Sussex florist Georgia Miles puts frothy grasses, striking foliage and rich-hued blooms centre stage in her garden bouquets
An array of bright-coloured dahlias lie on a long table, their straight stems surrounded by rich foliage. Behind stand buckets filled with a myriad of flowers, including the delicate papery heads of Physalis alkekengi, the Chinese lantern, frothy Alchemilla mollis and white hydrangeas.
These are the tools of the trade for florist Georgia Miles, at the Sussex Flower School. Here, she teaches a range of students, from gardeners who want to improve their home-grown flower arrangements to professional florists wanting to enhance their skills.
Setting the stage
Her flower arranging has changed considerably from the days when she used to teach at East Sussex’s Plumpton College. Now her style is much freer than in the past with the main blooms being dahlias, sweet peas and English-grown flowers. “My arrangements used to feature very structured flowers, such as roses, carnations, spray chrysanthemums and lilies; typically the sort you’d easily find in supermarkets,” says Georgia. “Now, all my flowers are British grown, many grown myself. I choose types that are not quite so uniform and, because of this, my arrangements have naturally evolved into
a relaxed form.
“There’s much more awareness now of growing your own flowers, and people are increasingly wanting to know how to make more relaxed, floral, foam-free hand-tied bouquets,” she explains.
Foliage is important for these informal, country garden-style arrangements. “It’s key, so grow, cut, forage or buy it,” she advises. “Use it to create the structure of the design. The arrangement’s height and width should be created from the foliage.” Georgia uses a mixture of foliage at this time of the year, much of it from her own garden. “I like to use plenty of leaves, as they are no longer new and so are stronger and last longer once picked. Beech, silver birch and cotinus are favourites. The slow growing pittosporum is also a useful addition.” She is also fond of Clematis vitalba, often called old man’s beard and found rambling over hedges in the countryside, and laurel. Both grow in her garden. She enjoys foraging for berries, which are also used in her arrangements to add colour and different textures.
It is only once this is done that the flowers are chosen. Georgia recommends ensuring there is a mixture of different forms, so they are not all linear or round shapes. “I use a three-tier system in my arrangements,” she explains. “The focal flowers are round and include roses, dahlias and peonies. These draw the eye and are mixed with linear flowers, which are pointy, but not rigid, and provide height. Foliage is added, and grasses are a particularly good choice, as they often have an interesting curve in the stem.
“I look for plants that aren’t symmetrical, or ones that have wiggly
or twisted stems. Then I add what I call the bridesmaid, or supporting flowers, creating the third tier. These are lush and offer a transition between the focal and linear flowers.”
She particularly likes to use eustoma or lisianthus along with spray roses as these bridesmaid flowers. She suggests including anything in spray form with smaller heads.
The last step is to use what Georgia calls a filler flower. These fill any gaps, making the bouquet or arrangement look full and luxurious. “These are the flowers you might forget to buy in a shop because they seem boring and would not look pretty in a vase on their own, but they are really relevant, as they add shading to the arrangement,” she says.
Growing in abundance in her beds, in autumn, these include armfuls of pink and russet sedum, fluffy grasses, large hydrangea flowers and asters. All supply a froth of colourful flowers and foliage to perfect an autumnal bouquet.
A love of dahlias
Many of the flowers she uses in the school are grown in her own garden. Hidden behind brick walls, raised beds flourish. In the autumn, vibrant jewel-coloured dahlias, bright zinnias and large clumps of thriving perennials vie for attention.
Dahlias are Georgia’s passion and her favourite flower for cutting. “I love these flowers because there are hundreds of varieties, forms and colours,” she explains. “They are super fashionable and are cut and come again. Feed and water them well and each time one is cut, another will grow, right through to the first frost.” She grows hers in raised beds in the 50ft wide by 100ft long (15x30m) cutting garden.
“I think raised beds are easier for a cutting garden,” she says. “You can control the soil much more, and they are easier to access.” At the bottom of the South Downs, Eastbourne’s soil is chalky, with a tendency to be thin and alkaline. By growing in raised beds, she can provide better soil for plants that have to supply plenty of stems for cutting.
