Farmer's Travels: St. Croix, US Virgin Islands

As I’m sure you can imagine, taking vacations is quite difficult for farmer types. Our spring and summer seasons are so busy in the gardens, autumn is chock-full of weddings and continued harvests, followed by the holidays, and lambing in the dead of winter. It doesn’t leave much time for a getaway, and it’s also important that we are strategic with timing. Just because a week is ‘open’ doesn’t necessarily mean our minds will be able to relax while traveling, knowing there is so much work being left at home.

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Regardless, Brad and I have decided to take time to explore the world a bit over the next few years. After an amazing trip to London last spring (more on that to come), I realized how traveling to distant places can refresh your creativity, expand your knowledge, and inspire. We’ve settled on one big international trip per year, and a few shorter domestic trips as well. Of course focusing on good food, farming culture, and history as we go.

We decided late-summer to kick off our expeditions together with an island vacation in January. I settled on St. Croix after essentially blowing up the Caribbean sea on google maps and then googling islands that seemed intriguing. The St. Croix sheep are named for this island, and are a foundation of the Katahdin, the breed developed in Maine that we raise on the farm. That paired with an assertion that the island had a small-but-growing local food scene, and we had our hearts set on this place.

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The island is small, driving from one end to the other taking no more than an hour. The islands’ population hovers around 50,000. Christopher Columbus landed on the island in 1493, naming it ‘Santa Cruz’, and causing devastation to the native people. St. Croix was not colonized, however, until the Dutch returned in the 17th century. The historic town of Christiansted boasts streets of charming arched openings painted in pastel, and the town’s scale house, fort, and meeting house have been preserved. A notable resident of the island was a young Alexander Hamilton, who began his career on the island before local businessmen funded his voyage to New York.

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Both of us having never been to the Caribbean, we were quite interested to explore the natural areas on the island. Our Airbnb hosts directed us to a hike to the tide pools on the North Shore. A three mile hike through the rain forest, followed by some careful climbing leads you to the most beautiful, crystal clear water surrounded by black coral rock formations. The seclusion of the island was staggering. We were the only two people there for about an hour.

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Our favorite part of the whole trip was our snorkel at Buck Island. This tiny island just north of St. Croix is a National Monument, boasting some of the best snorkeling the planet has to offer. The magnitude of coral and diversity of fish was like swimming through the zoo’s aquarium. I am most certainly not a savvy swimmer, in fact I was quite nervous about this part of the trip, but I quickly set aside my fears and was quite determined to flail my way through the sea and burn the images of this natural wonder in the back of my brain. Our incredible guides from Caribbean Sea Adventures were so knowledgeable and caring toward the sensitive natural habitat on and surrounding Buck Island.

After our snorkeling, we were taken to the beach on the west end of Buck Island, to enjoy the pristine beach and crystal clear water of this national wonder for some time, prior to boating back to Christiansted.

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Our interest in the local agriculture led us to the middle of the island, where the shepherds tend their flocks of the namesake St. Croix sheep. These sheep are a hardy breed, native to the Caribbean, with a shedding hair coat and unmatched resistance to parasites. These traits were used to develop the meaty Katahdin breed that is raised here on Old Slate Farm. Seeing these sheep on this particular island was a delight.

We also got to tour a tropical flower farm. An unplanned expedition- a few road signs led us to Trops Flower Farm on the North Shore of the Island. We sheepishly pulled into the driveway, having had no appointment, but we were quickly greeted by the owner, Debbie, who graciously took us on a tour of her small but beautiful operation. Having only seen these tropical flowers and foliage out of context, it was amazing to see them in cultivation, and I’ve certainly gained a new appreciation for these colorful, unique flowers.

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St. Croix is also home to another gorgeous floral attraction: The St. George Village Botanical Gardens, set on a former sugar cane plantation. The gardens wind through the ruins of the processing facility for the sugar cane and through the surrounding areas, and the history of the horrific lives of the enslaved workers who harvested and processed the sugar cane was displayed in a museum on the property.

