Arthur Parkinson is the Instagram florist with a penchant for pots and poultry – and a protégé of Sarah Raven. Meet the rising star of small-scale gardening.
1. When did you fall in love with flowers?
My parents split up when I was 11 and tending to plants helped me heal. I’d go straight to the gardening pages of magazines like Country Living. Then, aged 12, I found Sarah Raven’s book The Bold and Brilliant Garden in a library. I thought, ‘This is what I want my world to be.’
It was a horticultural wonderland full of colour and razzmatazz. You couldn’t see the soil for flowers. It made me so happy. In 2012, when I was training at Kew Gardens, I kept that book in my locker to remind myself what I wanted to achieve.
2. Did your career bloom after that?
Once I qualified, I visited Sarah’s garden, Perch Hill in East Sussex, and ended up working with her. She became my mentor – now she’s a friend. Sarah recommended me to Emma Bridgewater, who I worked with for four years – creating a garden at her factory in Stoke-on-Trent. It was a blank canvas, which I filled with rare-breed chickens and cut flowers. I wrote about it in my first book, The Pottery Gardener. My second, The Flower Yard, is about growing flamboyant blooms in pots.
3. Why the preoccupation with pots?
I don’t have a choice! I live with my mum in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire. The back garden is her space, so the front yard – just five metres long – is all I have. Even if I had more room, I’d still use containers. It’s not just plant pots: I love dolly tubs, galvanized dustbins and old baths. They provide height, quickly creating a jungle feel. Plus, you don’t need to stoop, so they’re better for your back. Being portable, they’re ideal for ‘Generation Rent’. We might not be able to put down roots, like plants, but pots mean we can still create great gardens. I treat the yard as a stage, changing the set with each season.
4. Does your mum enjoy the show?
I think she finds my gardening style a bit manic. I spend all day planting bulbs and always want the space looking camera-ready. Mum’s calmer but very supportive. She knows gardening helps me cope with life. I call it my floral Prozac – it gives me purpose. I’m always looking forward to the next display and planning the next season.
5. What do you do when you’re not gardening?
I’m caring for my chickens. I have a brood of bantam, Pekin bantam and Barbu d’Uccles hens named Elizabeth, Margaret, Clarissa, Fergie and Patsy. I show them at the National Poultry Show in Staffordshire. It’s like Crufts for chickens. The girls live in my Nana Min’s garden down the road but make regular visits here. They’re small, friendly and have feathered feet, so don’t damage the garden. When I’m pulling up bulbs, they peck vine weevils out of the soil.
6. Are you an eco-friendly grower?
I want to show that glamorous gardens can still be wildlife havens. For pest control, I use nematodes (also known as eelworms), which arrive through the post in a packet. You simply water them into your garden in May and they save your blooms from slugs, snails and weevils.
7. Do you prefer annuals or perennials?
I love bright annuals because they create two distinct displays each year in spring and summer. In March, my deep purple ‘Woodstock’ hyacinths will be popping up. I grow them for the bees, which are waking up at this time of year. I love ‘Orange Monarch’ crocuses, too. They look like little flames. I plant about 2,000 crocus bulbs: 70 for each dolly tub. I want a pool of colour to brighten up a dark month. In May, there will be flocks of parrot tulips, followed by scented sweet peas in June – then later, galaxies of dahlias providing vases of cut flowers.
8. Any tips for beginners?
My top three seeds, which can be sown straight into pots in May, are borage, Calendula ‘English Marigold’ and ‘Black Ball’ cornflowers. If you nurture your soil with organic manure, your display will be beautiful. But beware – if you go away for three weeks in July, your garden will kick the dust. I don’t tend to go on long holidays – watering my plants is too important.
9. So, no trips this year?
I work away a lot – styling photoshoots and teaching courses at Perch Hill. I’ll come home for a few days at a time, to clean the hen coop and tend to the garden. The hours fly by and before I know it I’m leaving for Perch Hill again – or to visit my partner, James, in the Cotswolds. Last year was odd for all of us – I spent half of it looking after my nan who has very bad dementia – so getting out has been a lifeline.
10. What does your dream plot look like?
I’d love a couple of acres planted with spindle, crab apple and hawthorn berry – plus an orchard of heritage apple trees where my chickens would roam. The courtyard would be an aviary, full of canaries. And there would be pots, of course. I’ve designed it all in my head. For now, I’ll pack my yard full of flowers. In the words of Vita Sackville-West, “Cram, cram, cram every chink and cranny!”
The Flower Yard by Arthur Parkinson is out on 25th March. Follow Arthur on Instagram @arthurparkinson.
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