A flower farmer and florist in Hawkes Bay have created the ultimate cottage garden with workshops for flower arranging. Rachel Clare discovers more.
When I was a child, one of my favourite books was about a little girl called Marigold who goes to stay with her godmother in the country. It turns out that her godmother isn’t a regular godmother but a fairy godmother with a green thumb who, among other enchantments, magics up an indoor pond surrounded by flowers and ferns for Marigold’s bath – a yet-to-be-fulfilled DIY aspiration of mine.
Visiting Kay Chandler (who gives off strong fairy-godmother vibes) at the explosion of petals that is her flower farm, I feel a bit like Marigold visiting her godmother’s house, but instead of quaint English countryside, we’re on rural Lawn Road in Clive, halfway between Napier and Hastings.
You could almost believe that Kay magicked this garden up out of air – it’s such an exquisite floral fantasy world of vintage cottage blooms that you want to run through it in slow motion – but Kay says she’s been developing the garden since she and her husband, Craig, moved here from town five years ago. During that time she has spent hundreds of hours transforming a bare paddock into the kind of cottage garden you only usually visit via Instagram.
This is apt because it was on Instagram that Kay discovered Erin Benzakein of world-renowned American flower farm Floret, in Washington State. Erin, who has nearly 800,000 followers on the social media platform and is about to release her third book on flower farming, has been the catalyst for flower farms popping up all around the world, including Kay’s garden, Flowers on Lawn.
“It was all a happy accident, really,” says Kay, who had no intention of starting a flower farm other than to maybe sell a few bunches alongside the children’s coats she used to make. Like many a flower fangirl and boy, she’d been admiring Floret’s gorgeous range of flower seeds, only to discover that many of them weren’t available in New Zealand. But then she noticed that Erin was selling seed of sweet-pea cultivars developed by internationally renowned Auckland plant breeder Dr Keith Hammett.
“I rang Keith, and he was coming to Hawke’s Bay. He was looking for growers and asked if I’d like to grow sweet peas for him. He provided the seed and we grew the crop and then sold the seed back to him.”
Kay, who has always enjoyed gardening, says it was a blooming success until their third summer, when just a few weeks away from harvest, heavy rain caused the ripening seed pods to rot, ruining the crop. “It was so disheartening but I’d already started to dabble with cut flowers to see what we could do with the land, and I decided I couldn’t have all my eggs in one basket.”
She began wholesaling her flowers to local florists and selling posies in nearby cafès. But she also wanted to connect with customers, so she started selling bunches at the garden gate on Thursdays and Fridays and running workshops in which people could pick flowers and make them into bouquets. “I’m loving getting the connection back myself and bringing the community into the garden,” Kay says.
She also likes to collaborate with other local artisans. In January she teamed up with artist Nina Lower, who makes flower presses, and ran a workshop for children in which they could gather flowers from the garden and learn how to press them using one of Nina’s presses, which they then got to take home.
The workshops take place inside a suitably enchanting shed that has bunches of dried flowers hanging from the ceiling, and cabinets of antique vases. Kay is a collector of all things vintage – she uses an old perambulator to transport buckets of flowers around the garden – and she’s planning workshops in which participants can create an arrangement in a Crown Lynn vase.
This Mother’s Day she’s going to run workshops for children in which they pick their own flowers and make an arrangement for their mum.
Unlike most flower farms, you won’t find a gerbera on the property. Kay grows so many roses it’s impossible for her to name a favourite, though she is particularly fond of the ‘Alnwick Rose’, along with verbascums, sweet peas, dahlias, lilacs and anemones.
“My goal is to grow all my own flowers and do all my own floristry work because that’s what stands me apart from a commercial grower or a florist. I can make my bouquets and put in all my own gorgeous garden roses. A big part of it is about the scent. Everyone has an emotional connection to plants. Someone will smell a sweet pea and say, ‘Oh my goodness – my granddad used to grow these.’”
She doesn’t know how many hours she spends in the garden. “It’s just such a part of my life. For me, it’s not so much about the monetary value. It’s always been about the connection and the beauty of it.”
One rule she abides by is to grow only what she loves and avoid being swayed by trends. “There was a particular variety of zinnia I grew last year because I thought florists would love it, and I found myself standing there looking at it, thinking, ‘I hate this. Why did I grow this?’ That was a defining moment. It’s so easy to compare yourself with what everyone else is doing and it’s taken me a little while to define my own path.”
Kay likes to capture the seasonality of gardens in her bouquets. “If all the flowers die at the same time, the bouquet doesn’t have that seasonal movement. I use a combination of flowers in different stages – some in full bloom, others that are still budding – and I also like to put in seed heads that the recipients can sow in their garden. I also like to mix fresh flowers with dried.”
When her grandchildren visit, they always leave with a bunch of flowers. “They love picking flowers and fighting over all the anemones in spring. My grandson Ardan likes to come in and pick flowers to take to his friends’ parties, which I think is so lovely – for boys to be educated around flowers. Often parents say to kids, ‘Don’t touch,’ but I say, ‘No, no, no – leave them!’ A garden should be a place that’s fun and they should enjoy it. I actually trust kids more than adults!”
You see? Definite fairy-godmother vibes.
Tips for drying flowers
- Pick flowers after any morning dew has dried, then hang them up and dry them in a dark and airy place.
- Hydrangeas, strawflowers and roses are all easy to dry but, as Kay says, “Don’t be afraid to experiment to see what works.” Try phlomis or rudbeckias too.
- Kay also dries flowers flat on paper and standing upright in wire mesh grids.