Parham’s glorious flower arrangements worthy of Downton Abbey

Posted: July 9th, 2014

A thrilling highlight amongst the many memorable features of Parham House in West Sussex are the exquisite floral arrangements found in the rooms open to the public.  Unlike other stately homes where a potted geranium or two, or even, dare I say it, a forlorn vase of silk flowers is the norm, flower arrangements a la Parham are breathtakingly beguiling relaxed confections of colours and form unlike any other.




They are conjured up each week by a team of six, working in pairs who use an astonishing 20-25 buckets of cut flowers from the garden that arrive at the house transported by tractor and trailer every Tuesday with an additional 10 buckets on Fridays to bolster the existing arrangements (the house is open Wednesdays – Sundays and Bank Holidays Mondays).

The tractor arriving at the house.

The tractor arriving at the house.




The thinking and planning behind this mammoth operation are led by the Head Gardener, Tom Brown.  ‘At Christmas we pore over the seed catalogues deciding what to order.  Then we plan a propagation schedule with the aid of a spreadsheet.  We treat each flower as a crop.  This sounds rather callous but I have to choose what to grow and the quantities very carefully – it is not a question of going round the basket with a wicker basket’.  Obviously ‘cut and come again’ flowers with a long flowering period such as cosmos are ideal whereas something like peonies despite their ‘wow’ factor are more fleeting.

The flowers are planted in rows in the walled garden which is open to the public and the sweet peas in blocks of colour. ‘I am constantly reviewing and editing the flowers, lifting those no longer suitable and selling them on in our nursery’.  The flowers are not typical commercial flowers and include alstroemerias, calendulas, achillea, campanulas and alchemilla mollis.

Tom is helped by three other gardeners and between 12 and 15 volunteers.  Before joining Parham, he worked at Wisley for more than a decade, starting in ‘Ornamental’ and finishing as Head of the Trial Beds.  This proved to be an excellent training for his current role:  ‘it trained me to ‘focus’ on a particular plant’.


Head Gardener, Tom Brown.

Head Gardener, Tom Brown.

Knowing when to cut the flowers takes a certain skill: ‘we have a volunteer who has developed a very sophisticated eye, knowing exactly state of bloom to cut a flower in’.  It takes the best part of a day.

The arrangements in the house are wonderfully loose.  They look deceptively simple to execute but the reality is that they are very subtle and require deft artistry.  The colours of each arrangement are dictated by their surroundings, for example blue flowers are used to echo the blue in a nearby tapestry.  ‘We don’t use oasis, preferring  florist’ pin holders and chicken wire.  This also makes it much easier to put the spent flowers directly onto the compost heap’ says Tom’s wife, Clare who happens to have worked as a florist in a previous life.




‘The flowers unite the house and the garden so that they don’t each exist in a vacuum,’ says Lady Emma Barnard, the current delightfully enthusiastic chatelaine.  Lady Emma is continuing a long tradition first started by her great grandmother, Alicia Pearson, when she and her husband, Clive bought the house in the 1920s. ‘To have fresh sweetly scented flowers in the house with open windows makes it into a home rather than a museum’.  To this day each arrangement sits on its own needlework mat stitched by Alicia Pearson who her daughter,  Veronica.  ‘Flower arranging ‘Parham Style’ is a venerable and old tradition’.




Needless to say the garden is a rich medley of colour and texture and brims with generosity.  ‘It verges on carefully controlled chaos’ says Tom.  As anyone who gardens will know to orchestrate such a look requires consummate skill which fortunately for Parham and the thousands of people who visit each year Tom has in spades.

All the lovely photographs in this blog were taken by Elizabeth Zeschin .