Gardening: The Newmarket florist who grows her own
Known for growing and arranging its own blooms, Newmarket’s The Botanical Alchemist is a one-of-a-kind florist. Alice Ryan talks to founder Imogen Hall
Sowing the seed
My mum, granny and grandpa were all very keen gardeners, so I grew up playing in beautiful gardens surrounded by flowers and vegetables. My dad's parents lived in Norfolk and, strangely, often when we went to visit Dad would stop at a florist on the way. He let me come in and choose with him and I have never felt anything more magical than that shop. The colours, the smells. . . I couldn't believe it.
From then on, I always thought, 'Wouldn't it be amazing to be a florist?!'. I had a job in digital advertising in London and really liked my life, but there was a point when I had managed to save a bit of money and really wanted to try floristry and see if it's something I could do. I haven't looked back!
When I moved home from London, having completed my diploma in Floral Design, I was keen to start growing some blooms. To be honest, not being a gardener myself, I asked my mum, Diana, for some help. Since then, Mum has become enthralled with growing; it set alight to a passion I'm not sure she knew she had, having only really grown garden bedding flowers before! Now she is semi-retired and we sit down each year to plan the flowers we want to grow and discuss what didn't work so well, or what was really popular.
Things move so fast in the flower world; trends come and go and old fashioned flowers come back into style. So, it's crucial to keep changing what we grow, focus on what we need to improve and be realistic that some things just don't work. Not only this, but we really believe in quality being crucial, so sometimes we have to cut back or focus on just a few flowers at the time to ensure they are at their absolute best. Finally, not everything grows the same (or at all) each year. Sometimes you have a really bad harvest for one flower, then suddenly a year later it comes back with a vengeance! So it's important to keep planning carefully and watching how things do year on year.
I started with a different business name around 2016 - it was called Foxglove & Moss - but as time went on I didn't feel like it was accurately representing me and the flowers. So, around the start of 2020, I rebranded with The Botanical Alchemist, which focussed more on the meaning of flowers and the trust from my customers to allow me to create something unique, rather than trying to fit in with the bog standard online florist shops where you see a picture, click to order and receive the same thing each time.
This also allowed me to focus on what was growing in the garden at the time, and what was at its best. Having this flexibility meant that not only is each order unique, but we're also using the best of British flowers along with the best of my knowledge about how long each flower should last. I suppose, from this, I imagined myself in my dark studio creating these unique arrangements like an alchemist - and so The Botanical Alchemist was born.
Our whole property is about three quarters of an acre, but about a third of this we use for our horses and small stables - my mum and my sister are riders. The remaining space is used for flowers. We have two polytunnels and another large bed patch; probably around 500 square yards in total. This allows us to grow quite a lot of flowers in different inside and outside locations.
This year really started with our tulips (around March), followed by ranunculus (around April). We then had nearly 7" tall delphiniums and at the moment we are still going with our deliciously scented sweet peas. We also have lots of varieties of roses, which have been so lovely this year. They are mostly David Austins, but we've added a lot more this year such as Koko Loko and Chandos Beauty.
After the summer, we expect a whole plot to be dedicated to all of our dahlias - in a range of bright colours, reds, pinks and oranges - and from about September, or when we get the first of the frosts, that's the end of the growing season for us, and I go back to mostly relying on imported flowers. We also grow a small selection of edible flowers which have been really popular with local bakers looking to add some botanics to their designs.
I think over the last year of lockdown customers were keen to try alternative suppliers of all things when they could no longer guarantee stock from their usual shops. This opened the door for florists and growers alike to reach new audiences like never before.
I also think people have been consciously supporting smaller businesses, which means there's been less wastage and money saved by reducing air miles and transport costs. Along with this is the new 'wellness' trend, where people are looking for healthier and more sustainable options when it comes to their lives; reducing carbon emissions and encouraging those businesses around them to be more sustainable has tied in well with British growers who often struggle to get their message across.
Because British flowers are homegrown and don't have to travel as far, their longevity is a lot greater, which I think surprises some people.
I cover all areas of floristry. It's predominantly wedding season now, but I also do sympathy work, events, corporate contracts and weekly bunches.
I think I've actually been trying to get away from pinning myself down to a certain style. I think flowers are all so unique and different that it's hard to cut them or manipulate them into a certain style in order to fit with your image.
So I tend to approach my arrangements by choosing the flowers first and starting the design without too much thought about how I want it to look. I just begin and see how the flowers move and sit and go from there. This tends to be more natural, with the flowers flowing where they like, but also still having some structure and depth to each arrangement. I like to be on the wilder side, using different grasses, textures and flowers.
Rather than, for example, saying 'I have to make a pink bouquet today with X amount of stems to match this picture', I am able to gain information about who it's going to and what they like, and make the decision of what I think fits that person the best, based on what we've been growing. This means the flowers often vary each week, when certain things will be in their prime. It's a lot more of a natural process.
Because every grower is different, we all grow different things, it's nice to be part of the British Flower Collective to see what other growers are doing and vice versa. There is also so much to know about growing, cutting and conditioning, that it is a lovely network to be part of - there isn't any competition, it's just like-minded people coming together to help and support one another in this quest of loving British flowers!
I also really like working with Mum as we work well together: she loves the growing and I love planning what we will do for each year and then watching all the beautiful stems developing. It's really rewarding to be working together on something so unique that we both really enjoy - and which brings a lot of joy to so many people.
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More by this authorAlice Ryan