Earlier this year I was contacted by the Sarah Raven team: would I like to work with them? I pulled on my wellies, added a smudge of soil to my cheek and asked what time I should arrive. They sweetly explained that they were more hoping for my expertise with regards to styling and writing rather than actual flower propagation, I slowly removed my over the elbow leather gardening gloves and glumly sat down to look through their beautiful brochure.
I was grinning by page two and positively salivating by page three. She doesn’t just create the best seeds, bulbs and seedlings, oh no! This lady has created a world of beauty from twinkling glass vases to French linen napkins, candlesticks to notebooks, all in Sarah’s (she is my new best friend so it’s fine for me to call her this, In fact, I suspect she forgot to ask me to call her “Saz”) beautiful colour combinations.
I have been working with them ever since, marauding their homewares and ridiculously perfect garden offerings so one can well imagine the skippity hoppity dance I performed when I was invited to a press day at Perchill. Then I realised that I was far too scared to leave my cottage alone so I press ganged Karen (flowersandlifestylebymargot) into coming with me and we bravely ventured forth (once I had driven round the roundabout twice…just for safety).
An archway of dreams that leads to a garden beyond your wildest dreams (although I nearly didn’t make it past the truly beautiful farmhouse – we espied lampshades of linen bliss and painted Hungarian benches, ancient flagstones and a hotchpotch of wax jackets and wellies…frankly I am amazed we restrained ourselves from storming the house).
Sarah and her family bought Perchill 28 years ago, They found a “ramshackle ex-dairy farm with a lot of concrete, corrugated iron and not much else” and over time have converted the farm into an organic 90 acres, putting in many new hedges on old lines, trying to encourage wild flowers into the meadows and introducing a herd of Sussex cattle and a flock of Romney cross sheep. The legendary gardener Christoper Lloyd of nearby Great Dixter visited when Sarah and her family first moved in and exclaimed “You have bought a beautiful house but a bl**dy awful garden”!!!
I was aware of how passionate Sarah is about growing flowers and vegetables, I was aware of what an extraordinary reputation she has in the gardening world and like so many I look forward to her catalogue every season, pouring over the numerous bulbs and seeds and seedlings that will fill my cottage garden with joy. I was unaware of just how much work goes into making this all happen and just how hands on Sarah is with every flower and bulb. From picking the next Dahlia combination from the fields of Holland to watering the garden with her team of 4 gardeners three hours a time twice a week (or something similarly impressive – my number deficient brain struggled with the maths).
We were fortunate enough to be given a talk by Sarah about her journey, her radical transformation of how we view “old fashioned” varieties of flowers. When she first visited the tulip fields and Dahlia fields in Holland she was amazed by the mainstream gardening companies whose male representatives would pick out the traditional red and yellow colours each time. She talked about being presented with personalised stakes on arrival that you then put into the ground next to the varieties that one would like to order. Each trip, Sarah noticed that she was the only buyer picking the more colourful, exuberant varieties. very sweetly she mentioned the heartache suffered with varieties that if not picked would never see the light of sunshine in a garden.
“I never tire of our ever-expanding range of dahlias. We are involved with both tulip and dahlia breeding programmes now and selecting ones that we — and we think our customers — will love. I love and am inspired by trips to the trial fields”
Interestingly – and I think this is crucial to why she is so successful – Sarah mentioned in passing that most companies will pick the bulbs that are one size down when selecting for their catalogues but she will always buy the biggest bulb size so that it will be the healthiest and the most likely to flourish. This completely explains why all my seeds, tubers and bulbs from Sarah Raven do so well. I am always amazed that they all grow in my garden (my astonishment has nothing to do with me being annually late in my sowing and constantly forgetting to water them).
Sarah is bringing out a new book to complement her Times bestselling “A Year Full of Flowers”, called “A Year Full of Veg” it is a beautiful, concise and full of genius suggestions and simple instructions for becoming more self sustaining at home. She shares the most reliable and bountiful varieties of veg to grow with planning inspiration and harvesting advice. That’s it! I am onboard! Forget the sad Father-in-law donated runner beans that withered away to open reproach over the summer, I am finally going to have a huge veg patch so that I never need to shop again…or I might just start with the spinach and herbs and salads that she suggests…
After an extraordinary tour of this inspirational garden – every inch is perfectly used, with supports taken from the local wood rather than bamboo – each flower has a story (“This Dahlia was named for my second daughter – my eldest daughter didn’t want a flower named for her…until her sister lent her name to one, and then she decided she quite wanted to be involved!”), every corner raises a gasp. Sarah has created a haven of tranquillity and beauty. is it any wonder that Karen and I straggled slightly on the tour? It was all too beautiful “You have brought this upon yourself Raven!” I yelled from surprisingly far back as we legged it to catch up.
Lunch followed the tour with an incredible demonstration by Sarah of home made whizzed up what to do with all your tomatoes Gazpacho soup – utterly delicious. Once I had got over the fright of realising that I had been sat next to Saz, I was able to relax and enjoy some truly delicious, home grown food and added a little cheeky poppy seed to my teeth to put her at her ease whilst we chatted about her academic father who inspired her love of all things botanical.
After lunch we had another sneaky wander around the gardens (naturally we pretended that we lived there and took a gazillion photos of each other wafting through flowers of abundant joy. We also snuck back to take another look at the extraordinary painting that Alice Boggis- Rolfe was creating in front of our very eyes using Dahlias from Sarah’s garden. Alice Boggis-Rolfe paints subjects from vast open landscapes to quiet, intimate interiors and still-lifes. She says that she spent her twenties travelling the world with her paints, holding exhibitions back in London between trips but it wasn’t until her husband gently pointed out that she could find beauty in her back garden that she began to paint incredible floral fancies. In real life Alice is utterly delightful, happily daubing away whilst a frenzy of floral mad groupies drool at her easel, asking about the Dahlias, why she chose the beautiful dark background and other incisive questions like “how long has this taken you to paint?”. She answered all my questions with a beautiful smile and shy, quiet answers. Thank you gorgeous super talented lady. I am very excited to see more of this wonderful collaboration between two amazing ladies who share a passion for colour and florals.
Alice and Sarah are running a silent auction for this beautiful painting to raise funds for charities Twigs and Something To Look Forward To until the 25th September. Go to https://www.sarahraven.com/inspiration/painting-auction-22 to learn more.
Sarah is an extraordinary force of nature, from Doctor to Gardener to champion of sustainable living, she has an energy that matches her amazing journey and is a truly lovely person to boot. it was only on her third “Thank you so much for coming” did we realise that perhaps we were meant to leave…
Thank you Sarah Raven for a beautifully magical day. Even the three hour drive home on real life motorways didn’t quell the feeling of walking on air, I met some wonderfully inspiring people who were all incredibly lovely and was surrounded by beauty wherever I looked. A week and a half later and I am still dancing with Dahlias and thoroughly inspired to create a new veg patch and tread lightly in this amazing lady’s welly steps.