Craft, Design, Garden, Home, Plants, Sustainability, Wellness | 17 September 2020
Grace Alexander — reflections from a Somerset Seedmonger.
Emma Bradbury shares a story by superlative clothing and lifestyle brand TOAST about celebrated Somerset Seedmonger, Grace Alexander.
“Being outdoors is a positive psychological experience and is about engaging with nature. Having seeds grow can give you a sense of what gardening is about.”
Professor Harriet Gross, author of the Psychology of Gardening
The Kiss House team has spent a lot of time getting green fingered over the summer. Those who have one have been in their respective gardens and those without have been tending indoor plants. We’re not the only ones, many people retreated to their gardens for creative inspiration and solace during lockdown.
According to a Facebook Opinion Matters poll one million people have joined UK gardening groups since March. Other poll findings revealed that: 60% of respondents were spending more time in their gardens or outdoor spaces than usual for that time of year, while 30% were inspired to give their gardens a makeover. 27% admitted to spending more money than they thought they would on their garden before lockdown. The Royal Horticultural Society reported five times as many enquiries than usual via their website, while, the Seed Co-operative reported that sales are up to six times higher than last year.
This sudden surge in gardening has huge benefits for our mental health — perhaps we’re seeking out nature due to the uncertain times. Tony Giugliano, senior Policy Manager at the Mental Health Foundation says:
“Research shows that spending around 20 minutes a day in green spaces… can lower blood pressure and cortisol, our stress hormone. Gardens play an important role in boosting our wellbeing and our social interactions. Gardening helps us focus on the present moment and the activity at hand instead of worrying about the future.”
“You don’t need a certification to create something beautiful.”
Time spent in the garden enables us to press pause on the uncertainty surrounding us. We can throw ourselves into the moment and treasure the time spent planting seeds and beautifying and crafting our gardens. Planting seeds itself is a creative process that enables us to inject wonder into our garden as we create. Marianne Wilburn, author of the award-winning gardening blog, Small Town Gardener believes that “experimentation energises a garden… Colour, form, texture or movement (can change) things up and bringing energy back into old spaces,” She continues, “You don’t need a certification to create something beautiful.”
It is an easy craft to enjoy and clearly many of us do. Roy Perott et al observe in Art and Science, “The gardening experience begins with it the child’s wonder that a packet of seeds will produce a charming festival of colour.” They go on to say that, “nature’s exuberance will cover up minor errors or short periods of neglect, so
“Gardening is an art practiced in a relatively non-judgmental atmosphere.”
Roy Perott et al
The fact that it is such a forgiving craft is probably part of its attraction to many.
There is so much to love about the celebration of imperfection, the idea of finding beauty in the everyday and the imperfect, taking pleasure in the small things. When we read about Grace Alexander and her little packets of seeds in khadi cotton rag envelopes in TOAST magazine, the way she embraces the Japanese Wabi Sabi philosophy through the seed combinations she chooses captured our collective imagination. She selects a variety of seeds that will flower again focusing on the blend of colours and textures. We love the idea of seeds by mail order and wanted to find out more about Grace Alexander, her inspiration and how you can purchase the seeds. We were fascinated by her story, originally published in TOAST magazine, featured here with their kind permission.
Grace Alexander — A Somerset Seedmonger.
Psychologist and Seedmonger Grace Alexander grows and collects seeds from her cottage garden in Somerset. Carefully packaged in khadi cotton rag envelopes, each seed pack is filled with life, colour and texture.
Her unique curations of seeds for TOAST are guided by a wabi-sabi philosophy. From long flowering helichrysum seeds and native ox-eye daisies rich in nectar, to fine quaking grass seeds that can be planted and grown for movement.
We talk to Grace Alexander about “seed advice”, the joy of each season and where her horticultural knowledge first came from.
Can you tell us a little about Grace Alexander Flowers, where did it all begin?
It began rather unexpectedly. I still wake each morning slightly surprised that I have this business, but I always feel immensely grateful that I have.
I qualified as a clinical psychologist and found my dream job in Somerset working in child protection. I thought that was all there was. In 2013, we had a re-organization at work which challenged everything I had believed about success, identity, and who determined my happiness.
“I suddenly realised that I needed something more, something creative and different and joyous.”
I was lucky enough to have a little paddock behind my cottage. I put in some flower beds, made an orchard, sowed some seeds, and that was that. I don’t just grow flowers now, I spend the seasons growing and sourcing the best cut flower seed, and pack it in home-printed, cotton-rag envelopes.
Did you grow up with landscape around you? Where did the connection with nature come from?
I was born a Londoner but I never grew up there. My early childhood was in a Cheshire village with a huge garden and a vegetable patch at the end, with dens and hollow trees, and wells and fields beyond. My middle childhood was on a Warwickshire farm, with barns and sheep and horses and cider in the back of Land Rovers.
Looking back now, gardens and growing were always there, but I just assumed that that was what everyone did, that everyone spent their weekends at Wisley or Tatton Park or Hidcote.
“I think I absorbed my horticultural knowledge like language.”
