episode 46 | show notes & advice
This week Arthur interviews Shane Connolly, the wonderful, prestigious floral designer who
famously put trees in Westminster Abbey for the Royal Wedding.
Shane is hugely inspiring for the beauty of his floral arrangements and for being at the forefront
of sustainable floristry. He refuses to use floral foam, which is terribly damaging for the
environment. All the more impressive given the large scale of the events he does.
Shane holds the Royal Warrant for both the Queen and the Prince of Wales. He is the author of
four books and recently curated Constance Spry and the Fashion for Flowers, an exhibition at
the Garden Museum. Shane runs his incredible business from his studio in North Kensington and
works on events all around the world.
In this episode discover
- Where Shane sources his beautiful flowers and how he likes to be inspired by what’s in season.
- Why we shouldn’t use floral foam and some of the techniques to use instead.
- All about the Constance Spry exhibition and how she inspires Shane’s work.
- How he managed to fill Westminster Abbey with trees for the Royal Wedding.
- What flowers and veg are on his list to grow next year.
Shane’s first paid job was carrying buckets and sweeping up for Michael Goulding and Elizabeth Baker, who arranged flowers for the Queen and many Prime Ministers. Shane was 22 and making a career change after reading Psychology at university – he thought flowers were a lifeline to a life he’d prefer. He then went on to work for Pulbrook & Gould, who were florists in the tradition of Constance Spry. Shane set up his own company in 1989.
Shane talks about how he sources the incredible flowers he works with, that often look like they have been picked fresh from the garden. A lot of time is spent finding good growers and foragers he can trust and work with. He doesn’t like to design with too much of a fixed palette in advance. He enjoys opening his van doors and seeing what’s inside to work with – like going to a good farmers’ market and buying what looks good on the day.
Poet of flowers
Arthur calls Shane a poet of flowers and remarks on how relaxed Shane is doing demonstrations.
Shane finds demonstrations a chance to be creative and spontaneous, not controlled in the same way as flowers for an event or a particular client. They are often for people who will be doing flowers at home. Shane’s main goal is to encourage people to do flowers their own way - to go the garden or flower shop and be inspired by what they see that day, rather than following rigid rules or techniques to the letter.
Shane’s Instagram is source of constant inspiration with a smorgasbord of flowers, from grand arrangements in a stately room to a vase of flowers by a bedside table. Shane likes flowers to feel doable and he admires both Arthur and Sarah for their grow, cook, eat, arrange philosophy – teaching people how to grow and then cook their own fantastic veg, or to have homegrown flowers for endless colour in the garden and how to best cut and arrange for the vase.
Flowers should be in water not Oasis floral foam
For years Shane has been flying the flag to expose Oasis floral foam, which is incredibly
damaging to the environment and used frequently in the floral industry. When he was working with Pulbrook & Gould, they didn’t use Oasis as they deemed it common, they preferred chicken wire. Shane learnt about how bad floral foam is when working on the West Coast of America in the early noughties. Florists there were championing foraged flowers and campaigning against floral foam. Once he found out how terrible it is environmentally, he couldn’t use it again. Shane feels there is a sea change now. Arthur brings up a memorable moment in David
Attenborough’s Blue Planet where plankton appear to be eating algae that is actually
microplastics degraded from floral foam. Arthur also talks about the experiments the people behind No Floral Foam conduct on Instagram, comparing how flowers fare in Oasis vs water, with the results being that after a week, it’s the ones in water that are still alive.
While Shane understands how extraordinarily convenient Oasis can be, he feels strongly that the cost to the planet is too high. Also, floral foam is made by big multinational companies. If people stop buying it, these companies will invest in producing a good biodegradable alternative.
Try these methods instead
For his work, Shane uses all sorts of different techniques to get around using floral foam such as:
Poles of wood, set in concrete and wrapped in chicken wire, with reusable plastic flute tubes for water.
Chicken wire over containers.
Using use tough foliage that doesn’t need to be in water.
