The art of dried flowers and 3 essential tips for how to dry flowers at home with Layla Robinson
For dried flower artist Layla Robinson, nature always inspires.
Did you know you can dry dahlias? This is just one of the many dried flower tips I was lucky enough to learn on a visit to Layla Robinson’s studio. The sky may have been grey and the air full of drizzle, but tucked away in a hillside cabin is a happy riot of colours and textures thanks to every kind of dried flower you can imagine lining its walls.
Floral artist Layla Robinson sows, grows, harvests, dries and arranges dried flowers into incredible one-off pieces of everlasting sculpture that adorn homes and castles alike. This is all from a stunning spot in the quietly mysterious undulating borderland between New Radnor and Hay-on-Wye. Here Layla lives with her partner and their three daughters surrounded by flowers - both in dried form and in the hot anticipation of spring in the field opposite her studio.
Across from the cabin is her family’s lovingly crafted, sun-powered Bedford Panorama vintage bus you can stay in. Layla’s cutting garden is just metres away from her workshop, which is ideal for harvesting at just the right moment and leaving the flowers to air-dry naturally. The whole end-to-end process is all done here. It doesn’t get much more closed-loop or sustainable than this.
With waiting lists and international requests for her work, Layla is one busy woman! So we were delighted when she took on our request of a bespoke dried flower wreath to bring colour and cheer to our cottage.
When I went to collect her jaw-droppingly gorgeous creation, what started as a chat led to a morning of talking about everything - from flowers, photography, kids and gigs to the constant source of inspiration that is nature. I hope you enjoy reading about her process, discovering what fuels her inspiration, plus her 3 essential tips for how to dry flowers at home, and love stepping into Layla’s world as much as I did!
How did your dried flower journey begin?
I grew up in the area and when I got pregnant we wanted to move back. We renovated a house in Ledbury, sold it and decided to buy a do-er upper, not really knowing what actually having small children does on your capability to do up wrecked buildings! We looked for somewhere over a couple of years then this place with a ruined barn and just over an acre came up. We built our cabin as a temporary place to live and then we had kids. When my first born was one I thought about growing cut flowers. I thought ‘great, I’ve got a young baby, it’s the perfect solution’ and there were a few people doing it locally at the same time. This was right at the beginning, when British cut flowers were newly emerging. Then I found out it’s actually quite hard growing cut flowers with a small child. Then we had another small child and it got quite a lot harder!
However, it was from starting that business that I began making winter wreaths with foraged foliage and berries from hedgerows. I did a few winter weddings and I really enjoyed the long-lastingness of this kind of floristry work. With fresh flowers you’re rushed to pick it and you’re rushed to use the flowers. It’s quite a high turnover job. I gradually started to grow more flowers for drying and weaned myself off fresh flowers for cutting. Having my third child was a real turning point when I thought I should just focus on aspects I really enjoyed.
Work and life is intermingled in one busy ball. How do you make it work?
It’s been quite a journey! Life is always full when you have small children. It makes you really focus on what you really can achieve, what you enjoy and what works. For a long time I was working on the kitchen table with cats, dogs, kids…so recently we built my workshop, which is bliss. Along with our bus, there’s always other things going on. Our work has always been feathered in with having children and you can’t always instantly turn on creative work. Sometimes it’s quite hard and not always easy but that’s trying to run a business with kids - you’ve just got to run with it!
What’s your process for starting a dried flower design?
I’m usually inspired by the place my work is going to go, or by someone's personality, or by where it’s going to go. Sometimes I’ll go freestyle and be inspired by what I look at when I walk into my dry flower cupboard. I’ll go with the flow of that day and how I'm feeling, you just don’t know what each day might bring. Each design has its own personality and they all evolve.
What inspires you?
Nature and contrast. At this time of year it’s stark, it’s muddy, wild, windswept and wet. It’s that sharp contrast to the all froth, colourful fluff, greenery and billowing verges of the summer that really inspires me. I try to mix these two elements of contrast into everything I do. Most of my work has an element of twigs or wire. It’s that little bit of wildness that makes the other stuff sweeter.
What do you love about working with dried flowers?
I like the fact that they don’t die after I pick them! When I started I didn’t know that dried flowers were about to become so popular. I like finding new ways of using them that other people haven’t thought of and seeking new ways of viewing them. The direction of my work is moving more into the world of art and interiors and away from where I first started in floristry and craft. Over time I realised the world of floristry just wasn’t for me and what I enjoy now is simply a different approach to creating with dried flowers.
How did you discover which flowers you like working with?
