Back in October I popped over to see Matthew and the team at Fabulous Flowers to talk about about how we can promote and demystify sustainable floristry. We share a passion for local and seasonal, the cornerstone of environmentally conscious floristry, and talked for some time (over some of Matthew’s homemade carrot cake and coffee) about how to drive sustainable change across the industry.
It’s great to see the Fabulous Flowers team leading the way in creating inspiring and thought provoking displays, that not only make them one of the leading florists in Oxfordshire, but also won them a silt gilt medal at Chelsea.
Can you tell me a little bit about you and how Fabulous Flowers started?
Absolutely, my grandmother was a florist, trained by Constance Spry. I remember as I child, her creating the most wonderful arrangements for weddings. I would often go with her to set up or when she’d enter a competition. I loved the creativity of it. I’m sort of a frustrated artist, I can’t paint or draw, but flowers passion, they’re my paint brushes really, it’s all about the colour for me.
Then I had a completely different career in hotel management… I climbed the career ladder, but found myself in meetings all day, every day. It also wasn’t feeding my creative side. And then I met my husband, he was in quite a pressured job at the time, working as a social worker for the probation service, dealing with housing and it just got harder and harder. We started by going to floral design classes for fun, and fell completely in love with it. When my father became unwell he gave us some money to do something with while he was still alive. It felt like the right time to start something new, so we did. The original idea was that we would open a shop, part coffee shop, part flower shop, and I’d run the food side… but then I went and fell so much in love with flowers… so no more coffee shop. Fabulous Flowers was born.
The plan was for me to continue working to support us financially while we started the business, but it took off so quickly within three months I had to give my notice. It was quite scary, having sort worked in a large team and a paycheck at the end of the month was what I had always known. But we’ve never looked back. We just we love what we do and it was the best decision we ever made.
We love everything about flowers, design, fashion, everything. And we’re always visiting museums and galleries, getting design inspiration from everything around. We don’t stop changing, continually looking for the next thing. I think the day that you say you know everything, is the day to stop.
What is a typical day in the life of a floral designer for you?
We don’t really have a typical day, for us it’s more of a week. The beginning of the week starts with planning that following weekend’s wedding. So putting all the orders in, checking last minute details, checking in with the venues, and making sure all the timings align. Then the flowers arrive! They are all conditioned ready for use. There are different methods for conditioning depending on the flower, so this step can take some time. Flowers also open at different times, and we have to treat them carefully to ensure they are at their best on the wedding day. I’ve even had flowers at home in the shower trying to open them ready for their big day!
I hear hair dryers work to open peonies. Is that true? Well, actually, a bowl of warm, slightly soapy water to dip the heads into works well. The reason many don’t open is because of the sticky sap that has collected on the bud. Once cleaned they can be left to open naturally.
Then it’s time to get building the floral arrangements. Flowers are a product that haven’t got a long shelf life, so the actual designs are put together quite last minute. We do as much as we can at the studio, but always finish onsite. Particularly for the larger installations like arches.
As you know, when you run a small business there’s lots of different hats. Juggling current projects, meeting new couples, promoting the business and sourcing new suppliers is all part of what we do… all in addition to the flowers.
Have you seen over the last 12-18 months a shift in people wanting more British grown flowers, or more sustainable floristry?
We’re seeing it more yes, couples are now asking us about about where their flowers are sourced from, which is great and certainly the start of the journey. I don’t think all couples understand the mechanics of what we do yet. I think it’s something that will come but, right now, they want to know that we’re not flying things in from half way round the world unnecessarily. For us there’s lots of reasons we prefer locally grown, not just because of the distance, but also the head size and life of the flowers.
Cost is definitely playing a part. I will give someone a quote, and then they’ll say it’s really expensive, because of the flower costs at the moment. If a couple want specific flowers, which are often out of season or have been grown under forced conditions, it means them being flown in, which means higher costs, to both us, the couple and the environment. So we work with couples to have a colour range and style, so that it allows us to select the best of the season for them, then it’s easy to stick with British grown.
