A Year in Flowers Part 3 – Autumn into Early Winter

February 1, 2023

Autumn. Possibly the best season of the year for the flower lover.

Some of September was spent in Scotland doing classes at Cambo. With Keeping the Plot just down the coast road, I was able to call a couple of times. There are a few places where I know I will find genuine peace, places that take your mind off any troubles, places that you always leave with a smile that lasts for hours. This is one of those places. I’ve probably photographed the polytunnel more than the cathedral in the nearby town of St Andrews and it feels good to know that there is at least one place that Prince William never visited, at least not yet….

I’ve already mentioned Alcalthaea suffrutescens ‘Parkallee’ as being one of the revelations of 2022. Possibly the most robust flower we found during the heatwave. Just behind her rows of achillea, Sarah Hunter grows the hollyhock-like flowers in abundance, their jonquil pink spires swaying serenely in the sea breeze. Some went into a big Borja Moronta bowl with Sarah’s angel-like clematis and a few tomatoes that I pilfered from the glasshouse at Cambo gardens. Before you ask, this bowl took two very large Niwaki pin frogs. They weren’t stuck down and I didn’t use any other mechanics. I love the challenge of balancing all the stems, it feels a bit like doing Lego as a child. 

Back home in Yorkshire the dahlias finally reached their stride and, thankfully, there were lots of “end of season, catch the golden autumn light” classes in which they were used. Some stunning bouquets left the small corner and some equally stunning urns sat in sidelight for photo shoots. The peony poppy stems and seed heads were, in my humble opinion, the best light catchers of them all. Temperatures having lowered outside, I let my demo bouquets sit in the back yard to cheer me and the dog up early in the mornings. 

I’d had a tulipiere for a while that I couldn’t properly get to work with tulips. So instead I filled it with cascading tomato vines and the Pinot Noir-coloured Cobaea vine that was rampaging around the walls in the back yard. A few of the “big” dahlias had taken a tumble in some turbulent early-autumn winds and they looked velvety and majestic in this vessel for a good few days. Oh for a wedding or an event where I could recreate this scene. Or for a day where Frances Palmer, the maker of the troublesome tulip vase, teaches me how to use it properly. 

One thing I’d been looking forward to about the S-curve Scotland to Sussex experiment was a visit from one of the Sarahs. Sarah Whiting from Sussex was taking Steve and the Salukis (sorry, is that too much alliteration?) on a short break to the Peak District. With Yorkshire being just next door she called by – with bounty. Not just flowers. Bowls! Ones she had made herself. Seriously, this was a day that more than made up for those two lockdown birthdays. It wasn’t actually my birthday at all but it felt like it. What better way to spend a day than with the person who has grown the exquisite flowers you’re using and has even made the bowls. 

Mixing Sarah’s saharas, dahlias and tagetes (I’ve always thought of Sarah as the queen of the tagetes) with a few “bits and pieces” from our garden, we quickly created a windowsill display fit for any Wednesday, even though it was only Monday. 

When Sarah left I might have spent another hour with those bowls, photographing them in “the front room”, which was just being decorated and had some pleasingly empty, dove grey walls and a lot of late afternoon uncurtained window light. If you look closely at the yellow one you’ll see that the eschscholzia (California) poppy drooping down to the left closes as the light fades. I love this flower for that quality. Nyctinasty.

A couple of new small vessels were photographed there too, because the light was too good to miss. A new small vase by Jono Smart filled with lilac asters (I refuse to say symphyotricum) and the most perfect tea bowl by Borja Moronta with one of Sarah’s rudbeckias. 

A weekend in early October brought Éva Németh to stay at the end of a photography class. She went off with a flask into The Dales on her All Creatures tour but only after insisting I let her take at least one photograph of me as a record of the year. In last year’s I hid behind fennel. This time I tried on some tomatoes and a big scarf, because by then it really had turned chilly. In the scruffy little bowl of leaves and sunflowers that Éva found in the kitchen you might also notice the Alcalthaea Parkallee, reduced now to about 4 inches but still going strong one month on. 

