A Summer of Urns and Other Stuff

September 1, 2023

As summer fades into autumn and the hues change, I want somehow to document the colours from this one – Summer 2023; the year of brightness, and urns.

I’ve recently been rewatching Stephen Poliakoff’s Summer of Rockets. Mainly because I love the colours. It’s one of those films that’s like viewing a moving painting. Who could forget the vivid blue of  Keeley Hawes’ party dress or the powder blue of little Sasha Petrukin’s smart linen jacket? 

I long ago realised that trying to plan colours in the garden (I’ll not use the term “cutting garden” because it sounds a bit too pretentious for what is a small collection of raised beds and a big patch for the dahlias) is a futile act. The Smokey Eyes larskpur and poppy section this year turned out to be inexplicably blue…..a vivid blue, like the aforementioned party dress. And I’m sure that I’d never planned the dahlias to be a mass of red and peach, but in fact that’s turned out to be a new colour palette for me and one I’d like to translate into a wedding or two next year. 

Nor did I expect to find myself completely captivated by a pale yellow tongue-and-grooved cottage on my summer holidays. Move over pink cottage of my dreams, I’m now seeking more uplifting yellow. Aren’t we all? 

Summer is always too brief. It arrived in June with heatwaves and scorched earth. The rains in July were warmly welcomed here and, after all of the early sun, the combination served to provide us by August with something close to abundance. 

That abundance was put to good use. I’m always going on about our waste not want not policy…..which I suppose is my own way of referencing the fact that we really do care about the environment. For a long time now our classes have been done entirely with locally grown flowers. I think it’s fairly obvious we don’t ever use floral foam and I’m not even sure these days you even need to say that but, just in case a historian of flowers ever needs to read this, there it is. 

We did installation classes with the summer abundance and a wedding and a special garden party. Busy days, that I’ll look back on soon with nostalgia when I see the kaleidoscope of colours reflected in the photos that depict some superb student work, a wedding on the wettest August day I’ve ever known (Did anyone notice the rain? Of course they didn’t); and the photo that went “viral” on Instagram of two huge “wild and lush” vases in the barn window, badly done and hastily taken on the iPhone. If ever you want a post to do well on social media just add the words wild and lush to your caption and watch it go……like a rocket. There is no fathoming the machine, and no point trying to, just as there’s no point trying to grow specific colours in your garden.

We moved seamlessly from oranges and deep reds to shell pink and peach, and then onto the end of the month to a very short holiday, in the cottage with yellow walls near a pink castle. A castle I’d been imagining in my mind for a while and which, yes, you’ve guessed it, turned out not to be pink at all but more of a burnt orange/terracotta colour. And no holiday would be complete without continuing the search for the perfect pink pebble…..the one I’ve come to accept probably doesn’t exist. Or does it? I think I’ll be going back to Findhorn beach a good few times in the future just to check.

The castle had a garden. We were allowed to look. And for two nights I took my camera and wandered around just before dusk, accompanied by a fat robin. It’s a garden that’s really worthy of a blog post of its own, being one that’s under the care of the genius plantsman Elliott Forsyth, the bloke who we first met on our first ever trip to Cambo and who created many of my favourite parts of that garden. The castle is called Aldourie and you can see it better referenced in the fancy magazines such as World of Interiors ( https://www.worldofinteriors.com/story/aldourie-castle-loch-ness-scotland ) and The English Garden. There’s bound to be a book on it soon because it’s a place of extreme beauty and I know I was very lucky to get to see it just now, right after a huge renovation project.

And then on…..towards the annual treat of Cambo in September. But first…..more urns, some of them also at Cambo Gardens.

One of the most rewarding things I do in terms of teaching each year is to mentor those who have been given scholarship places on The Business of Selling Flowers Course (https://www.thebusinessofsellingflowers.com/), which is a superb course for anyone who wants to make a successful business out of growing flowers of all colours to sell to people like me, who might be a bit more specific about what constitutes blush, or shell pink.

It just so happened that this year’s mentee, Andy Monaghan, had a few days off from his day job, which involves something jazzy like being Romeo in Matthew Bourne’s current ballet at Sadler’s Wells. Sounds glamorous? I bet it’s a bit like doing flowers, a load of heavy lifting and moving from A to B. I’ll take any opportunity I can to show folk the magical garden at Cambo, so up he popped, just for the day, and after a quick shuffle around the burgeoning borders, with a stop off to admire light on a lilac Monarda in the Prairie Garden, we studied…..the fine art of making an urn good enough for a photo in a greenhouse. And then we took the urn, cascading with soft peach roses and sweet peas, for its own dance around the garden, finding areas under apples or against an old stone wall to make it look as though it had grown there. Because making flowers that look like they are still growing is all I ever try to do or to teach others to do.

As for Andy, where is he off to next? It’s no coincidence that one of the roses he used in his (I think you’ll agree) quite breathtaking summer urn was lobster coloured. A nod to the nearby sea and the fact that right now, for someone his age and with his level of enthusiasm and commitment to growing flowers and designing with them, and to doing it in a way that is led by organic practices and sustainability (https://andymonaghan.co.uk), the world really is his lobster. 

And finally as August ends, a last hurrah for the urns. A look back to my favourite one that I made on a quiet Saturday in summer. And a simple three-step guide on how I make them. 

1. Create a structure with either perfect branches or something that will define the shape…..like this hollyhock. Inside this urn is a watertight inner vessel – a plant pot into which I’ve secured a pin frog and chicken wire.

2. Keep defining the structure with other pieces that are good for creating the shape. Shape is really important in urns. Here I’ve added more hollyhocks, smokebush, wisteria vine and other vines such as jasmine and grape.

3. Add in some focal flowers such as round-faced rudbeckia and also some smaller flowers to add texture such as erigeron daisies.

Urn classes here end in October and restart next April. They are my favourite things to make and teach….as well of course as bouquets, centrepieces and installations. I’ve never been keen on flower crowns.