Ahead of her book launch on Tuesday 4 April, we are delighted to share this extract from flower grower Rachel Siegfried’s new book The Cut Flower Sourcebook:
“I was first, and hope last to be, a gardener, it was an unanticipated combination of circumstances that led me to do professionally something I did once only as a relaxation, and much as I love doing it, I don’t like the groove to be too deep.” Constance Spry, 1940
Chancing upon this quote by Constance Spry, I found it so relatable to my own experience. I too see myself primarily as a gardener with a love of plants and a deep connection to nature, so my floral style comes from that perspective. Working in the garden and walking my dogs in the surrounding countryside are my sources of inspiration and my design philosophy is simply about bringing some of the outside indoors.
My path to becoming a flower farmer and florist has been a meandering one, but there has always been a garden at the heart of it. The first was my granny’s when I was child. It was her favourite place to be and it quickly became mine too, soothing and grounding me after my parents’ separation. Twenty years later, I had put my emotionally restorative experience of a garden into practice and become a garden designer for the NHS. It was while tending one of the gardens I had designed that I experienced the pleasure of picking a simple garden-gathered bunch and carefully wrapping it in newspaper. It was an encapsulation of the garden I had created and presenting it as a gift to a new love was surprisingly gratifying.
After a decade of designing gardens, I decided to move into productive horticulture and began work in a Victorian walled garden on a private estate in the Cotswolds. My job was to produce the vegetables, fruit and cut flowers for the ‘big house’. Every Friday I would pick what was looking good in the beds and borders of the walled garden and the surrounding estate. Like Spry, I let my imagination run wild, bringing in artichoke heads from the kitchen garden to arrange with the old garden roses, and gathering handfuls of grasses and wild flowers from the meadows.
I started to see everything as potential candidates for the vase. I would forage in the woods for brambles covered in juicy blackberries to complement the dahlias, and cut blossoming branches from the orchard to provide a framework for the tulips. The house had a cool flagstone-floored room lined with shelves of vases for flower arrangements. It became my flower laboratory where I experimented with the materials I brought in, learning about their vase life and how they worked in a display. I was mostly left to my own devices and given free rein to grow what I liked with no budget limits. I realize now how instrumental this self-education was; it changed the way I saw the garden and its plants. By cutting and arranging them, I was able to step even deeper into their sensory world – I could look at them in more detail, touch and smell them.
During the six years I spent growing cut flowers for the elite, I began to wonder why these garden-grown beauties were not more commonly available. It seemed strange that we had a slow food movement in the UK but not a floral equivalent. Surely enjoying flowers in your home should be a simple pleasure, without the environmental burden of air miles and chemicals? As a nation of gardeners, why were we so disconnected from the idea of buying flowers locally and seasonally, or even growing our own?
Determined to offer an alternative to sterile, imported blooms by providing flowers that would stop people in their tracks with their vital beauty, I left my job and, with my partner Ashley, took on an 0.8 hectare (2 acre) market garden. We settled on the name Green and Gorgeous and started clearing the cabbages to make way for my dream of a flower farm. My aim was to grow everything I needed to create border-to-vase arrangements guided by the seasons and the growth habit of the plants. I wanted to grow a palette of plants with intoxicating scent that would make grown women weep and leave an indelible memory of their fleeting beauty. To truly bring the garden in, I would explore all the stages of the plants’ development, from the newness of freshly emerged spring growth to the muddy dishevelment of late autumn.
My belief in garden-grown cut flowers has been severely tested over the years. The vagaries of our weather, an army of pests, and high expectations from customers have certainly put my plant choices through their paces. I discovered that it was the perennials and shrubs I knew best from my work as a garden designer that met the practical challenges of growing for market. These stalwarts have also played a central role in developing my natural floral style as I moved from garden designer to flower farmer and florist.
Photos Eva Nemeth