The walls provide both shelter and warmth for the plants, keeping the temperature inside slightly higher than it would be if the garden was open to the elements. This, added to Eastbourne’s mild southerly seaside location, means the garden rarely experiences frost.
“It’s not frost free, but we don’t tend to have severe frosts,” Georgia explains. As a result, tender plants, such as her beloved dahlias, can be left in the ground to overwinter. In fact, she found she lost more tubers through rotting when she did try to lift them, than when they were left in the beds during the colder weather. “I cut them down, make sure they are labelled, then I put a big pile, about half a foot, of well-rotted horse manure on top. After that, I just leave them be, and they are absolutely fine. It never gets so cold I have to worry, but if it did become very wet, I might be inclined to cover the beds with plastic sheeting.”
Range of colours
Because they are left in place, the dahlias increase in size annually, producing more and more blooms for cutting. Georgia also adds approximately 20 new varieties each year. “I love all their colours, but I like experimenting,” she says. “I normally go for the really dark red-black ones, but I have added lots of oranges, which I love.” Tangerine-flowered, dark-leaved ‘David Howard’ and vermilion-orange ‘Happy Halloween’ joined deep, velvety red cutting classics such as ‘Arabian Night’.
Added to these are pale, pink, white and peach varieties, such as ‘Café au Lait’. “I needed to have some pale colours for our wedding flower courses,” she says. “Now, I’ve got a whole new spectrum, and they are so abundant I can pick buckets of them every week.”
Annuals for variety
As well as the dahlias, her beds provide many other autumnal plants to arrange with them. Long-lasting annuals, such as zinnias, cosmos and multi-stemmed sunflowers, billow from her raised beds along with perennials, such as sedums, rudbeckias, grasses and penstemons.
The cosmos in flower in autumn were sown in pots in spring and planted out. They tend to self-sow, so Georgia lifts seedlings that are not where they are wanted. She pots them up to grow on in the greenhouse until they are bigger. This keeps her beds free for earlier, quick- growing annuals.
Her vibrant zinnias were sown direct in late spring. She has started growing pastel-coloured zinnias as well as the bright ones. “I found that although they are very beautiful, the bright colours are less useful for flowers at the school. Brides don’t want bright colours,” she explains.
As well as mitigating the effects of frost, the walls keep out strong winds. She still supports all her flowers, using green pea netting stretched horizontally over the beds, to ensure unbroken, long stems.
Passion for teaching
Georgia’s enthusiasm for her school is infectious, and she is keen to spread the joy of working with flowers.
“I enjoy teaching and passing on knowledge and experience, and now my main focus is on supporting other people while they are carving out their own careers,” she says. “I’ve had an interest in gardening since being a child. However, it took having my own garden for me to recognise how passionate I was about the subject and that working with flowers was what I wanted to do. I never wanted to work in other people’s gardens, just my own. I particularly enjoy the commercial side of what I do, running the business, which surprised me. I like bringing people together and I always bake a cake for the occasion. Growing flowers to cut has always been my main interest, mostly because I’m producing something that I can sell, which I’m very proud of.”
Over the past two years, she has noticed that more people than ever are training to be florists, as they can trade online and no longer need a bricks and mortar shop. “I run career-changing courses for those who want to move into floristry from other jobs, and they are very popular, especially with the young and trendy,” she says. “I started out only running two courses a year, but have now increased this to three, due to demand. There are lots of ways to market a business now, and this surge in people training to be florists is the result.
“I am lucky, as I get to do what I love every day and I thoroughly enjoy helping others to achieve the same goal. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Contact: The Sussex Flower School, East Hoathly, BN8 6QA 01825 841370
Words: Clare Foggett and Julie Brown Photography: Abigail Rex
ARTIST CREATES GLASSWARE REFLECTING THE CHARACTER OF THE CORNISH COAST
Vivid blue bowls crowd the shelves of Malcolm Sutcliffe’s whitewashed studio in Penryn, Cornwall. In the far corner, a large furnace emits a fiery glow each time the door is opened.
