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
“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...