Photos and Story By Kathleen McCoy
I learned flower arranging from the last in the line of garden club royalty. She was in her late sixties, pretty, fair, and reminded me of Glinda the Good Witch, bestowing her wisdom and magic on us newbies at workshops and flower design competitions.
Until I met Glinda, I had no interest in flower arranging, much less the blood sport of competitive flower shows.
My friend Ann’s neighbor was in the garden club, and she invited us to a holiday tea. We didn’t aspire to be “garden club ladies." These women weren’t our peer group. They were fancier versions of our mothers and grandmothers back in Kansas City and North Carolina. We joined on a lark, charmed by their hospitality, with visions of heirloom tomatoes and dinnerplate dahlias dancing in our heads — and no forethought as to what a club member actually did. But we found out from our provisional chair; our status was provisional – contingent on completion of a host of duties. To become full-fledged members we were required to play flower bingo at a nursing home, water plants in the traffic island of a busy intersection and compete in flower design competitions. It seemed like a lot to ask of us, more so considering the club’s thinning ranks.
My family had recently settled in this leafy suburb of New Jersey, twelve miles west of New York City. I was staying at home with my daughters, while my husband, an electrician in the film business, worked long and erratic hours. Fifteen years later, I recall how hard it was to carve time out for myself and how I savored those late nights in the basement composing an arrangement. I satisfied my desire for order and beauty by battling uncooperative branches, instead of little girls who wouldn’t sit still for French braids.
"Glinda told us an arrangement should be airy enough for a butterfly to fly through, that a good blue can fix anything and to pay attention to how your eye travels."
Glinda told us an arrangement should be airy enough for a butterfly to fly through, that a good blue can fix anything and to pay attention to how your eye travels. Her critiques of my work were spot-on. When I was stumped by the stiffness of my arrangement of rust mums and purple asters, she seized upon the problem right away: “Keep the purple in a mass to avoid spottiness.” When she said it, I could see it. The purple was spotty. Rhythm is created by color flowing, by repetition of form, and by a progression of sizes. When she explained concepts like rhythm, she put into words what I felt, but had not recognized clearly before.
In the days leading up to making a flower arrangement, I’d gather and condition plant material. I primarily relied on the florist and greenhouse the garden club ladies used. The pickings from my yard were still slim. I took cuttings from friends and stole them from strangers. I brought galax leaves back from North Carolina, because they lasted for weeks. The right container was always a hurdle for me. It was an element of the design and had to be in scale. I’d happily drive an hour to a nursery to buy succulents in December, but I was loath to buy a piece of junk from Michael’s.
For a competition one March I was assigned the arrangement for the tea table. I was working with a yellow palette, and so I settled on an old brass bowl with a brown patina that hung on my pot rack. In traditional flower design, you must hide your mechanics. The floral foam (always called by its trade name, Oasis), pins, tape, and chicken wire cannot show. I kept the miniature daffodils attached to their bulbs to maximize their height and pinned the bulbs to the Oasis. The bulbs jumped out at me, no matter what I did. I repositioned them and the alstroemeria, the winterberry and witch hazel branches, until the Oasis was Swiss cheese. I couldn’t bear to start over with fresh foam. The next day I put it on the tea table, thinking that it was my worst design ever, and Glinda lit up. She called it a pot-et-fleur design, which, I learned, was a combination of living plants (the entire miniature daffodils) and cut plant material.
In my time in the club, about twelve of us regularly exhibited. On the morning of a competition, we pitched in to unload each other’s double-parked cars of the fragile designs plus buckets of backup plant materials, toolboxes, backdrops and underlay. As the minutes wound down before judging began, we helped each other spell plant names for our exhibit cards. I would characterize myself as the feral one among us, keeping the club at arm’s length, and showing up only for the flower design business. And, as in every group, we had the difficult one.
"She was about my age, and her arrangements were wound as tight as she was. Which goes to my theory that you can tell about a woman’s sex life from her flower arrangement."
She was about my age, and her arrangements were wound as tight as she was. Which goes to my theory that you can tell about a woman’s sex life from her flower arrangement. She could’ve helped herself out by not collaring the foliage — picture a uniform ruffle at the lip of a container. Judges hate collaring. The design should have flower and foliage content coming down over the rim, the way the horizon in a painting is never in the middle of the canvas. I appreciated her, this audaciously prickly member, for being so unlikeable. It was delightfully unbelievable that she would be so competitive. At our amiable competitions, where even the branches did not criss-cross unpleasantly, we needed the tension she added, complaining about her score, our score, points that mattered to no one else.
At a holiday flower show, we both exhibited in the small (not to exceed 8 inches in height, width or depth) design class, titled “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” I was more than a little bit pleased with my creation. It was a chartreuse wreath, clustering Kermit mums, Hypericum berries and Leland cypress. Neither the judges, nor I were aware that my particular design type wasn’t allowed according to the schedule, which is the law of the show, until she pointed it out.
Glinda fumed about her nitpicking. “We shouldn’t be so concerned about rules here. They judge on design quality. They didn’t look at the schedule. It’s rigid. It inhibits design. Let’s just design!” I wasn’t in it for the sport. I sweated over my designs trying to capture the spirit of the holiday or a sighing tumble of loveliness, and glossed over the fine print. When the design worked, I felt like a winner. Eventually, I stopped competing because I wanted to rock out, not fox trot.
By the time the club celebrated its 80th anniversary, it had lost me and Ann. Its membership dwindled to the point that it hired a consultant and formed an ad hoc committee to “dream our wildest dreams of what the garden club can be.” I don’t envision the club attracting a new generation of members. It’s an outdated construct, from a time when women saw each other at church on Sunday and garden club on Monday.
If I had Glinda’s magic wand, I’d turn the club into a flower arrangement. That’s what I was looking for when I joined. An impossible bouquet, viewed from only three sides, with the mechanics hidden. It was dreaminess that drew me into the club. I longed for order and elegance when the rhythm of my days was frenetic. I rarely compose traditional flower arrangements anymore, but its influence continues. I’m always composing pictures, seeing. Red berries on the ilex out my window. The poppy with its pleated petals surrounding a tiny, black sand castle. The thrust of lemongrass. I compose pictures in my garden from early March through November, as sections come into flower and others go out of bloom. Lately, I’ve become interested in cloud pruning. I bought secateurs and have grand plans for the yew hedge in the front yard. Beyond the garden, when my mind reaches for something that I’m so close to understanding, I’m sensing but cannot see, I want Glinda to alight and put it into words.
I’ve seen articles that flower arranging classes are on the upswing. Newer schools with a natural aesthetic have begun popping up. One that’s caught my eye is The Little Flower School based in Brooklyn, run by Sarah Ryhanen and Nicolette Owen. As they put it, their loosely structured workshops are more inspired by Etsy and DIY culture than by white-gloved afternoons with the 'Ladies Who Lunch.' I find that I am drawn to Ryhanen’s words: “We tell our students that rules are meant to be broken." I wonder if, finally, this is a new kind of garden club.