Ask the Flower Expert – Polly Nicholson
As Ultimate Library’s expert for this month, we were lucky enough to interview Polly Nicholson who runs Bayntun Flowers, an artisan flower grower and florists, specialising in bespoke bunches made to order, they also create beautiful arrangements for parties, dinners and the occasional wedding or funeral. In addition to their private orders, they supply wholesale flowers to several top London and local florists.
Polly Nicholson grew up near Bath and went to the University of Exeter where she studied English Literature with Medieval Art and Architecture. While working in the antiquarian book department at Sotheby’s she met her husband Ed, they got married and took off to Russia for a year or so, where Polly spent her days exploring the churches and studying Russian at the University.
During a productive period in London, Polly armed herself with a diploma in horticulture at the English Gardening School and had four children. The family embraced the move out of the city to the never-ending delights and demands of an English country house with a ridiculous amount of animals, but couldn’t find a good local florist.
Starved of flowers, Polly put her studies to use and started growing her own, particularly tulips, in an obsessive fashion. Arne Maynard came on board to help design the garden, a dedicated team of gardeners was established, and Bayntun Flowers came into fruition.
1. What inspired you to start Bayntun Flowers?
The love of flowers. Growing up in rural Somerset, I spent my childhood crawling under hedgerows to pick diminutive sweet-smelling viola odorata or the native primrose. When living in a London townhouse bringing up a young family, I relied on New Covent Garden Flower Market for my floral fixes, with regular gift-wrapped bunches from my lovely husband.
Our long-awaited move to the countryside at Blacklands, a Georgian house with a series of derelict walled gardens, meant that I could indulge all my gardening and flower- growing fantasies, and I eventually channelled these in to my specialist organic business, Bayntun Flowers.
Bayntun is my maiden name, and is well known in the antiquarian book world: my great- grandfather George Bayntun founded the bindery in Bath in 1894, my father was the President of the ABA (Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association) and the business is still thriving today under the exquisite eye of my brother Edward Bayntun-Coward.
2. Could you tell us a little more about Blacklands and the philosophy behind your gardening practice?
Blacklands is a small estate of ancient parkland and fields nestled at the foot of the Marlborough Downs in Wiltshire, and is named after the black, alluvial soil which we are fortunate enough to farm on. We operate a polycultural system, growing hundreds of different flowers throughout the season, in the walled gardens and rabbit/deer-proofed fields.
Because the soil is so fertile, it is relatively easy for us to farm organically, and we are completing a period of conversion with the Soil Association UK – with only 6 months to go until we are fully certified. Water for irrigation comes from a borehole, I keep bees to aid pollination, and our small team led by head gardener Hannah Gardner complete almost every task by hand in the most environmentally friendly way possible.
We specialise in growing heritage flowers, which are not available at any of the commercial flower markets – flamed and feathered historic tulips dating back to 1620, sweet peas with small heads and the strongest of scents dating from 1699, old-fashioned English roses supported on hazel domes and much, much more besides.
3. Where do you begin and how do you go about creating a bespoke bunch or arrangement for one of your clients?
My business is divided roughly equally into wholesale orders which go to London florists such as Shane Connolly or Alexander Hoyle, and local bespoke orders for hand-tied bunches or arrangements for small, discreet events which I execute myself here.
I know nearly all of my clients personally so tailor the flowers directly to them – from the moment I start picking the flowers I do it with the client and their house and lifestyle in mind. I cut what is perfect on the day directly into galvanised buckets of water, take them back to the old coach house where I work, and then condition the flowers by removing all the bottom leaves and leave them to have a long drink in the cool. I like to have all the buckets arrayed in front of me with the flowers sorted into colours before I begin creating arrangements – my worktop resembles an artist’s palette, with endless opportunity for combining different colours and textures. Every arrangement is unique, depending on who the client is, what is in season and what sort of mood I am in on that particular day.
4. What books would you recommend to budding gardener’s out there?
I have so many books to recommend, my shelves are heaving with them! But a few of my favourites are the following:
- The Tulip By Anna Pavord (Bloomsbury, 2000)
- Tulip Species and Hybrids by Richard Wilford (Timber Press, 2006)
- Discovering the Meaning of Flowers by Shane Connolly (Clearview, 2017)
- The Land Gardeners: Cut Flowers by Bridget Elworthy and Henrietta Cortauld (Thames and Hudson, 2019)
- Vintage Flowers by Vic Brotherson (Kyle Books, 2011)
- Cultivated: The Elements of Floral Style by Christin Geall (Princeton Architectural Press, 2020)
- Floret Farm’s Cut Flower Garden by Erin Benzakein (Chronicle Books, 2017)
- Rory McEwen: The Colours of Reality by Martyn Rix (Kew Publishing, 2015)
- A New Flowering, 100 years of Botanical Art by Shirley Sherwood (Ahsmolean Museum, 2006)
- The Pressed Plant by Andre DiNoto and David Winter (Stewart, Tabori and Change, 1998)
5. We know you have a profound interest in antiquarian gardening books, which of these are your favourites and why?
I was an antiquarian book expert at Sotheby’s in my twenties, and had the opportunity to catalogue many hundreds of gardening books. When leafing through a first edition of Hohberg’s Georgica Curiosa, an encyclopaedia of country life which covered every aspect of running an estate from cooking to beekeeping and the growing of flowers and vegetables, I never expected that I would one day benefit on a practical level from the instructions given.
I collect gardening books in a minor fashion, and love poring over my collection of Vita Sackville-West and Gertrude Jekyll first editions. Jekyll’s Flower Decoration in the House, from the Country Life Library, 1907, is particularly charming and still inspires, although her Arum creations may have had their day. Collins Pocket Guide to Wild Flowers, 1956 (this first edition is a bargain at only £20) travels with me, and will be particularly useful this year of staycations, but my copy of Gerarde’s Herbal, a later edition from 1636, stays firmly at home – it is a weighty tome.
I have just been given The Art of Botanical Illustration by Wilfred Blunt, 1950, which is fuelling my interest in botanical art. I am considering taking lessons now that I have turned the grand old age of 50, but it is a case of finding the time – the flowers always need picking.
Ultimate Library would like to offer their gratitude to Polly for taking part in our ask the expert blog for this month. If you would like to find out more about Bayntun Flowers please visit their website, or you can follow them on social media @bayntunflowers.