Tricyrtis (Toad Lily) from New Covent Garden Flower Market, late summer 2015.
In May 2015 I began visiting the New Covent Garden Flower Market on a weekly basis to buy fresh flowers for my home...and it has now become the highlight of my week (although I do rather dread the early morning start!). While I absolutely love to photograph flowers (any kind of berry, flower, or pretty fruit has me pulling out the camera), I have never had fresh flowers at home on a regular basis excepting the odd bunch gifted to me, or a bunch or two a year picked up from Waitrose or Sainsbury's with the grocery shopping (always with one type of flower, never the mixed bunches!).
I had heard about the flower market a couple of years ago (my good friend Peony Lim had held a Christmas drinks party and had purchased her beautiful foliage and flowers from the market) but I thought it was only really for large purchases, not just one or two bunches. Plus I had no idea if I had to bargain (which I loathe) or whether the price was fixed, whether you needed some sort of pass to go in etc etc. So I kind of just shelved the idea of going, thinking it would just be all too tricky. However, after I photographed Peony for her Chanel collaboration in February last year at the exquisite Wild At Heart florist in Pimlico, I was determined to go at least once to the market.
My first visit was a little overwhelming: It started off with me wandering around the back of the fruit and vegetable market (not a great place to be at 6:30am) after asking two security guards if they knew where the flower market was (they weren't sure!). Long story short, I ended up catching a lift with a very kind lady (together with another two ladies who were equally lost!)* who was on her way to the market to replace a plant which had, in her words "keeled over and died" earlier in the week. Once there, I had no real idea what I was doing so I thought I would write some tips which might help any non-florists keen on buying flowers from the market.
- The Flower Market is the market closest to Vauxhall train/bus station - a few minutes walk. Don't go to the fruit and veg market entrance which is more towards the Battersea Power Station end of Nine Elms, which is what I did on my first visit. I take the bus each week but you can also drive (there is a £5 fee for car access) but no charge if you arrive on foot.
- If you are on foot, take a carry bag/s to carry your flowers and plants purchases in (the vendors won't have any). I have a long cardboard box which one of the vendors gave me (I am now rather attached to it!) and take it with me each week to carry my flowers in so they don't crush and I don't poke anybody's eye out on the way home on the bus! If you scoot around outside the market, there are usually loads of boxes to be had if you aren't offered one.
- Flowers are usually sold only in bunches not by the stem (there are some exceptions like orchids). Most of the flowers I have purchased have had 10 stems in the bunch although I was looking at ranunculus a few weeks before Christmas and they were in bunches of 50 stems (although some vendors do sell them in bunches of 10 stems). And this is where I find it challenging especially if you are adhering to a budget: if you are after a mixed vase of blooms, you would need to purchase a number of bunches and that would soon add up! I haven't found a solution to this so would suggest a) teaming up with 2 or 3 friends so you each end up with a few flowers of each variety; b) supplementing your flower market blooms with foraged material from your own garden or parents/friends/neighbours (always ask first!); or c) buying a few additional individual blooms from a local florist to mix things up.
- Prices. I was so nervous the first week that the only thing I purchased was one bunch of eucalyptus (I think it was £2.70) from Porters Foliage (I visit Porters each week and they are awesome!) and two plants. I kind of just wandered in a daze looking at all the amazing flowers (spring is a glorious time to visit the markets) and couldn't make any decisions (a recurring theme). There are no prices of any of the flowers so you need to ask the chaps who work on each stall the price. Prices are excluding VAT so you will need to add 20% on to the prices they quote. Prices will vary according to season (I am pretty sure they went up during the Christmas period) and also from vendor to vendor (including within the same stall!) . My go-to-guys each week are Luke at Zest Flowers and any of the hardworking chaps at Porters Foliage - I always feel like I am getting a fair price from them. There is no bargaining - the price is the price - although obviously if you are doing your own wedding flowers or an event, and are buying a load of flowers there may be room to negotiate. I always pay with cash as some of the vendors have a minimum spend on EFTPOS (£20 or more).
- I knew so little about flowers when I started at the market (I didn't even know that you must re-cut the stems if flowers have been out of water for any length of time until one of the lovely florists at Wild At Heart pointed this out to me!) and still know so little but at least I am learning (google has been enormously helpful as have a couple of books I have acquired - more on them in a later post).
- In terms of "arranging" the flowers, I totally suck (up until May my method was to unwrap the flowers and plonk them into a vase with flower food). Probably I should do a course or something but for the moment I am going with the trial and error method. So it is mostly flower wrangling rather than arranging unfortunately. I have so much respect for florists - they do magical, wonderful things with flowers.
*And no Mum and Dad, I don't make a habit of getting into cars with strangers. This was a one-off caused by desperation of walking up and down Nine Elms!
These little flowers - the oddly named Toad Lily - reminded me of tiny little orchids (and starfish!) when I spotted them at Zest one week at the end of summer. I should have photographed them a few days later as almost all of the little buds burst open into flower and looked much prettier. Always learning!