Balancing buttercups

June 11, 2023

“Do you like buttercups?”…was my best ice-breaking conversational piece as a shy five year old. Nobody seemed to mind if I thrust a tiny yellow flower under their chin to check if they liked buttercups. They never had the heart to tell me I’d got the question wrong. The 1970’s test for dairy allergies worked its magic on everyone who came in June. We lived on a small farm. Owned by my grandparents, George and Margaret. They were regenerative farmers before the term had even been invented, raising a pedigree beef herd of Hereford cattle on pastureland that formed hay meadows, hay grown without chemicals and gathered without huge machinery. Pastureland that provided me with buttercups. It wasn’t necessarily by choice that they farmed like this, it was more to do with money or lack of it. They taught me lots.

George taught me the art of observation – standing still, looking over a gate, watching the weather and checking all the cattle with your side vision. On a rare day off school with German measles we dry stone walled, dug up potatoes and watched a calf being born.

Margaret taught me business. She’d walk the fields and discuss their plans. Hereford cattle were quite rare and valuable. If lots of bulls were born there was a small fortune to be made. The first were twins. The lottery was won. Ajax and Akim. Hand-fed by me as tiny, orphaned, chestnut brown and white calves. Still one of the best things I’ve ever done in life. 

No herd was ever without a heifer called Buttercup. Buttercup and co. made them enough money to retire at 60, and off they went to Southport to become market gardeners. Something that didn’t interest me at all. Or so I thought. 

Fast forward to 2021. The first ‘free’ summer after pandemic times and an invitation to lunch from a flower friend. “This is our buttercup meadow,” signalled Sarah of Nettlewood Flowers, waving a hand towards a huge field, with a mown path down which a dog called Daisy was wandering. Off to the side a small squeal, as Frida Kim had found the considerably sized cut flower garden and a polytunnel full of poppies. Over a melt-in-the-mouth asparagus quiche in a huge light-filled room, the seed of an idea was sown. By the time we’d eaten the rhubarb ice cream there was talk of a class involving buttercups.

The following June on a proper holiday to Sussex, one that involved sunshine, books and lots of walks with the partially sighted dog at places where Anne Boleyn or that Vita Sackville-West one had lived, I called in again to Nettlewood Towers.  The meadow was in full buttery bloom, with added strands of sorrel and light-catching grasses forming a painterly palette right there in the field. No arranging needed. The poppies in the polytunnel were crying out to be picked and so this time, with Sarah’s permission, I did. I also got to stand under the wisteria walkway. I can’t go off on a tangent just now. One day that walkway, with its dappled light and soothing cocooning effect, can have its own blog post. 

Balancing Buttercups was the title we came up with for a class. One that would let us use all of that meadow to good effect. A class by Sarah, me and Frida Kim. A date was found, one that would hopefully coincide with a few good days of buttercups. An advert was made and put out into the ether. It’s never a good feeling when you advertise a class, especially not these days when there is seemingly endless choice. Will anyone come? It turns out a few folk like buttercups…..or the prospect of seeing the elusive Frida somewhere outside London or Seoul. We filled two days. Time then for the next worry. Will there be enough buttercups?  

Despite weeks of wet and cold weather in the Sussex area there were plenty of them. Sunshine was predicted all week, but there was to be wind. You can’t have it all, and it was a fair wind that also blew along Éva Németh to photograph the buttercups and the work of all the guests. Sadly no plinths could be set up inside the wisteria walkway for outdoor work stations but, as I say, there might be more to come from that area one day.

We arrived to see huge buckets of the tiny yellow ranunculus; about a thousand picked by Sarah, having barely made a dent in the field. Huge urns too. Overflowing with oak, hawthorn, buttercups and cow parsley, illustrating to perfection the philosophy that working with what nature provides is always best.  Other locally grown flowers were also there in abundance and a familiar squeal from Frida was heard as she found the rust-coloured real ranunculus section, which later that night she would pair with an autumnal bramble and some mustard-coloured spirea as the basis of the first of two belting bouquets. Buckets were placed in my bath, a cool storage area where Frida could be sure nobody would steal the ‘demo’ flowers.

It was obvious to me that my own demo bouquets couldn’t compete with that carefully considered selection and instead I opted for two more ‘organically’ structured bouquets, made from all that I gathered on a magical walk around the margins of the meadow. Accompanied by Belle, the serene Saluki, I watched the shafts of sunlight on the last evening in May, highlighting arched wisps of sorrel. A bee landed on a pale honeysuckle and that would be the structure with added buttercups and a couple of ethereal white poppies with golden centres.

