As I write, I’m currently enjoying one of my most writerly fantasies – that of someone able to create whilst sat out in the garden on a gloriously sunny day. These are the kinds of days when the garden is behaving by itself (thanks Mother Nature) and I can indulge in the thought that I might be able to keep a plant or two alive whilst Googling “Chelsea plant winners” in the misguided notion that I’m anything more than a caretaker to these plants.
When I mention my inadequacies as a gardener to Milli Proust, a Sussex flower designer and grower – with honestly the most beautiful Instagram feed on the planet – she dismisses my fears instantly.
“The thing is, you will kill things, but you need to have the confidence to carry on. Sometimes the green fingered thing can make people feel they’re not naturally talented and can make you feel you have to learn some sort of secret art.”
She’s watering her pots in the acreage she currently has on loan to create her beautiful blooms, but is keen to point out anyone can grow anywhere, “I started growing in pots in flat shares in London, and I killed so many things! I still do, I don’t think I’m green fingered, but I have the space to grow outside now. My advice is to seek out the easy things and do what brings you enjoyment. Hats off to the container gardeners too – now that’s tricky.”
Milli began her business at the very beginning of 2020, a time that now brings shivers of horror to all with the knowledge of what was due to come, but she had some very wise advice.
“I honestly thought as it was a fledgling business it wouldn’t survive. We had my Grandmother staying with us at the time and she’s a keen gardener – I learnt a lot of my horticultural knowledge from her – and she said sorry you’re so upset but it’s not so bad, people will still want flowers. Just figure out how to get them to them.”
Listening to the advice, Milli took an inventory of what she had.
“I had been growing bespoke for events and brides so I had a lot of bridal colours and workshop colours which were really specific colour palettes and flowers. The flower auctions closed in Europe in lockdown and the local flower movement became the way. Every single stem was sold. Every single flower was sold. I didn’t sleep but I did save my business. I’m so grateful to everyone for buying and supporting me.”
Milli puts a lot of her success to being “lucky enough to grow audience on Instagram”. However, the Instagram feed isn’t luck – it’s a beautifully taken, wonderfully curated shop window and insight into Milli’s world and what she produces. Due, I begin to establish, to her very artsy genes.
She laughs as she explains, “My family are a bunch of artists, mum was an art teacher at my primary school, she was really good at explaining art in simple terms and seeing the world in a simple way. My Dad is a curator and collects for private collectors. My brother is an artist, so is my Grandma. Their interests and all the stuff I was brought up around must have acted as an osmosis and their livelihoods must have rubbed off on me with endless holidays spent dragged around art galleries. I do love art and I ended up being an archivist for photography.”
Looking ahead, Milli says she has learnt from 2020 to be nimble and adaptable.
“I’ve got brides from last year and some new ones this year. The weddings are much smaller but I think much nicer. I’m growing bespoke for some brides, but not many. Now I get to grow the colours that I think are beautiful. I always try and grow it for my Instagram so it reflects the colour palettes I’m interested in. It has opened up the chance for me to grow more flowers on my wish list, which I get to sell on.”
As well as growing for events and weddings, Milli’s cut flowers can be purchased locally – as can the surplus crops which she sells as dried flowers and wreaths. Her seeds are also for sale.
But how does she decide what works?
“Colour combining is the thing. Sometimes I see things and it just lodges. I love looking at other designers and seeing what they create. I love seeing things which are romantic, pink, playful, the textures. I want to tell a story, or give a feeling. If people are buying flowers for friends or families, I try to echo their thoughts and sentiments in the design.”
Why does she think we enjoy cut flowers, particularly British ones?
“Local flowers smell delicious. I think flowers are about people and when we buy or send cut flowers it’s for symbolism as it’s the second best thing to being there. Flowers are about people, and weaving in some story or personal narrative into them doesn’t take away from their beauty. If it can give a sense of feeling, that’s the best thing about flowers.”
I begin to suggest she has the best job in the world and she laughs.
“The lows are not always seen though. I have 14 hour days. I’m up at the crack of dawn to water or harvest the flowers. Then there’s the logistics around shipping and admin, looking at stock levels. I’m sure there’s a way to scale it and delegate but for now it’s mainly me – and it’s a lot less romantic than it seems.”
There’s a pause, then she quickly adds, “I’m working surrounded by a lot of beautiful things though. I’m surrounded by beauty for eight months, how many other jobs offer that? My god I just love the flowers.”
If you want to enjoy Milli’s flowers, she sells through Wild Sussex shop in Pulborough and her own website (milliproust.com), but be quick, there are limited stocks every week.
Contributed by Lisa Brace.
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