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Of course the food on the island was quite a focus for the two of us. A blossoming local food interest on the island has attracted several chefs to the area who are serving some delicious meals. Often sleeping through breakfast, we would hit up one of the many beachside bars for a lunch of mahi-mahi or wahoo, and a fruity rum cocktail or two, ‘to-go.’ The island is also home to the Captain Morgan and Cruzan Rum distilleries, and tours are available for both. We toured Cruzan, and filled our suitcase with bottles to take home, and hopefully take us back to the warm sunshine on these punishing mid-winter days.

We dined at Kim’s, run by a local woman who is serving up the most delicious Crucian food. We devoured our braised oxtails, and a platter of mixed seafood: think local lobster and conch (in season during the winter months), with seasoned rice and beans. Kim’s is a must-visit on the island. Our dinner at Savant was equally enjoyable, with an impressive wine list and beautiful patio. But we were truly blown away by the food and cocktails at Zion Modern Kitchen. The food was fresh, delicious, and interesting, and the outdoor setting was charming and so very memorable. When we go back, we have a few other locales on the list for more authentic, island cuisine.

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We loved exploring this beautiful island, full of friendly and welcoming locals who were excited to share all the island has to offer. I’m anxious to return.

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Why I love spring weddings in: May

May in the Midwest is about the most beautiful time of year. The weather finally begins to warm with some consistency, new green growth can be spotted on the trees and in the gardens. It’s one of the most popular months for weddings in Ohio, and for good reason.

Ok, technically a June wedding - but with a long winter, this bouquet looks very typical of our late May designs. Photo by Henry Photography.

Ok, technically a June wedding - but with a long winter, this bouquet looks very typical of our late May designs. Photo by Henry Photography.

On the flower farm, May is most certainly our most unpredictable month. Warm weather in springtime can come upon us gradually, quite quickly, or as was the case in 2018, incredibly slow. Each of these weather patterns can lead to different outcomes in terms of flower availability, and so I always encourage May brides to ‘be flexible!’

Last year, with a late spring, our bulb flowers bloomed later, and we were able to store tulips and daffodils for all of our May weddings and Mother’s Day sales. in a typical year, the bulb flowers are sold-out mid-month.

A bucket of flowers picked for a colorful, early May wedding. See the beautiful Iceland Poppies, top left?

A bucket of flowers picked for a colorful, early May wedding. See the beautiful Iceland Poppies, top left?

In 2017, when spring came to us early, we were able to enjoy large fistfuls of iceland poppies, the first ‘Chantilly’ snapdragons, and March sown nigella in our wedding designs.

But one group of flowers that reliably shows up every year around mid-May? Perennials. Namely, PEONIES.

Beautiful, creamy peonies from White Walnut Flower Farm. I loved their restrained size, but no restraint on beauty or fragrance, that is certain.

Beautiful, creamy peonies from White Walnut Flower Farm. I loved their restrained size, but no restraint on beauty or fragrance, that is certain.

Peony mania usually begins mid-to-late May in Ohio. These gorgeous, fragrant, ephemeral flowers are an all-time-favorite of spring couples, many of whom cite nostalgia of their parents’ or grandparents’ gardens, filled with toppling spring peonies, odd vases filled with blown out blooms around the house, petals and pollen dropping on the surface below (anyone?)

While we do not grow peonies here at Old Slate Farm, mainly due to the fact that peonies have a long establishment period, and with us quickly outgrowing our current farm, a large investment like a peony field (even a small one!) wouldn’t be financially prudent (…since when did I become financially prudent?) We source our peonies from other farm friends, this past year, all of our peonies for our weddings came from White Walnut Flower Farm, just 20 miles away.

We do grow some perennials and biennials to try and bridge the gaps between the early spring bulb flowers (see last week’s post on April weddings) and the field flowers that begin to really crank out stems starting in mid-June. Included in that group around here are copious amounts of foxglove, yarrow, columbine, bearded iris, raspberry (for foliage) and clematis.

Part of the perennial garden at Old Slate in May. This is ‘Apricot Beauty’ Foxglove. See the lavender blooms too? Much more growth in this part of the garden than the annual field.

