Can flower power really beat our economic blues?

Skills Minister John Hayes is urging people stressed by the recession to take up creative actvities.
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The Independent Online

Even some scruffily arranged blooms in a jam jar or chipped vase can cheer the soul. Iris Murdoch put it a little more elegantly: "People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us."

This week the idea received official sanction from the Government – the Skills Minister, John Hayes, advised people to take up flower arranging (or evening classes such as dancing) to cope with the stress of the recession. "Life, when things are tough, doesn't have to be miserable," he said.

Amateur flower arranging, it's true, is not an activity likely to threaten one's blood pressure – although for those badly afflicted by hay fever, the summertime is grievous enough already without locking oneself in a studio choked with pollen and blossom.

"Oh no, I have the worst hayfever you can imagine and I'm here all the time. It doesn't bother me at all," insists Judith Blacklock, author of the best-selling Encyclopedia of Flower Design and owner of the Judith Blacklock Flower School. "There's none of that. People come here to relax. It's like gardening. It can make you happy." She adds: "Business has grown a lot over the past five years and continued throughout the recession."

Behind us, 13 young women chatter softly and weave dahlias in arrangements of varying ambition inside Blacklock's teaching studio, which is tucked away down a cobbled Knightsbridge mews in central London.

This is a netherworld of 20- and 30-something women who are seeking career changes on the sly by training at evening or afternoon classes, some of them bunking the office to be there. For them it's not just a bit of fun. The underground world of flower arranging – who knew?

"My doctor actually recommends I do it," says one absentee office worker (who, for purposes of future employment, remains anonymous). "I was genuinely feeling ill but it's so relaxing so I asked him what he thought and he said, 'Go'."

Blacklock suggests I give it a try. Guided by her expert hand, I manage a modest bundle of gerbera and roses. It appears that I still have some way to go before I'll be commissioned to make wedding bouquets fit to print in the pages of glossy celebrity magazines. Watching her put the finishing touches to my cack-handed bouquet, I can see how the skill could be mastered with time. And, as promised, it is very relaxing indeed – particularly for someone without a garden. The chance to interact with nature offers unexpected enjoyment.

Another student, Katie Thompson, is a young mother planning to start her own bouquet business next to a train station. She began amateur arranging as a way to unwind. Now she sees it as offering a whole new lifestyle.

"It's incredibly therapeutic but also very rewarding to have something at the end of the day that you've made," she says. "If someone compliments you on the flowers you can say that you designed them." And the disadvantages? "Well, sometimes you end up stuck with the odd spare wedding bouquet." Not bad. Perhaps Mr Hayes is onto something – the return of flower power.

Flower arranging can lean towards the expensive side, both for raw materials and for courses (which can cover basic retail theory and marketing as well as the requisite bridal bouquet-building). In Solihull, the Traditional Floral Creative Techniques course at Solihull College is a relatively affordable £90 for 12 lessons – or £7.50 per session, with the examination costing an extra £34. At the other end of the price spectrum, the Judith Blacklock Flower School charges £498 for a four-session evening course in floral design – £124.50 per lesson.

There is, however, one crucial flaw. Before opening her own school 11 years ago, Blacklock taught at Richmond Adult Community College. Such establishments, where skills classes blossomed until recently, are currently coping with ruthless rounds of cuts. More than 1.4 million adult education places have gone already, with budgets to be slashed by £200m. Therein lies the prime flaw in Hayes's reasoning on poetry for the soul.

Lesley Gardener, the pleasingly named administrator of the National Association of Flower Arrangement Societies, said that they have 70,000 members at the moment. "But because of a lack of government funding [for evening classes], a lot of our members are struggling, so the numbers of people taking up classes is not increasing as much as we would like."

Without funding, activities like flower-arranging, no matter how relaxing, no matter how beneficial, simply won't be available.

Bouquet Basics

*Create the bouquet before it goes into the vase, and match the size of the arrangement to the position in which it will have to stand. Not doing so is a common error.

*Take a minimum of about 30 stems. Strip and clean everything before you begin. As a rough guide, about a third of the bouquet should be foliage.

*Stretch out your left arm, palm towards you, and loosely take two stems in your hand in a fan. Do not clasp them together too tightly, or you'll have to begin again. (Don't feel ashamed about restarting – you'll have to look at your finished effort for days.) Rotate the bunch as you add each stem.

*Taller, straighter roses will last longer. Spruce up wilted roses by making an angled cut on the stem 5cm from the bottom end and submerging the flower in water for up to 12 hours.