In introducing U.K.-based author and entrepreneur Sarah Raven to a U.S. audience, I suppose it is easy to make comparisons to Martha Stewart. After all, both are fabulous cooks, fantastic gardeners and phenomenally successful businesswomen. Both are television personalities and authors of multiple books. Both women are the face and name of their business and have built successful brands in their respective countries. Interestingly, as I was preparing this post I discovered that both were history majors as undergraduates. And both are on the shortlist of people whose brands and business acumen I most admire.
Sarah Raven’s books include Grow Your Own Cut Flowers, The Cutting Garden, The Bold and Brilliant Garden, The Great Vegetable Plot and In Season. Her most recent book, Good Good Food, came out earlier this year. The book combines Sarah’s medical training (she is also formally trained as a doctor) with her love of growing and cooking fresh, healthy food.
I first discovered Sarah Raven books at my local library. It was at the very beginning of my flower farming journey and I was looking for any information I could find on germinating difficult flowers, selecting the best varieties for cutting and growing super long-stemmed blooms. From the first moment I opened her book, I was mesmerized. Her books, website and videos continue to mesmerize me, yet today. (If you aren’t already familiar, be sure to check out her award-winning website—it is beautifully laid out and has tons of great gardening information, video tutorials and advice.) Even after a decade of collecting flower books, Grow your Own Cut Flowers is still one of my very favorites.
I’ve been massive fan of Sarah Raven for many years, and I’ve long dreamed of having the opportunity to meet her. While an in-person meeting isn’t in the cards just yet, I was nonetheless thrilled to have the opportunity to do an interview with her for this space.
Erin: Sarah, thank you so very much for sitting down with me today. It is a tremendous honor to conduct this interview with you, as I admire you and your business so much. For years, I have looked to the Sarah Raven brand as sort of the gold standard and to this day it is a bright and shining star that my little flower company looks up to for guidance and inspiration. Perusing the seeds, seedlings, and plants, plus great gardening tools, gifts and floral design supplies that you offer in your online shop can be pretty torturous to a flower addict like me, especially knowing that that your products aren’t available here in the U.S. (Here’s a confession: desperate to at least have one of your catalogs, I actually bribed a friend to slip a few in her suitcase while she was over there). I’m a sucker for paper catalogs and yours didn’t disappoint. I want one (or seven) of everything in it! Could you talk a little bit about the evolution of your business—from where it started to where it is now. And then maybe a bit—if you are willing—about your vision for the future.
Sarah Raven: I started the business twenty years ago. It began with the book I wrote then, The Cutting Garden, about growing flowers for the house. Since I was a small girl, I’ve always picked things from my parent’s beautiful garden and put them in mini bud vases in the middle of our huge kitchen table. BUT my father was a botanist and plant collector and grew many precious and rare plants. The trouble with me – with my random snipping – is I could not tell the difference between something very precious that he was growing to collect the seed, and something he would not mind two hoots if I picked. I sometimes made mistakes! Once I had my own mini garden when working as a medical doctor in London, I started to see how marvelous cut-and-come-again plants were — things you could pick one day and as long as you harvested them in the right place, they’d just grow back again the following week for you to pick more flowers again. AND the key thing was, you were not stealing the view. I’d had that guilt bred into me by my dad, so it was a wonderful relief to find plants where the reverse was the case. I could pick and that would make the view even better, stopping the plant running to seed. I was live, not dead-heading and perpetuating the harvest. Like an ever-filling cup, they’re the plants for the optimist and the basis of everything I do.
I started teaching a few keen gardeners in our farmhouse in East Sussex. They then wanted me to supply them interesting seeds that, was then, tricky to get. And they wanted the vase I’d put flowers in in the loo too. So that’s what I started doing, importing seeds and vases, tubers and containers from around the world to sell.
Erin: You conduct extensive plant trials in your gardens at Perch Hill prior to offering them on your site. Can you tell me more about your process of trialling new varieties? What are a few recent discoveries that have really excited you?
Sarah Raven: There is a bit of a scientist in me – as there is with my head gardener here at Perch Hill, Josie Lewis. We both love a trial, where you’ll see rows and rows of different cultivars, all from one family, some new, some old, so you can work out which you like best, and find out how they look and perform over the whole season. This year it’s been picking echinaceas, new dahlias, carrots and florist’s alstroemeria and I love the whole process. Echinaceas such as Green Envy, Harvest Moon, Hot Samba and many others have reigned supreme this year, lasting for five months in the garden and three weeks in the vase.
I also travel, particularly in Holland at least twice a year, on the hunt for great and interesting new colours and plants. I’ve just got back from a dahlia trip to The Netherlands, visiting show fields and individual breeders, so that we can work with them to cultivate new varieties I love and think our customers would too.
The thing we’re now known for are our small plant collections, groups of three or more varieties which look good and grow together well. Whether its stuff for a great container, a bunch of dahlias, sweet peas or tulips, it’s the combinations people come to us for. It’s essential – and more interesting – for us to keep ahead of the pack, so that’s why going straight to the breeders is key. And then bringing plants back here to try in our own climate to really check out how they do.
Erin: Having recently turned in my manuscript for my book, I have a newfound appreciation for the amount of time and effort and research that goes into writing, producing, and really envisioning a book from start to finish. I know you have a new cook book that just came out—congratulations! Tell me more about it.
Sarah Raven: It’s a massive book, full of a huge amount of up to date medical research and trialling on the positive nutrition of food. I selected 125 top healthy and tasty ingredients and created 250 recipes based on those. There are some truly new recipes and some that are just healthier adaptions of well-known classics. There’s a potato dauphinoise in here for example, made not with white potatoes and lashings of thick double cream, but with sweet potatoes, ginger and coconut milk, just as tasty, but only half the calories and double the nutrition. It’s about food for longevity, food for pleasure, but with a health angle too.
Erin: Do you see any additional flower gardening books in your future?
Sarah Raven: I am just starting to work on a new book The Colour Garden, which will include not only the close-to-my heart stained glass window palette of blues, purples, carmines and oranges, but some softer, more romantic smoky colours in it too. In my view, these two different palettes need to be kept strictly apart. I think anything white, or with a good dollop of white mixed in, does not work with rich, dark velvet colours. They just compete, rather than enrich and back each other up, the whites or near whites jumping forward in a visually aggressive way. But both palettes are supremely beautiful in the garden if you get the right mix. That’s what this mainly picture book will be about, inspiring ideas (I hope!) from plant, pot and vase combinations, shot here over the last ten years.
Erin: One of the biggest lessons for me was working with a photographer who shared my vision, understood my style, and allowed me the space to set up the types of shots I wanted (oh, and who also understood and appreciated my quirks!) I have noted that photographer Jonathan Buckley has worked with you on most of your books. I’d love to know more about your working relationship with him and the creative process of bringing your books to life and pairing your writing with his images.
Sarah Raven: Jonathan and I have worked on all the books I’ve done in the last 18 years. My first book The Cutting Garden I did with the brilliant Pia Tryde, but Jonathan and I have been a team ever since. We have a two or three day shoot every three weeks or so, from the end of March till the end of October, every year and he often comes with me on my trips abroad, so we can shoot all the new things when I first find them. He does all the photography for my business, as well as all my books including Wild Flowers and my food books too. That’s very unusual, for a photographer to swap their genres, but Jonathan and I work out what look we want, hoping to move it on from our last project a little, but keeping the same sort of overall feel. The background – that’s in the back of shot – is key with garden photography – that’s Jonathan’s genius and it’s why it’s so important that almost everything is shot at Perch Hill.
Erin: Earlier this year, I posted a list of best books for beginning farmer-florists, which of course included your book, Grow Your Own Cut Flowers. I’d love to know what would be on your list of recommendations reads. Are there any titles—gardening, business, or otherwise—that really make your heart sing?
Sarah Raven: I love really practical books and my top favourite when I started out was Christopher Lloyd’s Growing from Seed. It taught me in detail what I wanted to know about germination and growing on to make healthy, vigorous seedlings and so productive plants.
Erin: I have enjoyed following the success of fellow farmer-florists in the U.K., particularly Green and Gorgeous and The Blue Carrot, among others. I have to imagine that increased public awareness from your television shows and books, plus campaigns like British Flowers Week are helping to raise the public profile of local, seasonal flowers and the hardworking folks that grow them. Do you believe the popularity of seasonal flowers to be short-term trend for a niche market or a part of a larger and long-term cultural shift–or maybe something somewhere in between? I’d love to know what do you see to be the most effective ways to change people’s minds—and ultimately their behavior—to buy British (or local) blooms first?
Sarah Raven: There does now seem to be a huge eruption of creative, stylish flower farmer florists in the UK at the moment, (I love Juliet Glaves, Melissa Richardson at Jamjar Flowers and Swallows and Damsons to name a few) and more and more modern thinking people who want their flowers possibly grown and definitely arranged by them for their big life events, like weddings. It’s so cheering to see, a massive outpouring of creativity which seemed to be hidden only five years ago. Buying local – and sustainable – those buzz words have long been fashionable with food, and finally, finally, people seem to be realising they’re just as important with the flowers you have on your table too.
Erin: With all the activities related to your books, t.v. appearances, trial gardens and garden supply company, can you tell me what a typical day like is like for you? Do you have any particular favorite tasks or projects?
Sarah Raven: I work hard and my days are long, and no day is the same as the last. I do too much, but I really love every bit of what I do. My kids are pretty much gone now, so it’s easier to fit stuff in, but trouble is, my tendency is to just keep going.
I love being an entrepreneur and having ideas of where to push the business, both in terms of the garden and cookery school and mail order. I love my business partner of 15 years, Lou Farman, and the time we have together solving problems and having new ideas. I love creating and styling new collections and photographing them with Jonathan in a way I think they look best. I love teaching and passing on what I’ve learnt to get others going with gardening and making their environment a more beautiful place to live. I love thinking through and developing the garden and the trials and walking round the garden with Josie and working out what we think has done well and what less so. And I love writing and putting together books, diving in to one area and really learning about it and then passing that knowledge on. There’s just too much of it — that’s all!
Erin: Sarah, I enjoyed this interview immensely and I can’t thank you enough for so generously sharing your knowledge with me and my readers. I hope our paths cross someday very soon.