Part of the perennial garden at Old Slate in May. This is ‘Apricot Beauty’ Foxglove. See the lavender blooms too? Much more growth in this part of the garden than the annual field.

Annual field, circa May 17th, 218. Nothing to see here, folks.

Annual field, circa May 17th, 218. Nothing to see here, folks.

Bearded Iris. Yeah, they’re real. (Fellow farmers - I forget the variety. If anyone has to know, shoot me an email and I’ll dig around for it.

Bearded Iris. Yeah, they’re real. (Fellow farmers - I forget the variety. If anyone has to know, shoot me an email and I’ll dig around for it.

Our May weddings also almost always feature gorgeous garden roses from our friends in California at Grace Rose Farm. Receiving beautiful boxes of fragrant garden roses every Thursday morning is an absolute treat, one I look forward to every week. Her roses make a spectacular accent to the fluffy peonies that we use recklessly in the month of May.

May is a splendid month for an outdoor wedding, or at least a wedding adjacent to nature so you and your new spouse can sneak out into the spring air for fresh photos after your ceremony. I love how soft, romantic colors accent the warmer, life-giving weather, and many of our couples agree. White weddings, soft blushes, creams, and light blues are frequent May wedding requests.

Thankfully, nature always comes through.

Leave it to me to not move that bucket. Hot tip: doubles as a step stool.

Leave it to me to not move that bucket. Hot tip: doubles as a step stool.






All of the best reasons to get married in: April

If growing flowers is your game, surely April is the most anticipated month of them all. It is the month where we reap the benefit of long-forgotten autumn chores: Digging and planting bulb flowers, expanding beds and tucking in perennials (that come back year to year) and biennials (flowers that produce leaves and vegetative parts in the first year, flower after a winter, and die).

A look at the daffodil collection, which we more-than-doubled this year. Farmers: remember to straw mulch your rows before bloom to protect petals from mud (a hard learned lesson)

A look at the daffodil collection, which we more-than-doubled this year. Farmers: remember to straw mulch your rows before bloom to protect petals from mud (a hard learned lesson)

Crops planted under the cover of greenhouses and tunnels begin to explode with color as the days lengthen, the bulb flowers seemingly jump out of the ground and flower all at once (leading to a crisis of harvesting and storing, mind you), and those perennials and biennials are beginning to show signs of life - sighs of relief abound.

A bold and colorful April design, with ‘Petit four’ and ‘Yellow Cheerfulness’ daffodils, ‘Super Parrot’ tulips, purple lilac, leucojum.

A bold and colorful April design, with ‘Petit four’ and ‘Yellow Cheerfulness’ daffodils, ‘Super Parrot’ tulips, purple lilac, leucojum.

If getting married is your game, you have likely been conditioned to recoil from an April wedding. The oft recited ‘April showers bring May flowers’ is a bit of a fallacy, in my opinion. While April is typically cool and a bit rainy, the winter’s cold brings just as many blooms as the misty April skies.

April is a time where all imaginable color palettes can be realized, soft and romantic to bright and bold to dark and sexy, using gorgeous flowers like tulips in all shapes, crinkly parrots, ruffled doubles, and charming fringed. Specialty daffodils come in many shapes and shades in the white-pink-apricot-orange family, several of which boast a beautiful fragrance.

Apricot tones and flowering branches, green hellebores.

Apricot tones and flowering branches, green hellebores.

Hellebores and frittilaria are two stems I reach for whenever an enchanting, moody palette is desired. Inky Frittilaria persica and the hybrid Hellebores ‘Ivory Prince’ and ‘Pink Frost’ are ephemeral must-haves, and only available those who dare wed in April.

Gorgeous ‘Pink Frost’ Hellebore

Gorgeous ‘Pink Frost’ Hellebore

A favorite among many newlyweds-to-be are the beautiful ranunculus. Another flower that can be found in most any shade, I find them to be at their best in the early part of spring. The flowers open large and full, their hollow stems strong and straight. You hardly ever will find out-of-season ranunculus in my studio, as the tiny flower heads and floppy, mold-stricken stems are always a disappointment after experiencing ranunculus that are picked fresh.

