Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Late Spring in Sheffield and on Salt Spring Island

What a fantastic late spring it has been for glorious native flowers (from both England and Canada). In late May I had a commission to design flowers for an 80th birthday celebration at the Beauchief Hotel which is just a mile from our house in Sheffield. The picture above shows the table centres ready to go. I made them in jam jars decorated with pretty vintage paper and dusky-coloured ribbon. Most of the flowers were English – some from my wholesaler in Cornwall and some from our garden – soloman’s seal, bleeding heart, bluebells, alstroemeria, iris, ammi and our first astrantia. I had also been asked to make a small cake decoration mainly with small red roses. So, to tie everything together I added a few white and red roses to the jam jars. It all looked really lovely – vibrant and full of colour. Here are a few pictures of the flowers running along the length of the table on a bright sunny day in late May.

And here is the little cake arrangement – I have used the same paper and ribbon to decorate the jar and to give the whole design a feeling of cohesion.

I ran a workshop in May using a traditional method of arranging flowers as an alternative to using floral foam. Regular readers of my blog will know that I have rejected using floral foam (oasis) in my arrangements because it is harmful to the environment (not biodegradable), potentially harmful to human beings (some of the ingredients may be carcinogenic) and it is just not a very nice medium. So what is the alternative? Well, before floral foam was invented, flower arrangers used crunched up chicken wire to hold the flowers in place and this is what we did. Here are the raw ingredients for the workshop – blue bells with plastic bowls, gloves (to protect hands) and chicken wire, and a bucket filled with fragrant spikes of stock, dramatic stems of soloman’s seal, blue iris, pink alstroemeria, bluebells and pure white avalanche roses (the only non-English flower in the arrangement). Then we used 3 sorts of foliage – aspidistra leaves, ruscus and a small-leaved laurel.

We covered the plastic bowl with aspidistra leaves and finished it off with candy pink raffia. Then we constructed a wonderful round arrangement which looked like this.

The arrangements were simply spectacular. Here are the participants looking very pleased with their creations, and also a picture of me looking pretty pleased with myself as well. What a great morning it was and what gorgeous flowers for adorning our homes over the May Bank Holiday weekend.

Then a few days later Mike and I went on holiday to Canada. We went on a house swap holiday to Salt Spring Island which is situated between Vancouver and Vancouver Island. It has a mild climate and there are lots of small farmers on the island – the main way they sell their wares is on farm stands placed at the side of the road. Typically the items for sale are displayed on the stand and people pay by placing their money in an honesty box. Here is an example of a stand selling vegetables to grow.

Most of the farmers sold a few cut flowers, but the best stand of all was just a few hundred yards from our house. The farmer was a sparky, friendly woman who won a prize for being the most innovative farmer on the island last year. She sold a fantastic mix of colourful flowers for just 3 Canadian dollars each (about £2). Here she is with me and here is an example of how she displayed some of her bouquets on a fence. Notice the newspaper cones she has made so that people can carry their bouquets away easily and not get wet. What a great idea! 

I wondered how she could possibly make a profit on these prices. She told me that she sold 350 bouquets a month (that's a lot). She will have virtually no overheads, probably gathers her own seeds and almost certainly doesn`t cost up all of her labour. So she does make a basic living out of this, but I think the flowers are far too cheap when you consider how beautiful they are and what is involved in growing them, cutting them and displaying them. Aha…typical under-valuing of female endeavour (more of this another day/blog). I bought one of the bouquets and arranged the flowers in a vase – all of the flowers and foliage are also found in England (though a bit later in the year); foxglove, rose, lavender, mint, rosemary, marguerites, cosmos, thermopsis (with yellow pea-like flowers), lysimachia punctata , choiysia and laurel.

Then here is another flower farmer who sells her produce at the weekly farmers market. Her prices are higher (bouquets at 10 dollars, 15 dollars and 20 dollars) – but still astounding value. I bought one of the 10 dollar bouquets (about £6) which was made up of an abundant mix of purple and pink flowers – lupins, campanula, stachys, wild phlox, astrantia and alchemilla mollis.

These locally grown flowers are so much lovelier than standard supermarket flowers that have been flown in from as far away as Kenya (in the case of the UK) or Columbia or Ecuador (in the case of Canada). They have been grown with far less use of pesticides and fungicides and the ‘flower miles’ are negligible. It was a fitting coincidence that just when I was pondering these matters New Covent Garden Market ran a British Flowers Week. This ran all of last week (17-21 June) and it featured British flowers (sweet peas, delphiniums, stocks, peonies and foliage) arranged by celebrity British florists including Vic Brotherton of  Scarlet and Violet whose work I admire. In addition, florists from across the UK were invited to send in photographs of their own work. I sent in quite a lot of pictures and they were all put up on the gallery. If you go to http://www.newcoventgardenmarket.com/galleries  and click on Part 1 you will see my pictures. I was particularly pleased that one of my designs was selected as the front page of the part 1 set of images. This is a photograph that I have shown before in my blog, but I will end by showing it again. It features a range of English narcissi, green iris and eucalyptus and it was constructed using the same method as we used in the workshop I have described here. I felt the sweet glow of success!