Floristry is not dainty. It takes speed and stamina. Helen Chappell concludes her gardening professionals series

At five in the morning in the flower market, New Covent Garden, everything looks very fresh. The flowers - stacked tightly in their buckets - seem uniformly perfect. Porters and stall keepers barge their way down the aisles, flattening any dozy punters against the wall and swinging boxes of blooms overhead. Floral decorator Penny Snell is a blur of briskness, too - hurrying from stall to stall, running a gimlet eye over the merchandise. You'd never guess she got up at 2am this morning. "I need something for my demonstration class," she is muttering, scooping up a bundle of red dogwood stems. "Late tulips look good - roses and Michaelmas daisies out of season." A loaded trolley whistles past, missing her by inches.

Upstairs in the viewing gallery, we look down on the scene. The glowing banks of orchids, gerberas and strelitzias look like flower beds visited by manic bees. Florists buzz between them, prodding petals and writing cheques. The aroma of frying bacon suddenly fills the air. "To the cafe," announces Penny, "I'm ready for a cup of coffee."

Over a toasted cheese and bacon sandwich, Penny tells me she does this flower market run twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays, driving the fifty miles here from her home near Cobham in Surrey. Sometimes she's choosing the flowers for a weekend wedding, sometimes for the plate glass foyer of a city bank or art gallery. Her floral extravaganzas appear in boardrooms and bedrooms all over London and the Home Counties. She's notched up exhibitions at the Royal Academy and flower festivals at Brompton Oratory as well as decorating the sets for BBC costume dramas.

She didn't get where she is today by sitting down on the job, however. It's 6.15 am and she's fifteen minutes late already. I bolt down the rest of my sandwich, gulp half a mug of scalding coffee and we sprint for the door. Outside in the car park Penny is loading her hatchback with today's booty. As we accelerate down Nine Elms Lane, the scent from the jungle of greenery behind us is overwhelming.

"People think this is a glamorous job," she is saying, "but there's nothing glamorous about it except the end result." Dawn is just breaking as we speed through the deserted London streets, pulling up smartly outside an ornate facade in Lincoln's Inn Fields. A brass plate announces the Association of Certified Chartered Accountants. "They like bright colours."

A few minutes later, she has swung into action. Pulling on a check overall, she unravels a black dustbin sack and snatches up broom, dustpan and brush. Bundles of pink spotted Stargazer lilies and sprays of yew fit under each arm as she scuttles up the steps. She gives the office cleaning ladies a breezy wave as we enter the hushed marble hall, gleaming with brass and polished mahogany. "Bone dry, you see!" says Penny, grabbing a handful of last week's shrivelled display in an urn in the fireplace. "They don't seem to understand that cut flowers need topping up with water. They phone me up and say 'These flowers have wilted.' "

On the other hand, if they like something, they write her a proper letter. Kneeling on the floor, Penny is yanking out the dead leaves and stems and stabbing in fresh replacements. I turn my back to study a Latin inscription on the wall and when I turn back a stunning display is already half complete. "I like a natural look - nothing too arranged," she murmurs, oblivious to this instant beauty.

Just twenty minutes after we arrived, we are sweeping up the last petals from the floor on our way out. "It doesn't do to leave any mess to annoy the cleaners," she warns, heaving a tarpaulin full of dead plants into the back of the car. We set off again. The other people it doesn't do to annoy, she adds, are the formidable matrons who usually do the flowers for the churches she decorates. "They don't like you poaching on their turf. These are powerful women, you know." Such Alan Bennett characters are only outdone by the parents of the bride at some of Penny's weddings. One such couple announced they wanted everything to be brown and cream, including the flowers and the cake. When she tried to suggest a touch of yellow, the mother had a panic attack and shrieked: "If you say the word yellow again, I shall die!"

Penny had a strict and thorough training at Constance Spry 35 years ago and would not dream of displaying such prima donna behaviour herself. The customer is always right. Even the penny-pinching father who stored all Penny's blooms for the big day in a garage overnight, and turned off the heating (in February). Next morning, everything was frostbitten, dead and brown and had to be (expensively) replaced.

"You have to be even-tempered and put up with all sorts of people," she says, as we whisk past the Natural History Museum. "It's no use having an artistic temperament. I don't even like to call myself a flower arranger. It smacks of ladies snipping rosebuds and doing dainty things with chiffon and figurines. Not me at all." Anyone who sees floristry as a slightly precious, feminine career should catch her scrubbing her hand with bleach to remove grime and sap stains or nipping between the dustbins in a dark alley dragging a Christmas tree to decorate a hard-to-find office, heaving buckets of water up ladders or jumping into an open grave to pretty up the inside with floral swags for a funeral.

Or muttering a rude word under her breath as we arrive at the V & A to find nobody about yet to let us in. With practised speed she unloads her boxes and bags near the tradesmens' entrance, signs me in and explains our mission to a selection of granite-faced guards and officials. "Really quick today," she says. "Sometimes I bang on the door for ages." Striding down the hushed corridors and deserted galleries is an eerie experience. At 7.30am in the vast marble entrance hall, only the distant hum of an electric floor polisher breaks the silence. Penny disappears to the loo and reappears lugging a huge watering can. She sets to work dismantling - and rebuilding - an impressive six foot flower tower near the cash tills. Dustbin sacks fill up with dead twigs while the Greek urn gets a fresh head-dress of giant cerise lilies, and sprays of forsythia and rhododendron leaves from Penny's own garden. There is a satisfying crunching sound as she lops the stems off a bunch of blood red amaryllis blooms and pokes them in. The floor looks like the aftermath of a shoot-out in a florist's shop.

By twenty to nine, there is a gob-smackingly impressive shellburst of crimson and gold petals, the first thing today's punters will see when they burst in. Penny narrows her eyes and stands back. "Does it look OK?" she asks sceptically. You could say that (I do). Before my words are out there is a flurry of rustling, snapping and mysterious vegetable twangs. The broom is out, the black sacks are full, Penny is back in hyperdrive. Quarter to nine sees us outside on the pavement. There is bright sunlight now and the hum of traffic on the roads.

"Right," says Penny, consulting her watch, "back down the motorway and home by nine-thirty." Not to flop on a sofa with a cup of tea and recover, though. When she arrives, a dozen Home Counties housewives, keen gardeners and/or wannabe florists (even a church flower lady or two) will be waiting for her. From ten till three-thirty she's teaching one of her day courses on the latest trends in floral art. I can't take the pace. I wave her off, with a sigh of exhaustion. Hatchback full of jungle, buckets and true grit, she turns the corner and is gone.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor