back to the garden

Remember the patch of earth my Pops and I dug back in February?

Pops and Larry dig out garden on 2/27/12

Well, I planted some euphorbia, and then sowed seeds, which sprouted up in no time. Sweet peas, dill, bachelor’s buttons, poppy, Ammi majus…

Then I added some plants from Mostardi’s:  foxglove, armeria, thyme, lavender, fennel, rosemary, delphinium, Russian sage, nepeta, lamb’s ear, eryngium…

Garden on 5/4/12

Red stemmed dogwood ‘fencing’

5/5/12 – Fertilized with Dr. Earth’s organic stuff

Since then, I’ve been watching my garden closely, watching things grow.  Thinning, weeding, a little watering if needed.  Then I went away for less than a week during a heat spell, and when I came back the garden seemed to be overflowing with plants!

5/31/12

Foxglove after a rain – 5/22/12

Bees love it

First Sweet Pea Blossom – 72 days after sowing seed (5/31/12)

the Overseer of Sweet Peas, placed by Pops

Delphinium 5/31

I did some editing today, and as if it’s not crammed full enough, I also sowed a few sunflower and Bells of Ireland seeds!  I can’t wait to see the poppies, bachelor’s buttons, and Ammi majus bloom – soon, I think.  I can’t believe how good it makes me feel to tend a few plants in a 4′ x 13′ bed.  Now, where to put that clematis vine…

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union league wedding

Last week’s wedding was a big affair – 200+ guests at the Union League in downtown Philadelphia, with “garden-style” flowers by Nancy Saam and our team.  Jane, Pat, Nancy, Chip and I prepped the day before.

Pat creates large centerpieces using spirea, peony and viburnum – gorgeous

Jane and I made some designs on 3-tiered silver trays.  First, we cut the Oasis down to size and secured it onto the trays with prongs (held with floral clay.)

Then we added greens like fatsia leaf, euphorbia, hosta, galax leaf, and then flowers like Tuberose.

Finished tray is dripping with flowers like calla lilies, pink garden roses, astilbe, and viburnum. Moss is packed into the holes to complete.  Oh and ‘Green Trick’ Dianthus!

Then Jane and I made a long design for the placecard table, using lots of greens like lemon leaf, huge hosta leaves, and solomon’s seal.  We also added hydrangea and ‘Festiva Maxima’ peonies, from – you guessed it! – A Peony Garden. This design will be finished on site.

Now, the day of the wedding!  The truck arrives, packed to the gills.  Everyone lends a hand unpacking.  It’s many, many trips up the small freight elevator and into the various rooms we’ll be working – the ceremony room, placecard table, cocktail area, and finally the reception area.

I spend most of my day in Lincoln Hall, where the reception is to be held.  We are creating an arbor of sorts out of birch. The structure is in place, and we begin by adding a layer of leafy branches.

Birch Structure is nailed together and strengthened with zip ties where branches meet, and c-clamps on the tables.

Cages filled with floral foam are zip-tied to the branches in the front, and we begin to fill them with viburnum.

Here Nancy shows us where she’d like to see more viburnum added.

Brenda does the lion’s share of the work on this structure, and I am her assistant, handing her branches, mopping up spills, sweeping up leaves as we go.  She has had 18 years of experience in the floral industry.  She spends most of the day on a ladder, and if I may be honest, totally kicks ass!  Unfortunately we were working so hard and moving so quickly most of the day that I never got a good picture of her!!

Brenda adds peonies and stock to our flower bower of power!

As Brenda puts the finishing touches on the arbor, I’m called away to do some cocktail area arrangements and to finish the long placecard table design that Jane and I began.  I replace a few wilted peonies, add viburnum, kiwi vine, and curly willow, plus a little astilbe for good measure.  Then the design is hung with votives.  This is all done with such astonishing speed, I think I forget to breathe at this point in the day.

Back in Lincoln Hall, things have reached a fevered pitch.  All the last minute touches are attended to – the candles lit, the tables set, our work buckets tucked away.

inside the birch / peony arbor – bridal table

Diane lighting candles – so Downton Abbey don’t you think??

One of Pat’s centerpieces in place

Our silver trays are also centerpieces

But the piece de resistance is the bridal table…fit for a royal party of elves and fairies…or Philadelphians.

Completed Arbor

All it needs are the newlyweds, and happy lords and ladies of the evening to sit under it, and fill the hall with their love and laughter.  When I got home to celebrate Julie’s birthday, I showed my dad a picture of this.  His response: “I guess we know Thanksgiving is going to be a lot more expensive this year!”  Dad, you’re right.  I think we need to create something like this arbor for our annual family gathering!  You’re on construction detail.  Thanks for all the great ideas, Nancy Saam!

a peony garden

I was never very good at keeping secrets.  So, for those of you that wanted A Peony Garden, in Glen Mills, PA to remain a secret, I’m terribly sorry.  This place is just too amazing not to share with everyone!