I got out my own camera on an October afternoon when the light was just about perfect. Miss Shaddock even let me take one of her, from a distance, behind a cosmos filter. Sadly my own photographs will never be anywhere near as good as Éva’s, but then again, have l ever seen her make a bouquet?

By the first week of November, and with just one month left of the year, I managed to make a bowl of flowers that I loved. Classes finished at the end of October, which meant that everything in the garden was all mine; nothing needed to be saved for best for a guest. So, one rainy afternoon I picked the premium quality dahlias, got out my biggest footed bowl – one from Frances Palmer that I’d been a bit scared to use – and plonked it on top of a pedestal in the kitchen. Watching Raquel behind the bar of The Rovers Return on Classic Coronation Street (an important social historic document I think) I carefully fed stems through soft chicken wire, hardly breathing until I’d finished. Where would we be without dahlias or Sarah Lancashire? 

Hang on. There’s more! By mid November there were chrysanthemums. One huge wonky stem of ruffly apricot coloured ones from Keeping the Plot. “I can’t sell that,” said Sarah as I stood in the polytunnel admiring the way it was growing. She did sell it. That one stem lasted me for weeks. 

A final box arrived from Sussex. The Nettlewood flowers chrysanthemum winter selection box. Bowls were filled, a bouquet made, and even a tiny pink mug of flowers for travelling with. Avignon is the name of the very pale pink one that I bet you love. 

By the end of November things were on the sparse side. But a small bowl of chrysanthemums from the greenhouse was enough to get me through the month that I personally think is the worst of the year. Why? Because November is the month when you really notice that you’re losing the light. I have found a partial answer these last couple of years. Squirty Vitamin D. I swear by it. 

Under the Yorkshire waste-not-want-not policy it won’t surprise you to know that the Winter Window (a little scene that Jill Shaddock and I make every year just for our own amusement) contained the peony poppy seed heads, glinting in the cool winter barn light, twisting in a snake-like manner in front of the huge deep lilac Scottish artichoke heads that I’d brought home from Keeping the Plot. We thought it looked like an ocean scene, especially with a few added sea urchins in the form of echinops (thank you John from Grown Made Flowers).

Christmas wreaths were sea inspired too. The dog particularly liked the one that contained some snazzy mustard-coloured, papyrus-type grasses that were from the excellent Keeping the Plot dried flower sale that takes place every November at The Bowhouse and is definitely worth a look next year; not least because the Baern cafe next door is superb.

And so ends the experiment to show that you can have British-grown flowers in your home all year round. As a florist who sometimes does large events I’ll never be daft enough to say “we only use British flowers” because I always worry there’ll be a time when I need more flowers than are available locally. But in the main all our classes and weddings are now done using just British flowers. And whilst obviously this is because we care about the environment and the future of it, it’s also because those flowers are what I get excited about. A new gem every week. 

No two flowers in our workshop are ever the same. In a world where increasingly it feels as though everyone is trying to create the same things from mood boards, I think that by using flowers that haven’t been grown in an homogeneous way because they need transporting in boxes on planes we can all be sure that what we are making is truly unique. Because it all comes back to the flower and how it moves….

Thank you to Sarah Hunter and Sarah Whiting for helping me with this small project, and thank you to all the growers who every year for the last 10 years have supplied me with flowers that I now can’t work without. If there’s anyone out there who would like to indulge me in taking the project further in 2023 let me know soon. Tempus fugit.

Useful links: 
Nettlewood Flowers: https://www.nettlewoodflowers.co.uk/
Keeping the Plot:  https://keepingtheplot.co.uk/
Borja Moronta: https://borjamoronta.com/
Jono Smart: https://jonosmart.co.uk/
Niwaki: https://www.niwaki.com/
Grown and Made: https://www.grownmadeflowers.co.uk/