GRAEME CORBETT- BLOOM AND BURN

Last March I made the decision to use only British grown flowers in my work, by February this year I was waiting for a delivery of Italian grown ranunculus, missing out on my goal by a matter of weeks. So what happened?



In order to answer that I guess it means going back to the beginning. I grew up in a town called Banbridge about 20 minutes south of Belfast in Northern Ireland at the height of the troubles. My days consisted of going to school, coming home, dinner, homework, bed and every Saturday I would go alone to the local cinema matinee. The rest of my free time I spent listening to pop music or watching Clueless on VHS. My parents didn’t really get me, it was a time when boys were boys, highlighted by my dad’s insistence on buying me a Spurs tracksuit every birthday and Christmas, which would hang unworn at the back of the wardrobe. And when not gripped by her severe depression, my mum spent her time telling people I wanted to be an actor as a way of explaining why my bedroom walls were plastered with posters of Macaulay Culkin and Keanu Reeves. It feels to me that unlike a lot of other people in the industry I grew up with absolutely no connection to flowers, nature or the world outside my bedroom window. My main focus in life was to get out of Northern Ireland as soon as I could and from a young age I knew that London was where I wanted to be.

When I arrived at 18, packed off with a single backpack onto an easyJet by my dad with 400 quid in my pocket to buy all the essentials I would need for my new life, flowers were still not something that I ever thought about. It would take another 12 years and a whole career as a TV casting producer for me to start craving something more creative. Even then I fell into flowers by chance after starting and abandoning two other businesses, a furniture flipping company and a pickle brand.

Between locking celebrities up in the Big Brother House and casting singers for The Voice I started to buy flowers (from the supermarket…) and enjoyed arranging them at home. I quickly got bored of the selection at the local Co-Op and would go to Columbia Road on a Sunday morning, then spend the rest of the day arranging and photographing them on my phone. Meanwhile, back home my mum’s depression continued to spiral and in the end she took her own life. In my last conversation with her she said I hope you find your dream job… Even though we had a pretty messy relationship her words stuck with me and I decided to explore my growing love of flowers and enrolled on a two-week floristry course. From the very first day I knew that I had found something that I loved but I had no real idea about the industry or its impact on the world. We would spend every day ramming roses into blocks of floral foam, and at no point did I ask, or even think to ask, where the flowers were coming from. It didn’t even cross my mind that the fun green foam was hiding a dark secret as I transformed a huge piece of it into a flowery teddy bear. Also this information was never offered up, no alternative methods were discussed and if we were using anything locally grown it definitely wasn’t being communicated or celebrated.



Off the back of the course I ended up working for JamJar Flowers, it was here that I started to become more aware of the importance of knowing where your flowers come from and being more mindful of your mechanics. Each week I would go to Spring restaurant and arrange the most amazing British Flowers grown by Fern Verrow, who JamJar still work with today. We would shop in the English section at Zest at the flower market and balls of chicken wire had started to creep into the urns and bowl designs that were being made.

When I set up on my own in 2016 I continued to buy British from the limited selection at the Market but it wasn’t until lock down in 2020 that I came to love and rely on it. With the market closed and imports difficult to come by in the early days of the pandemic I started buying my flowers exclusively from Wolves Lane Flower Company in North London. I was introduced to flowers that I had never seen or worked with before, forced to use colour combinations that I might not have picked on a trip to the wholesalers and very quickly I noticed my style begin to change and a light and airy quality creep into my work. I loved what they were growing and that I could get a huge variety of flowers in one order, the wraps of 10, 20 sometimes 50 stems at the market can very quickly eat into a budget and leave you with a limited selection to work with.

As the pandemic progressed and we were pulled in and out of lockdowns and ever changing restrictions I managed to schedule one to one workshops when I was allowed to and these were all done using the flowers from Wolves Lane. I became very passionate about using locally grown flowers and started to think about growing my own.



A lockdown decision to move out of London has given me that opportunity and since arriving at our new home in Kent my partner and I have been working on setting up our own cutting garden. I’ve also been lucky enough to land right in the middle of three amazing growers, Orchard Farm Flowers, Blue Hen Flowers and Water Lane. Even with all of this I failed to get through my year of British Flowers. I was doing pretty well, even after the last of the fresh flowers disappeared in the middle of November. The rush of Christmas wreaths and garlands keep most of us busy right through to Christmas Day and I think we all expect January to be a little slow, to the point where I almost write it off. But as February rolled around and the inbox started to see a little more activity some interesting jobs were coming in that required fresh flowers. As much as we are told to embrace the twigs and sticks that the month has to offer, they just won’t work for every job, especially my styling work which often needs to be shot months in advance of the time it will actually be released. When you are suddenly looking at a six week period of no money coming in and still feeling the effects of a couple of years of the pandemic messing with your profits it’s hard to stick to a self imposed rule. So I took a job floral styling a handbag brand trying my best to make a cold February day look like a glorious sunny spring afternoon. I didn’t abandon my beloved British flowers completely, I spent more than half my budget on Cornish grown tulips, daffodils and anemones, foraged some early blossom from a tree in the garden but spent the rest on my imported ranunculus that caused me to fail my mission.


What I’m hoping to highlight in this potted history of me and my life with flowers is that there is more to a flower business and the people that run them than what you see on Instagram. I’m trying to do my part where I can and my new ethos is to explore the options from my growers and garden first before adding anything to the basket on my importer’s website.


I want to be upfront about the ingredients I’m using and the reasons why. I feel it’s more helpful to my customers and social media audience to see the realities of the situation rather than pushing a perfect narrative that is very hard to achieve if you need your business to run and be profitable for 12 months a year. For me it’s exactly like the floral foam situation, Instagram became pretty toxic at one point calling people out for using it, but making no allowances for the fact that many of us came from courses and backgrounds that didn’t teach an alternative. It’s all about education and for me a gentler approach is always going to be best. So I will continue to promote British flowers when the season allows and hope to showcase them in bright, bold colour heavy designs, with the hope that it will show people that we don’t need to spray and dye flowers to create something that will stop people mid scroll - we are surrounded by all of this natural beauty already. You just need to seek it out.




And why did I feel it necessary to tell you about my mums death? Because it was the biggest, most impactful thing to ever happen to me. It has shaped my life and brought me to flowers which are my lifeline, the thing that has saved me at a time when I could have given in to the grief. And like British Flowers and Floral Foam, the more we talk about it the more people begin to understand.


 

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