MILLI PROUST - FARMER & FLORIST

This week’s journal entry is a much welcome antidote to Black Friday sales as flower farmer and florist Milli Proust talks about how ideas of conscious consumption inspired her to start growing her own. Thoughtfully describing slowing down and becoming more in touch with the seasons she expands upon the practice of seed saving, which she now sells in exquisitely illustrated packaging. We think seeds are the most wonderful gifts, like little packets of hope, signifying faith in the future. It’s hard not to think about shopping today so why not shop small and support local independent businesses like Milli’s when Christmas shopping this weekend.



HOW DO THE SEASONS AFFECT YOUR PRACTICE, AND DAY TO DAY NOT JUST IN YOUR WORK AND ART BUT IN YOUR OWN ROUTINES AND PHYSICALLY TOO?

Working on the land full time now, I've noticed that I've become a lot more sensitive to all the subtle seasonal shifts that are constantly happening. To plant and harvest crops at optimum times, I’m making daily navigations of the seasons, and then there are other small everyday decisions affected by the seasons too, like what clothes will I wear today that will keep me most protected, or warm, dry, cool, covered.

Winter and spring are the most physically demanding here. I practise No Dig on the land, mulching each winter and covering the bare soil with organic matter- mimicking what happens in nature each Autumn. Mulching helps to preserve the infrastructure and ecosystems teeming beneath the surface, and stops the Earth being bare and open to the elements. It regenerates it as the mulch eventually breaks down to feed the organisms within the soil, all the network of things that allow the plants I grow to find their way to the moisture and nutrients they need to thrive. I think some people might assume that winter is the time for rest when working with the land, but it can be the most full-on - it's certainly the time that when I'm interacting most directly with the Earth and soil itself, and not just with the bounty it provides. So my winter's are spent shovelling compost from the heaps onto the main growing areas, often in cold and challenging weather.

Then spring arrives, which sees the first flowers harvested, thousands of seeds sown, and I tend to and plant out the seedlings. Spring is my absolute favourite time of year; I find the first flushes of flowers in spring the most inspiring to work with, having had a scarcity of flowers throughout winter, the first offerings of the year never fail to feel extra special. It's a busy time to ensure a productive summer ahead too, and the work is made all the sweeter by the warming of the weather and the promise of all the beauty to come.

As the year rolls into summer, the routine is a lot more about the early rising and the late nights of harvest, with quieter time during the days, which are spent refuelling and working on the admin of weddings, events and all the other channels I use to get my crop out there. It's also the time for planning, ordering bulbs for spring and taking notes of the crops that are working and the ones that have failed. It's so wonderful to see all the work of winter and spring come to fruition at this time, and bringing the flowers I’ve grown to my design work always feels like a dream come true.

I plan the year to have a plentiful crop well into Autumn, so this routine carries on through October, and by the time the first frosts come I am exhausted…. although this is the window of time to get the spring bulbs in the ground, so you push on, but a vital lesson, learnt the hard way is to take rest where possible to avoid burnout. Once the bulbs are in, the remnants of the last season composted, the hardy annuals sown, somewhere between that and wreathing for Christmas, the shovels are picked up to mulch, and the cycle starts again.





WHICH ELEMENTS FIRST DREW YOU TO GROWING FLOWERS, AND HOW HAS THAT SHIFTED OVER TIME?

I came to growing in order to have more access to have seasonal vegetables, and to cut my dependence on the supermarket - I then began selling all the surplus to local groceries, pop-up restaurants, and the London delicatessen Italo and I was only cultivating a few flowers on the side of that. At first, it was about growing stems that I couldn't readily source at the market. However, by cultivating from seed, and witnessing the plants in all their stages of growth, I understood each flower more deeply, and my respect for them grew. They had such a different quality from the flowers I'd worked with before, that I began to do more research into where most of the flowers we buy are from, and how they are grown. Although I was already aware of how air-miles, and the use of pesticides in large scale food farming impacted the environment- it took a while for me to connect the dots with flowers. Many of the people I talk to who have come to farm flowers do so to find an optimistic, personal solution in the work towards changing the climate crisis. Farming small-scale with regenerative practises has a beneficial impact on the land and the nature that it supports - and that nature includes us.


No matter how small and quaint growing flowers for local supply may seem, it can be a progressive environmental act.

HOW DOES THE PROCESS MAKE YOU FEEL, HAS IT CHANGED THE WAY YOU SEE FLOWERS AND PLANTS? ANY UNEXPECTED DISCOVERIES?

Over the last few years, the land has proved time and time again to have resilience and wisdom that is far greater than my own, and although I can do everything in my power to protect and nurture the plot I’m tending to, nature is ultimately in charge here, and my work has to be in harmony with her.

WHAT DO YOU THINK GROWING CAN TEACH US, ASIDE FROM THE PRACTICALITIES AND EXPANSIVE KNOWLEDGE, CAN IT HAVE A DEEPER EFFECT ON US AND OUR THOUGHT PROCESSES?

A big lesson I've learnt from growing is how much time and energy it takes to grow and harvest every single stem, and in turn, how much respect and value to give anything that is grown and taken from the ground. There are so many lessons I've learnt, and so many more still to learn.


Growing is a great lesson in humility- it’s impossible to do everything alone, and I’m learning to ask for help when needed.

I always thought that waste was waste, but really, waste is not to be wasted, it's a precious and vital part of the growing cycle. Patience is an honourable and useful skill- I’m learning to practise it as much as possible…. And possibly one of the most challenging lessons so far is- it is not my place to try and control everything.






