could to get everything out, but it is a bit frustrating when everything isn't perfect. I never thought of myself as a control freak before but I realise I can get a bit scary when I'm on a mission to get through a big job!

Sorry no photos, I would love to have taken some as there's little more impressive than a lovely bulk order of flowers going out, but there was scarcely time to breathe let alone heft a camera. Once again, I make a mental note to do better.....

Saturday, 5 December 2009

hooping it up

There's a new gallery in town, and at the last minute they were let down by someone who was going to add decorative touches so they asked me if I could pop some christmas bits and pieces in to add a different tone. I scratched my head for an hour or two and came up with some rather funky (I think) dogwood and hedgerow hoops. They were great fun to do so I am now doing some for Christmas for other customers too and they seem to be going down rather well. But it is astonishing how much material it takes to make a few, I thought I had picked enough dogwoods for dozens but was scurrying back with my snips after only three or four.... I combined the dogwood with lots of spindle and hedgerow finds and I think they will look rather splendid in a really urban setting - by a stroke of luck I sent some (other) images to a business customer and they are interested in having them next year.... I hope my sea of dogwoods recover from their severe haircuts and flourish all the better!

I did a lovely local Christmas market today, very jolly and very festive, so it feels like Christmas is coming. I elected to do very few christmas events this year as I am busy with other orders and a wedding next weekend but I do appreciate that I am missing some good selling opportunities. But sometimes it feels wiser to say no, and I can't easily organise to do christmas markets and send out flowers to private customers and fulfil business orders without bringing in lots more help so I decided to concentrate on keeping regulars and mail order supplied. As it is we have got a rush order for next Monday that I want to fulfil but it is quite hard to juggle everything that is already going on to fit in arranging and packing an extra 50 boxes and sending out bought in British stems in another 50.... But it is fantastic that we do get requests, thanks so much to all our customers.

A piece of exciting news that is nothing to do with the business is the fact that we won the Hay Winter Festival annual quiz last night. Hoorah! I confess I inveigled myself months ago onto a fiercely brilliant team of three highly intelligent men with vast swathes of knowledge between them, who happened to have a spare place as one of their usual team members couldn't attend. So I didn't really have to contribute as much as I should have done.... Oh and they have won three of the past four events! I got rather overexcited, drank far too much mulled wine and whooped and punched the air in a very un-British manner, it was a hoot - thanks guys!

garlands and wreaths

I realise that frustration with the lack of functioning camera means that I haven't thanked everyone who braved the wet wet wet to plodge through the clarts and get stuck in to making christmas decorations last weekend. It was very cheery, we all had a good time and everyone made fabulous garlands and decs, leaving me feeling you could all do it a lot better than me! Seedheads were definitely favourites, and hops and the different tree and trailing ivies looked fabulous in their thick beds of moss, I'm sure hollies would have featured but as we have no berried holly left at all - birds descended about a week ago and ate all the berries, what does this signify? - we left it out.
Thanks to all who came and enjoyed the day, and left realising they can do anything....

Sunday, 29 November 2009

I met someone recently who was particularly sniffy about what I am doing, or trying to. He just didn't get it at all and seemed to think I was some sort of privileged hobby gardener with nothing better to do with my time than grow a few plants. I hope I was polite (though no doubt rather firm) at the time but inwardly I was seething. When I look at the soggy mess that is my gardens at the moment, and contemplate how much there is to do, I can almost understand people having no comprehension of what is going on, so I thought it might be a good idea to try to explain.

I like growing flowers. A lot. I've gardened for ages but I am not a brilliant gardener though I'm getting a hell of a lot better. I started slowly because I didn't have vast resources to plough straight into the project and I didn't want to be vastly in hock to the bank or any other institution - and before I started I had to buy the ground to use. We did not have any infrastructure from which to get going, ten years ago there was one small tatty cottage here with no sheds, no barns, a smallish garden. So it took a while to get to the point where I could give up writing as a day job and launch into this project. Plus I am not necessarily very organised, I tend to make a decision about what I am going to do then work out a way of doing it rather than planning first.... that definitely affects things!

I wanted to create a garden, not just a commercial growing project. I didn't want great straight lines of annuals - or perennials. That is no doubt the easiest way to sow, weed and harvest. It's not what I like visually and not what I want from a garden. I want surprises, diversity, even a bit of chaos is fine. I want the first patch you see when you walk into the field to look like a couple of huge deep long herbaceous borders (only tattier I'm afraid than all those sumptuous British gardens that are such a joy to visit). I decided to go for blocks, or possibly patches would be a better description, of different flowers in the first three quarters of an acre I planted, having first surrounded it with a hornbeam hedge. I couldn't fill the whole area at once, partly because I wanted to see what coped best with the conditions (north facing, higher than average rainfall, heavy clay with patches of almost surface marl) and partly cost. In retrospect it might have been better to pay out for more perennial plants and shrubs at the early stages to get them established rather than trying to propagate, but I didn't.

The hedged area will all be looking pretty established next year - year three (I bought the field in 2006 but did no permanent plantings until spring 2007). Mainly a mix of perennials with patches of annuals near the top where it is easiest to water them. I don't do much watering, I think people water far too much. I might get heavier crops if I watered more, but I'm not going to go own that route. Plants here have to work, they have to survive, they have to put in the effort or they're out. I do give annuals better treatment than perennials, and have most of them in the more sheltered area to the east of the hedged area, but they only get watered at the beginning, and if they look as though they're in danger of pegging out. I still have some stocks flowering now, extraordinarily, despite the fierce recent weather, and cornflowers. They can come again!

I have another acre, tilled this year, which I am going to use slightly more conventionally in commercial growing terms with larger blocks of massed plantings rather than any pretence of creating borders. At the moment it is awash, one stretch still waiting for tulips, one stretch covered in membrane, other stretches full of weeds. It will happen, but not today! I'm planting a seam of dogwoods down the middle, partly for windbreak, partly for cut stems, and another area of berrying shrubs, but otherwise it will be largely tough perennials and a space for lovely thugs such as golden rods and white loosestrife as well as a large patch of sunflowers, and some good grasses. It won't all be planted at once, although I'm propagating like mad it would take thousands of plants to fill it... and while the first area does get weeded as much as possible, the further area is going to have to pretty much fend for itself.

When you grow in patches rather than rows you end up with more interesting looking bunches than when picking from rows. It sounds ridiculous but I'm sure it's true. You notice more. Not just what flowers go together but the way the plants are behaving. Where I've planted the same species/varieties in different spots around the growing patches they may react quite differently, not just according to the slight wind/shade/sun/soil differences but also depending, I'm sure on their companions.

It's all an experiment, and that's what keeps it interesting.