A Peony Garden is four acres of heaven on earth during the month of May, planted with 250 different cultivars of tree, garden, and intersectional peonies of all colors shapes and sizes.  Peony fans can buy peony plants, but the bulk of the business done here is cut flowers, and that’s what I’m interested in.  Prices vary throughout the season between $1 and $1.50 per stem, which in the floral world is absolutely unbeatable. And you can feel good about buying from a local grower – you’re not flying peonies from halfway around the world, there’s no excessive packaging – just bring your own bucket!  How sustainable is that!

Picking peonies with Valerie, Jane and volunteer Sandy Papa

Freelance floral designer Valerie McLaughlin stops to smell the peonies

But beware that you don’t succumb to peony mania, like we did.  There’s just something about all those fragrant blooms, and their silken petals worn like party dresses, that makes you simply swoon.  You will want more, more, more!!

Eleanor Tickner, head gardener

The woman behind it all, Eleanor Tickner, has her own secrets to growing peonies, which she downplays.  “Sunshine, of course.  And you go out and talk to them, you pray over them.”  Eleanor and her husband Bill have been growing peonies here for around 15 years.   It’s a family affair – her two daughters sometimes help out, and the Great Danes are not guard dogs but more like the official greeters of the place.

Riddler greets my Dad

Eleanor with head of the PR department, Great Dane Riddler

Eleanor began growing as a way to keep busy after retirement, because as she says, “you don’t stop working and all of a sudden eat bon bons and chase dust bunnies.” Accustomed to working hard and seeing results, Eleanor wanted to do something exciting with the four acres of sunny land, which she says is “just enough to get me in trouble.”   She chose to plant peonies, because they don’t need a lot of water (they only have well water on their property,) and because they’re “satisfying to the soul.”  Peonies reminded Eleanor of her adopted grandmother from next door, who grew a row of peonies she believed kept the evil spirits away.   After spending an hour at A Peony Garden, I begin to think that myth is true, because I just feel so darned good.

Eleanor swears that growing peonies is just a hobby, but from the glint in her eye, and the fact that she’s out in her garden until dusk every day, I believe she’s passed into the realm of obsession.  While she has no horticulture degree, she’s the President and co-founder of the Mid Atlantic Peony Society, and serves on the Board of Directors at The American Peony Society. She’s also written articles on peonies – for Philly News, and for The Hardy Plant Society, to name a few.  She’s referred to as a “promoter” of peonies, by Don Hollingsworth, of Hollingsworth Nursery in Missouri, one of the top growers of peonies in the country.  Holllingsworth, along with Adelman Peony Gardens in Oregon, and Hidden Springs Flower Farm in Minnesota, are the main sources for her plants.

It’s clear that Eleanor has more than just a love for peonies; she’s adopted a scientific approach to growing them, evaluating cultivars for reliability, consistent bloom, and the ability to grow without staking.  She is always willing to share her knowledge with others, and her humility is unparalleled.  “As far as I’m concerned, every person is replaceable on this earth.  But my job needs to be done, so that’s what I’m doing out here – educating.”

Eleanor gives a tour to the Scattered Seeds Garden Club

Through the American Peony Society, she judges plants worthy of the APS Award of Landscape Merit, and grows a few of these recipients on her property, such as ‘Do Tell,’ a pink anemone form peony, and one of my favorites of the day.

‘Do Tell’ peony – I mean, amazing, right??

If you’re a peony lover looking to grow some reliable favorites for cutting, Eleanor recommends varieties like ‘Festiva Maxima,’ a huge fragrant double variety whose frilly white petals are edged with red flares.

‘Festiva Maxima’ has been around for 150 years

If you like big pink peonies, try growing ‘President Taft’ or ‘Walter Faxon;’ but for a glorious red peony Eleanor suggests ‘The Mackinac Grand’ (pronounced mackin-AW,) whose brilliant fiery red hues could literally stop traffic.

‘The Mackinac Grand’ – also an APS Award of Landscape Merit winner

There are many unnamed varieties here too, gotten ‘over the garden gate’ or at an end of season sale. “It’s a gardener’s dream, to have this much land available to play in – and that’s what I do – play,” says Eleanor.  If you go for cut flowers, bring a bucket and expect to spend some time combing the gardens for your favorites.  Either Eleanor or her volunteer, Sandy, will walk you through the fields and cut the blooms you desire.  She doesn’t let the public cut her peonies, spritzing alcohol on the pruners between each plant to stop any diseases from spreading.

Sandy Papa, volunteer, cuts ‘The Mackinac Grand’ for me to bring home

Jane Godshalk hides behind a peony bloom

Jane counting peonies.

