Flower hues cap­tured in silk

On her flower farm in the Bor­ders, Paula Bax­ter col­lects flag irises from a millpond to dye silk rib­bon for bou­quets

Landscape (UK) - - Contents -

“The yel­low flags that broi­dered thee would stand Up to their chins in wa­ter, and full oft” Jean In­gelow, ‘Songs of the Night Watches’

In the lush green land­scape of Ber­wick­shire’s sweep­ing coun­try­side, a millpond glis­tens un­der pale blue, late spring skies. The morn­ing still­ness is bro­ken by the sound of a pad­dle gen­tly nudg­ing the wa­ter’s smooth sur­face into rip­ples. A woman in a small ca­noe is mak­ing her way across the pond to­wards a clus­ter of yel­low-tipped flag iris, in­clin­ing their slen­der heads in the slight breeze. This is Paula Bax­ter, a flower farmer, who has come to har­vest the roots of these ele­gant blooms, which can­not all be reached from the pond’s edge. Af­ter she has trans­ferred her cargo to a wheel­bar­row, she must fend off the at­ten­tion of her in­quis­i­tive sheep in the sur­round­ing field as she makes her way back to­wards the work­shop. There, she will use the roots to make dye for rib­bons that will be tied around bou­quets cre­ated from the flow­ers she grows on her land. As spring rolls to­wards sum­mer, these blooms in­clude strik­ing al­li­ums, with their spiky pink, pur­ple and white heads, the first flow­ers of as­tran­tia, and scabi­ous. Sweet Wil­liam and hes­pe­rus, also known as sweet rocket, bring more colour. Now, in late May, sur­rounded by lupins, fox­gloves, pinks and sweet-scented hon­ey­suckle, Paula tends her boun­ti­ful crop.

A place to grow

The epony­mous millpond, an acre in size, dates back to 1820. It sits within the four-acre plot which makes up Mill Pond Flower Farm, in the pretty vil­lage of Foulden in the Scot­tish Bor­ders. Orig­i­nally from Sun­der­land, Paula and her teacher hus­band Ray were look­ing for some­where ru­ral to live. At the time, Paula was still work­ing as a busi­ness de­vel­op­ment man­ager for a char­ity in the North East. “We had no con­nec­tions to the area; we just knew we wanted some land. We wanted space. I’d al­ways grown my own veg, mainly on al­lot­ments, and I felt it was time to have some­where of my own to do my grow­ing,” she says. With their land came two ad­join­ing cot­tages, which had pre­vi­ously been lived in by sol­diers re­turn­ing from the First World War. “Each sol­dier who came to live on the farm es­tate was given a cot­tage and a plot of land where they could grow enough food to be al­most self-sus­tain­ing. It feels good to be fol­low­ing the tra­di­tion of grow­ing here.” The cot­tages were in dire need of restora­tion, hav­ing been ly­ing derelict for some time. For the first seven years, Paula and Ray lived in one while restor­ing the other. “It was dif­fi­cult liv­ing in the cot­tage which is now my work­shop. There was no heat­ing or in­su­la­tion, and home com­forts were scarce. It was such a re­lief when we could fi­nally move into what is now our lovely home.” De­spite the ren­o­va­tions and work­ing full-time, dur­ing that first year, Paula still found the time and en­ergy to de­vote to her pas­sion. “It all started with me grow­ing a few flow­ers to cut and hav­ing a stand at the end of the lane with buck­ets of flow­ers for

sale and an hon­esty box. It was some­thing I’d seen when we had been liv­ing in Sus­sex.” The pop­u­lar­ity of the flow­ers in­spired Paula to seek out more in­for­ma­tion. She dis­cov­ered Flow­ers from the Farm, a sup­port group for small, in­de­pen­dent flower farm­ers. In the sec­ond year, Paula went part-time at her job and started to take more or­ders for flow­ers for wed­dings and par­ties. She then de­cided to con­cen­trate fully on the farm and left her job to pre­pare for the grow­ing sea­son ahead.

Cre­at­ing a sup­ply

At first, the flow­ers were grown close to the pond, but this meant Paula was walk­ing back and forth ev­ery day be­tween the plot and the work­shop. Since last year, the flow­ers have been planted near the cot­tages so Paula looks out onto pil­lar-box red pop­pies and bud­ding white philadel­phus, or mock orange, and the bluish prom­ise of del­phini­ums. The flow­ers min­gle to­gether in a dozen or so beds, with self-seeded wild flow­ers among them. “I tend to cut the flow­ers I want and take the weeds from the cut bunches,” says Paula. “In or­der to grow some­thing, I’ve got to like it. If I don’t like it, I can’t grow it well. A case in point is zin­nias. I sim­ply don’t like them and can’t grow them.” There is a rhythm to the cut­ting process. Flow­ers are al­ways cut ei­ther early in the morn­ing or in the evening; never dur­ing the day. “We cut on a Wed­nes­day and de­liver on a Thurs­day so that the florists can ar­range on the Fri­day for wed­dings on the Satur­day.” Her most pop­u­lar re­quest is for fo­liage. “We’re blessed with some great trees on the farm,” she says. “Our sil­ver birch is a par­tic­u­lar favourite with florists want­ing to make tall, eye-catch­ing dis­plays. Herbs are also pop­u­lar: mint, sage and fev­er­few es­pe­cially.” Paula now sup­plies some 20 florists through­out the grow­ing sea­son of March to De­cem­ber. “Brides tend to spec­ify colours rather than types of flow­ers,” she ex­plains. “I try to pop­u­larise less well-known va­ri­eties by show­ing how they can be com­bined and used. There’s a real ap­peal to Bri­tish-grown flow­ers: they are sim­ply

lovely. They have the scent, the move­ment, and they tend to be re­ally good qual­ity, but most of all, we have va­ri­ety.”

A new di­rec­tion

When lo­cal or­ders started trick­ling in for bri­dal bou­quets, in 2014, one of them led the busi­ness in a new di­rec­tion. “A bride sent me a photo of the type of bou­quet she wanted,” Paula says. “There was noth­ing par­tic­u­larly un­usual about that, but it came with a query: ‘Where can I get rib­bon like that?’” The rib­bon in ques­tion was hand-dyed silk, us­ing nat­u­ral dyes. “My sis­ter dyes her own wool, so I knew a bit about the dye­ing process, and I gave it a go. I made some for the bride and some for my­self.” Paula then pub­li­cised what she had made, ac­com­pa­nied by a pho­to­graph of the rib­bon. As a re­sult, she was in­un­dated with re­quests from florists ask­ing if she would dye rib­bon for them too. She now has reg­u­lar or­ders for the her­itage-style silk rib­bons, which she makes her­self from rolls of im­ported silk and dyes us­ing pro­duce from the farm.

Paula’s cot­tage work­shop is edged with late spring flow­ers (top). Res­i­dent sheep fol­low Paula as she passes through the fields (above).

Paula se­lects strands of cerise gera­nium as she wades waist deep in meadow flow­ers and fo­liage. Then it is back to the work­shop with as­sis­tant Anna to make up bou­quets. Buck­ets and jugs full of cut flow­ers, in­clud­ing vivid pop­pies, deep mauve gera­ni­ums...

Al­lium sicu­lum,

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