Compared to gardens with row upon row of flowers, it might not look as though I've got much going on. It's true that there are times when it is a lot harder picking enough flowers from scattered patches than it would be from more ordered rows. But it would also be tempting to use masses of one flower at the expense of a greater mixture. And I'm sure I appreciate my flowers all the more. I want always to be able to send out mixed bunches with at least ten different varieties of flowers in them.

Selling mail order is the most sensible option from here because of my geography. There are few good markets within reach. If I lived near a great town or city I would possibly go down another route, but we are short of hotels, restaurants, offices and other possible clients, and I like mail order, there is something terribly pleasing to me about the process.

Weddings are also of course very important to any floristry business. Again, I enjoy the process, I like using all our own flowers and producing flowers than no conventional florist could ever approach, or when I am asked to buy in for winter weddings there are different challenges of missing conventional flowers with hedgerow and homegrown. As long as all the flowers are grown ethically. I have come rather to dislike the ramrod blooms offered by conventional flower shops, not only because of the production processes an the airmiles etc but because they just don't have the same qualities as home grown, at all.

Eventually I would like to invite other people in who have no opportunities to experience what can be an utterly wonderful working life, and can be pretty miserable. I'd like to use part of my land for some sort of social project... but that's probably way down the line. But now I must go back to my wet weather day job - fortunately I am till asked to write the occasional feature or edit an occasional book. That also is a wonderful occupation when the weather is like it is.

I suppose it is remarkable that such a small patch of land can potentially support a reasonable business, and employ people. That is exciting, positive, and could mark an exciting way forward, not just for me.
And to anyone who thinks I am a hobby gardener, give me a ring and come and visit. Expect to be given a spade or at the very least a trowel.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Rainbow tulips

I mustn't complain about the weather when people in Cumbria are flooded out and here it is mere inconvenience in comparision. There are still 6500 tulip bulbs to plant and my field is puddled with water. I can't think of any way of getting them to dive so they will have to keep waiting. Does anyone have any failsafe methods of planting bulbs in the wet?

The other question - does anyone know how to deal with BT customer services and keep sanguine? The call centre in India is full of very polite people who repeat information very very very very very often often often until I feel like screaming. They have taken three and a half hours of my time since I changed to their broadband services. Avoid them. I am now tied into a contract that I can't get out of so have to grit my teeth.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

anatomy of a winter wedding

I am asked so often "How do you price for a wedding?" I suspect people think I'm being disingenuous when I say I don't know, it depends on so many factors, and I usually get it completely wrong and do myself down.... so here as requested by a few people is how wedding preparations work!

This weekend's bride was very specific about what she wanted, lots of ivies, ivory roses and hypericum, abundant arrangements, nothing stiff and formal. She knew it wouldn't be possible to get roses locally, or hypericum, at this time of year and was happy for me to buy in, which I'm happy to do for events during the winter if requested - although a bride in a few weeks is having greenery, seedpods and the few seasonal flowers that I will have, she is not having anything bought in.

So I sourced British grown berries and Fairly traded roses, and worked out what arrangements I would make and how many flowers I would need. Ivy is more flexible, I didn't have to worry about getting precise quantities ready. In the event the wedding took 600 roses, 300 stems of hypericum, at least 200 stems of trailing ivies and about nine large chequered laundry bags full of berrying ivy. A substantial amount of material!

We decided on three huge flower balls for the marquee plus the required number of table centres - some high and some low, plus a garland separating different areas of the marquee. The church was to have a garland on the porch, pew ends, fully decorated rood screen, and all eight large windows needed decorating as well as something for the altar and greenery twining through the porch. Then there was of course the bride's and bridesmaid's bouquets, buttonholes, flowers for the cars, flowers for the hair, and the cake, and presentation bouquets for the mums.

I spent half of Monday making the structures for the flowers - making oasis and moss cages for garlands, wiring oases for the flower globes, making pew end cages. It's true that you can buy all these ready made, and I tend to use some ready made garland oases, but I find they are only suitable for some indoor work, they are not robust enough for outdoor garlands, and actually don't work so well as those you design yourself.

Tuesday was ivy picking and starting on the garland bases. At least ivies will keep perfectly happily for a few days so I was able to get on with some things. It took many hours to pick the ivies, it is hard to imagine how much material the huge globes and garlands take to cover every inch. And I had also decided on circular wreath-style decorations for some of the tables, and others in oases on saucers, they all use more than just flowers in water. Anyway the bride wanted abundance....

Wednesday was carrying on with greenery for garlands and putting the first layer of long greenery n the flower globes. It was also the day to pick up my new van, I've been looking for a decent secondhand one for months but the right one didn't turn up so I'd bitten the bullet and ordered a new one. It's white, though I would have liked a colour, this one was cheaper because it had been preregistered and had all of 10 miles already on the clock so I was not going to fork out nearly two thousand pounds more for one in the appropriate shade. So now I am white van woman (again). Wednesday was also the day to collect the roses and the berries.

Thursday was making twelve table centres, 11 pew ends and the rest of the garland bases, plus sorting out everything needed for the bouquets and buttonholes and wired hair and cake flowers so it was all in order - however well planned I think I am I know there's always a rush at the last minute. Somehow I worked flat out all day and didn't finish till late and still seemed to have masses to do.

Friday morning was picking yet more ivy, unbelievably I had got through about six bags full already... loading up and going over to the church. Meg came with me to help. She got stuck into the window decorations, (brilliantly) I got stuck into the rood screen and the outer garland. Thank heavens the pew ends were all ready to hang as it still took us five hours and we were so busy we had no time to stop for even a cup of tea let alone lunch. Then Annette came over in the evening and the three of us spent a couple more hours making buttonholes and car decorations and I got started on the bouquets. A shower bouquet takes many hours as every single stem needs to be wired, and bound, and the bouquet is made from about six different sections wired and bound together. Annette has become a genius buttonhole maker. Meg made lovely hooped decorations for the cars.

On Saturday morning I was up at 4.30 to finish the bride's bouquet and do the next layers of the flower globes. Annette was out with me by 6.30, we stopped for breakfast for half an hour at 8.30 and left at 10.30 with lots of final preparations still to do on site.

And it was very very very very wet. I forgot to mention that earlier. It was wet all week but had been getting steadily worse as the week wore on. By Saturday morning it was a deluge. The day before I had got the van stuck in the gateway trying to get to the marquee (I was delivering pots which the family were filling with topiary trees for the evening) and it was a mudbath, by Saturday it was worse. We had to leave the van a way from the marquee and carry every box up to the tent, take off our shoes and walk barefoot over an increasingly wet carpet, it was Ok but things like that just add to the time factor. And there is always an unexpected something to throw a spanner in the works. I had planned for a nine foot garland to cover a long steel beam between two areas of the marquee but was presented with an already curtained wire beneath which the garland had to be looped. I couldn't use the cage I had intended as it was too robust for the wire and designed to be tied flat against a beam. So we had to completely remake a long garland. This took almost two precious hours. Decorating the cars in the rain took twice as long as it should have done. The candles refused to go onto the candelabra spikes without splitting as I was using different candles from normal and hadn't realised each one needed melting and spearing. We finished decorating everything, with all candles in place, five minutes before the bride and groom were due back from the church. It looked fabulous. It took ages. We got back exhausted!