For floral fanatics, Eleanor shares her special recipe for prolonging a peony’s vase life:  1 tablespoon lemon juice or vinegar (to fight bacterial growth) and 1 tablespoon sugar (food for bloom) to one quart of water.  It really works!  The blooms at A Peony Garden should last through Memorial Day Weekend, so hurry to get a glimpse of these old fashioned beauties, and be sure to take some home with you.  Thanks to my Dad and stepmom Julie for sharing their secret peony source with me!

A Peony Garden address: 1739 Middletown Rd. Glen Mills, PA 19342 – about 20 miles SW of Philadelphia.  4.6 miles NW of route 1 on 352.  tel 610.358.1321 call ahead for large orders

revel – my first paid floral gig!

I got hired to help out for a few days down in Atlantic City, NJ for a big job – a 1000 person benefit at the new casino, Revel, through Nancy Saam Flowers.  (My teacher and friend Jane does a lot of freelance work for Nancy, and gave my name to her a while back.)

Will I survive this flower job?

Encompassing 6.3 million square feet and standing 47 stories tall, Revel is a $2.4 billion lifestyle resort on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City.

It’s an incredible building, and because everything is brand new, it literally sparkles inside and out.  In some areas, it’s lush and dark in a 70s kind of way, in others, it’s bright and modern and clean.

And good luck finding your way around!  I think I must have walked 10 miles in the course of the 3 days I was there.  Beyoncé will be singing there for the casino’s premiere opening at the end of May, and tickets to see her in Ovation Hall (where our benefit was held) are $700.  I’m not even kidding.

Marlene and I – she’s one of the top designers

The scope of this project was enormous:  under the guidance of Nancy Saam, our fearless leader, I worked with a dozen or so other designers to create 73 woodland “tablescapes” for long tables, and almost 50 six foot ‘trees’ with mini gardens on their bases for round tables.  All the plant material for these designs had to be hauled up the freight elevator and processed upon arrival.

Debbie, one of the most amazing workers EVER, with a load of viburnum on the freight elevator

Flowering crabapple gets put into buckets of water right away

Dawn processes flowers like no one else!

First we started on the long tables.  All 73 tables would take a few days to complete.

Jane shows us the tablescape design

We covered the table runners with many non-floral elements to create structure, depth, texture, and pattern:  long pieces of grape wood, loads of sheet and mood moss, spheres of many types, succulents, votives, gold artichokes and pods, and skeleton leaves.  Within these items, we also laid out pre-soaked floral foam blocks in various sized liners and covered those with moss and galax leaf. The floral foam would then be filled with a variety of cut flowers and woodland treasures closer to the event.

With the tablescape structures mainly in place, we called it a day.  One of the challenges of this job was working on a floor that needed to remain pristine.  We put down drop cloths wherever we went and there was a lot of sweeping and mopping!

Valeri and Jane do some sweeping up – Valeri’s smiles never stopped.

The next day was all about making the trees – and they were quite a construction project! For the bases, burlap was cut to fit over sleek Xmas tree stands. Long birch trunks were then placed into the stands.

We divided up into 2-person teams to duct-tape wired cages containing pre-soaked floral foam to the tops of these trunks, making them look a little like stoplights in a forest.

Jane and Mary Jo attach floral foam cages

Marlene never stops moving so she’s hard to capture. Here she’s showing me how to start my tree.

After placing a bit of lemon leaf to hide the lower mechanics, we then began designing tree top after tree top using flowering crabapple branches.   Here’s what I did over and over again: select branch, cut to length, prune off small branches by the end, and place them in the foam. It’s fun!

Del creates a tree for the woodland tables – nice bling Del!

Valerie is lost amongst the branches, smiling

Eventually, the trees start taking shape, filling out like elven lollipops.

Pat kicks butt making trees! (my tree in foreground…i got attached to all of mine.)

As we were completing the branch structures of the trees, other designers under the guidance of Armas, a designer from moda botanica in Philly, began creating the little woodland gardens at their bases.  I got to pitch in at the end, too, tucking many lovely plant treasures into wedges of foam then obscured by moss.

Fern, fiddlehead, hellebore, orchid, hydrangea, veronica, chocolate cosmos, succulents, and much more

Diane creates a magical fairyland base garden

Have I mentioned how much I love these materials and designs???

The next day, we filled in any holes on the trees, completed more woodland bases, and added more magical touches, like hanging votives filled with reindeer moss.