Stiff-straight just-picked-yesterday ranunculus - no flopping or wiring required.  Image by Jenny Haas

Stiff-straight just-picked-yesterday ranunculus - no flopping or wiring required.

Image by Jenny Haas

April is also the requisite month for flowering branches. I often shy away from ‘greenery’ in the month of April, instead relying on the gorgeous branches of apple, pear, quince, redbud, magnolia, and even maple.

An all-local design of early spring offerings.  Photo by Kylie Bricker

An all-local design of early spring offerings.

Photo by Kylie Bricker

Now that I feel I have rested my case on the gorgeous abundance of April, I also must point out that this is a wonderful month to invite your loved ones out of their winter hibernation, before the business of summertime sets in, to celebrate you and your partner (unless of course, all of your guests are accountants…in which case I invite you to wait for subsequent posts). You can mitigate weather woes by choosing a beautifully lit, clean and modern indoor venue that will evoke the spring season and compliment your lovely floral decor. Your vendors and wedding-day team will be refreshed at the beginning of the season, ready to bring your vision to life.

April is also a fantastic month to schedule your engagement photos, like this couple.  Photo by Kylie Bricker

April is also a fantastic month to schedule your engagement photos, like this couple.

Photo by Kylie Bricker

Best Foliage for Beautiful Wedding Florals

An ever-so-common request from couples to floral designers is the incorporation of greenery in their wedding designs. Most of us are sharp enough to realize that typically, this request means that a natural, organic style is preferred, with a nice balance of flowers to their life-giving leafy counterpart.

Oft-utilized foliage in floral designs are typically those of Mediterranean or warmer, dryer climates. Foliage such as ruscus, eucalyptus, salal, and pittosporum come to mind. Due to their relatively punishing conditions, these plants develop thick, leathery leaves with a waxy coating to prevent desiccation in an environment with minimal water availability. These characteristics also make these ingredients quite handy in the floral trade - they can be shipped easily, last long out-of-water, and keep their character in a vase for ten days or more.

The downside of these ingredients, is that they tend to have a more ‘plastic’ look about them, and to the eye of this gardener/botanist, it doesn’t always feel quite right to incorporate foliage from thousands of miles away with our local, beautiful floral offerings. Coupled with the fact that our wedding designs need only to display for a single, albeit incredibly important day, I wanted to take some time to share the intriguing, fragrant, and unique foliage that we turn towards, season after season.

Flowering Branches

A late April bouquet with minimal ‘greenery’ but abundant interest. I used pink flowering quince as the base of the design. Photo by Jenny Haas.

A late April bouquet with minimal ‘greenery’ but abundant interest. I used pink flowering quince as the base of the design. Photo by Jenny Haas.

As Frost wrote of springtime, ‘Her early leaf’s a flower’ , and this time couldn’t possibly be more magical for a discerning couple. From April to early June, a rotating abundance of blossom is at our disposal. Beginning with the Redbuds (Cersis canadensis), Apples, Pears, Magnolia, Forsythia, followed closely by our native and Korean dogwoods (Cornus) and a personal favorite of mine, Mock Orange (Philadelphus). Nothing quite compares to the magic of a bouquet filled with boisterous spring flowers accented by delicate and intriguing flowering branches.

Mock orange, Apple, Russian Olive and thorny and unpleasant (but pretty) multiflora rose made for a textured, beautiful display at this June wedding. Photo by Henry Photography.

Mock orange, Apple, Russian Olive and thorny and unpleasant (but pretty) multiflora rose made for a textured, beautiful display at this June wedding. Photo by Henry Photography.

Hardwood Trees

The backbone of all of our bouquets and table arrangements are dictated by a nice woody stem, and I am always seeking out leaf shapes that jive well in our arrangements. Becoming friends with the proud owner of a wooded lot, or planting some of these lovely trees yourself will lead you towards immediate and not-so-immediate results, respectively.

