The Floral Spiral

A Week at the Museum

British Flowers Week is the brainchild of New Covent garden Market and is now in its sixth year, it aims to encourage more consumers to purchase British Flowers and plants. Florists were challenged to create an installation to be displayed in the newly refurbished Garden Museum in Lambeth, London. The display, using only British grown flowers and plants was to be 1.5m wide 2m long and 3 metres tall and to be in keeping with the features of the museum, and without any floral foam used.  Helen Chambers NDSF from Evolve flowers Ltd, based at Donington, near Spalding submitted her design which was later selected as one of the six finalists from 30 submissions. She tells us about her week long experience, going round the bend and up the ladder, being on BBC Breakfast and meeting The Duchess of Cornwall and still finding time to be creative and raise funds for charity; all in a week!

Being based in Lincolnshire and having worked for several growers during my 30 year career in the flower and plant industry I thought it would be an interesting challenge to create the large scale design and promote British growers at the same time. In Lincolnshire we are so lucky to have such great growers just around the corner it was just too good an opportunity to miss. Did I know what I was letting myself in for? Probably not…!

I was quite taken aback when I read the email saying that that my design had been selected, now I had to create the piece that had only been tested as a miniature version 40cm wide and looked rather different on paper!

Firstly, when doing competitions of this scale it is important not to wander off the brief. How easy it is for creative types so easily distracted by the beauty of flower and plant material! The size was allocated to each of the designers and the brief stated that the design had to last for five days and could not use any floral foam… ok no small test tubes then! All British flowers and plants; now that should be the easy bit for someone surrounded with Lincolnshire growers and who has previously been selling British grown flowers and plants to Waitrose for five years. Maybe too many beautiful products to choose from! And then lastly we had to link the theme of our design to the Museum. Research required!

The Garden Museum was founded by Rosemary Nicholson in 1977 in order to rescue the abandoned church of St Mary’s at Lambeth, which was due for demolition. The church is the burial place of John Tradescant (c1570 – 1638), the first great gardener and plant-hunter in British history. His magnificent and enigmatic tomb is the centrepiece of the Sackler Garden, designed to reflect Tradescant’s life and spirit. The Museum is a perfect environment for exhibitions with its grey stone arches dominating the Nave, this was where our flowers would be positioned. Since 2015 the Museum has undergone major development and now has even more to offer; two new learning spaces, new galleries including The Ark Gallery – a recreation of the Tradescants’ cabinet of curiosities, and has opened up the medieval tower to the public for the first time this year.

Whilst researching John Tradescant I discovered that he had been gardener to Henrietta Maria the wife of King Charles I, who was also known as the Rose and Lily Queen. Perfect, this would enable me to use the multi-petalled, pollen free Rose Lilies grown by fifth generation Smith & Munson Lily grower based at Long Sutton in Lincolnshire I’d had my eye on these for a while, would they be ready in time…?

The research continued and I discovered that John Tradescant was ‘probably’ born in Suffolk and there is some evidence to suggest his birthplace was Corton near Lowestoft. Coincidence? I most definitely do originate from Lowestoft! This caused me to reminisce about my childhood lying in the fields at the bottom of the garden, chewing on a blade of grass and watching clouds passing by; the story started to evolve. The design takes the observer on a journey through the hay meadows with grasses swaying in the summer breeze. The petal shapes of the lilies echoing the shape of the majestic arches in the Museum. The feature of the design that would hold the water sources for the Roses Lilies and other British flowers used would be constructed from hay mats. The search continued to find meadow hay…which is normally cut in June! Most florists when making hay mats go to the local pet store…We are going to need a bit more than that so again more research until I discovered G W Ticklers are based in Bourne Lincolnshire and are the largest hay and straw producer in the county. All coming together now.

