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Seeds and Dried Flowers

I’m writing this on a table completely surrounded by seed packets. Hundreds of them, filed by species in cardboard boxes, brim full and threatening to burst into a massive flowery meadow all over the carpet. Our grow room, my old studio, is full of light, 24 daylight tubes brightly emulating spring sunshine and warmth are gently coaxing hundreds of trays of seedlings into life.

As usual, we’re sowing our seeds into soil blocks, using an ingenious device to create tiny cubes of compost, 40 of which fit neatly in small lidded freezer boxes. The seedlings germinate swiftly in these conditions. Each first pair of leaves with it’s own characteristics, shape, rhythm and fresh rich shade of green. Every day brings a fresh flush of welcome new varieties, some old friends, some new discoveries but always a thrilling moment in the year.

Some get special treatment. Our Sweet Peas are soaked overnight and then sprouted on wet tissue in our ubiquitous freezer boxes before going into their tall paper pots. Delphiniums, often a tricky one to get started, get the wet tissue treatment too. We’ve just managed to germinate a tray of the delicious pale blue Clivedon Beauty this way and are starting off another batch or two.

We sow fresh batches in succession to extend the flowering season, last year’s Foxglove seedlings are joined by those raised in January, February and March, maybe later.

It’s such an exciting time of the year, that these tiny seeds should give us a whole summer, literally acres of colour, is a never ending miracle and to be an intimate part of that process is one of life’s true joys.

At, almost literally, the other end of the spectrum is the joy of dried flowers. To be honest, dried flowers didn’t even enter our heads when we dreamt up the idea of running a cut flower farm. They soon did though. I found one visiting florist poking through our compost heap, excitedly teasing tall dead mallow stems out of the pile. “You should be saving and drying these!” Oh ok.

Having an old corrugated iron grain silo as our HQ, office, studio and shed is rather fun but it is also very cramped but suddenly it had to take on another role, that of drying shed. Luckily the silo is tall, so I strung up a series of wires across the inside of the yurt like roof and we started to experiment.

Neither Helen nor I knew anything about drying flowers but the silo offered a fantastic space to learn. It’s actually about perfect. The flowers are out of direct sunshine but dry very rapidly in the heat inside, which seems to help to keep the flower’s colour. Last summer was an incredible one for growing the flowers that we would dry. We grew Statice in pale and dark blues, violets, apricots and yellows, it grew rapidly in the heat and was incredibly drought tolerant. We used a huge amount of it fresh, it never flags in the vase and has such an incredible range of colours. Amazingly we took four harvests of Statice to dry last year, hundreds of stems that we’ve used and sold all winter long.

Another drought tolerant plant is the Strawflower, Helichrysum. We had two 8 metre beds of these last year and didn’t water them at all. The hose didn’t reach that far! It didn’t hold them back. Customers made a beeline for them, we worried that we wouldn’t have enough to dry. We used hundreds in bouquets, posies and they were so useful for creating flower crowns and buttonholes in the searing temperatures of last summer. Later as we created our Christmas wreaths we had no shortage of beautiful ingredients.

Pretty much everything growing in the garden has been hung up in the silo, grasses, rushes, sea lavender, eucalyptus, echinacea, rudbeckias, candytuft, sunflowers, dahlias… Not everything works, we still have a lot to learn but one thing’s for sure, it looks amazing hanging in great theatrical curtains. I can’t resist lighting it with our stage lights.

So this year there’s an even bigger box of dried flower seeds in front of me and trays of their seedlings in the polytunnel, waiting for the warmer temperatures to arrive so that they can start to strut their stuff.

©Paul Stickland First published in the Sherborne Times March 2019

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