After having spent years training as a fashion journalist and working in London as a music editor, I was ready to escape city life. I returned to my Sussex/ Kent roots to work for a children’s charity and then as a personal assistant for a family in Rye. They had an old-fashioned cutting garden and could see how much I loved the flowers. They often asked me to make arrangements and posies for their dinner party guests, sending me on a Sarah Raven flower arranging course, which became the catalyst for everything. I met a lady on the course who gave me the inspiration to believe in myself. She told me to “be bold.” She saw something in me and spurred me on to follow my heart.
Within weeks of finishing the course, I started hounding flower shops in Rye and Tunbridge Wells, offering to work for free in my spare time in exchange for experience. I already had an eye for color and detail but the opportunities gave me the technical sharpness that I was missing.
At the same time, the organizers of Benenden Music Festival, held near the cottage I’ve lived in for six years, asked me to help out with floral displays. I needed some baskets to finish the look, which is how I met Emma and Monty, owners of The Walled Nursery, who agreed to provide free baskets in exchange for tickets. We got to know each other and they invited me to come and look at their workshop space in the nursery.
My work is all about expression. What I create is what I would want to buy.
Eventually, Emma and Monty extended an opportunity to rent the old head gardener’s estate office. The quiet, barn-like outbuilding still had the original seed cabinet on the wall — with all its antique brass letters for storing seeds alphabetically — and its original old French slope desk. These pieces of history captivated me, and the slightly scruffy lived-in feel made it the perfect place for me to have the freedom to create. The location is wonderful. I am surrounded by plant-filled, Victorian glasshouse nurseries, countryside, and more recently, by the addition of the Vinery Café, which encourages customers to visit us as a destination.
Astilbe & Sorrel launched in April 2014 — just 12 months after the flower arranging course. It all came together so quickly; I didn’t have time to worry. Life is much busier now, but I am so much richer emotionally for doing what I truly love. All my ideas are unplanned. Designs flow with what is available seasonally, and it is rare for me to make the same bouquet twice. I buy online from international flower sellers and from a local cutting garden in Benenden. A lot of thought goes into each design. I am very picky about fragrance and color palettes, and my designs all sit together tonally. There is a huge sense of fulfillment when customers are moved by my work. That “wow” moment makes it worth all the energy and hard work.
I had launched with just £2,000 of savings, doing all my own buying, marketing and promotion. My varied career background and skill set has really helped save money by doing most things in house. I did invest in my logo, which was created by a friend who designs graphics for record sleeves. Social media has been really key, as has interest from local schools. Saint Ronan’s, Benenden and Marlborough House have been invaluable for introducing me to an appreciative customer base.
My designs range from simple bouquets and seasonal door wreaths to elaborate country wedding and party marquee setups (think ceiling garlands of delphinium, larkspur and roses; scented jasmine bridges and floral woodland gazebo canopies. It is understated and elegant; always beautiful but never ostentatious. The name Astilbe is one of my favorite flowers, and Sorrel is a word I just love — as well as being a wild edible foliage often featured in my work.
With workshops planned for the spring and talks about launching a mail-order delivery service at some stage in the future, it is likely that Astilbe & Sorrel’s fresh style could be welcomed on a national stage. In the meantime, I am about to move house, awaiting the arrival of my first baby and midway through writing a children’s book.
P.S. I Love This!
Customers’ reactions when they first enter the shop: Some stand and inhale the scent of pistachio leaves, fresh mint, foliage, seasonal flowers and scented roses. Others get up close to check if the roses are real.
If you have a burning desire to turn a passion into a business but have limited funds to get off the ground, some of the following pointers may help.
Explore your interests. My ex-employer’s garden was the catalyst for change. If you find something that inspires you, take time to work out exactly which part of it excites you.
Believe in yourself. The best advice I was given was to “be bold.” Half the battle getting started is believing you can do it.
Learn to wear many hats. Do as much as possible to save money and to understand your business as closely as possible.
Don’t skimp on brand image. Invest in a standout design for your brand. This is a customer’s first interaction, so you need to look professional.
Go for a cost-effective work site. Get to know local farmers or landholders who might be able to offer you cheap rental premises away from expensive main-street locations. You will be amazed by what doors could open.
Optimize buying channels. I buy local flowers from a nearby cutting garden, which supports local business and brings seasonal flora and fauna to my area. I also order on a weekly basis from my international flower suppliers who deliver direct. Being local and independent does not mean limited choice.
Buy in limited runs. Ordering can be stressful, and quantities can make or break a business. I began small, buying seven different varieties at a time before determining what sells best. Being able to use stock together ensures you can create an end product. Time allows you to perfect buying skills and helps you to be braver with your decisions.
Be inspired. Keep an eye on what is happening in in your own yard, further afield and internationally. Local does not mean parochial. I follow global trends in fashion and lifestyle.
Find your customer base. I was lucky to attract the attention of three local schools and found a group of regular customers that appreciated my use of style and color. This initial footfall was important to get the brand started. It’s also important, however, to not rely solely on one customer stream. I am always looking for ways to reach new customers. Try local interior fairs, pop-up shops and community and seasonal events to take your brand out to a new audience.
Think big. Save profits and plan for the future. Starting local does not mean remaining local. Use social media, PR and press coverage opportunities to create national awareness, so that by the time you are ready financially to take your brand out to a national audience, awareness will be established.
Collaborate. Link with local, like-minded businesses that have a similar customer philosophy. The power of shared or collaborative thinking can be very rewarding.
Employ like-minded individuals. I have worked hard to find an assistant who can work alongside me to help grow the business. You cannot do everything yourself on a day-to-day basis and expect to also have space for strategical future planning.
Look for new channels to promote your message. My skills as a wordsmith and my creative eye could lead to book deals or feature opportunities. Use your creative talents to sow ideas for future initiatives. Who knows where your start-up could end up?
Take yourself out of your comfort zone. Keep pushing yourself and your abilities for bigger and better projects. I am now doing large-scale events that three years ago would have seemed unimaginable.
Improve your business acumen to optimize financial return. Seek advice from experts and be sensible with your pricing. Don’t undersell your creativity; this is the basis of your future success. Websites such as StartUpNation.com and Entrepreneur.com offer valuable expert advice for new businesses.
Provide outstanding customer service. Be the reason customers keep returning. With satisfied customers, new leads will multiply.