Bliss to be up at spar­row o’clock

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

Since 2007, when I started out as an events or­gan­iser, I’ve been a reg­u­lar at New Covent Gar­den Flower Mar­ket. Ev­ery­one has heard of it, but apart from savvy church flower ar­rangers and DIY brides, few peo­ple out­side the flower trade and cater­ing and en­ter­tain­ing busi­nesses know that they are wel­come at the vast site, nes­tled be­tween the high rises of Vaux­hall and the tow­ers of Bat­tersea Power Sta­tion.

Think of it as an edgy gar­den cen­tre-cum­cool green­house. It is the place to find bar­gain flow­ers, plants and all the props. I love it.

On a visit last week, I bumped into Rob Van Helden, a renowned Lon­don florist whom I know from my time at the party plan­ners Ta­ble Talk. He was stock­ing up on sprays of heather, this­tles, hy­drangeas, myr­tle, as­tran­tias and black­ber­ries, along with or­na­men­tal cabbages, dahlias and veron­ica. As chief florist for the Al­fred Dun­hill Links Cham­pi­onship at St An­drews this weekend, he was plan­ning a Scot­tish theme with bou­quets of bril­liant blos­som and beau­ti­ful ta­ble cen­tres in­spired by the land­scape. He didn’t seem too fazed by the task: Rob and his as­sid­u­ous work­ers do this sort of event at least two or three times a week, and spend a lot of time here.

The orig­i­nal mar­ket was, of course, in Covent Gar­den in the West End, where it had grown from a kitchen gar­den serv­ing West­min­ster Abbey in the 1600s to a bustling ‘fruit ‘n’ veg’ and flower mar­ket. Since 1974, it has been lo­cated at Nine Elms on the south bank of the Thames. To­day it is the largest mar­ket of its kind in the UK and the flower ware­house is home to more than 30 whole­sale traders who work from 4am to 10am, Mon­day to Satur­day.

It’s a place that ev­ery Lon­doner and vis­i­tor to the cap­i­tal ought to ex­pe­ri­ence – but it is one for the larks: 6am to 7am is prime time. Go ear­lier if you can (traders start pack­ing up from 9am) to get the pick of the bunches. On the plus side the early rise means you get to see the city in the small hours, when the streets are sleepy and you can burn over the bridges. Be warned, it’s not warm in the mar­ket at spar­row o’clock at any time of year. The en­trance fee is £5 if you bring a car, and you can park right out­side. First im­pres­sions are un­der­whelm­ing: there is no hint of colour or fra­grance in the grim in­dus­trial sur­round­ings – but step through the swing­ing doors and you en­ter an Aladdin’s cave of hor­ti­cul­tural trea­sures.

Flow­ers of ev­ery hue fill ev­ery cor­ner, aisles abound with fo­liage and shrub­bery and the air is de­li­ciously per­fumed. In bunches, boxes and buck­ets, the va­ri­ety is breath­tak­ing: the florist’s favourite, tra­di­tional hy­brid tea roses, are avail­able in ev­ery pos­si­ble shade – I love the so­phis­ti­cated pas­tel ‘Quick­sand’. Other favourites are the del­i­cate nigella, or love in a mist, Golden Shower or­chids, pots of mind-your-own-busi­ness, ‘Casa Blanca’ lilies and chincher­inchee (also known as star of Beth­le­hem).

I usu­ally grab a cof­fee and ba­con buttie and talk to the al­ways friendly and gen­er­ally flir­ta­tious traders. On this visit, Den­nis, one of the sell­ers, pre­sented me with a clus­ter of white roses with a beau­ti­ful heady scent which I ac­cepted (blush­ingly, of course). The traders are a great source of in­for­ma­tion and, I’ve al­ways found, happy to an­swer any ques­tion you have on flower care: for ex­am­ple, why do my or­chids keep dy­ing and how can I pro­long the life of the (sadly, in­fre­quent) bou­quets that land on my doorstep?