The framework of the installation had to be constructed from metal as so to withstand a ‘light push’ and be stable enough to hold the weight of water and flowers.  Evolve uses local businesses where possible as we think it’s important to support other local SMEs. Art Metal Engineering based in Moulton created the Fibonacci spiral that would have the hay mats attached to it. My husband, the very handy Mr Fix-it is a carpenter so he took over from here ensuring the base was stable and uprights secure. The hay mats were then constructed from copper wire and sewn onto the frame. Yes I did say ‘sewn’ this part of the process seemed to go on for weeks! When do we get to work with flowers was the daily plea!

So the base constructed – and just about fitted in the van. All the meadow flowers arrived from Flowers by Clowance who gathers product from around twenty growers in Cornwall, beautiful soft lilac Scabious, Californian Bluebells on 60cm long stems, stunning purple Trachelium and soft dusty pink Astrantia along with pink Snapdragons and blue and white Veronica.  Pink Infinity Roses and miniature moth orchids aptly named Sunshine were sourced from Double H Houseplants in Hampshire who grow 4.5 million houseplants every year for the UK supermarkets.

We went to local growers Multiflora (Boston) to crop Astilbe and then on to Naylor Farms (Moulton) to crop Delphinium. The Delphinium was so tall it was almost as tall as me! These field grown crops are normally all destined for supermarkets. The logistics and store display determine the length of the product so normally they are cut down to a fraction of their length and end up around 60cm but we needed height for The Spiral Meadow so we were very grateful to have a ‘pick your own’ agreement!

What about the Rose Lilies? Just in time they were ready to crop! They had a great deal of eyes on them willing them to be ready in time. The weather was simply just too cool and if they are cut too early the flower doesn’t develop properly so they had to be perfect and at the very last moment they were able to be cropped and conditioned in huge bins of water; rather unfitting for such a majestic bloom!

A few days later with the van crammed full with Britishness we were off to London to build the construction. We left at 2am and called into New Covent Garden for a few more British products and then onto The Garden Museum. Construction was well underway when we were politely asked could we come back again tomorrow at around 4.45am? The BBC may come along tomorrow and may film….At this point a lie down in a dark room and a very large G&T was all that was on my mind!

(& I’ve been teetotal since 2004!)

Of course we went back to Lincolnshire and of course I got up and left at 3am to get to London again! I arrived at the Museum and popped on my apron before checking the display. Finally a proper look at the flowers and after a few hours’ sleep I was so proud and pleased with the huge efforts that my team and all the growers had put in to get us this far. Carol Kirkwood from BBC Breakfast was interviewing one of the other competitors and then went on to talk about the pollen count and the weather! Impressed! Extremely well-choreographed and at a significantly faster pace than the Gardeners World presenters at RHS shows!

In a blink of an eye it was my turn and next thing I know friends are sending messages saying ‘hey WOW we just saw you on BBC Breakfast’ at that point I pinched myself to see if I was still asleep! Carol was lovely and we managed a few photos for social media to further publicize British flowers week. It worked too as around four times the normal foot flow to the Museum for a Tuesday came in, what a joy to see the public’s reaction! They loved it, more WOW’s

On Thursday we were back again, this time we let the train take the strain and were joined by some of the growers. Today we were to find out who was the winner and meet The Duchess of Cornwall. Stephen Munson and I went into the Nave to await the Royal arrival. The Duchess stood in the middle of The Spiral Meadow and sighed “beautiful” she said “I would like to have a chair and sit here for the rest of the day, watching the grasses and the flowers, so relaxing”

Then Alan Titchmarsh whisked her away to meet Floral Angels, the flower re-purposing charity.

The design is all round, can be viewed from above on the balcony or below looking up, we incorporated an accessible area so that wheelchair users and the public could get up close to the flowers at a lower level, identify them and even colour in their own spiral meadow picture.  I was elated by the Duchess’s comments, this was the best ever reaction and the team were all thrilled to have had received such an accolade.

On returning to Lincolnshire, and still on a huge high from the whirl of a week; inspired by Floral Angels the Evolve team made all the remaining flowers and plants into a ‘pop-up-shop’ give-away at Springfield’s gardens in Spalding and raised £216 for Motor Neurone Disease Association. We didn’t win but taking part was better than any prize!

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