An Interview with Sarah Raven

This summer I had the honor of interviewing one of my all time favorite people, Sarah Raven! If you don’t already know who she is, you must look her up. Sarah is the author of two amazing cut flower books:  The Cutting Garden: Growing and Arranging Garden Flowers and Grow Your Own Cut Flowers. She runs a successful school from her farm in England where she teaches growing, flower arranging and cooking courses, she has built a thriving mail-order business selling everything from her favorite seeds to all 5 of her books, she writes for numerous publications, appears on BBC’s Gardener’s World, and recently has been hard at work promoting locally grown flowers throughout the UK. In a nutshell, this woman is a dynamo!

I have always wondered, how did you come to working with flowers? Were you a floral designer before you began growing your own material?

My father was a fanatical amateur botanist and plant collector so I grew up in a plantsman’s garden and always loved picking flowers. My father was often ill and as a young girl, I used to pick him a bunch of flowers from the garden which he could then have beside his bed.

As an adult I trained to be a doctor, but got pregnant with my first child in my first houseman year. I could not complete that part of my medical training before she was born so took 18 months out to be with her. It was during this down time that I set up a very small-scale floristry business supplying hand-tied bunches to offices, restaurants and private clients wanting lovely, interesting flowers. This was really picking up on a passion for having flowers in the house instilled in me very early on.

With the business in London doing well, I went back to finish my medical training (half time) and moved to a farm in Sussex (Perch Hill). There I started growing flowers to supply the business which was fun and easy to fit around having a new baby. When I got pregnant with my second child, I decided farm and family would win over medicine and gave up. That’s when I really launched into growing cut flowers and discovered that there wasn’t a book telling me which plants to grow and how to do it, so I wrote one! My husband is a writer so he helped me structure the book.

Did you have any idea when you were writing your first book (The Cutting Garden) in 1996 that you would end up where you are today? With a thriving garden and cookery school, a mail-order company, writing for The Daily Telegraph, having published 5 gorgeous books and regularly appearing on ‘Gardeners’ World’— was there a plan behind all of this or did you just follow your heart?

I never had a plan. New challenges appear organically and I decide to go with them (usual) or not (rare). My accountant has now trained me a bit better about thinking ahead and not just plunging in, but that is not my nature, it’s a discipline I’ve had to learn. It may all be gone tomorrow and we’ll go and live a very simple life in Crete!

Can you tell me a little about your garden at Perch Hill?  How do you keep it producing food and flowers for so much the year without having any gaps? What is your method of organization and does it take any army of gardeners to maintain?

The garden is divided into a cutting garden, 2 veg gardens, one small herb garden, a fruit garden orchard, and 2 purely ornamental gardens. It is intensive and highly productive for at least 9 months of the year, and less so—but still produces—for the other 3 months of the year. This is achieved by stocking the gardens with a high percentage of cut-and-come-again annuals, both edible and cut flowers. These crop heavily for a few months and are then removed and replaced by another hard-working plant almost ready to crop.

A number of ASCFG members would like to offer flower arranging and growing workshops to their customers as well as growing cut flowers. Could you share how you began doing yours, how you promote them, what the most popular topics are and the basic content?

I began my courses with people hearing what I was doing and asking me to teach them. It started very small, but it seemed a good way to help pay for the garden and I found I loved teaching.

I started with 3-day courses, but they have been phased out as it makes it expensive—3 days of a course and a hotel for 3 or 4 nights. We now do mainly one-day courses, with a few over 2 days, but try to have linked subjects on consecutive days so if people are traveling from far (or abroad) they can come to 2 or 3 days in a row. My most popular courses are Year Round Veg and The Cutting Garden, but cooking from the garden is increasingly in demand now.

(We could maybe do 3 days in the spring or even 4 covering 1. veg 2. cut flowers  3. cooking and 4. flower arranging and you could arrange a group of you to come and see for yourself.)

One of the things I love most about your floral and garden design is the adventurous approach you take when working with color and texture. I know many growers often struggle with color and ingredient combinations when making mixed bouquets, wanting them to be exciting and vibrant but yet pleasing to the eye. Do you have any suggestions on how to achieve this or favorite combinations you use regularly?

I love arranging one species on its own—in single-stem vases so you can see each flower on its own, or in a large vase with lots of stems cut to all different heights so you create a heart and a horizon, or three— one foliage and two flowers of the same color, but a different shape.

If I’m wanting to make a more sumptuous arrangement, I always use the same recipe when combining color:

Three foliages—all different and interesting, but almost always have at least one in acid-green. I call these:

•  Primary foliage— provides the structure, shape and skeleton to the bunch.
•  Filler foliage—a different color and shape.
•  Upper Storey—gives an interesting silhouette : grass, seed pod, etc.

