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MILLI PROUST: "I feel more myself than I ever have."

In this Woma2Woman interview we talk to Milli Proust who runs a small-scale flower farm in West Sussex, UK. All of her stems are grown in rhythm with nature, with organic practices in a passionate effort to protect and regenerate the surrounding wildlife. She grows unusual stems of flowers that cannot be found in the market on the total space of less than an acre.

Can you tell us a little bit about your professional path and how you became a florist and grower using sustainable, organic and regenerative practices?
It’s not been a straightforward path to becoming a grower. I was born and grew up in inner-city London, and only had access to window boxes in my 20’s. Farming, growing, or working with nature had never been presented as an accessible option. 

I trained as an actor at RADA in my early 20’s and whilst I was there, I juggled bar and usher work, with a job as an archivist to pay my bills. I loved the archiving work. I found the preservation of stories very fulfilling, and I found it hard to let go of, so carried on working in that field as a freelancer until 2019.

I’ve always been good at juggling different jobs and having the stamina for a long working week, and by the time I moved to West Sussex, I was still commuting back to the city for work, but growing on the land in every bit of spare time I had. I got a job for one day a week working at a florist shop to gain experience with the product I was growing- and I took on freelance floral event work whenever I could- loving being part of a team.

By 2018 I was growing bespoke for a handful of my own wedding clients, still alongside my other jobs. 2020 was the first year I was financially secure enough to have mapped out solely with work with flowers- in the shape of weddings, events and workshops. Then Covid-19 hit and I thought that might be it for my small business- it still seemed so young and fragile, I had no idea how I was going to make it work. I had a whole field full of flowers that had been grown with specific purposes, many ready to bloom- thankfully there was a great appetite for flowers, and I sold every stem that year. I’m thankful that my business is so small-scale, it made the pivot nimble, and quick, and a large part of the reason I’m still here able to carry on this year. 

The first time I worked in the florist shop, I couldn't believe it- the flowers smelt like nothing, they were rigid, and lifeless, were being shipped from other countries daily, and were all bunched in wraps of un-recyclable plastic- the green flower waste at the end of the day didn't even get composted. I felt like I was seeing behind the scene a big lie- that flowers, such a seemingly natural product were actually polluting the world in such a big way. Growing my own has since felt like an environmentalist act against the unsustainable structures that the majority of the floral industry is built on. 

Though nature is really in charge, I try to be as low-impact as I can- collecting rainwater for irrigation, doing everything by hand instead of with a machine, working in rhythm with nature, using the no-dig method to allow the ecosystems within the soil to be undisturbed, and not using any chemicals. I use organic practises, and my hope is to work towards an organic certification- I’m not there yet, the process is rigorous and take upwards of three years. But one day! There’s always more to learn, further to go, methods to question to create greater sustainability. Over the last year, I’ve been investing in the plot of land here by adding to the habitat and biodiversity with hedgerows, trees, shrubs, and wildflowers just for the wildlife, not for me. I think it will make the soil healthier and happier, and therefore my flowers healthier and happier. It already feels a lot more magic here this spring.

Who are you today and what is different than 10 years ago?
Today I am a grower and florist. I feel more myself than I ever have, and I think that’s because I’m getting to do something that’s so fundamentally human every day- working with the land and being outside. I’m less ambitious, less hard on myself, and my body aches a bit more than it did 10 years ago.

What was the best personal and/or professional advice you were ever given?
Be brave enough to be the face of your business- human connection is a powerful thing.

From a creative standpoint, what or who has been your biggest influence?
The theatre. I can’t wait for the theatres to re-open. The atmosphere, stories, and feeling that it can conjure, and the untangling of the human experience. Flowers are so symbolic, they are really about people- storytelling and humanity is always going to be part of my creative work.

Where or what is your happy place?
Nature- it’s always been nature. Looking at the sea, standing in a wood, walking through a field. 

Have you always been so in tune and connected with nature? 
Having grown up in the middle of the city, I’ve always found myself to be obsessed with nature and animals. But I’m still learning how to tune into it! I really didn’t have a real sense of the seasons until I moved out of the city and could see the minutiae of changes each day.

How do you start your day?
I get up early with a coffee and a hug from my dogs. Then it's usually a quick check on seedlings and crop before straight to the studio to get orders out on time. It’s only a one-minute commute, so it’s easy to get straight to it.

How do you take care of your body, mind and soul?
I’ve begun to realise the importance of rest, and more than just to avoid burn out. I have a great capacity for pushing through and working without break, but I know I feel my strongest, mentally and creatively, if I carve out time to just have time. I use that time wisely- whether that is walking around the field to admire and appreciate everything that I’ve grown, going for a long, quiet walk, or cooking something new, it just has to not involve jobs or stress.

How do you take care of your skin?
SPF 50! I’m outside for a lot of my work, so rain or shine, I wear SPF.

Do you have any daily, weekly or monthly rituals?
For almost 4 years now, I’ve created an arrangement every week that reflect the garden and field. It’s taught me a lot, allowing for more risk-taking and practice in my design work, making me better at it when it comes to my work for clients, and it never fails to brings me great peace. I often think I'm too busy and won’t have time for it that week, so I’m glad to have the ritual that keeps making that space for it.

What is your guilty pleasure?
A bath in the middle of the day.

What advice would you give yourself at the age of 16?
Trust in the journey of it and try to worry less about rushing to get somewhere too soon. 

Is there any book you love and would recommend people to read? 
How to Fail by Elizabeth Day.

Can you share one piece of wisdom with our community, something that you have gained in your life, something that will encourage women reading this to grow, find their inner strength and confidence?
I used to feel such guilt in investing time, resources and finances into myself and the paths I wanted to go down. After a lot of soul-searching and grappling with it, I began to realise that when I allowed myself those investments, more beauty and abundance and confidence followed.


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