Sunday was de-rigging - removing the heavy garlands from the church (no church flower ladies want to be left with this though churches like to be left with as many flowers as possible), collecting candelabras, collecting pots, tidying up, and negotiating floods.

So how to charge for a wedding? I really don't know, there are just so many variables......

Monday, 9 November 2009

tulip trial and error

First, apologies for lack of images, my camera seems to have given up which is very boring and requires a trip to town to the camera shop one day soon..

Finally I've started planting tulips, I can't prioritise any more diversionary tasks although I really now should be starting on clearing out the Flower House and checking materials for next week's large wedding. But before I could start this morning I had the most frustrating conversation with BT, to cut a long story short, after 45 minutes I was almost weeping with frustration and had got nowhere....

Tulip planting this year is a bit of an experiment. I'm on a new piece of ground at the far end of the existing plot and I haven't treated it in the same way as other parts as the soil seems to be lighter here, and there's no problem with fertility as it's worm heaven. I had it ploughed last spring, and planted it with green manure which I cleared a couple of months ago and covered the area with black membrane. It's not perfect but it's the best I can do without using chemicals - or machinery. On machinery - I have called on local farmers when necessary to prepare the ground initially for me, ploughing up patches as and when required - but thereafter I rely on hand labour. I have a small and ancient rotovator, nothing else, because the way I am growing is more like building a garden than a traditional commercial plot. It wouldn't really make sense to invest in machinery (at the moment, anyway) as it is far more efficient to invest in labour - there are an awful lot of woman and man hours in the cost of a piece of machinery. Also, I'm interested in how my rather chaotic growing system might work as a sort of model for other very small scale producers - though they could probably do it much more efficiently than I have done so far, and they could benefit from some of my mistakes and not go with quite as much trial and error. I'm assuming that there are a lot of people out there who do not have huge capital resources to sink into the infrastructure of a project but might still be interested in growing on a small scale. The big and obvious drawback - one of many probably - is that it is very very hard work sometimes! (As I am now writing at the end of a very long planting day, I remember that I do sometimes feel that machinery would be wonderful!)

Planting 10,000 plus tulips by hand is such a gesture of faith somehow, hoping that weather, rodents, rabbits and late gales don't put paid to them. I decided to try planting largely in trenches this year, but it has been so wet over the last few weeks that we only got one large trench dug before the rains moved in, and I really need 8 more.... I was half tempted to plant this one and leave the rest until it has dried out a bit, but it may never dry out much now so it will be a week or more of soggy trenching. It is actually still quite early for me to plant - usually I reckon to get them in by Christmas Eve but I have been known to be hurling in latecomers in January. I'll plant some in different areas to try and stagger the blooming a little, but in my experience tulips of the same variety flower at the same time regardless of how you treat them. I hope to have them from mid-late March onwards, but it does depend a bit on the weather, the earlies are usually later here than in other areas, and the lates also later, we were picking the lovely waxy long lasting Vancouvers at the end of May last year but most varieties peaked in mid to late April.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009


I've just spent a few days in Northumberland, showing my (grown-up) children the place where I grew up. It was very November-ish, basically rather cold and grey and they couldn't quite get why I loved it so much. We visited the farm where I grew up, now changed radically, and sadly where there was once a wonderful garden created by my mother there was now worse than nothing, all the trees and hedges removed, it was basically as bleak as you get... However, I love the landscape and recognise the shape of every covert so for me it was still beautiful. We went to visit Alnwick Castle gardens, the latest "great garden" in the North but somewhere I have very mixed feelings about. I have visited before, but as a journalist for a couple of publications so I had to be polite. Now I know November is not a good time to visit a northern garden, however it was still open so I reckoned we'd go and have a good trawl around. We got there at 3 o'clock on a perfectly reasonable afternoon and went to buy tickets. "You'll have to be at the exist in 45 minutes" we were told, as we're closing by 4. OK, so we'd still like to look around, how much will it cost. "The tickets are the same price whatever the time of day". I decided not to look round, I would not pay £9.00 each for less than three quarters of an hour looking round a garden that I found marginal at the best of times. It may have some wonderful features (personally I found the much vaunted Witz cascades out of scale and out of place and nothing else particularly garden-memorable though it's probably a great theme park garden if that's what you're looking for). Not impressed with the attitude. Yes I'm probably bigoted because I grew up round there and knew plenty of the Duke's tenants who were mightily unimpressed with the garden development happening at the time they were suffering from foot and mouth and getting no rent reduction, I know the garden and the tenancies were unconnected but there was an amount of not-good feeling about it all, I know it probably brings tourists which the area needs, and I know that farming is fairly unviable in lots of parts of the county now.... so I'm probably a lousy judge. But Alnwick Castle garden is definitely not for me.

Friday, 30 October 2009

More muck

"Are you still interested in horse muck?" the neighbouring farmer asked me yesterday afternoon. Last year I had asked him and he hadn't been able to come up with any good ideas. But this morning he arrived with a huge trailer full of five-year old rotted muck, then another trailer, then two more. We now have to negotiate the price, but I'm sure we'll come up with something satisfactory to both parties! We haven't finished spreading the municipal stuff yet, but most of the bare areas are now covered and we may finish weeding the rest by christmas and will then spread the black stuff around.

My last seasonal farmer's market yesterday went surprisingly well - I wasn't very positive as I set out as I didn't have a vast amount and some of my bunches were decidedly odd, even by my standards. But I was sold out very early and met dozens of people I knew as the town was buzzing, partly half term, and partly an influx for the weekend as this weekend is the annual Hay on Fire festival. It's created and organised by my husband and has a cast of several hundred, so usually I'm completely hectic running around for it but this year I have been so busy with everything else I haven't got involved at all which is oddly tranquil! However, the theme this year is giants, based very loosely on Jack and the Beanstalk and  in a very weak moment I did agree to be the front half of Jack's cow Daisy. This afternoon I must whip into town to buy the requisite half a pair of Marigolds for the back end, and the friend who I have co-opted to be the other end  and myself need to practice getting from A to B and see if we can manage a few high kicks.....

