women

Garden writer and cook Sarah Raven, 49, tells Emma Pritchard about the flowers that have marked the memorable moment in her life.

Sarah is married to writer Adam Nicolson, and has two teenage daughters and three stepsons. She lives at Perch Hill Farm in Sussex, where she runs courses in cooking, flower arranging, growing and gardening.


Description: Sarah Raven

“some of my most relaxed and happy times were spent in the garden”


The man who taught me to love wild flowers…

My father was a keen amateur botanist, and from when I was seven we would go on trips in his Morris Minor with a couple of harm rolls, a bottle of fizzy apple juice and a large bar of Fruit & Nut. We lived in Shepreth, near Cambridge, where he was a don, and we would see pasque flowers, oxlips and fritillaries in the heaths, woods and meadows around. He in turn had inherited his love of the natural world from his father. Between them, astonishingly, they painted almost every plant in the British flora. I still have 18 volumes of their beautiful watercolours. We also went on weekend walks. I have four brothers and sisters – my twin sister Jane and I are the youngest – but these walks were my time alone with him, and incredibly special. He died from emphysema when I was 17, and towards the end I became his legs. He would send me out to find his favourite mountain flowers, such as rare and unusual yellow hawkweeds. Although gardening has always been in my blood, I actually did a degree in history, but then my father’s illness influenced me to change track and I applied to train as a doctor.

Window boxes and salad days

Gardening was a brilliant balance to my hospital work. I only had a very tiny garden, so I started growing salad leaves, herbs and radishes in window boxes, teaching myself with gardening books. I progressed to artichokes and cardoons (flowers), a type of ornamental thistle, which were a real success – I’m told they’re still growing there.

How I was wooed with freesias (and bacon sarnies)

I met my husband Adam on a skiing holiday when I was a medical student. He never bought me flowers when we were dating because they just weren’t his thing. But he knew how much I loved them, and every February for my birthday, he’d take me to London’s Nine Elm market and give me whatever cash he had for me to buy flowers. I used to choose bunches of freesias because I adore their smell and the fact they last for weeks. We’d always end up at the nearby greasy spoon for toasted bacon sandwiches – my idea of heaven.

A scented surprise

 

Description: Sarah Raven in kitchen kit

The day I sat my university finals in medicine I came home to find my little house in London completely filled with the sweet scent of flowers. My mother had secretly come up from her home with endless amounts of mock orange, roses and any other fragrant flowers and shrubs that she could find in her garden. From the hall onwards throughout the place, there were wonderful vases and bowls just full of flowers. It was a very touching gesture because I wasn’t used to my mother being so demonstrative, and it was the perfect tribute to my father.

Going back to my roots

I gave up my career in medicine when I had children. It was a difficult decision, but I was working in obstetrics at the time, and the long hours of hospital work didn’t fit in with family life. I realized that some of my most relaxed and happy times were spent in the garden or wandering down lanes to see what wild flowers I might find. It made sense to return to my roots. Adam and I moved to our home in Perch Hill, Sussex, in 1994, and worked hard to create a fabulous garden. Some years later, I began running classes here in gardening, cookery and flower arranging. There’s an area for cut-and-come-again flowers, one for bee-friendly plants, a salad and herb garden, and I also grow edible flowers such as violas, frosted chocolate pansies and sweet Williams, which I’ll add to salads or use when cooking. Nasturtiums make a tasty – and colourful – alternative to black pepper.

Every flowers tells a story

My garden is full of plants I’ve collected or been given as gifts. I received a collection of snowdrops when my youngest was born, which I’ve divided up every year since. So, 15 years on, January to March, my garden is filled with them. One of my favourite trio of shrubs and climbers is a combination of Elaeagnus “Quicksilver”, Clematis “Etoile Violette” and “Cerise Bouquet” rose, which looks and smells wonderful, and I also love the Euphorbia ceratocarpa my mum collected from Rhodes and which flowers all year round. We spent quite a bit of time in Greece when I was growing up and I have a beautiful green and black widow iris, Hermodactylus tuberosus, which reminds me of holidays in Corfu, where I first found it, aged seven or eight. My own girls are busy being teenagers just now so aren’t interested in plants, but I hope they will be in the future – when you live surrounded by flowers, it’s impossible not to be.

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