Now I know to use ster­il­is­ing tablets to keep vase wa­ter clean, un­der­stand the ben­e­fits of rest­ing an ice cube on orchid soil once a week to re­lease wa­ter slowly to the roots, and how to 1. Top read: From Na­ture to Plate by the Miche­lin-starred chef Tom Kitchin. Yummy recipes with Scot­land’s finest in­gre­di­ents, from grouse and veni­son to skate wings and scal­lops. 2. Demi­john: a spe­cial­ist drinks deli founded in Ed­in­burgh. Their bram­ble whisky liqueur is pure nec­tar. demi­john.co.uk 3. Paul Moun­sey: a Scot­tish com­poser whose gor­geous song North fea­tured on Visit Scot­land ads. I rec­om­mend the al­bums Nahoo and Na­hooToo. 4. High­land Cross: I did this epic, 50-mile duathlon (20-mile fell run, 30-mile cy­cle) two years ago. It takes place an­nu­ally, in June. 5. Academy of Flow­ers: This Covent Gar­den school of­fers fan­tas­tic flower-ar­rang­ing cour­ses. To book, call 0207 240 6359. make cut flow­ers last longer by sear­ing the ends. (Cut off the stems by about an inch then dip them in boil­ing wa­ter – just the bot­tom 10 per cent – for about 10 sec­onds, then leave them in a deep bucket of wa­ter in a cool place, prefer­ably overnight. Once they’ve had a good long drink you can ar­range them to suit.) And as for the magic of Chrysal Pro­fes­sional Glory – a spray mist that en­hances the life and colour of flow­ers (not faces, I’m afraid) – florists swear by it (£7.50 per bot­tle; find it at the mar­ket or online). I’m keep­ing a record of this flo­ral wis­dom; it’s a use­ful ad­di­tion to my reper­toire of world-renowned tips (“Be sure to point the noz­zle of your Glory spray at the flow­ers” etc).

Most flow­ers at New Covent Gar­den are im­ported from Hol­land. How­ever, there are a few spe­cial­ist sup­pli­ers of sea­sonal Bri­tish­grown flow­ers and fo­liage. GB Fo­liage is one of the best known. David Gor­ton has arm­fuls of out­door-grown fo­liage which has a nat­u­ral feel and re­flects our sea­sons more closely. Prat­ley is another spe­cial­ist that works with dozens of grow­ers all over the UK. But dis­tance is no ob­ject to florists, which per­haps ex­plained why my friend Rob was lug­ging his Scot­tish flora all the way from Lon­don to St An­drews. I asked him how he chooses his flow­ers: “I look for the sizes of the heads, par­tic­u­larly for roses,” he said. “The stems have to be clean and I choose the traders that have the best va­ri­ety of colour. For a job like the Dun­hill, it’s not only about dec­o­ra­tion, but also about tim­ing. Flow­ers must be in their prime for the event. Some need a week to open, so we put them in a warm room to start the process”.

The mar­ket of­fers more than flow­ers and flo­ral small talk: if you delve deeper you’ll find all the para­pher­na­lia of flower-ar­rang­ing, how-to books and ev­ery ac­ces­sory you can imag­ine, from vases and rib­bons to wire and wed­ding favours, bas­kets, wreaths, pil­lar can­dles and vo­tives, storm lanterns, faux flow­ers, coloured peb­bles, moss and bark, plus sea­sonal and fes­tive dec­o­ra­tions, and plenty of de­lights to titi­vate a canapé tray.

In­spired by what I’d seen, I was de­lighted when Rob in­vited me to his stu­dio to try a lit­tle flow­er­ar­rang­ing my­self: with spe­cial florist scis­sors in hand, I con­fronted a birch wreath (pur­chased from the mar­ket) filled with Oa­sis and a bun­dle of heather-hued, sturdy and char­ac­ter­ful shrub­bery.

Obe­di­ently, I started with fo­liage first, then lay­ered in my Scot­tish species as di­rected by Paul, who works with Rob at RVH Flo­ral De­sign. “Ar­range flow­ers in groups, not in­di­vid­u­ally, for max­i­mum im­pact,” he said.

To be hon­est it took more sweat and blood out of me than my re­cent foray in the box­ing ring – ar­ti­choke this­tles are lethal, while wield­ing the wire to firm up the stem of heather sprigs to stick into the Oa­sis had painful con­se­quences. Of course, I car­peted the floor in fo­liage. It was not very dif­fer­ent from at­tempt­ing to dec­o­rate a cake for the first time, clumsy and chaotic but, dare I say it, the end re­sults weren’t a far cry from what the golf pros and by­standers are en­joy­ing at the Dun­hill as you read this.

I fared bet­ter with the flank­ing dec­o­ra­tions I made: sub­merged stems of as­tran­tia and myr­tle in cylin­dri­cal vases topped with a float­ing can­dle – min­i­mum ef­fort and max­i­mum re­sult. It was great fun, and start­ing the cre­ative ex­pe­ri­ence at the flower mar­ket made it a far more sat­is­fy­ing achieve­ment. Much like buy­ing a Christ­mas tree at a nurs­ery, the pick­ing and prun­ing are part of the en­joy­ment. Next stop, a flower-ar­rang­ing course. Maybe I’ll be a DIY bride?

See more pic­tures of Pippa’s flower ar­rang­ing online, ex­clu­sively at tele­graph.co.uk/life­style

Stand­ing tall: Pippa’s flank­ing dec­o­ra­tions

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