It seems I’ve become the kind of person who drops statistics about the carbon footprint of a bunch of flowers over lunch. We were out the other day when a friend asked about New Covent Garden Flower Market, a stone’s throw from Battersea Power Station.
I explained the etiquette of going there – arrive early, but not as early as the florists (I tend to get there around 6.30am); know that there aren’t prices on anything, and any quoted are exclusive of VAT; stay out of the way of trolleys – before delivering the more unpalatable news that the average bunch of imported flowers, wherever you might buy it, has the same carbon footprint as an economy flight between London and Paris. And that’s before we get into the problematic labour conditions on many overseas flower farms, and the chemical run-off deployed by some growers to make sure there are scarlet roses for Valentine’s Day.
If it makes me sound less dreary, I’ve also become the kind of person who bestows people with scraggly bunches of garden flowers and sends friends home from dinner with sweet peas, pinched from the stem in the dusk. I was too neurotic during the garden’s first summer to cut much, worried that it might never return if I did. But now it’s fluffed into an abundant second year, I’m out there with the scissors most mornings. Over the past couple of seasons, I have leant into pleasure over perfection. Cornflowers left to seed get lost among the fennel froth, but they gain a stage of their own on the kitchen table. Peonies punctuate a sea of green in the flower bed, but they become a luxury in a glass on the bedside table. Life is too short to keep such things at an arm’s length.
There are a few edibles lurking in the garden – the aforementioned fennel, plus sorrel, tree spinach and lovage, some nasturtiums among the herbs – but really I’m in it for the flowers. The clouds of Ammi majus and fragrance of phlox; the endless generosity of sweet peas, from which I cut a handful three times a week; the irresistible ephemerality of roses – all that growth and spike and bud for a bloom that dissolves into petals within days.
Even the best domestic food growers I know are realistic about the impossibility of growing everything you eat. But it is possible to shun shop-bought blooms with just a few scrappy flower beds. We are increasingly conscious of where our food comes from and the ecological importance of eating seasonally, but we rarely ask these questions of the flowers we might also pick up at the supermarket. The annual British Flowers Week, which took place this year in June, encourages people to think about who grew their flowers, while an increase in small flower farmers in recent years has made it easier to find out.
There’s also been a flurry of new publications on flower growing, among them Milli Proust’s From Seed to Bloom – an indulgent look inside Proust’s beautiful West Sussex farm, with meditations on the seasons – and Celestina Robertson’s Cut Flowers, a compact and sturdy guide from an acre of rented farmland in Norfolk. Robertson’s no-nonsense book lists plants by season, and tackles yield and vase life with reassuring authority. For arranging, you can’t beat Sarah Diligent and William Mazuch’s A Guide to Floral Mechanics, in which updates to traditional, environmentally conscious techniques are paired with simple diagrams.
If you don’t have the option – or proclivity – to grow your own, use a local supplier. Enter your postcode on the Flowers From the Farm website to bring up growers near you, many of whom are florists as well and offer subscription bunches during the growing season. You will see a greater variety of flowers, in far more unusual combinations, as a result; organic blooms are often more fragrant than those produced for longevity rather than perfume. Since ruling out non-British flowers a few years ago, I’ve come to relish this tether to the seasons. Growing my own, meanwhile, has connected me more deeply to the natural beauty of flowers, their wonky stems and sweet decay offering a new way of seeing.
[See also: Putting the front garden front and centre]
This article appears in the 29 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, American Darkness