Reproduced below is an article that appears in the October 2020 edition of the Journal from The Garden Club of Virginia:
In Conversation with Paula
As one of the most celebrated floral designers in the world, Paula Pryke embodies what so many of us in the GCV love; flowers. And in these challenging times - of isolation, quarantines, social distancing - the power of the flower is even more profound. Flowers can't help but bring smiles and joy, even in the midst of a pandemic.
Paula was set to be one of the featured presenters at the Garden Club of Virginia's Founder's Day last month; unfortunately Covid-19 had other plans. But the GCV is nimble and quickly pivoted. Plans are underway for the Centennial Series, which will extend this important milestone into 2021. Stay tuned for details on Paula's rescheduled appearance.
In the meantime, the Journal recently spoke to this living legend who, over the course of three decades, has built a veritable empire that includes a massive contract flower business, an events division, and a floral and lifestyle consultancy. At one point her signature retail shops were strategically located throughout the greater London area. She's a sought after speaker, an OBE award winner and, in her spare time, she's managed to write 18 books, all on floral art. Read on to learn about Paula's early days, her style and her inspirations.
GCV: You were a history teacher, and you're married to the architect, Peter Romaniuk,. How did you come to have such a successful career in flowers?
Paula: I studied history and drama, and when I met my husband, I was working in a secondary school in East London. I think he gave me the confidence to try something new. I studied at the Constance Spry Flower School and worked in a West End flower shop. Eventually my husband and I bought my first shop in Islington and we lived above it. At that time teachers earned about £50 a day, and we both naively thought that we could easily earn that out of a flower shop! At the time I was probably too inexperienced to run my own business but the "fresh and natural" look was an immediate hit and then the Islington area became a magnet for all kinds of creatives. Looking back it was quite amazing who would turn up. Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, used to call in for flowers. George Harrison used to send a chauffeur. Kate Winslett and Cate Blanchett lived nearby and regularly called in. At the early stages of my business. Boris Johnson, who was also a client, used to cycle by on his way to the Houses of Parliament and complain about our van being in the bike lane when we were unloading it from the flower market at the start of the day.
GCV: Is there a Paula Pryke style and has it changed or evolved over the years?
Paula: My style has adapted to the trends and changes of the fashion and advertising industry. At heart it has alway been natural and simple and colourful. I think the flowers I designed for my first book look very current now. What goes around comes around again, and now I am pretty much back doing what I did at the beginning.
GCV: What are your favourite flowers/foliage to work with?
Paula: The list for that question would be endless! However ranunculus, peonies, roses, sweet peas, dahlias would come in my top ten, and I adore bright green like Viburnum opulus or Alchemilla Mollis, silver foliage such as Senecio, burgundy foliage like Cotinus and whatever is seasonal - berries in the autumn and blossoms in the spring. Foliage with a little movement such as jasmine and ivy are also staples.
GCV: What do you consider your most significant accomplishment/honour?
Paula: At one level it is being able to pick a career with flowers and then make it work for 32 years. To do something you love and to be able to make a business our of it is an amazing and joyous accomplishment. Never more so than during this time.
GCV: There is a growing movement in the floral industry in the United State that emphasizes sustainability - from responsibly souring plant material to avoiding flowers treated with chemicals and discouraging the use of floral foam. Is the overall move toward a more sustainable floral industry something important in England and in your ethos specifically?
Paula: Yes. The Chelsea Flower Show will make 2021 its year to catch up with this movement that has. been gaining traction for the last five years in the UK and worldwide. I never used a lot of floral foam and plastic in my work, but now I am making a very conscious effort to work in a sustainable way. I try to make sure that my flower arrangements are in line with the best practices for the environment and nature from which I take my inspiration. If I need to use something similar to floral foam I use Agrawool, which is biodegradeable. I prefer to hand tie my flowers or use chicken wire, which allows the flowers to be in water. It actually creates a more natural look, which is of course back in vogue now.
GCV: What and where is your favorite garden in the world?
Paula: Levens Hall, in Cumbria in Northern England. It's the oldest topiary garden in the world. I like the fact that it was spared when fashions changed and others ripped out their topiaries. I love the thought that it was first designed in the 1690's and still looks amazing. It is also a fun garden - it make me smile. Follow @levensgardener for beautiful seasonal shots of Elizabethan England.
Naturally Arranging with Paula Pryke
Pictured here is Paula's arrangement of cappucino roses, pink garden roses, dahlias, straw flowers, Queen Anne's lace, echinacea seed heads and clematis seed heads; foliage includes jasmine, crab apples, sloe berries (blackthorn) and English oak with acorns.
Before making any natural arrangement I work out the mechanics first. I use two-inch chicken wire moulded and shaped inside the vase and then I gather as many different types of seasonal foliage with a goal of creating a natural effect.
Add Foliage
My rule is to use a minimum of three types of foliage, but the more diversity the better. It's best to have some with an upright habit and some trailing. I don't use variegated foliage very often as it dilutes colour. I first add foliage to cover the mechanics and outline the general shape. Foliage also provides structure, which I can use to position my flowers.
Add Flowers
Next I add flowers. I usually add one variety at a time at different angles and depths within the arrangement. I also avoid white and cream in a bold arrangement as it neutralizes the colour effect and draws your eye almost creating a distraction. Colour is very important to me but I also pick flowers and foliage for the texture - the clematis seed heads and the echinacea heads have been chosen for that.
Tools and Equipment
In addition to selecting the right flowers and foliage, having the right equipment is essential for great floral design. Paula recommends the following are in every designer's tool kit; ESSENTIALS: Good sharp knife. Strong sharp pair of scissors. Stem Stripper.. Roll of bind wire. Flower Food. Buckets, cleaners and brushes. Florists tape. Watering can. Variety of vases. EXTRAS: Chicken wire. Water tubes. Zip ties. Wires. Bamboo skewers. Pins. Decorative embellishments (eg raffia, jute, ribbons)