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Fern & Flora

Emma and Claire at Fern & Flora

“We were thinking of business names and Fern & Flora felt right, as it sounds like two middle-aged women!” laughs Claire Cargill. “We even pretend that those are our names sometimes!”

Claire and business partner Emma Bainbridge-Sutton established the company in September 2020, after the first lockdown. They hadn’t known each other long, having met while studying for RHS qualifications in horticulture. Yet having bonded over a shared love of plants and yoga, the duo decided to set up their own garden design business.

‘We discovered that we like similar things and agree on nearly everything when it comes to garden design,” says Emma. “Sometimes, we’ll be looking at ideas separately, flicking through magazines or browsing the internet for inspiration, and when we meet up to discuss a project we find we’re thinking on the same lines.”

Different Roots

Emma and Claire have taken different paths to their shared business venture. Claire’s background is in law enforcement, having worked for the Metropolitan Police Service’s Serious Organised Crime Agency. 

Claire says, “I also went to Trinidad and helped to establish an analytical department for an anti-crime unit in the country, before returning home and working for the National Crime Agency. After having a child, I wanted to do something different. I’ve seen bad things through work and reached an age where I needed a change. I’ve always loved plants and have volunteered at Nymans, a National Trust garden in Handcross, for five years. I've learnt so much from the gardeners there. They’re so knowledgeable and to benefit from their expertise has been amazing. Volunteering at Nymans is what inspired me to attend the RHS course in the first place.”

It was there that Claire met Emma, who had been to art school before working in textile design. Emma has also been a colour forecaster, which helps her now when she selects plants and flowers. “Twice a year, designers would come together and present ideas on colour trends,” says Emma. “We were always looking two seasons in advance and offering opinions as to what colours would be popular. For a wide range of industries – not just fashion and textiles – this is important.”

“People often say that I should be an interior designer, but I’ve always loved gardening. There’s something about the idea of seeing plants grow and bloom that fascinates me. So, that’s the passion I pursued. I didn’t think it was right to start a garden design business without knowing more about plants, so, I took the RHS Level 2 Certificate in Garden Planning, Establishment and Maintenance. It was quite intense! I ended up sitting next to Claire and when it ended, we both had the same idea about what to do next.”

Mood Boards

Claire is now studying for the next level of qualifications while continuing to grow the business, where a combination of skills and enthusiasm has helped Fern & Flora gain a foothold during challenging times. They work on gardens of all sizes, from tiny plots where every inch matters to landscaped gardens that include water features or even lawn badminton! 

With people stuck at home during the lockdown, some chose to invest in their home and garden, especially as an attractive garden is thought to add around 10% to the value of a property. “We work closely with clients to understand exactly what it is they’re looking for,” says Emma. “Some clients have no idea what they want and we create a mood board and use visuals to build a picture of what they’re after. Others have a wedge of ideas! One of the joys of the job is that every garden is different.” 

Claire adds, “One of the most exciting aspects of working with plants is the variety. What one person perceives as traditional could be new to someone else. Dahlias are coming to the fore, whereas when I was young nobody wanted them. Because of the internet and gardening programmes, there are many avenues for ideas and thanks to specialist nurseries some kinds of exotic plants are becoming more accessible, so there’s a world of possibilities.” 

“However, we have heard about people spending too much on the labour costs of garden design. Plants alone can be very expensive, particularly large or rare varieties, and when you add in the costs for water features or rockeries, the budget can be eaten up quickly. But we’re very fair and open with our clients, as we’ve heard too many bad experiences. We consider the budget carefully and explore ways to create the vision they want, at the best price.” 

“Another advantage we have is that we’re a bit older. With age, you think practically about those little things that annoy you. Like leaving a clear path so you can put the bins out, or considering children and pets that use the garden. These are the small but important details that we hope will help us stand out from the competition.”

Further information: To find out more about Fern & Flora’s services visit www.fernandflora.co.uk
AAH would like to thank Leonardslee Lakes & Gardens for allowing us to use their beautiful Rock Garden for the photoshoot with Fern & Flora

Published on 1st July 2021