Malcolm set up his studio in a former bakery 14 years ago. “I had been working in glass for more than 26 years when my artist wife Jean and I decided to relocate from Chesterfield where we had a studio to Penryn. In our youth, we both had summer holiday jobs in St Ives, getting engaged while we were there. We always hoped to live by the sea, and looked in Devon and Cornwall until we found this place.
“I always wanted to make things, and I became hooked on glass making in college. I got good technical training and discipline working in a small glass company, in terms of honing my skills, but it was not artistically satisfying,” he says. He wanted to be in full control of the whole process, from creating to selling. “I wanted to create a glass blowing studio with a gallery to display and sell the work in. It took a while to get established here but we have successfully done it now for 14 years which we are both delighted with.”
When they moved in, the building was in a terrible state. “It hadn’t been used as a bakery for 26 years, the windows were smashed and there was no water,” he says. “It took six months to get the furnace and studio up and running but we have never looked back.”
Since then, the sea and coastline have become an increasing inspiration for his art. The design of his seascape bowls and vases conveys a sense of movement and immersion. This is created through the vivid colours and textures he adds to the glass, and also by the shape of each vessel. His elegant Wavy Sea design reflects the white-tipped waves against the blue of the sea and the sky. The convex surface of the bowls brings the scene and patterns to life. It is as if they leap from the glass.
His designs range in size from dainty perfume bottles 4in (10cm) high to magnificent bowls measuring 19½in (50cm) in diameter.
Malcolm’s working day starts at 7am when he removes the previous day’s pieces from the ovens, and runs until 5pm when he finally lays down his blowing iron. The muffled ongoing rumble of the furnace is accompanied by the odd tinkling and pinging of small pieces of surplus glass as they cool and detach from the blowing irons. He is constantly on the move, deftly rotating, swinging and raising the blowing iron to his mouth to breathe into the vivid globule of molten glass at its end.
The furnace is used to heat the raw material, known as batch, to create the molten glass. This is 65 per cent silica sand, in pellet form. Inside the furnace is a brick box with a ceramic crucible, a container that can withstand extremely high temperatures.
Initially, it takes two days to get the temperature of the furnace up to the 1240°C required to create molten glass. It must be fired up slowly so as not to crack the crucible. The batch is shovelled into the furnace over the space of five hours. Doing this gradually helps achieve a better, more even melt.
After seven hours, the molten glass is as fluid as water. Malcolm then turns the furnace down, leaving it to reach its working temperature of 1055°C overnight. By the morning, the glass has the consistency of toffee and is ideal for working.
“The crucible holds 50kg of molten glass, which will last a week before I need to refill it,” he says.
Heating and cooling
In addition to the main furnace, there are two smaller ones, known as glory holes. The glass is returned to one of these frequently during the blowing process to soften and shape the vessel. Malcolm needs two to accommodate the different sized pieces he produces. He is able to produce only one or two of the largest bowls in a day. In the same time, he can make up to six smaller bowls.
The final element is the annealing oven. Annealing is a process whereby glass is heated then allowed to cool slowly. Doing this removes internal stresses and toughens the glass. “Everything I make has to be annealed,” says Malcolm. “As soon as I’ve finished blowing a piece, it goes in there at 500°C and stays at that temperature. At the end of the day, I set a programme timer that cools the oven slowly overnight, then the pieces come out in the morning. If they were left at room temperature to cool they would break.”
Creating the picture
To create one of his bowls, he begins with a blowing iron. This is a hollow tube of stainless steel with a nylon mouthpiece at one end. Opening the main furnace, he dips the bare end into the crucible of molten glass. It is rotated continuously so that the glass is collected evenly.
He now moves to his chair, as he needs to trundle the iron rod along the extended arm, causing the glass to rotate, gently shaping it. The small globule is placed inside a rounded hole in the centre ofa block he carved from cherry wood. “In many ways the surfaces and tools used are just as important as the glass,” he says. “For example, I use cherry wood because it doesn’t burn particularly quickly. It’s also close grained so it doesn’t mark the glass too much.”