We've managed quite a bit of seed collection this autumn as there have been such good dry spells. I'm becoming obsessed with seedheads, scabious pingpong are definitely top of my must-have list but they don't last in their gorgeous dodecahedron form (or similar) for all that long before dropping the seed and browning. Nonetheless they are splendid. Nigella hispanica are a close second for their splendid horns, and the purplish pods of Nigella Kramers Plum are a glorious colour. But though they may be the most recognisable of all there's something so satisfactory about the plumpness of poppy seedheads. My favourite plant this week have to be the remaining eryngiums. They look like pert little purple raspberries. I have dried masses of their seedheads and though I usually leave everything as nature intended I will paint some of them white rather than leaving them browning.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Good things

Amazing how things happen just when they're needed sometimes - I've had flu for a few days, have masses to do and was beginning to panic about getting trenches dug for the tulips, getting compost spread etc etc quite apart from starting propagating and sorting out the tunnel. Along comes an unexpected WWOOFer for a week, he is making great inroads on the tulip trenches... and last week I got a new part time recruit who is very happy to spend all day barrowing compost. Thank you both! Oh yes and one of them is a homeless man and one of them is a bank manager who was forced into early retirement, life is interesting.
And today I have just had an unexpected email from Wedding Flowers magazine that they're doing a spread in their Feb/March issue featuring a wedding I did in May last year. Thank you to all concerned there too.
And next week I'm having my first break of the year (yes I know it's ridiculous but it's been a busy year) going up to Northumberland for a few days - where I grew up. How lovely it will be if it stays dry, but even if it doesn't it will be lovely to visit old haunts. 

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Tasks are changing to autumn organisation

It's always a relief when the next 7 1/2 tons of compost arrives as we have difficult access and the driver has to be pretty good to get in. Today's was brilliant, completely unphased by the fact he had to reverse blind (no possibility of keeping any mirrors out) between two solid walls then negotiate a barn and a garage and a standing stone across a very wet grassy area..... He couldn't get down the slope where we usually tip it but it's reasonably near where it needs to be. This is the municipal stuff, black gritty and not altogether pleasant smelling, that I use as a winter mulch when I can. I've still got a few tons of mushroom compost left but have used about 12 tons of that this year already, it's amazing where it all goes. I usually have two loads of the municipal but I need the next lot in a different area so I'm going to have to talk to one of my neighbouring farmers to see if we can borrow something rather larger than a wheelbarrow to get it where it's needed!

It's time to cut things back. Amazing how much growth there has been this year, I'm chopping down the spent Michaelmas daisies to give some air to what's behind and around them, and will probably move most of them to a different site as they are really beautiful in the top garden but spread so quickly because they rather like the conditions, to the slight detriment of any of their neighbours. I discovered a lovely delicate aster with small pink centred flowers that had become completely hidden by larger forms, even the large wedding cake viburnum had completely disappeared behind the daisies, I could almost see it cheering up immediately as I moved a huge clump from its sight line! Euphorbias have done astonishingly well this year and all my small plants have at least quadrupled in size this year so I will be quite stocked come next spring. I'm hoping all my bulbs will have been as happy so there's a wonderful spring display but I fear the mice have been extremely busy. We pulled up the black membrane which we had put down over last year's tulips when they had finished - to stop weeds more than anything - and had obviously provided the ideal quarters for mice and voles. Hundreds of bulbs had been dug up and were scattered across the surface of the soil, and there were tunnels running everywhere.

We're about to start preparing the new tulip area. About 10,000 bulbs are going in this year, a lovely selection I hope, but I'm rather worried about rabbits and rodents. I still haven't rabbit fenced everywhere, I know I should but it is just so so expensive and rather complicated here. I have had quotes from £2000-4500 and immediately retreat and hope I can think of a cheaper way. I do have some wonderful chaps come up from the Welsh valleys every few weeks to catch rabbits - sometimes they bring guns, sometimes dogs, sometimes ferrets but unfortunately the worst warren is along the bank dividing my field from a neighbour's paddock and the paddock is totally overgrown near the hedge which is where all the bunnies are happily hunkering down..  I can't get anyone in to chop down the undergrowth as it's not on my land and it's too overgrown to put long nets for ferrets which are the most efficient rabbiters.  Someone advised me to get some semi feral cats in the tin barn, but I don't think they would live here long because of the dogs, and I also think I'd need a whole pack - some days you can look over the field to the grazing area and can count up to 70 rabbits. One of the dogs has eaten so many she has almost doubled in size, but there are just too many....... All advice welcome!

Friday, 16 October 2009

Inspiring - and more jelly

I've been contemplating why we do what we do this week, I think it's the time of year for a bit of contemplation. And realising how fortunate I have been to meet so many gardeners over the years, some of whom have had a profound effect on me. I suppose it did all start with my mother who is a terrific gardener and very positive, she probably started it all rolling, but working as a journalist and particularly as a garden writer allowed me to meet all sorts. Often the most interesting gardeners are unsung, not the people in the public eye (though I have huge respect for some of them, not a lot for others), but people you meet at random. In the past few years I've been totally inspired by Anne Townley, a gardener/producer (and now friend) on the borders of Warwickshire/Oxfordshire who has created an astonishing garden on about 7 acres, starting from nothing and building up a collection of stunning plants, many highly unusual, in unusual and beautiful landscaping, incredibly creative. I don't know how she has the time to do all she does, or how she has such a depth of knowledge. She not only tends, raises and sells amazing plants and produce - from unusual vegetables, fruits, nuts, cordials to striking cut flowers - she also makes unique pottery. From tiles and mugs to jugs and garden tiles and edgers, I would give each and every piece house and garden room if I could. And she doesn't realise what skills and talents she has. If I ever have half as much genuine plant knowledge as her I'll be happy. You may find her at a farmers market round Oxfordshire or in Stroud, it would be worth a trip if you're looking for a really special plant - amongst other treasures.

I've nearly finished editing Alys Fowler's next book. She is a delightful person and an entirely genuine gardener with a complete passion for her subject and a delight in good grub. I'm trying to persuade her and everyone else I come across to invest in a steamer/juicer cooker which is so perfect for processing produce at the time of year... I'm trying to track mine down today, it gets loaned to so many people but I'd quite like it back this weekend to try some flower jellies. 
For those of you who don't know them, this is a three tiered pan, you boil water in the bottom, juice collects in the middle from fruit that steams in the top. They have a clever little hose and tap so you can drain the juice off as you go and can make perfect jellies without any of that jelly bag malarchey plus a million other delicious things specially wonderful fruit juices to store for the winter. I don't know why they are so uncommon over here, in the States you can get them easily, and in Scandinavia and Germany.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Frosts arrive

It's hard to believe it's almost the end of the main season, in some ways it has been a long hard slog this year and in other ways it has been such a thrill - though there have been plenty of occasions when I wish I'd started it when I was twenty years younger..... that's more to do with the fact I am a terribly poor sleeper rather than the physical work, but I'm working on the sleep and I'm sure one night I will have a full night's sleep for the first time in about a decade! Monty Don's charming researcher came round this week to pick my brains about how to start a cut flower business, for the book to accompany his next year's TV venture on smallholdings. I'm not appearing in the TV programme so giving all the info was a bit odd, on the one hand I desperately want the message to spread, I want more people to grow flowers, I want more customers to choose British and preferably traditional flowers, on the other hand it's a bit weird giving away everything I know without my name even attached to it but I realise that everyone does it so differently, has such different ideas, methods and tolerances .... there's always a part of me that assumes that everyone else will do it so much better and be so much better organised than me but we are all individual and it's wonderful that there is so much interest in good old-fashioned home grown non-imported flowers. 

