An interview with Sophie from Sows And Grows
We met with Sophie to discuss her garden, the importance of getting outdoors, how to plan for unpredictable weather and some of her favourite bulbs.
You may have seen her Instagram page floraldaysintheshires , which is full of great gardening advice and inspiring knowledgeable insights.
She also runs courses with her friend Helier at https://www.sowsandgrows.co.uk. To help you create your dream flower garden, all grown from seed. But she still can’t imagine a garden without bulbs!
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How did you get started in gardening?
So I was thinking about this, and I've been asked this quite a lot, and I think I was always that kid up a tree or like up to my waist in water, in a pond or something. You know, I was real to what we call a tomboy. You know, I was just that kid. And I think the natural world has always been important to me. And I was a strong member of Friends of the Earth and things like that when I was a teenager.
When I became a teacher, I was a primary school teacher for 30 years, I used to grow with children. Sweet peas, beans, cosmos and easy things like that.
And of course, when you're teaching so young, five, six year olds, that is so exciting because they can see the roots.
When we first got married, we had a new build house, so we had a small garden and I enjoyed gardening a little bit. But I had a family and a full time job and like many people, didn't really have time to garden, although I knew I loved it.
And then we moved to the old house. My instagram started off weirdly as a renovation account, but it clearly is taking us decades to renovate our house. I had grown from seed had done a bit before, but it was only when I got this garden, which is an old I got about 200 foot garden that was just neglected and full of trees. While we were waiting for planning permission for the house, we decided we'd do the garden. Everything we have done, we’ve done ourselves.
And at the end of the garden, under lots of ivy, we found a greenhouse, which was weird. I mean, it had a few broken panes and things, but suddenly I had this space. So I started to grow from seed more and more.
And then we had lockdown. And of course, like many people, we turned to our green spaces, didn't we?
It was whilst I was teaching, the schools closed on the Friday. And on the Monday I got COVID.
I was very, very ill and I developed long COVID, which I still have to this day. And so I have to pace my life around that. I'm much, much better. But I had about eight months in bed or on the sofa.
My task for the day was either to go and plant a seed or nurture my seedlings.
It's quite a powerful statement. But I do feel that my garden really helped me at that point because anyone who's been long term sick, you don't see an end to it. And it's quite difficult to mentally get around that. So for me, having my garden kind of saved me a bit in the process of getting better, I suppose.
Well, it's interesting also that the perception of gardening, is that it's a difficult thing to do, isn't it? But it doesn't necessarily need to be.
No, not at all. A lot of people say to me, oh, you know, what's your tips for gardens? And I say, ‘Go to the garden center every month from March to November and buy your favorite plants, and you'll have a garden all year round.’ That's what's beautiful. I don't think that's difficult, really. You get to know your own soil, as you work it.
Its all very well reading planting instructions and things like that. But until you get your hands dirty, that’s when you really get to understand your garden. What works with the sun, where the dry spots are, all these sorts of challenges. And everybody's garden is different.
You mentioned that you had a small garden. Many new build tend to have smaller gardens. What sort of things were you growing in a smaller garden?
I had a north facing small garden, too. So that was quite challenging. Basically nothing on the patio. We had a small patio, and a bit of lawn. I had a main border at the bottom where the sun was. I had lots of pots and I just basically planted about four of my very favorites, like a hydrangea and a rose and sedum or something like that. And then I put annuals around it, but it was very small. I mean, literally it was one border plus pots. But you kind of work with what you have. At the front we were straight onto a road but we had a little bit of gravel and I just filled it with pots because it was south facing. You do what you can.
And you change it every year. And so how long has your progression from moving into your bigger garden to where you are now. How many years has that been?
It'll be nine years in the new Year.
And now you have got to where you want your garden to be?
No. It's interesting though, isn't it? It does look like it's finished, but the garden is never finished. I've got lots of plans to change stuff, especially I think with the last couple of years with the droughts that we've had and the weird weather patterns, it's really made me look at my garden in a different way. And I think as you progress as a gardener, you begin to see things as a whole ecosystem. I try to think about my whole garden as an ecosystem in its own right and what will work together. Does that make sense?
Yes. So you're thinking about having a healthy garden, something that's going to support one thing to another. And because, as you say, the weather this year or August has been moderate, hasn't it? It's been quite good for moisture. You know, I've barely watered my garden this year and but the year before I think it was roasting hot. The year before that soaking wet. You've got to plan for the unknown haven't you?
This year, I don't know about you but in Wiltshire we had half of May in all of June without any rain.
And actually that dry spell that time of year was quite telling. I grow from seed. That for me is the time I want water. Well, we all do. And then of course we had all that rain in July. The weather patterns get stuck now, don't they? And I think that's something that is very challenging. And I think we do need to think about that when we are gardening.
That's a really big topic isn't it. And we can talk about that for a long time. What kind of plants you should plant for both drought and and wet seasons. It's really a case of looking after your soil so that it can cope with these conditions as well isn't it?
