In Garden Gathered floral designer and flower farmer Helen Leighton shares her secrets for growing, drying and designing sustainably with flowers. This article first appeared in Issue 9 of ele Magazine, The Green Edition.
1. Tell us about the inspiration behind your book Garden Gathered.
I actually had no intention of writing a book! I started to keep a journal about the garden at the start of lockdown in autumn 2020. I had fully intended to make time to attend a meditation/mindfulness group after a hectic year of weddings but had to pivot my ideas. I started to journal and loved how it focused my mind on observing the garden, birds, and environment. So often, we run around, busy, neglecting to savor the small moments of life. During this time, I sought to improve my photography skills. I desired to document the garden and my floral designs. Covid meant that many zoom opportunities arose to engage with fellow creatives. Weddings were postponed, and it allowed for creative play with the bounty of the garden. It was also a time when we became more focused on community and the importance of supporting those people and the connections we had made over time. An ‘accidental’ book project but one that I have thoroughly enjoyed. I am thrilled to have partnered with Sarah and Camille from The Flower Press as publishers of this Australian-made book.
2.Your photography and floral work are visually stunning, do you have any tips you can share on how we can create floral arrangements at home without formal training?
One doesn’t need formal training to bring the outside in. A few leaves in a vase or herbs from the garden add the perfect complementary touch to interior spaces. I suggest mixing different foliage shapes and sizes in a vase as a starting point. Aim for an arrangement that is one and a half to two times larger than the vase. Add three to five focal flowers and a few light accents or smaller blooms in a colour palette that suits the décor in the room.
3.What are some challenges in owning a farm and gardening with the seasons?
Gardening with the seasons is the ideal way to garden. Growing plants suited to the climate that you live in is the key. Whilst I would love to grow peonies, the climate here is simply unsuitable. Embrace what you can grow and enjoy the process. Water/pump issues difficulties are the most frustrating issue for me. The pumps we rely on have a nasty habit of failing anytime we plan time away from the farm. This creates last-minute headaches and stress. We don’t have access to a mains water supply and rely on water held in tanks from our roof catchment and an on-farm soak dam. We tend not to plan time off during the summer.
We don’t use polytunnels or glasshouses as our climate is relatively mild, and we only have very occasional mild frosts. I start my spring seeds early, overwintering them under the canopy of a large eucalyptus tree, planting out in late winter.
4. Can you share your tips on how to grow and farm flowers more sustainably?
Soil health is of utmost importance for growing flowers sustainably. We enrich the soil with a mix of well-rotted animal manures and compost before applying a thick layer of pea hay from a nearby farmer each winter. This suppresses weed growth and feeds the earth as it decomposes. To reduce water usage, we use sub-mulch irrigation, ensuring the water is available to the plants’ roots and doesn’t evaporate. Use organic fertilizers enhanced with soil microbes as directed.
Our gardens are surrounded by shelter belts of native and indigenous plantings which support a varied ecosystem of insects, bees, frogs and birdlife. This has the added advantage of keeping pests to a minimum. By encouraging healthy plant growth and a robust ecosystem, plants generally remain very healthy.
In the cutting garden areas where flowers are grown more intensively, we have gravel paths and woodchip paths which assist in keeping beds free of grass invasion. It is an expense to keep these topped up but generally a chore that only needs to be done every couple of years. It is essential to keep up with removing weeds as they sprout before they set seed, mulching assists in keeping the weed load to a minimum.
Which native Australian flowers do you recommend for home vase arrangements?
My favorite and easy-to-grow natives for arranging are kangaroo paws and grevilleas. The hybrid grevilleas from Queensland are generous with their blooms, and the birds love them. Both benefit from a little supplementary water over the dry summer months. Once weekly, water is generally sufficient. In fact, our grevilleas are not watered at all. They are best deadheaded frequently to ensure an ongoing supply of flowers. Both these species can cause mild skin irritation when handled, so I suggest always wearing gloves when arranging with them. The kangaroo paws and grevilleas are available in various colourways to suit everyone!
To see more about Helen and her work, visit here.