Trees were constantly misted to stay fresh

Then it was back to the tables, to finish the tablescapes on the tables that had been brought out to Ovation Hall.  We filled in the floral foam sections with a host of delicious plant materials such as fern, long purple fiddleheads, antique hydrangea, bunny tail, euphorbia, hellebore, white astilbe, white scabiosa, and white ranunculus.  The end result was a tablescape that any woodland nymph would be proud to lounge about on!

canopies filled with candles will be added to the tops of the ‘cages’ on the tables

Meanwhile, Jane Godshalk spent her day designing with tropicals for the cocktail area.

Greens, foxtail lily, protea, orchids and hairy cybotium fern – pow!

Designers also created 18 tall glass vases of viburnum and branches for round tables.

a long cool drink of spring beauty

Armas created many of the cocktail arrangements, which were whimsical and woodsy at the same time.

Since Jane and a lot of other very talented designers were there, I was surrounded by expertise, and although we were working hard, I also got to ask questions and learn as much as I could.  It was exhausting and exhilarating.  I didn’t get to see the final end result of our work, but today I received some pics of the event…WOW! Great job everyone!

Final long table with canopy lit up, photo courtesy of Alix Jacobs

photo courtesy of Alix Jacobs

Here’s hoping there are many more successful events like this one in my floral future!

P.S.  Most of these pics were taken after I was done for the day or on a lunch break.

spring design using a kenzan

My goal:  to create a spring design in rectangular container without using floral foam; because I’m trying to practice earth-friendly floral design.  You get pretty hooked on using floral foam, because there simply is nothing else like it out there – when you put the stems in, they stay put.  But sometimes that creates an unnatural look, and the stuff itself sure is unnatural (and not biodegradable, and not good for you, etc.)  Hence my experiment with using a kenzan, or frog, for a more complicated arrangement using spring shrubs and bulbs.

I used only one kenzan, because that’s all I own at the moment.  My supply of all things floral is growing…but this is one area in which I’m sadly lacking.  They do come in many sizes, and are popular in Ikebana.

start with branches – point of emergence is centered and radiating outward

I think the fact that I only had one kenzan actually forced me to remember my lessons in point of emergence.  If you have no point of emergence – the place where all your stems seem to come from – then your design will look chaotic and just not good (unless you’re doing a parallel design – for every rule there is an exception. By the way, this is the same container I have used before for parallel designs.)  The point of emergence for this design should be somewhat centered and mid way down into the container, fanning out from there. I started by placing all my woody material in, which additionally I had sliced vertically for better water absorption.  This included snowball viburnum, and two kinds of azalea (one fuschia, one yellow deciduous.)  I had some lilac but it was too toasted.

making a mess is so much fun!

my cake spinny thing makes arranging so much easier!

Then I added the big stemmed items (hyacinth,) the tulips and a few greens; and of course water at the very end.  It was harder to work with the kenzan in this arrangement than floral foam would have been, but I think the result is a more natural look, don’t you?  Maybe more wild and messy than I would have liked, but I guess sometimes you just can’t be in control of everything.

Now will someone please invent an eco-friendly floral foam? It shouldn’t be that hard!

a walk around the big house

So much is blooming and growing outside right now, plus I got a new camera, so…you can imagine I want to capture as much as possible.  But I also want to be learning.  What am I learning by taking pictures?  I guess I’m learning how to look at the world through a lens.  My perspective/perception is in flux.  I’ve appreciated nature for a long time, but trying to capture its many colors, textures and patterns is much more complicated than it looks.  It’s a magical process, taking a picture.  You think you see one thing, and then you look through the lens and it’s very different in there; it forces you to frame up one part of the world for a moment in time.

little white bells of solomon’s seal, did i ever notice the red stems before?

Do you know how Solomon’s seal got it’s name?  Don’t quote me on this, but apparently King Solomon had a special seal that looked like a pentagram or hexagram; and it’s thought that when the plant’s stem is broken away from the root, the circular star left behind resembles that very seal.  I’ll have to look for the cicatrice next time I dig some up.  It’s botanical name is Polygonatum biflorum, and was included in a Plant of the Week segment I produced for Martha way back when.  And while I’m not a big bible reader, I love this quote from Song of Solomon: “Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame.”

Other plants are named for more obvious reasons…

Bleeding Heart, or Dicentra spectabilis

Bluebell, or Hyacinthoides

Snowball viburnum

Snowball viburnum makes a great cut flower.  If you get them while they’re still chartreuse they’re extra delicious.  Cut them and let them soak in water for a few hours before you use them in a design.

Then there is this one lone Black Parrot tulip, leaning dark and frilly in a sunny spot behind the birch.

It didn’t want to be discovered, or even photographed.  But I celebrate what could be the last year of its blooming with this picture.  After all this garden photography, I feel dizzy. Who knew what treasures I would find inside the camera, with the rest of the world slowed down to the click of a button.  I focus.  I breathe.  And there – there it is – I appreciate the miraculousness of it all.