In Conversation with

Milli Proust:
Let the Flowers Bloom

Words by LUCY SIDDALL

From the stage to the garden, one woman’s journey into the wild and wonderful world of seeds, growing and blooming stems.

“They make life beautiful,” says Milli Proust, author, grower and floral designer, about the joy of flowers in the home. After working alone, Proust co-founded Alma | Proust, a floral design studio, alongside her business partner Paris Alma, in the garden of her idyllic Grade II-listed 17th-century home in West Sussex. As the child of an artist, Proust grew up surrounded by creativity. So, it’s unsurprising that she has carved a career rooted in craft, beauty and expression. The florist views her garden the same way her mother and brother view their canvases, as “a moving, living painting.” An outside observer only needs to take one look at her ethereal creations and her wildly impressive garden to see that she has undoubtedly flourished into an artist in her own right.

Here, Proust opens up to the Condo about her young floristry aspirations and how to bring the outdoors in no matter where you live.

Lucy Siddall: What is your earliest memory of flowers?

Milli Proust: I remember summer days with my grandmother. I have such a vivid memory of the bronze fennel she grew. She wanted to engage us with the garden and allowed us to explore. She showed us the plants we could eat, and I distinctly remember her crushing the fennel fronds in her fingers and giving them to us. They smelled so strong and tasted like liquorice.

LS: How did you go from being a young child in the garden with your grandmother to the business owner and grower you are today?

MP: At school, I didn’t realise it was possible to work with the land. I considered floristry but was warned against it, so I pursued acting instead. After drama school, I regularly went to the flower market in East London and diligently kept pots in all my flat shares. I experimented with what I could, always harbouring dreams of being a florist, but I didn’t think I was “green-fingered” enough. When my boyfriend moved out of London, I went with him and started to nurture and care for the garden here in Sussex. I ordered seeds from Floret, an inspiring American flower farmer and just had a go. I found it incredibly inspiring and fulfilling. I worked a little with Bloom & Burn, who taught me floristry skills in exchange for growing tips, and he helped develop my confidence. In January 2020, I was ready. I’d put a lot of investment in the ground and had weddings booked all summer.

For Proust, "Spring is small treasures and little bits of hope sprinkled everywhere."

Proust suggests a sustainable pin frog when arranging flowers for more control over the placement of the stems.

“Flowers are always there, and I think they can really evoke an emotion or create an atmosphere.”

LS: How did you cope during COVID and lockdown?

MP: I realised very quickly that I had to make this work or close my business. During lockdown, my grandmother came to live with me, and she believed in the monumental power that flowers could have. She was stoic and practical and helped me see how to continue when I thought I had to stop. She reminded me that, more than ever, people will need flowers. They are a symbol of hope and connection. So, I experimented with sending bunches in the post and put them on Instagram on a first-come-first-serve basis. I sold 40 bunches in 10 minutes and said yes to every single one. It was stressful but amazing. It completely turned my business around. It was also incredibly humbling. I saw such a beautiful side to humanity in the messages of hope and care that people sent.

LS: What role do flowers play in a home?

MP: Plants and flowers connect us to the outside world and can profoundly enhance our wellbeing. They allow us to bring the outside in and expand our living spaces significantly. Surrounding yourself with flowers and physically getting your hands dirty in the soil and mud also improves your mood.

"With colour palettes, I like to keep it harmonious and stick to a tonal selection that sits quite close together on the colour wheel."

There's something incredibly human and grounding about working with the earth, admits Proust.

LS: What inspires your incredible floral arrangements?

MP: I love the theatre and dance and try replicating that movement in my designs. We have flowers with us at such significant times in our lives, whether it’s the birth of a child or the passing of a loved one, a celebration or an anniversary. Flowers are always there, and I think they can really evoke an emotion or create an atmosphere. Someone once told me that there needs to be enough space in an arrangement for a butterfly to come and visit every flower, so there needs to be freedom within the design. I also love how plants grow in the wild or garden, so I mimic that as much as possible. The godmother of the ‘looser’ look, Constance Spry, a pioneering designer from the early twentieth century, and Ariella Chezar, who was involved in the natural look that came out of America, inspire me a lot.

“An arrangement should be beautiful background music rather than a loud conversation.”

LS: What tips can you give our readers if they start to arrange at home?

MP: I find a sustainable mechanic like a pin frog invaluable as you have a lot more control over the placement of the flowers, allowing for play and experimentation. Otherwise, I like to categorise ingredients. First, I start with a focal flower that is generally quite big and will capture all the initial attention. Then, I layer in supporting flowers which emulate the central flower, but their role is to make the big flower shine. Next, I add a filler, such as foliage, to add a bit of froth. Lastly, I add “sparkle”, which makes you want to reach out to and touch it. It creates an ephemeral feel and elevates the arrangement from simple to extraordinary. With colour palettes, I like to keep it harmonious and stick to a selection that sits quite close together on the colour wheel. If you’re struggling to make a colour palette work, I recommend keeping it simple. An arrangement should be beautiful background music rather than a loud conversation.

LS: Where might you start if you’re new to flowers and arranging?

MP: Give yourself the best chance and start with the confidence-givers, sweet peas and cosmos. They germinate easily and quickly, so you won’t spend time worrying you’ve done something wrong; they’ll suddenly be there. Don’t sow too early in the year. Wait until the days are longer and it’s a little warmer in late March or early April, and don’t be afraid to cut from what you grow. The more you cut, the more these will flower, so they are a lovely place to start. If you’re using pots, make sure they are as big as possible and plastic rather than terracotta, as they will retain the moisture more efficiently. I’ve got a lot of sowing guides, tips and tricks, cheat sheets, and advice on filling a seed tray and planting in my book Seeds. It can seem scary and intimidating if you’ve never done it, but all the suggestions are very straightforward. Growing from seed is a very wholesome, human thing to do, and I highly recommend trying it.

Proust has carefully curated her sprawling, ethereal and mesmerising garden in West Sussex.

Bulbs are a great way to bring the outdoors in if you don't have a garden, suggests Proust.

LS: If you don’t have an outdoor space, how can you create a “garden” or outdoor feeling inside?

MP: I have two suggestions. One, bulbs are great for indoors. I grow bulbs in winter when I need a colour hit inside. I do it with muscari, scilla, amaryllis, paperwhites and narcissus. Summer bulbs are gladioli, lilies, alliums and irises. The key is ensuring you have a container with good drainage, as you don’t want to drown the bulbs. Equally, don’t let the soil dry out, and try to avoid putting them near a radiator. My second suggestion is window boxes, but ensure you secure them properly. The earliest bulbs are iris reticulata and crocus, then narcissus and tulips. I also like to put violas in between. When you plant violas between tulips, they grow long stems so you can cut them for the house. Plus, the violas will continue, which is lovely. You can take out the spent bulbs at the end of May and have the violas or start again with something summery, such as pelargoniums.

Visit Alma | Proust’s website, MilliProust.com, to explore their seed collection, purchase Milli’s books, or inquire about an event.

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