Laura Cartledge finds out how taking a unique approach to flowers has seen three businesses blossom in Sussex.
‘Allotment friends’ Shelley Marks-Thomson and Debbie Chalmers became business partners in March of this year when a lifelong passion blossomed into Sussex Flower Farm.
“About three years ago I was telling Debbie about my pipe-dream and she said she’d like to do the same,” recalls Shelley. “This led to every poor farmer and landowner around here being hassled by me.”
Shelley knew the local Wiston estate were passionate about charity ventures, but admits she had never approached them ‘because we were looking to do something commercial’.
“I’m at that age now where I think ‘the worst they can do is say no’, so, in February of this year I got in touch,” she reveals.
“They said ‘we think we have something that would suit you’ and my goodness it does.”
Not only does the one acre smallholding boast ‘the best soil you can have’, but the pair have received great support from the estate’s family and everyone involved.
Utilising their own expertise – Shelley has 30 years of growing experience and Debbie previously worked at Kew gardens – the friends haven’t looked back.
“We have weddings booked right through to September next year,” Shelley reveals. “It’s been absolutely superb, we have grown everything we love in the hope other people will love them too.
“A lot of the things many florists don’t know because they are used to the Dutch flowers coming over. Our style is more country cottage, which appeals to a lot of weddings that use our flowers.”
“We sell them by the bucket-load,” she smiles. “We also work with flower designers and florists.”
The farm currently boasts more then 100 different varieties, some that will be familiar and some that aren’t.
“A lot of people don’t realise there are so many varieties of sunflower,” reveals Shelley. “They think of the yellow petals and brown centre.
“But there’s key lime pie, vanilla ice and Italian white, which is my personal favourite. We have dark chocolate brown ones and deep velvet reds.
“Nicotiana, better known as the tobacco plant, is another great one,” she says.
“It has brilliant trumpet flowers and the scent comes out at night because they are pollinated by moths.”
But this is only the start of the surprises.
“I didn’t understand about the flower industry before, it is just staggering. The flower industry is worth £2.2 billion in this country and £2 billion of that goes abroad,” says Shelley.
“Often the seeds are from Linconshire then flown out to Kenya to grow then flown to markets like Holland.
“The miles that a flower can travel far outweigh the food miles. This shows the importance of growing locally and keeping it seasonal.”
Working to this brief may be seen to have limitations, but it also offers new possibilities.
“We had one bride who wanted lavender in April, it doesn’t bloom here until late June to August in this climate. So we said we couldn’t help, but they asked to come and see what we do anyway,” she explains.
“When they came they fully embraced it and we were able to show them the beautiful things that are available in April like narcissi.
“It’s the same with Valentine’s Day,” Shelley adds. “Roses aren’t in flower on February 14, but there are other lovely things that are.”
“I’m 53 and I just love learning, it is fantastic to carry on learning and especially about something you are passionate about,” she enthuses.
“I am so lucky, I can hardly sleep at night, I should be able to because I am exhausted but I just can’t wait for daylight to get out here.”
For more information on Sussex Flower Farm, visit www.sussexflowerfarm.co.uk
Chichester’s Emma Pentony knows first hand the impact floristry can have.
“I used to be a wedding planner,” she reveals. “I can always remember being at a venue when the flowers arrived and all of a sudden the setting changes.”
When Emma decided she didn’t want to do the planning anymore she knew she couldn’t leave her favourite aspect of weddings behind so she took an evening taster course in floristry, which inspired her to launch Wild and Green.
“I just fell in love with it,” she admits. “I really enjoy having a workshop full of flowers that are scented. And for as long as I have been a florist, which is over ten years now, I am still seeing new ones.
“We use some local growers so we don’t always know what will arrive.”
This flexibility and a focus on natural and eco-friendly creations is at the heart of Emma’s work.
“We don’t use oasis foam as it is made from a derivative of petrol which is not something you want to put alongside nature,” she explains. “We use recycled and upcycled containers.
“Catering tins of baked beans are amazing. We soak the label off and then freeze them before using a hammer and nail to pierce their initials into them,” she reveals. “At night they take the flowers out and put candles in and it is beautiful. We get them from local hotels that would usually throw them away.”
Thinking outside the vase like this also offers couples a chance to stamp their personality on to the big day.
“One bride had an old biscuit tin which used to be in her grandma’s house and now it could be on their top table filled with flowers,” agrees Emma.