Over the last 10 years my style has adapted and grown. I’ve tried different ideas, different flowers and learned hands-on what I enjoy working with. Basically, it’s addictive. Every year I try different things because when you grow a crop, sometimes something will fail. Last year one flower I’d usually rely on just didn’t grow at all. You end up adapting, using something else and discovering new things. Occasionally plants are wiped out or won’t germinate for no particular reason. You try five times in a season and it just doesn’t work. Then that’s it - then you’ve missed the growing window and won’t have any of that plant that year. After that, I have an initial panic and then I have to find something else. Failure makes you adapt and because of this each year my style changes slightly. I grow a lot of flowers but I also forage a lot too.
Tell us a little more about your foraging…
I use a lot of bracken, wild grasses, oats, meadow grasses, shepherd's purse and rowan berries, to name a few. I gather from hedgerows in the summer and autumn. I picked grasses (Layla says, whilst gliding her hands over a dazzling array of bunched grasses) last summer and the colours are still lovely and they have such amazing textures too. They’re all from our verges. Dried grasses are great for weaving into designs and are needed to offset the bling of the flowers. It all goes back to that idea of contrast to create a ‘wow’ factor.
What's your favourite flower to grow to make dried flowers?
Hands down, multi-coloured strawflowers. They’re so colourful and bright. The only thing I’d say though is that they can get quite big. They are easy to grow and flower from July to the first frosts. They’re cut and come again which means you can pick them and they’ll keep coming back. It’s ridiculous they’re even a flower. They have a beautiful texture and feel like they’re made from paper even when they’re fresh and still one the plant.
Does your location impact what you can grow?
Our site is a really stupid place to grow flowers! It couldn’t be worse. We’re about 800 ft above sea level, on an east facing slope, facing almost away from the sun. I use a polytunnel quite a bit and I have to get all my flowers into the ground so that they’re ready to catch the July heat. Certain flowers just don’t grow very well outside here and this means growing certain varieties needs careful planning. My dahlias need to be the polytunnel for the extra heat. It’s not a large plot but I grow what I can in the space that I have. Not having an ideal site might be seen as a negative, because it’s not obviously straightforward or easy, but it’s actually these kinds of challenges that make you try out new ideas. It can take you in a different direction that can end up being really good. That’s definitely the philosophy of my business. I’m a firm believer of going with the flow and following the direction life takes you.
What do you love about living in mid-Wales?
One of the amazing things about the area is the amount of creativity there is. It’s full of creative people and there’s always interesting things going on. One of my favourite spots is Hay Bluff - its wild landscape and incredible views across the Wye Valley are totally inspiring. I love going down to the river at Hay-on-Wye and to Water-Break-Its-Neck waterfall in New Radnor. When you drive through the Black Mountains, even on a cold, bleak midwinter's day, it’s still so shockingly beautiful it takes your breath away. Everywhere you go around here, at any time of year, is just incredible.
How to dry flowers: 3 essential tips for drying flowers at home with Layla Robinson
1. To dry your own flowers, get your timing right
This is a non-negotiable. A lot of flowers need to be picked just as they’ve opened so that they’ll keep their colour. If you leave the flower on the plant open, it might look lovely as you pick it, but the sun has already bleached it to a certain degree by that point. The flower can also then go to seed as it carries on ageing, even if the flower looked perfect when you picked it. Don’t wait for tomorrow! Your flowers are not ever going to be as good if you pick them too late.
2. Keep your flowers dry inside (not in a shed)
It sounds obvious, but it’s essential they’re kept really dry. To dry flowers properly, they like to be as dry as you like to be. I don’t do anything apart from picking them and leaving them to hang to dry in my workshop. Then, when they’re really dry, I’ll move them into my flower cupboard to store them. Don’t be tempted to dry them in a shed or a garage. The moisture present in these kinds of spaces will make them go floppy and brown or even worse, mouldy. Dried flowers are quite fragile and can be brittle when dry. Your drying space doesn’t have to be totally dark, but it does stop it from bleaching out. I have a small window and a dim light in my flower cupboard and my flowers retain their vibrant colours.
3. Care for your dried flowers, here’s how
Generally, dried flowers do fade over time, but it’s very gentle fading over 3-5 years. If you avoid keeping them in direct sunlight and away from strong heat they can hold their colour well. They don’t last forever but compared to a bunch of fresh flowers they do last a lot longer!
You'll find Layla's stunning dried flower wreath upstairs at Highbrook Cottage.
For more information on Layla's everlasting flower sculptures, to purchase a dried flower wreath or book a workshop visit www.laylarobinson.com.