Vintage style is blooming

Growing flowers for picking is nothing new and many gardeners have a small cutting patch or a wigwam of sweet peas providing blooms for the house. Yet few go to the lengths of Sally Oates who has turned her Cotswold garden into one big cutting border. 

The driving force behind her garden near Tetbury is not the appearance of the beds, creating plant collections or the amassing of rare blooms. Instead, she plans and plants to provide year-round material for her floristry business. 

Sally is part of a recent surge of interest in the British flower industry, born out of concerns about the environmental impact of importing flowers. The use of home-grown blooms was championed at this year’s Malvern Autumn Show and Flowers From the Farm is just one group campaigning for their increased use. 

“It’s a lot of like-minded people all over the country and they are probably making a difference,” says Sally, who describes herself as an ‘artistan’ rather than a traditional florist. 

“It’s looser and more relaxed,” she explains. “It’s all about respecting the flowers and the foliage for what they are and the season they are in.” 

Sally’s arrangements have a soft feel

When we met, she was testing an arrangement for an autumn wedding using russet leaves and the psychedelic orange and red fruit of the spindle berry, a natural mix that is typical of her work. 

Dillycot Flowers was started three years ago with sales at local markets, such as Nailsworth Farmers’ Market. Today, Sally does much of her business online, with commissions for celebrations, such as birthday parties, christenings and weddings, providing table decorations and flower crowns. 

“I’ve done 70, 80 and 90th birthday parties this year,” she says, with a smile. “They don’t want a large flowering statement; they want really nice garden flowers in a low arrangement.” 

She grows her blooms organically in half-an-acre of ground, divided between her own garden and an allotment on a nearby farm. The borders are packed with rows of perennials underplanted with bulbs and any gaps plugged by annuals. 

Bulbs are most important in spring and she grows masses of tulips, narcissi and hyacinths, in a vast range of colours. 

Low table arrangements are a popular request

“One of my favourites is ‘City of Bradford’ hyacinth, which is a very unusual pale blue.” 

She particular likes the hyacinth flowers that reappear in subsequent years, as they tend to be less compact: “They’ve got a slightly softer feel to the bloom. There’s more of a gentle elegance about them.” 

The summer offers rich pickings with annuals, including cornflowers in all shades of blue and pink, lots of iris, masses of peonies, roses, ranunculus and sunflowers before the autumn blooms of dahlias and chrysanthemums begin. 

Over the winter, evergreen shrubs form the backbone of her arrangements with viburnum and pittosporum particular favourites. Scented shrubs, such as Lonicera fragrans, bring an extra dimension to arrangements and she also uses dried seedheads, including nigella, poppy and achillea. If the weather is kind, there may even be late roses to add colour.

Achillea is used fresh and also dried for winter arrangements

 And that is the secret of her work: it is based upon what looks good at the time, rather than sticking to any pre-conceived plan, particularly as weather conditions can vastly alter flowering times. 

“It’s why I come from a colour direction rather than being flower specific,” she explains. 

Those flowers are displayed in vintage containers, sourced from antique shops and car boot sales, and include Art Deco and 1940s pieces, old ink bottles, silver, glass and brass. 

“For me it’s not pseudo vintage, it’s the real thing. I also grow older varieties of flowers. It evokes a past era.” 

It’s an era that appears to be making a comeback. 

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