“There is a lot of sentimentality. A really nice tradition which is coming back is I get shown a photo of the bride’s mother or grandmother’s bouquet and get asked to recreate it.
“I did a daisy wedding a couple of weeks ago and the bride wanted white fuchsias in there,” she recalls.
“She didn’t particularly like them but they were her grandfather’s favourite flower. I put some in so you couldn’t see them but she knew they were there and so did her family.”
Another wedding trend has seen the outdoors become an influence, with festival themes being reflected in the floristry fashions.
“Flowers are a less formal affair,” says Emma. “We are even getting a few foliage-only bouquets which are beautiful – you get lots of different colours and textures of foliage that are often overlooked.”
A recent project, a Great Gatsby themed wedding, will see texture and colour come together.
“We have astilbe flowers, which look like feathers, and eucalyptus, which will give a mint green colour,” she agrees. “I really like working with contrasts.
“I grow a lot of the foliage myself in our cutting garden,” she adds, explaining there are big hopes for the garden in the future.
“In a few years I hope we would be able to see the bride come along with her bridesmaids and have a glass of champagne before cutting her own bouquet – then I could bring it back here and put it together for them.”
This home grown element also extends to the Wild and Green team, with head designer Emma working alongside ‘a wonderful assistant’ who is also a trained florist – her mum.
“My son is three and a half but as soon as he is old enough he’ll be involved too,” Emma smiles. “I am working with a couple’s family and think it is nice they are working with mine.”
For more information about Wild and Green, visit www.greenflowersflorist.co.uk
From flowered disco balls to using jelly moulds as planters, Arundel’s Lauren Purdy brings a fresh approach to floristry.
“I think people are surprised what can be done, it is what people normally think of as ‘impossible’,” she admits.
“I have never had to turn anything down. Most of the time I am the person suggesting all the mad ideas and they say ‘oh my goodness you can do that?’ There is always a way.”
Lauren says she’s not ‘really an earthy kind of girl’ and that the inspiration for her business, Princess and Frog Flowers, came from her parents.
“My mum had always had a massive passion for her garden,” she reveals, “we are quite similar so I looked up floristry and now I would never go back.”
It started with a year’s course at Brinsbury College in Pulborough.
“It taught me the basics, the traditional WI type of thing, which isn’t me at all now but it means my technical skills are second to none,” recalls Lauren. “That was about eight years ago now.
“I then got a freelance position at a company in Hurstpierpoint and with them I have decorated the V&A and did a wedding at the Dorchester, it really opened my eyes,” she adds.
“After that I worked in Brighton for a company I nicknamed the ‘flower factory’ as we turned around so many projects.”
A conversation with her dad would then give Lauren the push she needed to go it alone.
“He told me I just had to do it,” she smiles. “I found the shop and I found the flat and that was three years ago. It is perfect.”
Drawing on her background in art and design gives Lauren the confidence to take on projects others might not.
“I will do whatever the customer wants me to do,” she admits. “Some really want a simple traditional classic rose wedding.
“While one had a wedding which was like a rave in a field and they wanted it as bright and bonkers as possible.
“I did a wedding the other week where the table arrangements looked like they were floating,” adds Lauren.
“I have done suspended arrangements, I am a bit scared of heights but as long as I have someone holding the bottom of the ladder I am ok.
“I am really quite lucky as my sister is an engineer so I always have her – she is quite handy.
“I’ve been at places where brides come in and pick from a catalogue, there’s no passion,” she reveals.
“I meet the people and get a feel for them. I have people come in who are very set on what they want and I will happily quote them for that but I will also say ‘let me design something just for you’.”
With the wedding industry having had a shake up in recent years this approach means Lauren is popular.
“I think weddings are becoming a lot looser, they are being more personal and it’s more about the couple then the ceremony,” she agrees.
“I don’t pick a picture out from a magazine and say I will do this for you and I wouldn’t do the same for two brides.
“They often come in seeing flowers as something to tick off the list, but I hope they leave feeling a lot more inspired,” says Lauren.
“I’ve had a lot of people tell me ‘it is better than I could imagine’. When they get overwhelmed and emotional that is the best part for me. I think what people come to me for is they know I will do something a bit different.”
For more information about Princess and Frog Flowers, 18b Tarrant Street, Arundel, call 01903 882866 or visit www.princessandfrog.co.uk