I made damson cheese, quince jelly, quince cheese, fig and chilli chutney and we opened a bottle of the second batch of elderflower champagne this week. What with all that bounty and all the flowers I reckon we have a pretty good life here!

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Mixed blessings

I realised this week how personally involved I am with my flowers, and business, and how much it means to me. On Sunday I received a disappointed email from a bouquet recipient where the flowers hadn't lasted properly. It threw me into a flat spin, for more than a few moments I lost the plot, I wanted to give everything up, decided I was hopeless and all was a disaster..... I contacted the disappointed recipient immediately of course and arranged to send more flowers on Monday but I felt dreadful, I really want people to love these flowers and receive something beautiful. Then on Monday, by complete chance, I received two emails from people who had received bouquets on the same day as the disappointed recipient all saying how lovely the flowers were. So I felt I could possibly continue after all... I don't know what went wrong with the unsatisfactory flowers, it should never have happened, there is no excuse, and I thank the recipient for being so understanding and for sweetly mailing me when the replacement arrived to say how gorgeous they were. 

It is definitely getting towards the end of the main season. I do have plenty of flowers left, but it is now becoming the season for other tasks, cutting back, clearing, moving, dividing, propagating. I'm looking forward to all of it. Next year I want everything to be stupendous!

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

late september days

Still glorious weather, and still loads of colour in the gardens. I have realised that I am really rather in love with the flowers, they are just so prolific and, well, just beautiful. And so forgiving of my rubbish care at times! Anna Pavord wrote in the Indie this Saturday of her love of late summer cornflowers, ammis, nigella hispanica, I'm completely with her there but while she only rates the traiditonal blue cornflower I do venture into multicolour territory there - the dark pink ones are particularly good in bouquets, but I think I agree with her that if I were just growing them in the garden I would stick with the lovely brilliant deep cornflower blue. I'm also enjoying my dahlias at the moment, a few of the shaggy fuchsia ones and sulphur yellows with bunches of cosmos and purple flowers make me smile.

A trip to Malvern RHS autumn show on Sunday. Fantastically busy so it's wonderful that so many people are interested, but not too many particularly special stands or gardens although the RHS flower shed is always such a joy to wander round. I suppose I went there with a very specific agenda, to see if I could find some really good interesting foliage plants, and came away disappointed, but there were plenty of happy customers brandishing arm and trolleyfuls of goodies. I did however think that my asters here were just as good as most at the Show, but then I did get most of them from the National Collection at Picton Gardens so they ought to be good. 

The dry weather means plenty of opportunities to collect seed so we're getting as much in as we can. I'm also aware there's going to be quite a weed issue next year as I haven't managed to get to lots of the annual weeds before they've set seed and scattered. Heigh ho.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Different requests

Last year my oddest request was to find 4000 oxeye daisies for a PR launch. Slightly out of season. It was a challenge. This year my oddest request is going out tomorrow - 12 matching edible bouquets for a filmset. It is always a challenge to create matching things from these gardens, plants that grow outside tend to be slightly wayward and it's hard to find identical twins, let alone duodecatuplets or whatever the term might be. Which is why I said yes! The film company also want the bouquets to look as though they have come from a mainstream florist. Hmm. And of course their budget is not what I would like..... I am going with a few roses, I can't provide dozens that look identical or even perfect, lots of herbs, catmint which is edible but I don't want to eat it as it seems to numb my mouth quite quickly (I've been trying everything this afternoon), with some white and red shaggy dahlia-like chrysanths from a local grower, tested and approved of this time. The buyer is worried the bunches won't be generous enough so we have agreed to add some non edible extras round the edges, with strict instructions to the actress not to eat them!

It is fun being asked to create unusual flower arrangements, but it's equally a pleasure at the moment to be supplying lots of church flower ladies with flowers for their harvest celebrations. I do adore the late summer flowers, apart from heleniums, shaggy headed bronze rudbeckias are fantastic value, and all the yellows from brilliant helianthemums, sulphur yellow dahlias, bright solidago, rudbeckias mixed with purples of other dahlias, verbena, second crop phlox. I love orange/yellow and purples, and combining them with a touch of acid green and fuchsia purple is very eyecatching. My arrangements are quite subtle early in the year,they get a bit brighter now although I'm also still picking lots of beautiful scented white and cream stocks, astrantias, mixed cornflowers, gauras, achilleas, asters, so subtle is still on the cards for a while longer. I'm hoping the second crop delphiniums are going to have time to bloom as they are budding up nicely, but it is nearly time to change the focus of attention to shrubs and foliage plants.

On Tuesday I chatted to a  garden group in a nearby town who boast over 60 enthusiastic and rather expert gardeners among them. I mentioned when I arrived that I would love to find and learn how to grow a few choice traditional chrysanths, not the spray ones (sorry to those of you who love them but I just can't get my head round their particular delights), and found that the host is an expert who grows dozens of varieties including many that have not been on sale for years, even decades. So I am looking forward to a tour of his garden any day soon, and he promises to provide me with some choice cuttings for next year. I never thought I would warm to chrysanths, but some of the old varieties are so so attractive. A bit like dahlias, I never thought I would get involved with them but some of them are irresistible as late summer cut flowers. I sold at the local market today and had a long discussion with one customer about the merits of dahlias, she related a tale of learning to meditate when one of her teachers had pointed her to the exquisite form of a dahlia and how amazing all flowers are when their sole desire is to grow to the perfect bloom to provide pleasure to all who view them.... a nice thought. I was also marvelling at the wonder of a simple sunflower, how much energy it takes to grow from one little dry seed to such a splendid bright cheery enormous seedfilled head in only 90 - 100 days.  Flowers really are utterly amazing!

Monday, 21 September 2009

autumn agendas

What flowers could sum up autumn colours better than heleniums? They are definitely on my top ten list this year. I have about six different varieties, starting in July with Sahin's early flowerer and now I'm in the full flush of Autumnale.  I've been quite good at remembering to cut them back so many of even young plants have had at least two full on flowerings already and there are masses more to come. I can hardly wait to see what they'll be like with more maturity next year - supra abundant I think, and that's definitely the way I like things.