Three flowers:

•  The Bride—the main point of the bunch.
•  The Bridesmaid—same color, but not as glamorous, to back up the bride but not compete with her.
•  The Gatecrasher—a strong color contrast to bring the whole thing to life.

Fall is one of the biggest flower buying seasons but with the decreasing daylight and cooler temperatures many flowers do not keep blooming in abundance. Your mail-order nursery offers an incredible collection of chrysanthemums, reported to provide bloom from September through Christmas. Could you share your favorite varieties, whether you grow them inside or out and any tips or tricks we should know about (pinching, spacing etc.)?

I love the spider chrysanths best of all, in the unusual colors. ‘Shamrock’ is incredible in acid-green and we have grown this inside and out. I also love ‘Seaton’s Galaxy’, in purple and green, plus ‘Flyaway’ in white and pink. But again there are many, many varieties. (Editor’s note: see link in sidebar.)

Will you be offering any of your products to growers outside the UK in the near future? There are a number of seed varieties and signed books that I would love to be able to order but have so far have not had luck. I know other American growers are equally interested.

We could do it, but the carriage is high.  Maybe we can arrange a special for your readers.

What are your favorite books and sources for information on growing and conditioning cut flowers? Did all of your knowledge come from firsthand experience and extensive trialing or are you able to glean any information from other places?

Honest truth is I haven’t really found any books, which is why we have to do so much trialing at Perch Hill. You may know some, but our most crucial technique to preserve—particularly the more delicate varieties—is searing the stem end for 30 seconds in boiling water.

On average how many trials do you conduct a year? It seems that you are always coming up with some new treasure and I am curious about how you keep finding new varieties and information.

We do maybe about 10 trials a year, into edibles and cut flowers. I’m always on the lookout (when traveling or talking to people) for interesting sounding veg and recipes to cook them. Similarly with flowers, I always have my eyes peeled for a new flower in the wholesale market and then trial more interesting varieties of them.

What do you do with the excess flowers coming out of your cutting garden? I know that many of them are used in your flower arranging courses through the school but do you also sell them at farmers’ markets, to florists or visitors?

We use them in courses and for decorating the school. The staff picks them to take home and when we are quiet, we encourage charities to come and pick flowers for their fund raisers, dances, etc. The flowers are there, but they are time-consuming to pick, so in the end we found it wasn’t economic to supply farm shops and farmers’ markets.

My last question is about how you juggle having a family, time for yourself and a thriving business. There was a very in-depth conversation among growers a few months back on the ASCFG Bulletin Board about this. Many growers felt that raising their children in a natural/rural environment and having their kids participate on the family farm was an extremely positive thing while others had a lot of guilt, feeling that they had somehow robbed them of a normal life. I’ve also spoken with countless mothers who anguish daily over pursuing their passions, being a good mother and trying being in the moment as much a possible. Do you struggle with having to be all things all of the time; grower, teacher, creator, business woman, author, mother and wife? How do you keep it all in balance and still find time for yourself? Do you feel that your children have benefitted from the exposure to nature that farm life has provided them and by watching their mother follow her dreams?

This is indeed a tricky area. To start with I juggled family and work. I am lucky that I wake very early in the morning and so could get a couple of hours done before the children needed me. Then, when the business was growing fast, I went through a phase of having a full-time (and lovely and loving) nanny to help me with the children. I was around (as was my husband Adam who is a writer) in and out, but in the day Anna (the nanny) read, played, and hung out with the children. This went on till the youngest was about 8 (as I needed help in the holidays – she is now 12) but since then Adam and I have juggled our work around them and I try not to work for most of the school holidays, or do so only for half a day. The eldest (Rosie, who is now 15) loves color and fashion and may well end up designing textiles or something like that. The youngest (Molly) is maybe more earthy and likes picking veg and a bit of cooking, but it’s a bit early to tell what her passions will be.

There is no doubt that at times they’ve found it difficult me working very full time (many mothers in their schools don’t work at all) but now as they get older, they quite like that I have an interesting life.

Sarah’s fabulous mail-order business. Be sure to check out the section titled ‘Sarah’s Article’ for a real treat!  
Sarah’s garden and cookery school. My favorite part is the garden gallery.

Sarah’s article on chrysanthemums.
Cutting Garden: Growing and Arranging Garden Flowers and Grow Your Own Cut Flowers are both available from Amazon.

Erin Benzakein


Erin Benzakein is the owner of floret, a floral design company and specialty cut flower farm in Mt. Vernon, Washington.
Contact her at [email protected]