Potted plants and shrubs that can later be planted in the garden or given to a charity - Shane donates a lot to the Westfield Trust Charity.
Arthur and Shane talk about Shane’s love of Constance Spry, the society florist who did the
flowers for the Coronation and was famous for creating her own rules - using unconventional
vases, foraged flowers and veg in her arrangements. Shane first got to know her work through her books, which he would buy second-hand from a stall at the Chelsea Flower Show. He mentions how, pre-Instagram, the only way to see other florists’ work was via their books – and
books are still a valuable source of inspiration for him in this age of social media.
Constance Spry’s books feature illustrations of her arrangements or black and white photos. It is her words that fire the imagination. She talks about mixing orange with red to make it look more red. This encourages you more to take the concept and find it for yourself, rather than copying a photo.
Shane also brought Spry to new generation with his recent exhibition Constance Spry and the Fashion for Flowers at the Garden Museum, which celebrated her life, work and legacy. After Shane’s lifetime of interest in Spry, it took four years of work to get the exhibition open and was quite a journey doing this during a pandemic.
Using veg in arrangements
Shane loves to use produce from the kitchen garden and isn’t afraid of a bit of mildew or decay.
Arthur recalls, this autumn, Shane using a mildew covered courgette leaf as a skirt for a bowl of
pumpkins and clematis seed heads. Using veg in arrangements was very Constance Spry and
Shane would rather take a courgette with mildew that is in season and make something
wonderful of it, than use 5000 grand prix red roses that have been flown in.
Shane uses veg in arrangements a lot in autumn. He tends to use fruit more in late summer and
early autumn, not so much for spring. And what could be nicer at Christmas than bowls of glossy
orange satsumas with dark green leaves. Shane would place bowls of white hyacinths down a
table with the oranges in between - to him that would be more beautiful than big arrangements
using out of season flowers. Also, a la Spry, it isn’t just about using flowers, it’s the whole concept
- the candles and other objects you use can be just as important.
Aladdin’s cave warehouse
This leads Arthur to ask about Shane’s warehouse which is like an Aladdin’s cave with shelf after
shelf of vases, candlesticks, bowls and other paraphernalia he uses for events. Shane says it is the
result of a lifetime of serious addiction to candlesticks and bowls. He needs to have this because
of the large scale of the events, parties and weddings he does.
A recent dinner at the V&A to launch the Faberge exhibition had two 120ft tables to dress – he
needed 100 candlesticks of the same type and used nearly 650 bud vases. The event took 2
hours to set up but the prep took 2 ½ days with helpers. Polly Nicholson from Bayntun Flowers
supplied all the flowers, cut or foraged by her.
For ‘no water please’ venues
Some venues don’t allow floral arrangements in water. Shane recommends using things that
don’t require water at all, like shrubs in pots. Or, if the event is for a few hours only, he’d keep his
flowers in water up to the event then tip the water out just before, the flowers will last for the
duration. Flowers are transient, both in the garden and the vase and Shane would rather use
flowers like this and compost them the next day than use floral foam.
The Royal Wedding
For the Royal Wedding Shane famously brought trees into Westminster Abbey as well as over 4
tons of other foliage. He explains that as the pots for the trees were so huge, a carpenter had to
make bottomless pots to encase them that were then painted to match the stone of the Abbey.
These boxes were then reused at Highgrove and all the trees planted in Royal gardens to
continue growing and thriving.
Shane likes growing - it is his absolute joy. He identifies with gardeners. For him everything starts
with the ground and how things grow.
On Shane’s to grow list
In lockdown Shane really enjoyed growing veg. Last September he gave a talk at Perch Hill and Sarah gave him some little Cherry Bomb tomatoes. He followed her instructions and every seed he planted took – they have been his thrill of the year – they taste extraordinary and look beautiful.
He also has enjoyed growing the shoo-fly plant, Nicandra physalodes, with its ruffled blue autumn flowers and Chinese lantern seedpods. If you can use something like this in an arrangement, people don’t know what it is, and Shane likes that.