Tell me a bit about sows and grows.
My friend Heliea and I met on Instagram and we used to do something called Weekend Garden Party over Lockdown. We each talked about gardening and it just progressed. We had so many questions from people about growing flowers. So we decided to start courses for gardeners, not for flower farmers, for gardeners who wanted to grow their own flowers in their own garden, plot, patch, cutting garden or allotment, whatever they have.
We are online and it's supported by an online platform. We have about 60 odd people on the autumn course, which were in the middle of. We're sowing hardy annuals. And we're about to launch one about perennials, which kind of goes back to our conversation about climate change, because I think there is now a need to think about perennials as well as annuals if you're growing flowers.
It's interesting that having cut flowers is about having something in the garden and in the home, isn't it? So when you're cutting flowers, you don't want to disturb your garden.
I think a lot of people after the lockdown and the pandemic were looking for more joy in their lives. And I think growing flowers from seed or tuber or bulb is just so much it just brings so much joy, doesn't it? Why not do it?
Do you think lockdown has stayed with us? That new love of gardening. Do you think it's or do you think people have gone back to their lives as before?
It's a bit different for me because I can't go to work because of my illness. I also have adult children. I can I think from what I gather now, people are going back because they have to. They don't have a choice. They've got to go to work. But I think there's more of a mindfulness about themselves, self-care and what makes people happy. I know from having young adult children that they want to do stuff that brings them joy as well as just going to work 9 to 5. You know, I think that 9 to 5 may be done. I don't know if people want to go back into the office, for example.
I think it's a welcome reset, really, wasn't it?
Yeah, I was just about to say it's like a reevaluation isn't it, of your life I think.
Now, speaking of seeds and growing from seed. If you can grow what you like from seed, why would you still need bulbs? Could you live without bulbs?
No, I couldn’t.
The right answer.
Yeah. Bulbs and tubers are important to the cut flower season even though I'm growing hardy annuals now ready for next year. There is that wraparound area of the gardening year. Basically spring is the best time for many bulbs. I know that's not the only time that we plant for. Yeah, but if you're growing flowers, you want to have early daffodils, you want your tulips and then towards the end of the year you want your dahlias. I could not be without dahlias because they are a mainstay as you go into September, particularly because your annuals, especially the hardy ones, are beginning to exhaust themselves a bit by then. So you need those vocal flowers.
So what what are you planting at the moment? What bulbs are you looking to plant this autumn?
I've been looking at more perennial tulips, because, again, it does go back to the question of climate change and sustainability. And last year I planted quite a few of the tulip called Little Beauty for my garden. Lots of flowers, which I loved. So I start to look more at those. And I've chosen Ballerina because it's an orange tulip, which will work in my garden. And then for the cutting garden, we harvest the whole bulb and a lot of people are horrified by that. But if you're growing flowers, you harvest the whole lot, so you get extra stem and the bulb gets composted. Also I liked, Angelique, but that's no longer available.
unfortunately. And that's what happens, really. Bulbs will have a lifecycle of a certain amount, a couple of decades. You know, it's not to say that the, the variety is completely gone.
Is it Pink Star or something is replacing it? There's a there's one that looks similar.
I prefer Finola which is very close. We've been talking about this in the office quite a lot about perennial tulips. Obviously, there's very few tulips which will come back year after year. And really it's the species tulips, which, as you say, little beauty are not great for cutting because short but they are so much more durable.
And of course, if you're if you're growing them for cutting, then you're going to come back every year because you need to harvest the whole lot.
So you may have to replant tulips each year but they're worth it, aren't they?
Oh, they're so worth it. There's nothing like them. I actually try and grow quite a few in pots actually for Tulip because I have had tulip fire in the garden. So I now actually grow quite a few in troughs or tin bulbs or so I know that it's contained and then I can put them in the green bean if I have any issue afterwards. And of course there's all the lovely narcissus.There are so many lovely ones out there.
And daffodils are more perennial, and they're much more reliable and well. Alliums too are very perennial. How do you feel about Alliums?
Oh, I absolutely love Alliums because I also dry a lot of flowers. Something like Christophii are big and they dry beautifully. Also the Schubertii, the really big ones. I dry those and you can put them in your Christmas tree. Just with those in the Christmas tree without any baubles. Oh my God. They look amazing.
You can spray them gold?
Yeah, yeah. I have done that in the past, but yeah, I like the little bit of purple. I also love talking about Alliums. I've ordered loads of drumsticks.They're lovely, aren't they? For bees. But also as a flower grower they're fab. And they're fabulous dried too. So they have this dual purpose. Really nice. I like those.
My favorite bulb that's brand new to me last year is Triteleia. And it flowers in June. I've had so many people say, ‘What is that blue flower?’ That's such a good one.
Definitely an underrated one. Definitely something that we should all be growing!