We talk a lot to couples about seasonality. Even before book a venue they need to consider how they want their wedding to be. Inside, outside, and their vision for their day. If they want to be outside, it needs to be a certain time of year. If they want a certain type of food, it needs to be a certain time of year, and if they have absolutely got their hearts set on that cafe-au-lait dahlia, then it needs to be a certain time of year.
I think in the past, publications haven’t helped. Wedding Flower magazine for example, because of the photography schedules, they would publish with out of season flowers, which just perpetuated people’s idea that they can have whatever they want, regardless of the year. I also don’t think they helped with realistic budgets. They were telling people that you could spend £750 on a whole wedding which is unrealistic for the designs they were showing.
That’s something we’re really keen on doing, working Green Union who are a sustainable directory and blog, and only promote seasonal, realistic and sustainable designs. We are creating the ultimate guide to a sustainable wedding for couples at the moment. It’s not sponsored, it’s not branded, there’s no advertising in it. It’s purely a helpful guide full of checklists and questions to use to talk to your suppliers. I know for many of our couples, they’ve got no idea what flowers are in season, but they do know what they like. I think they’re asking for a flower because they like the look of it. But actually, you could switch roses for your ranunculus, or even double tulips. With hybrids now, one flower type can have so many different looks.
So where do you buy your flowers from? And can couples request UK grown?
Yes, absolutely. We’ve now built quite a network of UK growers. We’ve always like locally grown when we can, but with the growing number of good growers in the UK, it’s getting much easier. We’re lucky to have such wonderful within a few miles of our studio, including the wonderful Dahlia Beach.
When we can’t use UK, we tend to use growers that we know well, that use boreholes to water and have chickens to keeping pests down rather than pesticides. We tend to avoid South America and countries that use wide spread pesticides.
British grown can be quite tricky between November and March, but rather than blooms we focus on colourful foliage and texture. We have access to a private arboretum so we often forage for interesting foliage and tree branches from there. We also use a lot of living plants, with natural scents, which we buy from an organic grower near Winchester. Couples can then gift the plants to their guests, or take them home themselves as a long lasting memory of their day.
Do you have a favourite flower?
I am a big fan of spring. Just because of the sheer variety, and amount. Although I do really love sweet peas and lily of the valley. I quite like delicate scented flowers, but it’s the scent that draws me to them more than anything. I had a period in my life that wasn’t brilliant. I suffered from depression and I realised that actually flowers got me through it. The health benefits they can bring are huge. As well as a passion, flowers are healing for me.
What would you say is the biggest challenge in sustainable floristry?
We like big structures and statement pieces. Keeping them fresh is a challenge. You can use chicken wire to create a structure, but it takes time to build and flower, and blooms will soon wilt. We use small test tube for each and every stem so that we can keep the flowers looking at their best. Although these are plastic, we reuse them over and over again to minimise waste. We don’t use floral foam.
Chelsea Flower Show was a great exercise for us. It made us go back to basics, thinking about how (and why) we do everything we do, and what we use.
Talking about Chelsea, the theme at Chelsea was Sustainable Floristry this year, what was the inspiration behind your Chelsea exhibit?
We were really drawn to the pollination, because obviously thousands of tools of our trade rely on it. Without bees and pollination, we don’t have flowers. It sort of made us think. Gary thought about the fact that when we had flowers in our shop, the bees were continuously buzzing in and out, drawn to the flowers. So then we thought let’s make a thing of the flowers that attract the bees. Blue and purple are colours that are particularly attractive to them, so we started from there. WE wanted to recreate what was happening in a garden, and then we came up with the idea that mother nature is controlling everything we do, and we are trying to control it. She is the powerful, central figure, with a swarm of insects that we created out of seeds around her, and it grew from there. The process was quite organic.
We didn’t know exactly which flowers we would be using, as it wasn’t until we visited the flower farm a couple of days before the build that we literally picked what we were going to use. So again, it was a really evolving thing which was exciting. It took us out of our comfort zone. which was good because it’s so easy to fall into doing the same thing over and over again.