PUBLISHED: 13:25 30 July 2013 | UPDATED: 13:40 30 July 2013
WORDS: Mairead Mahon
It can come as no surprise to those who love traditional English flowers to learn that the beautiful Walled Garden at Mells has been voted one of the country’s top florists by a national newspaper.
It is laid out with traditional herbaceous perennials and cut flower beds that are packed with seasonal blooms and each visitor receives a welcome from a very friendly spaniel called Charlie.
Situated behind 17th century honey coloured walls with peaceful views over the ancient parish church and surrounding meadows, it is fast becoming a destination for people who want to experience the sights and perfumes of flowers that have been organically grown in the Somerset countryside for centuries.
It is owned and run by Jo Illsley, who has lived in the West Country for almost 30 years.
“It really is a dream come true for me,” says Jo “but it is a dream that has been a long time in the making.
“My first home was a small miner’s cottage but what I loved about it was the fact that it had a large garden. At that time, I knew very little about growing flowers but I had always been interested in the traditional flowers of our countryside and I really felt that this was my chance to put what I believed into practise.
“Several RHS courses later, I was confirmed in my belief that organically growing English flowers in England can only help our eco-system and environment and even today, I still get a thrill from watching the bees enjoy our flowers.”
The first flowers that Jo grew was a crop of sweet peas, a flower that has been cultivated since the 17th century and a few years later, when she was getting married, she decided to grow her own bouquet: a mixture of sweet peas and cornflowers.
“I also grew the bouquets for the bridesmaids and the table decorations and before long, people were asking me if I could do the same for them.
“At the time I was teaching RHS courses myself and I suddenly realised that, although I enjoyed that very much, I wanted to be permanently involved with growing traditional organic flowers,” she says.
After a short time working in the gardens at Annandale, Jo heard that the Walled garden at Mells was going to become available and she went along to see it.
“It has to be said that I wasn’t seeing it at its best” laughs Jo.
“It was in January, it was raining and the whole place just looked neglected but, and this was the most important thing, the soil was good.
“Later that night, I told my husband how I would love to restore it to glory, if only I had the chance.
“There was a moment’s silence, we looked at each other and in that moment, we had made the decision to raid our savings, in order to make an organic English country garden in the heart of Somerset.”
Today, The Walled Garden at Mells has its own dedicated fan base and attracts people from all over the South West and beyond.
“Some come just to enjoy the gardens, others to seek advice or enjoy a cup of tea and a slice of home made cake in the delightfully vintage tea room.
“However, over the years, Jo has built up an enviable reputation as one of the region’s best wedding florists and it is not unusual almost every day to see Jo and a prospective bride wandering around the cut flower beds and discussing what would make an extra special bridal bouquet.
“Many Somerset brides appreciate the beauty of an organic and local bouquet: there is something rather special about carrying flowers that have been grown in the county in which one is getting married,” smiles Jo.
“All the months have flowers which represent them best; for example Lily of the Valley for May, Dahlias for August and Hydrangeas for September but quite often they are surprised by the wide and natural choice that is available to them.
“We like to think that they are slow growing their own bouquet and we love it when a bride comes along to see how ‘her’ flowers are doing!”
Jo works with Jodie, an award- winning florist, to make up the bouquets, but they are also often asked to decorate a whole venue and that can be anything from a woodland glade to the teepees that they were asked to decorate for a music producer and his bride.
“One particular venue that involved Jo in historical research was the Pump Rooms at Bath.
“The bride was going to wear a beautiful Regency style dress and she wanted the setting and the flowers to reflect that period in history.
“It was a September wedding and, as one of the flowers popular at that time was a Hydrangea, that was what we used. They looked beautifully romantic in the candle light and it was thrilling to provide authentic flowers in authentic arrangements.”
Jo and Jodie also run very popular courses at The Walled Garden, such as how to make a hand-tied bouquet and willow sculpturing and groups of friends often attend.
“We did once have a group of eight brides and their mothers come along to a button hole course” laughs Jodie.
“They were all friends and all their daughters were getting married at around the same time and, instead of a traditional hen night, they decided to come along and learn how to make buttonholes.
“That was certainly one day when the peace of Mells was shattered but it was, nonetheless, tremendous fun especially as Charlie, Jo’s spaniel, decided to join in.”
“The Walled Garden at Mells reflects the months and the seasons.
“Nothing is forced, everything is slow and organic and flowers appear according to their season, as they have done in English country gardens for centuries and they are appreciated by birds, bees, people and, of course, well-behaved dogs.”