Ladies Hat Day at the Devon Horse Show

Ladies Hat Day competitors and winners with Carson Kressley (judge) photo by Brenda Carpenter

Ladies Hat Day winners with Carson Kressley (judge) photo by Brenda Carpenter

Heard of the Devon Horse Show? If you’re from the Philadelphia area, you have!  It’s been around since 1896, when it began as a way for the newly migrated wealthy business men of the Main Line to discuss the need of better horses for their vehicles.  In 1919, it was decided a Country Fair should be held in conjunction with the horse show, and that the event should benefit Bryn Mawr Hospital.  Women were gaining their rights all over the country and with the Country Fair, they proved their strength and organizational skills with a successful fundraiser that to date has raised almost 14 million dollars!

Ms. Betty Moran at Information booth, one of the many volunteers

Ms. Betty Moran at Information booth, one of the many volunteers, photo by Devon Horse Show on Facebook

To this day, the Devon Horse show still raises money for Bryn Mawr Hospital, and one of the Country Fair Special Events that contributes to that donation is the Ladies Day event, where elegant ladies don their best hats to compete for Best of Devon, Most Fascinating, Best Hat to Toe, and Best in Show.  This year’s theme was “Ribbons and Pearls,” and was held on May 28th.

But wait, where's the lady?

But wait, where’s the lady?

In addition to all the voluminous chapeaus, the Ladies Day event features floral centerpieces donated by area floral designers such as VF Flowers, Beautiful Blooms, Robertsons, Cottage Flowers, Fleur, and…Roots to Blooms! (That’s me.)  Our centerpieces would be displayed in the preferred seating tent with a luncheon included, and then moved to the blue room where the box holders have dinner.

Preferred seating and Luncheon area displaying floral centerpieces in hat boxes

Preferred seating and Luncheon area displaying floral centerpieces in hat boxes

I was contacted by the lovely and energetic Karen Meehan to be a part of this event, and was thrilled to participate in the hat box challenge.  Here were a few of the other hat box designs:

Robertson's design

Robertson’s design

Heather, from Cottage Gardens

Heather, from Cottage Flowers in Malvern, chose delphiniums, clematis, and peonies; and mossed the hat box herself.  This was my favorite design as I love the more ‘gardeny’ feel.

Juliet roses in this peachy display

‘Juliet’ garden roses in this peachy display!

I chose to visit my local Peony grower, Eleanor Tickner, for the bulk of my floral material, as it is peak peony season and not only was this a cost effective choice, but an eco-friendly one as well.  You just show up with a bucket and get your stems ($1.50/stem and up.) Everything is in full swing right now at A Peony Garden in Glen Mills, and with the help of Eleanor’s daughter Butch, I was able to cut many varieties including Red Charm, Raspberry Charm, Battle Flag, Coral Charm, Do Tell, and Festiva Maxima, to name a few. The peonies are well grown, well loved, and enchanting to say the least!

Me with my peony design (thanks Heather!)

Me with my peony design (thanks for snapping this, Heather!)

My design using peonies with a little hat netting

Mine got to sit at the judges’ table!

First, I lined the hat box (bought from Amazon) with plastic, added a thicker plastic liner, and yes, I had to use floral foam for this.  There was no way around it.  After doweling together my foam, which rose three to four inches higher than the lip of the box, I added the base foliage of dusty miller and variegated pittosporum… and then I just kept adding peonies.  It was a delicious experience to work with so many peonies (the white peony edged with pinky/red ‘Festiva Maxima’ has the most wonderful fragrance!) I added filler such as nigella, blue cornflower, Queen Anne’s lace, some spray rose and a few fronds of maidenhair fern.  I tucked a few black feathers in for accent, as well as some lacey hat netting and some black bows and a few pearl thingamabobs.

25 peonies all in one hat box, with pittosporum, nigella, cornflower, waxflower, dusty miller and queen anne's lace

My design used twenty five peonies all in one hat box

All in all, I was pleased with the result and think I will definitely do more hat box designing in the future!  I couldn’t have done it without my trusty assistant Julie, and wouldn’t have been included if it hadn’t been for Karen.  Thanks, you guys! I hope to participate next year.  It was so much fun, and all for a good cause!  Three cheers for Ladies Hat Day.

Karen, Devon volunteer extraordinaire, and my trusty drop-off assistant Julie

Karen, Devon volunteer extraordinaire, and my trusty drop-off assistant Julie

The Devon Horse Show and Country fair will continue throughout the rest of the weekend and there are lots of cool exhibitions and vendors to check out.

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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