For someone who is best known as a horticulturist, Sarah Raven is not one to let the grass grow under her feet. In addition to her thriving internet and mail order plant company, she is a best-selling author, broadcaster, lecturer and campaigner. As she approaches her fiftieth birthday, she is in more demand than ever.
It has ever been thus, even before she made her name as one of the UK’s foremost plants-women.
“She likes to keep busy, and she likes to keep the people around her busy,” says her friend, author Guy Kennaway. “When we were students at Edinburgh University, her boyfriend would drive seven hours every weekend to see her. She’d have him mucking in, scrubbing floors on all fours. She keeps everyone on their mark.”
Not least herself. “Yes yes, I am always busy!” she says. “Some people thrive on that and I am one of them. I work hard, but I play hard too. I don’t think my work-life balance is completely right but it’s not bad.”
Bees, Butterflies and Blooms
Most recently, she has used the medium of television to get the message across about the disappearing habitat of bees and other pollinating insects, in a three-part series entitled Bees, Butterflies and Blooms. The theme follows on from a programme she made in 2008 called River of Flowers, in which she argued the need for continuous strips of unfertilised land in farms, parkland and verges, to encourage natural habitats for declining wildlife.
She says: “There’s no point some farmers having set-aside space in their fields for wildflowers when there’s nothing in between for miles, because you can’t get a renaissance of wildlife. But if you have these rivers of continuity, it works.”
In Bees, Butterflies and Blooms – which was broadcast in February – she has expanded the argument, showing how the loss of wildflower meadows will impact on our lives, as well as wildlife.
“At my age you start to take stock,” she says. “I’m going to be 50 next year and I’ve started to think about what has changed since my childhood, when I would go around Britain with my dad [acclaimed botanist John Raven]. I remember him telling me what had disappeared since he was a child, and I can see what has gone since I was young, and if we carry on at this rate we won’t have any wildflowers left.
“With the destruction of the wildflower habitat and foodstuff of all our insect pollinators, we will see the repercussions if we destroy the countryside. And most of us don’t realise it’s happening.”
You’ll have to be quick, however, if you want to catch the series on iPlayer as it will shortly become unavailable, and there are no plans for it to be released on DVD, even though Raven received more than 1,000 emails and letters asking how they could obtain one.
From history to hospital to horticulture
Raven’s childhood holidays were spent with her father, travelling around the UK and Europe collecting seeds. Although her parents had a beautiful garden that was open to the public, at the time she was more interested in nature than gardening.
The botanical theme continued into her adult life. She is married to the writer Adam Nicolson, grandson of Vita Sackville-West, and they split their time between their farm in Sussex and a wing of Sissinghurst Castle, now curated by the National Trust, and home to the inspirational gardens created by his grandmother.
But though botany is evidently in her genes and her surroundings, Raven came to her current position by a circuitous route. Having graduated with an MA in History, she then returned to university to study medicine, taking all her science A levels in a year in order to be eligible for the degree. “I loved medicine,” she says now, “but I gave it up because it was incompatible with family life. I was a junior house doctor in a hospital, working 70 hours a week, with a relatively new baby in the house.
“Consequently, when I was at home with two tiny children, I spent all my spare time gardening. I love having cut flowers in the house, so I started growing them. There wasn’t a good book for growing annuals, and out of that I started teaching courses on how to grow flowers from a barn on our farm. We’d be growing annuals from seeds that I had imported and people in my classes would ask: ‘Can you get me some of those seeds’?”
Raven kept a list of those requests and soon realised she had 250 potential customers. From that, she produced her first seed catalogue, the cover of which she painted herself at her kitchen table. From flowers, she progressed to growing a lot of food for her family, and thus vegetable seeds and plants became part of the business, too.
“My mantras were grow, cut, arrange, and grow, cook, eat,” she says.
Now she has 50,000 UK customers on her database and there are plans to expand the business into Europe. In addition to seeds, plants and all things gardening, Sarah Raven also offers beautiful household objects such as vases, kitchenware and crockery.
“Things tend to happen organically,” she says. “People at my courses would say, ‘I really like that vase – where did you get it?’. So I started to add those in as well. My maxim is that whatever I want to include in the lifestyle section has to be hugely functional, well designed, unusual and beautiful.
“When your business gets bigger you have to enlarge the team. I’m now at our Wiltshire headquarters one or two days a fortnight. [The rest of the time she is lecturing, researching her next book and sourcing stock.] I’m also on the phone daily and I’m at planning meetings. But even though we have grown as a business, it’s still instinctive. We follow our noses.”
To the sweet, floral smell of success.