The blocks are kept in water to remain damp. The water turns to steam when touched by the glass, lubricating the block so no marks or ash are left on the piece.
He now begins to add colour. A first layer of cerulean blue for the sky is gathered by dipping the piece into a bowl of powdered glass, which sticks to the hot surface. The glass is returned to the reheating furnace for a few seconds to soften so the powdered glass will adhere to it. A layer of white powder is then added to the blue. This will form the gentle cloud background of the design.
“To create a swirling sky effect, I throw water onto a table called a marver and spread it with my hand,” he says. “I twist the rod as the glass is run along the wet surface.”
The marver is made of thermal insulation to cope with the high temperatures. Malcolm saved it from a derelict science laboratory when he was a student. “As well as not catching fire, the material doesn’t take the heat from the glass like steel does,” he says.
Adding the white-tipped waves
After twisting it to his satisfaction, Malcolm returns the piece to the reheating furnace before a further layer of blue is added. More glass is gathered from the main furnace until the vessel resembles a light bulb in size, glowing red and orange. At this stage the colours underneath cannot be seen. The wave motif starts to be added with aqua-coloured powdered glass, Malcolm darting to and from the reheating furnace after each application. “I use a spoon to apply white granules because it allows a precise application of colour. These will become the wild crests of the waves when the bowl is blown. I’m trying to get a painterly quality, with the same feeling of depth,” he says.
The glass is blocked again using a slightly larger cherry wood mould, and is then ready to be blown. A burst of compressed air that comes from a gun dangling from the ceiling blasts the bottom to chill it. This is done to ensure the glass remains thicker at the base. Malcolm puts the rod to his mouth and blows steadily, expanding the bubble inside. The glass is returned to the glory hole after each blow. Now a tool known as a jack, which resembles a large pair of tweezers, is used to gradually score the rim closest to the blowing rod in preparation for its detachment. One of the jacks has cardboard tubes on its end, wet like the blocks so the glass is, as Malcolm explains, “riding on a cushion of steam”. A wad of damp newspaper is also used to manually shape the bowl.
If he wishes to create a more natural pointed shape, he swings the rod gently in a pendulum motion. “The idea is to make the glass do all of the work. All I am doing is gently coaxing it with the tools to get it to do what I want. Mainly I rely on heat and gravity and turning.”
Once the bowl is at the desired size, the glass is transferred to a punty. This is an iron rod whose name is believed to be derived from the French word pont meaning bridge. It is tipped with a wad of hot glass and attached to the bottom of the vessel to hold it while the top is finalised. Only a small aperture exists at the top where the blowing iron was attached. If this needs to be widened to create the rim of the bowl, Malcolm holds the piece close to the reheating furnace. Then he uses his jacks to slowly widen and shape the mouth. “It is a gradual process to open it out,” he says. “As soon as it is touched with cold wet tools it stops being malleable and needs to be reheated.” It can take at least 15 trips over 15 minutes to and from the kiln to shape the rim. It is during this stage that the final colours and patterns begin to emerge.
When the rim is smooth and at the right size, Malcolm chips off the punty rod and puts the bowl straight into the annealing oven to cool. When it comes out the following morning, it will have its punty mark – the ring-shaped scar on the base – ground off using a drill. Sometimes a piece will be sandblasted to enhance its colours and remove the reflections, depending on whether he feels the design will benefit from the glass having a matt or satin finish.
Once Malcolm has started making a piece, he has to see it through without pause. “There’s no stopping for a cup of tea. I can’t hang it up and have a think because it would crack and fall off of the blowing iron,” he says. “There’s a fluidity to the process and a spontaneity that would be lost if it was deliberated over in stages and I like that. Each piece is unique. Sometimes the colour has a mind of its own and will do what it wants. That is entirely natural and reflects the free blown nature of my work.”
Words: Eleanor Gaskarth Photography: Clive Doyle
The feature about Malcolm Sutcliffe's glassblowing studio originally appeared in the July / August 2015 issue of LandScape. For back issues click here or to subscribe to LandScape click here www.malcolm-sutcliffe.co.uk