You will have gathered that I love the abundance and variety of flowers, and the more varieties I can grow, the happier I am. I don't think I could ever be a specialist in anything, there are just too many things to enjoy! And that's why I get slightly disappointed with some of the other companies selling "English" flowers on line. Many of them are producing very pleasing floristry, but too often the variety is such a pale shadow of what it could be because they are buying in, and there is not a vast variety to buy in..... But I could go on for rather a long time about that and I'm aware that I'm a rubbish blogger because I start off meaning to do soundbites and within a few lines am threatening to write an essay!

As much as I love all the fabulous variety, I'm also really looking forward to more wintery arrangements, there's something so beautiful about berries and foliage and those few precious flowers that bloom in the winter months. I've started growing a number of different ivies as they are just so useful, and am thinking about growing a lot more - I think the rule with greenery is to be as generous as you can be, few things look sadder than a few wispy trails of foliage when a space begs for generosity. 

However one thing that does look sadder than a few orphan pieces of foliage is the state of our house at the moment. I say to myself it is so untidy because I have been so busy I just haven't had time to sort it out..... And the storage barn is little better, I send out jugs and vases and candle sticks and containers of one sort or another, and when I get them back I seem to find it almost pathologically impossible to put them back in the same place. Next time it rains I may get down to it - but first there will of course be the tunnel to muck out and replant, the bulbs to order, research to discover, plants to drool over, seed catalogues to rake through, even accounts to do...  

Monday, 14 September 2009

Time to get back to the gardens

Now I've not got so many demands it's time to get back to the gardens which are looking a little sad and neglected right now. But I went to pick for five mail out bouquets this morning and was pleased to see how much there still is and how much still to come. It has been fantastically sunny for the past few days so the blocks of cosmos are begging to be picked bucketfuls at a time, and more dahlias seem to open every time I turn my back. I grew too many dark ones this year and not enough white cactus ones, but the fuchsia pink shaggy ones are probably my favourites this year. I still have plenty of green ammi, but the white traditional forms are getting to the far end of their lives, in every block. There are plenty of red and green glads left, cornflowers in white and pinks as well as blue to come, and masses of tiny pearly achillea but I sowed them rather late so they'll probably all be over by now this time next year. Asters of course are doing brilliantly right now, I still favour the wonderful mauve blue frikartii monch above all others for pickability, though there are a few other contenders too. The traditional small flowered tall white and pink forms aren't good in bouquets as the flowers open at different times but they're great in churches and big displays for a mass of impact and background. 

Catanaches have been good this year, I seem to have had some flowering for months, and I picked sweet peas again today, only a jugful but lovely to have something for our cottage for a change instead of all for other destinations! There are of course plenty of heleniums, still verbena, many eryngiums, some lovely delphiniums, and roses are having a beautiful late flush - the top garden has quite a few bushes of scented cream and ivory roses plus old pink ones, and now we can enjoy them without picking them which is a different pleasure. 

Persicaria has been excellent, flowering for months, and all my different astrantias have done brilliantly and flowered very well for a second time. I'll be sowing huge numbers of astrantias soon as I intend to have almost a quarter of an acre of my favourites for cutting next year! Annual phlox are another thing worth considering in more bulk, I grew them for the first time this year and have been well rewarded. The bulk of the solidago I got from Noel Kingsbury is now at full burst, I'm hoping it will continue for quite a while but I didn't cut enough back hard earlier so it won't continue for as long as it could. 

I got the photos through to look at for the Gardens Illustrated article next year. It's very exciting, but as a gardener of course I feel the gardens were looking much better the week before and definitely a few weeks later when the gales and rain stopped..... But I know they'll make it look beautiful and I have to admit I'm rather looking forward to it.

I've just started editing lovely Alys Fowler's new book. She's a hard working gem and deservedly popular. As someone rather older whose first gardening forays - apart from those in my mother's garden - were rather hippy gardening where anything went and we grew masses of vegetables in a rather higgledy piggledy fashion with flowers mixed in when we felt like it, it's fun to see how a younger generation have reinvented hippy eco gardening and given it more credible labels. What we experienced as ordinary gardening is now presented to a new generation of young hip ( as opposed to hippy) gardeners as polyculture, growing a mixture of flowers and vegetables together in drifts for effect and productivity. 

I've never been a great fan, on the other hand, of permaculture. I feel it was rather hijacked by grunge eco-gardeners (now I'm using silly vocabulary) to denote a state of gardening where aesthetics were of no importance, often to justify a state of non gardening rather than gardening. Though I know there are also some brilliantly sound principles. I was a friend of the late delightful Robert Hart, pioneer in this country of permaculture and forest gardening and spent many happy hours in his gardens and cottage. It was challenging having lunch with him, not because of the delicious produce from his permaculture plots, but because he didn't believe in using water very much so nothing was ever washed up. The residue between the tines of his few forks was serious and demanded a different way of eating! His gardener was called Garlic, and the two of them had a penchant for making extraordinary juices. I do not remember finding sycamore juice particularly pleasurable and can still remember the after taste and dried out mouth effect!

That rose bouquet from late August wedding

Photos have now appeared from Sarah and Oliver's wedding. This was the wedding where I was terrified that the bouquet would be a disaster as the roses I had ordered from David Austin were a disaster and we spent all Friday afternoon dashing around trying to find some beautiful cream roses from friends' gardens. In fact I think this bouquet was so much more beautiful than anything I could have produced from even the best bought in roses. 

autumn arrives

This weekend was the last of my summer weddings, so I officially consider it autumn now. We held a wedding in our field this weekend, and amazingly the sun shone throughout the weekend so it was all rather wonderful, happy bride and groom, much festivity, many merry campers.... the groom had asked if sunflowers could be the main flower feature, and happily I had plenty at just the right time. The bride had asked for nothing pastel so I made hanging sunflower and ivy balls, a huge arch with hops, sunflowers, brightest dahlias, daisies... the way into the field for guests was down a tree lined secret pathway which I adorned with flower balls and an arch, again using hops and brightest dahlias and sunflowers and rudbeckias. Outside the marquee was a huge container of gladioli, rudbeckia, bright red dark leaved Lobelia cardinalis Queen Victoria and other bits and pieces, with hugely long maroon red trails of amaranth. The tables had bright daisies and cornflowers, rudbeckias and snaps. The brides bouquet was all bright, reds, white, greens and yellows tied with red ribbon, a first for me to work with a bride with a bright red dress.