HOW DID YOU BEGIN TO GO DEEPER WITH YOUR SEED SAVING PRACTICE, WHAT WAS THE PROCESS LIKE FROM THE BEGINNING TO SEALING YOUR FIRST PACKETS OF SEEDS TO SEND OUT TO CUSTOMERS?

I saved seeds from the first year I started - mainly out of curiosity; I wanted to see if the flowers might cross-pollinate and how they would change, and it felt like an exciting and essential part of the life-cycle that I wanted to understand more. If you harvest from a healthy and productive plant - you're also guaranteeing the quality of your seed stock. I posted a picture of my hand-drawn packets on Instagram and then a few independent shops got in touch - it felt wonderful to send out something so small and precious from the garden that would grow on somewhere else.

HOW DOES THE PROCESS WORK?IS THERE A PARTICULAR MOMENT THAT YOU CAN TELL, THE PODS ARE READY TO BE HARVESTED?

I collect the seeds from the flowers on a dry day. You know that they're ready and best when they're practically jumping off the plant or out of their seed pods. Then I take them inside and lay them out on my table on sheets of paper, in bowls, and on trays to dry out thoroughly (don't forget to label them as you go). After a few weeks, I'll clean them of debris by passing them from bucket to bucket on a windy day- the breeze wicks away any surplus matter leaving the seeds to fall back into the bucket.


DO YOU GROW FLOWERS SPECIFICALLY TO COLLECT THE SEEDS?


Some flowers (calendula, ammi, cerinthe, sweetpea) are much easier to collect seed from than others, take tricky Bells of Ireland for example which have super sharp spikes protecting the seeds. It’s nice to grow flowers that are easy to harvest from, but I grow flowers predominantly for cutting, so the seeds in my collection are focussed around my favourite varieties to grow and design with. Some plants cross-pollinate readily and are unlikely to come true when the seed is from plants grown unregulated, outdoors - especially the likes of cosmos and snapdragons, but I love growing them so much, that I didn't want my seed collection to be lacking in them, so I source those one from specialist UK seed farmers who have the capacity to confine and separate different varieties.


DO YOU LET FLOWERS SELF SEED?


I’m a huge fan of a self-seeder, however, because of my heavy mulching, I don’t get so many in my growing beds, but I do leave them to do their thing if they pop up, and cherish the fact I did very little work in order to have them on my plot. Sometimes the most extraordinary combinations occur, ones that I would never have thought of myself, so I get great joy from that and can take it through for inspiration in my design work.


When it comes to self-seeders, my permanent garden borders are a completely different story. Since I’m not farming from them, I’m not taking and depleting the resources of the soil as much as from the cultivated cropping beds, which in turn means I don’t mulch them so heavily and the self seeders proliferate. They’ve become a tapestry of Euphorbia, Foxgloves, Aquilegias, Alchmilla Mollis, and Linaria- and are far more beautiful and rich because of their presence.

IS THERE A PART OF YOUR PRACTICE YOU ENJOY THE MOST?

Having time to be outside and working surrounded by lots of beauty is the most enjoyable and I marvel at it every day. I don't want to ever take it for granted. When it comes to floral design, I make sure to carve out time each week, to make an arrangement that reflects what's growing in the landscape and on the plot that week- it focusses me on seeking out the beauty in each of the seasons even if there's very little around. It brings me great, great joy. Having freedom to design without the restraint of a commission helps push my creativity too- I can be braver, and a bit wilder, and all those little explorations and lessons I learn in those moments, in turn, feed into the commissioned work.




DID YOU HAFE TO MAKE ANY FAST ADAPTATIONS TO YOUR PRACTICE THIS YEAR, HAS IT SHAPED THE WAY YOU WORK FOR THE BETTER, WE’D LOVE TO KNOW ABOUT YOUR SILVER LININGS.

The flowers I grew up until this year were always grown bespoke for weddings, workshops, and events. With those celebrations postponed for the foreseeable, and with flowers being a perishable crop - I had to think and act fast. I made a pact with myself that I wouldn't let the pandemic sink my business. By the first week of April, I had my bunches in local veg boxes, through one of my local independent shops Wild Sussex, and was able to send out bouquet's via a careful courier to customers in London and further afield. I was making the flowers to be accessible to anyone who loves them and wants them, and it has been so wonderful and so fulfilling, that I can't imagine ever going back to growing just bespoke for event work.

DO YOU THINK YOU WILL EVER TIRE OF GROWING FLOWERS?

I can’t imagine I will. Not mentally at least- there are way too many more plants, and varieties for me to discover and combinations to try…. but maybe physically. It's all hard on the body, but so, so good for the heart, mind, and soul.

WHERE DO YOU TAKE INSPIRATION FROM OUTSIDE OF NATURE, IS THERE A COMMUNITY YOU FEEL A PART OF?

There are a few fantastic growers across the country that I’ve forged wonderful supportive friendships. They inspire me to keep going with work on the land and are a community I can talk to about the trials and tribulations that come with farming and the people to get excited with about new varieties or techniques of growing

I trained as an actor, and the community I’ve been a part of for 15 years is full of writers, storytellers, directors, producers and actors. They continually inspire me to create more than just flowers. I think my designs, and even the way I grow the crop is heavily influenced by them, in how to conjure feeling, atmosphere and story visually. I love that community so very, very much. I feel like they are a crucial part of expressing what it is to be human.

WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING EVERYONE SHOULD KNOW ABOUT THE WORK THAT YOU DO?

It’s muddier, wetter, and colder than it looks… but don’t let that put you off!