Meet the Waikato founders of floral and ceramics workshop Flora in Clay

Multitalented sisters Carmel and Milly Van Der Hoeven host the annual affair in Milly’s glorious Pirongia garden.

When sisters Carmel and Milly Van Der Hoeven aren’t working as an artist (at George Sand Studio) and a flower farmer/stylist (at Primm Gardens) respectively, they join forces to share their passion projects with fellow plant and ceramics enthusiasts at their annual Flora in Clay workshop hosted on Milly’s rural Waikato property.

You’re both based in Pirongia — is that where you grew up? Carmel: We were raised in Te Awamutu, 10 minutes east of Pirongia. We both wanted to raise our children here because it has a great village vibe. 

MAIN IMAGE Carmel (left) and Milly cherish their close relationship. “This is currently our only professional collaboration, but we often seek each other out to discuss all manner of things creative, business and life,” says Carmel. “Milly’s work ethic always impresses me — her gardens require a huge amount of care. I’ve tried arranging flowers in my vessels and I know it’s much harder than it looks, but she does it with such ease and confidence.” Says Milly: “I so admire Carmel for her artistic soul and the beautiful work she creates. She’s multitalented and dedicated to her passions. Her ideas and vision are constantly evolving, and I’m so proud of what she’s achieving.”

Does creativity run in your family? C: Both of our grandmothers were involved in creative pursuits, as well as our mother, aunties and quite a few of our cousins, so I’d say so, yes! I always dreamed of being an artist but the standard comment I got at school was that nobody can make a living doing that, so with that in mind, I went on to study fashion. I took a roundabout way to get to where I am today but I’ve always wanted to work as a creative.
Milly: We grew up in a relaxed, creative home and were given the freedom to find our own paths. I had no idea I’d end up growing flowers — it wasn’t until I started my own family that I discovered my love of gardening.

Milly, how long did it take to establish your flower gardens? M: Four years, so not long for a garden, really. We’re still slowly establishing the rose garden, trees, hedges and mixed borders. The annual cutting beds get flipped every year, but I’m more of a perennials fan and like to collect-slash-hoard unusual plants that I can divide and grow on.

What sort of plants are you growing here? M: Most are grown for cut flowers and foliage. We have more than 500 roses — 80 varieties in a range of colours and forms — lots of interesting dahlias and perennials, and I grow all of our spring/summer annuals from seed, things like sweet peas, scabiosa, cosmos, phlox and zinnias. My flower-growing season generally starts in early spring with tulips, anemones and ranunculus, and ends at the first frost, usually around May. 

What led you to collaborate on Flora in Clay? C: I think in the beginning we were talking about vases and discussing the properties they need to have for different arrangements, then somewhere along the line we realised we had a unique combination of skills that complemented each other and thought it would be pretty cool to give people the opportunity to pick, design and make floral arrangements from Milly’s garden in a bespoke vessel.

TOP & ABOVE On arrival at Flora in Clay workshops, the first order of the day is selecting your vase. Numbers are drawn out of a hat, then there’s a flurry of exchanges until everyone’s happy with their chosen vessel. Moving out to the rose garden, Milly shares her knowledge of the varieties she’s growing, and you can snip away to your heart’s content. Round out your pickings with floppy-headed wildflowers and foliage, then get creative styling an amazing arrangement to take home, before celebrating with a shared feast around an abundant grazing table by Tamahere’s Punnet Eatery.

Carmel, how long have you been making ceramics for? C: It was my five- year anniversary of having my hands covered in clay in January. When making vessels for the workshops, I have a plan in mind but it often goes in a different direction when I start making; the clay sort of tells me where it’s heading.
After that, it needs to survive all the various processes, from wet to eventually becoming vitrified vessels covered in glass. I then pick out the number of pieces needed for our guests, plus extras for swapping. I choose a variety of works because you never really know which pieces people will choose. I’ve been surprised often enough now to know never to make assumptions. 

Are the flowers in your paintings informed by Milly’s gardens? C: All of my realistic garden works reference Milly’s gardens. I’ve found that different gardens directly influence how I paint, which has been fascinating to experiment with. It’s a joy to have access to Milly’s diverse plants.

What do you find most rewarding about your creative practices? C: I love the process of creating — it’s addictive. I also enjoy the mediative state my mind reaches when I’m working. For hours it will drift around thoughts while I subconsciously create.
M: I love working with the seasons. The gardens are always changing; the rhythm and connection inspires me creatively and I feel very privileged to be able to grow and design with  my own flowers.

Milly, what’s your advice for anyone wanting to start a flower garden? M: Start small and grow what you love. Growing for cut flowers definitely comes with its challenges, but if you commit to a scale that’s practical, you’ll enjoy the process far more. No matter how much space you have in your garden, you can always grow something beautiful.  

Follow @primmgardens to keep an eye out for details on the next Flora in Clay workshop.

Interview Alice Lines
Photography Nita Meyer

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