And on the other side of town..... I also prepared flowers for an opposite sort of occasion where the bride was much more traditional and wanted to major on bronze and ivory flowers. She had asked for bronze chrysanthemums which I do not grow so I had organised to get some from another grower. I collected masses on Thursday. Tried to find ways to use them on Friday. Threw them all away on Saturday and used beautiful bronze rudbeckias instead. Sometimes chrysanths can be beautiful, these were just not good enough quality and I couldn't bring myself to use them.  Meg pointed out to me that it's never worth me using flowers I don't like, I always end up throwing them out of the arrangements. I must learn. I won't use that grower again, but I think I have found a brilliant chrysanth grower for next year as they really can be beautiful.

No doubt photos of the flowers from the weddings will follow at some time!

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Points to remember

Point One: Picking takes twice as long as I think it will, and then a bit longer, so it is a really good idea to have a very firm picking list before starting, and don't veer from it
Point Two: Wedding preparations are never relaxed
Point Three: It takes two people two long days to prepare for even a local wedding for church and marquee displays, plus driving and setting up time, plus de-rigging time

The problem with growing everything here is that it's terribly tempting to keep picking - Oh a little bit of this would be nice, Oh I haven't got any of that and so on. Because the weather had been so rough I fell victim to too much random picking for this weekend, so it took far too long. I picked in a couple of rain free hours on Thursday evening, then picked between 5-9 on Friday, then Meg continued picking all Friday morning. And I still hadn't finally made up my mind about bouquets and buttonholes as lots of things were slightly less than perfect because of the rain so I picked final subjects on Friday evening after we got back from decorating the church. 

But happily the church looked stunning, we did nothing too complicated, a simple pedestal near the main altar with clouds of white michaelmas daisies, white and dark red gladioli and other bits and pieces, rood screen decorations with pittosporum and eucalyptus bases covered with ammi, stocks, mauve Michaelmas daisies, blue cornflowers, mauve perovskia and a few dark pink heads of sweet williams as the bride's main theme colours are blueish toned pinks. The side altar had a huge arrangement, massive spires of purplish liatris, cream gladioli with purplish throats, lots of tall green ammi and strong large headed white ammi plus other foliages. The font was completely filled with a foaming mass of gaura, gypsophila, white phlox and perovskia, a jug at the back had largely delphiniums, ammis and Michaelmas daisies. 

The marquee had hanging globes with the broad umbelliferous heads of different ammis over green and grey foliage, lots of pinks and whites dotted in, jugs were predominantly cosmos with a few scented stocks and phlox and lovely old roses. The bride had asked for dynamic hearts which I  made out of willow covered with eucalpytus and tied with big ivory bows. Bouquets were largely a mixture of pinks and ivory whites, including lots of heavenly scented stocks, roses, achilleas, deep pink cornflowers with touches of eucalpytus... the children just had cornflowers and achillea the Pearl. I had no time to take photos, just a couple of the marquee, but I am quite sure there will be some from the bride and groom in a few weeks and I intend to put up a wedding gallery from this year at some point. It's useful for me to see what I've been getting up to as things move on relatively fast in the gardens and when it's a completely different season it's really useful to know what I may expect to have in the gardens at specific times next year.

Thursday, 3 September 2009


What to do if it's so windy that it's virtually impossible to pick? This weekend's wedding needs stacks of cosmos as that's the main feature in the marquee display (as requested). But I've discovered that you absolutely can't pick cosmos when the wind has been blasting through it as it is too crispy and dried out. I have masses of lovely varieties in the field, but I can't get at any of them. Nor at anything else. I have four flower globes plus a large garland as well as all the usual decorations to make and am rather wondering how........ I don't usually get stressed but sometimes it is a logical reaction!

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Autumn arrives

Nothing to do with flowers, but seasons. When spiders appear in the basins autumn is definitely here! I'm sure there is a quasi-folkloric saying in there somewhere....

Ah, rain

Torrential downpours and galeforce winds mean many flattened flowers though most are managing to stand well, though very soggy. Glads hit the ground as they give up the will to stand, and the dark red varieties get water damage really quickly though paler ones don't seem to mark in the same way. Dahlias aren't mad on being picked in the rain, cornflowers refuse to revive, ammis droop, sweet peas have to be chucked.... but hopefully there are still plenty, today I am in love with eryngiums because they withstand just about anything! This morning there was a lull in the weather and I picked all the snapdragons that were still pickable after their battering, bright pink phlox, lots of dark cosmos in a brief spell between rain, nicotianas, clarkia, lime green, dark red and amazing fuchsia pink dahlias and lots of different greeneries for a wedding. Tomorrow I'm hoping for a sunny day as I have the last of this year's pastel summer flowers weddings to pick for, plus a selection of bright yellows, reds and oranges for another party. Happily the cream and white stocks are just about ready in the tunnel, I have been relying on them opening in time and I think there are about enough.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Ordering roses

This weekend the bride only had one very specific request, she would like cream roses, preferably scented and full faced. I knew I wouldn't have any now, and the garden I can usually get good roses from didn't have any either so I said that I would order from the UK's main cut rose supplier for her. So I ordered her roses from David Austen. These arrived in good time and good condition and the roses were very beautiful. But they were completely the wrong roses.

I had a few moments of utter panic thinking that perhaps I had been on some other planet when I had ordered and had actually ordered the bright orangey-peach coloured blooms that arrived. Fortunately I had ordered the right roses. And had put very specific instructions on the order that only buttermilk roses might be an appropriate substitution if my choice of roses was for some reason unavailable, and that the company must contact me if there was any problem and if they needed to substitute. When I called them to question why I had the wrong roses and see if they could ship me the correct ones immediately they said they had sent me the orangey ones because they didn't have any cream, so they could not rectify the situation as they couldn't send me any appropriate roses.

So I had to spend the whole of Friday morning, when we should have been preparing other things for the wedding, trying to track down cream roses and eventually Meg had to go off for several hours to every garden we could think of to see if we could possibly pick any potential bouquet roses. We did find a few, incredibly beautiful - thanks very much to great gardeners in Dilwyn who offered what they could - cream blooms and cream with a hint of gold but they were more fragile than those I would normally have wished to use. The bouquet looked exquisite but I was very worried how it would stand up to the day. Fingers crossed all was well, no doubt I will hear. (And no doubt a proper photo will appear in due course!)

Now I know none of us always get everything right all the time, and a couple of weeks ago I had to send off bridal bouquet and buttonholes, wrist corsages and table flowers after weeks of incessant rain, so I was concerned about the travelling and keeping qualities. A couple of things didn't survive as they should but I had sent plenty of spares and felt I had to offer a substantial discount even though the job had taken longer than usual because of the weather. It was not ideal but I did communicate with the recipient. 

I was surprised that a large and reputable company such as David Austin should fail to check before making an uncalled for substitution. It was probably just a silly error in one of their departments failing to pass on the right information, but think how disappointing it would be for a bride to order a bouquet direct from them to arrive on the morning of her wedding only to open it up and discover it was entirely the wrong colour?