5am starts are common at Nettlewood. I often say that Sarah is up there on my list of capable women who get a lot done and I’m not surprised, because there genuinely are more hours in her day. Not surprising then to find that, as well as having grown all the flowers and having handmade almost 30 exquisite footed bowls (pottery being a ‘hobby’), she had already prepared asparagus tarts and salads for lunch before I’d got out of my pyjamas.

Hoovering and guest greeting were on my list of jobs. By 9.35 the high-ceilinged room (once a chapel) was ringing with the sound of flowery voices. Old friends who hadn’t seen each other for years, new acquaintances and everyone to a man, or woman, stopping to try and stroke Belle who walked amongst us like a silent gazelle. 

Talking of grace, the first session each day was ‘Ikebana’ with Frida. The spellbound audience watched from their comfy sofa seats as she magicked some buttercups into the first balancing act. A big tick on the clipboard from ‘quiet Steve’ as we had managed within the first half an hour to comply with the class title. A few bearded Iris followed. Coming within days of photographing a Sarah Price garden, Éva put her camera down. She’d seen a lot of them recently. Buttercups was where it was at this particular week.

And, soon they would be everywhere, as each guest made their own Ikebana-inspired arrangement to go along a table or the fireplace. Watching them in this once sacred room, some kneeling down, others creating a luminous yellow glow by various windows, it did seem just a bit religious and I wondered if others in bygone times had offered up buttercup sacrifices to the altar.

Then it was my turn. I was on the little ‘lounge’ stage in Laughton. Let me tell you, doing a flower demo these days is daunting. Everyone has a camera or a mobile phone to film with and, when you are as sweary (yes, that’s sweary not sweaty) as me it’s bloody hard not to to say something rude, especially when you realise that the nectaroscordum you’ve just carefully secured on a pin frog looks like a cocktail umbrella and can’t be budged. Anyway, it was all ok. I was in charge of the ‘naturalistic’ centrepiece, which basically means you can use anything as long as it’s seasonal. With a final gestural piece from, yes, you’ve guessed it, some buttercups, it was over. Or was it? How could I have almost forgotten to use the inspirational poppies? In they went. Thanks to the audience for reminding me. Time for a cup of tea as the outdoor field trip began. 

One by one, back in they came, from the buttercup meadow. Some clutching branches that might require some ‘editing’, others with pleasing posies of sorrel and grasses. One with a butterfly ranunculus….. where the bloody hell did that come from? How had we both missed one of those out there. 

Watching others work is my favourite part. I love to see their choices of colour and shape. I love to watch them place their stems. Sometimes this is the bit where they too start to swear, when something topples over or when the delicate stem of the perfect poppy breaks. The work that came out of these one-hour sessions made my heart sing. Nothing was wasted. Every stem was carefully chosen and, because the bowls were so delicate, there really was a balancing act to perform. Less is more is one of my favourite mantras. I was living the dream.

After lunch came bouquets. Sarah wanted to see Frida and me each make our bouquets side by side. I’ll refer to it as a Two Ronnies sketch. You’ll see from the photos our respective differences in size. I’ve already told you about how we each picked out flowers (me sticking to the rules and only picking from the meadow; Frida hanging out of windows and taking all the roses from the front of the house). So, whilst Frida might have to look up to me to actually see what I was making, I most definitely looked up to her in terms of being in awe of the beautiful bouquets she made. In fact, by day two, I decided it was best not to look. I say this a lot in classes – never look at what others are making, it’ll just make you want it.

One thing I did discover though – any flower can be made to look beautiful…..if you put it in Frida’s hands. So, I gave her my demo bouquets to hold under the wisteria where Eva had decided to capture them all, in nice light and a slightly gentler breeze. Waiting under wisteria was the end of day task. One I think I could manage again sometime if the universe allows it.

All photographs in this post (unless otherwise stated) are by Éva Németh

The Balancing Buttercups classes on 30th and 31st May 2023 took place at Nettlewood Flowers in Sussex.

Frida Kim is a Korean florist based in London:

The guests attending these classes in no particular order other than their arrival times (and in accordance with their Instagram accounts) were: 

  • @floralalkimidesigns
  • @alexandrarosemetier
  • @pollenfloraljoy
  • @SaraPearch
  • @tallulahroseflowerschool
  • @erdabotancals
  • @thecontentedmole 
  • @Hortuspieticus
  • @AndyMonaghan
  • @corkyandprince
  • @by.Erynk
  • @_ccoture
  • @horaeflower
  • @__fleurs_de_lune__
  • @no_fifty_nine
  • @there_may_be_bugs
  • @thestorehaworth