Star florist Lizzie Newcombe approaches her training like any athlete preparing for a race. The 26-year-old, already the holder of a Chelsea Flower Show gold medal, has spent eight months rehearsing her designs.
Before stepping on stage at the Interflora World Cup in Manchester next week, she will ensure she has slept and eaten well; she’ll eat a banana, for energy, and make sure she’s well hydrated.
She also has a music playlist that she’ll listen to while she competes. “It’s house music,” she says, over Zoom from the Botanical Company, her floristry studio in the Surrey Hills. “I’ve been listening to a lot of it while I’m prepping. It’s got high energy levels – you don’t want to listen to anything too relaxing – and it’s good for timing. When I’m up to track five in my playlist, I know I’m 20 minutes in and need a certain amount of orchids on the design to be where I have to be.”
It sounds similar to the way an athlete might use music to train but, says Lizzie: “This isn’t a 100-metre sprint. I’m on stage for three events through the day and have to make sure I’m on point for them all. I go into a competitor zone where I’m so focused, nothing else matters. I’ve practised so much that I have muscle memory; each design has its own tool set and I know exactly where they are.”
Lizzie will compete against representatives from more than 20 countries at the Interflora World Cup, which takes place in Britain for the first time, in Manchester, from Sept 7 to 9.
The elaborate briefs, handed out at the start of the year, have a “natural world” theme, which asks the competitors to focus on sustainability and natural materials. There will also be surprise rounds to test the speed of their thought and design skills. Lizzie’s designs for the World Cup heats in January 2022, and the finals in June 2022, saw her beat 80 independent British florists to be named both Interflora Florist of the Year and the World Cup competitor.
All this, within three years of graduating college. Lizzie remembers when her dream of working with flowers bloomed: “I was at school, aged 16, and all my friends were looking at going off to uni. I had this vision of running my own floristry business, doing big events and weddings. I’d watch the Chelsea Flower Show on TV and think, if I could compete there one day, my life would be complete.”
With no other exposure to the industry, not even work experience at her local florist, she enrolled on a floristry course at a nearby college, learning everything from technical design, colour harmonies and botanical science to the commercial side of the business, including time management and accounting. She studied for five years, working up to a master diploma in floristry.
“I wanted to get the letters after my name so that when I emailed a client they would think, ‘She knows her stuff’,” she explains.
“Here in the UK, when people think of what it takes to be a florist, they think of someone making a bouquet in 15 minutes. In European countries, such as Germany or the Netherlands, a florist is considered to be just as qualified as an accountant.”
Lizzie’s first experience of competing with flowers was at age 17, at a competition hosted by the training charity WorldSkills.
“It’s like an Olympics for hairdressing, floristry, cooking, that sort of thing,” she explains. “My tutor suggested I give it a go. I entered the regional heats and did terribly. I didn’t place and thought, ‘I’m never competing again’.”
At her tutor’s behest, she did though, and made it to the contest’s junior finals, in Russia, where she ranked fifth among 15 countries.
She cut her teeth in a London shop, supplying events at Hampton Court and the Dorchester Hotel, and finished studying at the age of 23.
In June 2019, she won her Chelsea gold medal and was named the RHS Young Chelsea Florist of the Year. “Being at Chelsea with my mum to set up, between midnight and 2am, was magical. To be given the gold medal was amazing.” In December that year, she opened the Botanical Company on a farm estate in Guildford, but no sooner were Christmas and Valentine’s Day under her belt than the pandemic forced Lizzie to close temporarily.
Her entrepreneurial spirit kicked in: “I thought I can either sit at home, not do anything and let money go out of my account on rent and bills, or I can give it a go selling plants and compost when B&Q had sold out. I posted on Facebook and sold from the back of my van. It wasn’t glamorous but it did quite well.”
Then, in January 2022, she opened an email from the British Florist Association inviting entries to the heats for the World Cup, a contest that has been held in a different city, every four to six years, since 1972. “Mum and I had been to the 2019 World Cup in Philadelphia,” says Lizzie.
“We were blown away. The innovation is amazing. There are all these well-known florists in front of you, and competitors have varieties grown especially for the competition, so you see flowers you’ve never seen before. I asked Mum, ‘Shall I enter?’ She said, ‘Do it’.”
Lizzie created and sent off pictures of two designs and received an email a month later inviting her through to the semi-finals and, following that, the finals, both at RHS Garden Bridgewater. The advance brief for three of next month’s World Cup designs came through in January.
“I’ve had a couple of big run-throughs and lots of little practices,” she explains. “The designs are big and the flower cost is expensive so there’s only so much practice we can do.” Lizzie will be hoping that her track record for creativity, the months she has spent rehearsing – and her house music – will be enough to bring home gold.
“Competitions feel really busy, really noisy and very tense,” she says. “It’s unreal to be representing Britain but I have to put all that aside and focus on the task in hand. Floristry has this reputation of someone selling flowers in a poky little shop out in the middle of nowhere, but it’s all of this as well. It’s great to show the industry on a stage like this.”
The Interflora World Cup takes place at Manchester Central on Sept 7–9; interflora.co.uk/page/world-cup