Thursday, 20 August 2009

The joys of work

It is curious how many enquiries I get from people who would like a few encouraging words about setting up or growing on their own cut flower business.  I don't really know how to help as everyone works differently. When a journalist visited me recently she asked me if I could give advice on how gardeners should set up a cutting patch, but she laughed even as she asked as she had been with me for over an hour by that point and realised that my flower gardens are rather more chaotic than most, rather more scattered than most, and possibly not the best way forward for anyone but me!

I think if you are really passionate about something you can make it work if you want to. There are lots of caveats about turning hobbies into jobs, how people end up hating the job and discarding the original hobby, and that's probably right. Growing was never a hobby for me, much more ingrained than that. And I do love it. It is exhausting getting any business going, and growing is possibly more exhausting than most. I have done easier work, in fact every job I have ever done has been easier than this. I get disheartened some days, of course, and physical exhaustion is a little too ever present, but I am also constantly terrifically excited by what I am doing. I cannot imagine that this business will ever pall, for me,  because I can think of so many exciting directions it can go in. 

And when I go down to the main field and it looks like a real garden, it makes me smile. Deeply.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Flowers for all sorts

One bride asked for a posy that looked as though she had just rushed into the fields and picked it for her love..... One a few weeks ago (photos just in) wanted blowsy peonies above all else.

An unusual request last weekend was for ten posies in the national colours of Burma - red white and blue, and the national colours of Tibet, red yellow and white. They have gone up the Trafalgar Square (Anthony Gormley living installation) plinth with a local man who was promoting the causes of those two countries. I checked the website afterwards and there was a comment from some onlooker who said he bet the posies were plastic...... 

Subtle and bright

One of the joys of dahlias is the opportunity to grow some outrageously bright colours that just zing...particularly when put with some of my favourite greens. Marigolds aren't half bad either. At the other end of the spectrum, why grow just any old cosmos when you can grow one as pretty as this pink edged form?

Choice and abundance

I've been looking at other available mail order cut flower options. I'm quite sure I haven't got everything right, I seem to be less expensive and provide many more flowers and varieties per bunch and bouquet than the other providers I've come across. But it's hard to tell. It's a joy making up the orders at the moment as there is just so much choice, I get fed up when I just can't possibly put everything in! I have just had someone phone me about the size of the bunches - it is hard to tell from the website as there are not really any specific photos of bouquets going out, mental note to make sure I do get these done for my update - she was worried that the cottage garden bunch might just have enough for a tiny vase or jug. No. These are the kind of flowers that have been going out the last few days - the lily and sanguisorba, liatris etc etc was for the country garden bouquet size, the others are cottage garden bunches.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Looking forward

Last week the weather was so wet that I took one day out from the mud and desecration to go to the wholesale nursery and choose some shrubs and foliage plants, both of which I am desperately short of. I am still slightly limited in what I can grow here but the hedge in the field is just beginning to provide a little shelter, and I am now fairly confident that I can grow slightly less robust species in the top garden between cottage garden and field. I have tried various artemisias with little success so far but am having one last go as their grey fluffy or serrated foliage is so good for some wedding arrangements, and I particularly like Powis Castle which is probably the hardiest even though I have lost several in different spots. I am also stocking up on basics such as various euonymus, physocarpus, loniceras and viburnums, and couldn't resist a few berrying treasures optimistically hoping I'll get there before the birds! I stumbled over the lovely lemon scented nepeta so carried home quite a few of those to try, the scent is similar but to my mind even more evocative than the lemoniest geranium leaf. Quite heavenly.

And of course as soon as I got things home that really need to be in the ground the rain stopped and the sun came out. I must remember that trick to change the weather in future!

Cosmos is finally thriving, better late than never and it means I'll have lots very late in the season, but one patch in the main designated annual area is failing, as soon as the flowers open they crisp up and fold. The variety is Psyche, I haven't grown it before and can't imagine what the problem is. I shall use the feathery foliage instead if the flowers continue to fail, it is a good green and pretty texture and can be lovely in bouquets, giving off the distinctive cosmos scent. Another thing that is thriving is amaranth. I'm not at all sure whether I like them or not, slightly too brash perhaps but the green one is interesting - I think! Stokesia is not quite what I was expecting, never having sown it before. I'm not at all sure I like that either....

But I do love cornflowers, the traditional blue ones are past their best in a couple of areas but I have lots of white, pale blue and black ones coming on now so they should last well into the autumn. I also love scabious and the seed heads of ping pong are as pretty as the (short lived) flowers. I seem unable to get S. caucasica or any of its forms thriving in the field, I don't know why but it never really comes back which is a shame as the form is so attractive, and perfect for bouquets and for buttonholes.

The different pinks of achilleas are stunning now, and I have some excellent dark red dahlias, some lovely deep pink ones, and some very marginal tomato red pom poms which i can't believe I ordered, I was expecting something pink and white. That can be the problem with using the cheap large sellers, the varieties are not always at all reliable but I shall probably persevere as it is not that important for me if something clashes, unlike in a more conventional garden where design plays a larger part.

I sent off a package to the north of Scotland today, the very limit of the next day posting service. I shall be interested to hear if it does get there tomorrow. People knock the reliability of Royal Mail but I have nothing but praise for the service, Special Delivery has been incredibly reliable and it's still a wonder to me that something I send off from here will arrive in northern Ireland or western Scotland the next day. But they do get there. Invariably. And my local Post Office is fantastic, they have even opened several times on their half day specially so I could send off bulk orders. While other couriers wouldn't even quote me when I started as they considered me too small fry.

On that track, I was rather fed up last week when I went to the box for one of the two remaining rolls of cellophane (biodegradeable, not plastics based) to pull it out and find it was not cellophane but black plastic film, as was the last roll. I phoned up the supplier who asked if I had not checked the order when it arrived. I said that I had done so but hadn't bothered to pull out all three rolls from this final box as I assumed if one was right the others would be. The woman on the other end of the phone first tried to tell me that the cellophane would go black if it was kept in a damp shed (It wouldn't. It wasn't). Then refused to exchange the faulty goods as I hadn't complained within 7 days of receiving the original order. Even though she did admit it must have been their fault. She wouldn't even take the film back although i cannot use it and actually don't know what to do with it, it is definitely far from eco and quite hideous.I have bought all my florist supplies from this wholesaler since I started, I'm quite sure I'm not one of their smallest customers, but they have lost me now.

Pat the not-so-young WWOOFer left on Friday, and I haven't any others lined up for the moment. It's interesting, having volunteers, but next year I shall be more prescriptive with whom I would like to have here. It's great having interesting young people, and great that they try it, but I have realised that what I really need at the moment is not an interesting cultural exchange but independence, enthusiasm and muscle!