I had my first job and did my clinical training in central London, but the call of the countryside was always too much. I love visiting town, but I want to wake up in Somerset every day.
What does nature and the outdoors mean to you today?
I think mostly it means dogs, but it also means a noticing of the passing of time. I have two beautiful Irish Setters and a cocker spaniel, and you don’t know joy until you have seen a setter chasing the smell of a pheasant. Walking dogs is an inescapable way of getting outside and seeing the open sky, noticing the changes in the air and in the soil.
If you walk the same walks regularly, you start to develop such an intimate relationship with the hedgerows and the fields. Even though there is no sign yet when I inspect the soil, I know exactly where the wild garlic is going to pop up. I know where the best sloes are. I know where the dog roses will drop their heart shaped petals.
Have you found that there are links between planting, sowing and psychology?
There is a truism in psychology: How you do something is how you do everything. I garden like I practice psychology and how I fill in my tax return. Sometimes I am all over it, but it’s rare. More often I am slightly late with deadlines, trying to multi-task, have seedlings in pots that really should have gone out a week ago, and tins and tins of seeds I will probably never sow.
I am always a bit envious of the people who say they just go out into the garden and find it calming. Maybe they have smaller, more manageable gardens than me, or maybe they are simply better adjusted. But
“The key to happiness is accepting what you can’t change. I accept that I am never going to have an immaculate garden and have all my bulbs in the ground at just the right time.”
Can you tell us a little about the unique seed curations you have created for TOAST?
“My business is guided by principles of sustainability and commitment, and all of the seeds will give plants that go on and on”
either because they are long flowering or they can be dried and kept.
The third collection The Rewilding Collection was inspired by wanting to support a wider conversation about how we use our individual and community spaces. Each of the rewilding packets contains a generous amount of easy to sow, almost fool-proof to grow, seeds which will keep local pollinators happy for quite some time to come.
What is the best time of year to plant?
There will be a moment in spring when the smell of the air changes and you start noticing weeds. Any bare soil will be covered with a haze of green, where the weed seeds are bursting into life. For almost all hardy plants, this means the conditions are perfect for germination. Chuck some seeds in then.
That said, if you think you have missed the best time of year, try anyway.
“Little and often is the best seed advice I can give.”
Is there a specific type of flower or plant that you particularly like to see come alive?
Hellebores. They don’t do particularly well for me here, although I keep trying because they are so exquisite. They are out in January when there is little else around. They are a sign that we have survived the winter and that the year will turn soon, and the field will burst back into life.
How can gardeners better support the environment and biodiversity?
I think most of us know what we should be doing, but I would say it’s about asking the right questions. It took me years to work out that if the bag of compost does not say peat-free on it in very big letters, it will contain peat. If the flowers do not say “British grown” on them, then they will be imported.
“Ask the right questions.”
Choices made out of ignorance have the same environmental impact as those made out of indifference and avarice. And we should accept that it will almost always involve compromise. There is no excuse for floral foam though. None.
Are there any easy ways to plant in the city? What types are best types of seeds for window boxes and pots?
I love container growing and I always have pots and planters around the courtyard at the back of my cottage. Most of these seeds will be fine in a pot, but only if the pot is big enough and only if the compost is good enough. Lots of the terracotta pots you see for sale are quite tiny. I would recommend going bigger than you think to give the plants what they need.
A metal tub with holes drilled in the bottom can often be cheaper than proper terracotta, or you can look around your local recycling shop. Use good peat free compost and sow sparingly.
“Seedlings look so tiny that you wonder how they will ever fill the pot but trust me, they will.”
However, if you put too many in, none of them will thrive. It is better to put up with a pot that looks a bit bare for a while, than over-sow and they never quite get going.
How do you spend your time when not in the garden?
I still have a full-time job as a clinical psychologist, so most of my spare time is spent doing that, or I’m photographing for my weekly newsletter. But time spent walking the dogs is non-negotiable and I am so lucky that we can just tumble out of the back door and onto the fields. We spend a bit of time camping in Cornwall each summer, and days on the South West Coast Path are precious.
Which season is your favourite?
With three dogs, winter is tough. Ask me in January and I’ll say the mud is relentless! So, when I feel spring come on, I can feel my heart rise and my step lighten. Ask me in September and it will be autumn, and in July I would say summer.
What is the best advice you have been given that you could pass on?
Say you can do it, then work out how to do it afterwards.
We love TOAST for its simple aesthetic, uncompromising attention to detail and celebration of high-quality natural materials and dyes.
TOAST aspires to a slower, more thoughtful way of life and began with loungewear and nightwear, designed in a farmhouse in Wales. Originally founded by James and Jessica Seaton in 1997, the collections reflected a sense of ease and a slower, more thoughtful way of life. Today, led by Suzie de Rohan Willner, TOAST creates and curates simple, functional, beautiful clothing, homeware and editorial.
TOAST continues to design and develop all collections in-house and is proud to be one of the few fashion brands with its own full pattern room — lined with calico toiles and full of pins, papers, chalks and spools of thread, it is a true place of making.
Images by Andrew Maybury, Roger Bool and Grace Alexander.