The Allotment Florist in Otley, the sustainable floral designer

Berries add texture and richness to this table display

Berries add texture and richness to this table display - Credit: Archant

Helena Willcocks spent years creating beautiful blooms in London. But she could not ignore the pull of home anymore.

Apples and orchard fruits play a big part in Helena's work - she loves autumn colours and textures

Apples and orchard fruits play a big part in Helena's work - she loves autumn colours and textures - Credit: Archant

‘I always loved to grow things, growing is my therapy,’ smiles Helena Willcocks, aka Otley’s Allotment Florist. ‘I’ve always loved being outside and the joy of putting something in the ground, that you look after and care for, and then get the most beautiful result, there is nothing better. It really gives me a sense of purpose.’

Helena spent years working in some of Covent Garden and East London’s most recognised florists creating show-stopper blooms and teaching budding floral designers her craft. But it has been a much-longed for return to her home county of Yorkshire, with partner Jack, that has grounded her.

‘Yorkshire was constantly calling me home and to be back here, doing the work I love feels incredibly special,’ she says.

She moved home just a few weeks before the enforced lockdown in March. Despite the challenges this created, including the loss or postponement of much of her wedding work, Helena has turned her attention to creating sustainable blooms, letterbox flowers, wreaths and dried flower postcards.

The gift of dried flowers

The gift of dried flowers - Credit: Archant

She grows her flowers in pots in her yard as well as sourcing from other Yorkshire growers, including Picked at Dawn in Thirsk, and uses beautiful blooms from her mum, Elizabeth’s garden. She still also has growing space in London but is searching for that ideal spot near home.

‘I really want my own place to grow and we got on the allotment list as soon as we knew we were going to live here,’ says Helena. ‘My mum has an amazing garden, with lots of established shrubs and is teeming with flowers. It’s beautiful.’

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But flowers were not Helena’s first calling. She studied art at Leeds College of Art and Design and then acting in Stratford upon Avon where she lived and worked with almost 30 other actors, touring with the likes of the Royal Shakespeare Company and landing parts in a handful of films including Robert Downey Jnr’s Sherlock Holmes. But, realising she was spending more time working in restaurants to support her dream of acting, she decided to make a change. Her epiphany came while working as a chef for a Russian oligarch in Hampstead Heath.

‘That time with the RSC was my real university experience,’ says Helena.’ It was the best time, doing plays, touring around the country. I moved to London because I thought doing acting, you had to. I messed around trying to be an actor but, in reality, I worked in restaurants. My friend got me the job with the Russian oligarch. I really loved it at the time but I didn’t want to be a cook. I questioned what I was doing with my life. I wanted something else.

Helena in her studio

Helena in her studio - Credit: Archant

‘My mum is a really keen gardener; she really does know everything. Growing up I went to lots of garden centres which clearly had more of an impact on me than I realised. I’ve always been interested in nature and I thought about botany. I thought that would be really fun.’

Helena, who also worked for the Flower Appreciation Society, enrolled on a floristry course, applied for an allotment, and trained with brilliant, but traditional florists. But it was when she began work with the internationally renowned Jane Packer, she discovered a different way of doing things.

‘It was much more about making the flowers move how they are meant to be,’ says Helena. ‘It wasn’t about making flowers bend into a shape. I wanted to work more like that. I’d also learned that often flowers were cut then plunged into chemicals so they could be flown thousands of miles.

‘I wanted to have a more organic approach, growing my own flowers in an organic and ethical way. I want all of my flowers to look as though they have been freshly picked from the garden.

Helena likes to work a flower's nature shape and movement

Helena likes to work a flower's nature shape and movement - Credit: Archant

‘Growing up in an area surrounded by the Yorkshire Dales, with its wild and dramatic landscape, had a huge influence on me.’

Today Helena, who has designed for Chelsea Flower Show, major labels including Liz Earle and is a go-to for gorgeous bridal blooms, creates stunning flower displays that complement the natural environment, rather than work against it.

Along with creating beautiful flowers for others to enjoy, Helena also wants to nurture new floral design talent and hopes to hold workshops soon. Teaching others has long been a part of her job she thrives on.

‘In London, I loved the flowers and I loved teaching. It felt like acting, which appealed, but the thing I really loved was working with people,’ she says. ‘My dream plan is to get an allotment full of beautiful things and get a studio in Otley, so I have a teaching space.

Helena loves foraging in the garden for foliage - something she urges everyone to do

Helena loves foraging in the garden for foliage - something she urges everyone to do - Credit: Archant

‘I want to find somewhere to grow. I love growing flowers, arranging them, and being surrounded by them. Flowers make me happy and working with them is the best decision I ever made. I want other people to discover that same joy.’

Spoilt for choice?

Helena shares her tips on how to select the right blooms

Try to choose at least three different types of foliage – be creative. This can be herbs, berries or twigs from the garden.

Then choose some feature blooms – big bold blooms that draw the eye such as peonies, dahlias, roses or ranunculus are good.

Then it is time to choose some ‘filler’ flowers – there are those small delicate flowers that will add texture and movement such as astrantia, ammi majus, cornflowers or sweet rocket.

Create a vase with va-va-voom

Go in with foliage first. This means you can create a beautiful shape and structure before adding flowers. Plus, it makes it less daunting than going straight in with blooms.

You can then go in with your feature blooms. Do not be afraid to cluster them together if that feels right or cut some short to add depth and contrast.

Then start to add your gorgeous filler flowers. These are wonderful at creating movement and texture. Be bold and cut your stems at lots of different heights to create that wonderful wild look. Do not be afraid to have some stems nice and long.

Try not to add too much to your arrangement and know when to stop. Less is more and you do not have to use every bloom in your bucket. A good tip is to think about the space between the flowers. You want to be able to see through your arrangement in parts and give the flowers room to breathe. Make sure you can see every beautiful bloom in all its glory. Otherwise, it may as well not be there.

Got a garden or some outside space?

Make the most of it with these tips

Try using herbs in your arrangements. There are so many to choose from plus it makes it smell delicious. I use bronze fennel, mint, sweet cicely and curry plant a lot.

Try foraging in your local area. There is so much wonderful stuff out there. Just double-check where you are allowed to go first. Try looking for blossom in the spring, ferns and berries in the summer, bracken in the autumn and lichen or pine in the winter.

If you are wanting to grow some cut flowers from seed, some nice and easy ones to try are cosmos, Nigellas, sweet peas or zinnias.