I frequently turn to the dark foliage of apple trees, or the dusty green Russian Olive, the small and easy-to-incorporate leaves of river birch, linden, and pear. In autumn, I love to anchor my installations with large branches of turning maple, oak, and sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua - so fun to say), and occasionally the leaves at the tips of these branches are small and sensible for bouquet and centerpiece work.

Fragrant Herbs

Coriander and mountain mint surely enhanced this design, captured by Kylie Bricker.

Coriander and mountain mint surely enhanced this design, captured by Kylie Bricker.

Nothing quite enhances a bouquet like sprigs of fresh and fragrant foliage. We grow many different types on the farm, and rarely does a bridal bouquet or boutonniere leave the studio without a little kick of somethin’ special in this category.

Basil is one of the most versatile and easy to grow annual cut foliage you can find. I’ve tested many varieties myself and have a fondness for most all that I come across, but some of my favorites include the dark and sexy ‘Aromatto’, medicinal and lovely holy basil, tall and spicy ‘Cinnamon’ basil, and light and dainty, ‘Mrs. Burns Lemon’ basil. I also have an affinity for the large, dark flower heads of ‘Thai Siam Queen’. There is surely a basil to fit most any floral palette.

Scented geranium is another must-mention. The extravagant fragrance of Rose geranium, coupled with its interesting leaf shape make it a beautiful, elevated addition. I also am fond of the tiny, dusty blue leaves of ‘Cody’s Nutmeg’ - a variety I discovered at one of my favorite, under-the-radar local greenhouses.

A bouquet of roses, dahlias, and rose geranium. Also containing apple foliage and ‘Betty Corning’ clematis - more on her below. Photo by Henry Photographs.

A bouquet of roses, dahlias, and rose geranium. Also containing apple foliage and ‘Betty Corning’ clematis - more on her below. Photo by Henry Photographs.

With dusty blue continuing to be a trend, and blue flowers being the most elusive, I feel ever so thankful for my large bed of short-toothed mountain mint. An excellent, local alternative to eucalyptus, this beautiful foliage holds in the garden from mid July up to frost, allowing us to cut from its bounty all summer long. Bright green and cheerful Apple mint is also a worthy addition, I love it’s balance in a colorful, market-style summer arrangement.

A holdover from my short-lived pursuit growing food crops is cilantro flowers and seed heads. Come late spring, when this cool-weather loving herb has had enough of the heat, it sends up its stems and blossoms out beautiful, delicate white flowers with a slightly sweet and mostly herbal fragrance. I plant a giant crop in the early spring, frequently cutting bunches for the kitchen in May, and come June the flowers all get hauled by the bucket into the studio. Frequently, the flowers fade before we can possibly use them all in arrangements, but its no bother, as the seed heads (which bear the spice we know as coriander) are also equally as interesting and delicate in flower arrangements.

Vines

Sweet pea vines were a lovely accent to this mid-June bouquet. Photo by Henry Photographs.

Sweet pea vines were a lovely accent to this mid-June bouquet. Photo by Henry Photographs.

A must have for that twirly, draping character, vines can lend so much to a design, much like their ability to give a garden an old, lived in quality. My favorite annual vines we grow are most assuredly love-in-a-puff, sweet pea vines, and tomato vines.

Sweet peas are frequently lauded for their lovely fragrance and old-fashioned feel, and I truly get a kick out of them every year during their short spring season. It’s also quite worth it to grow some of the more basic, white varieties (cheaper seed!) for harvesting the light, dusty green vines to add to bouquets and centerpieces.

Love-in-a-puff, with its lacy, delicate leaves, and charming seed pods can be used in so many creative ways. Its lime green color looks great set against a summery palette of pinks, peaches, and soft purple.

These beautiful tables needed little more than warm candlelight and rambling love-in-a-puff. Photo by Kylie Bricker.

These beautiful tables needed little more than warm candlelight and rambling love-in-a-puff. Photo by Kylie Bricker.

Tomatoes knock it out of the park with their shiny fruits and fragrant, herbal foliage. I’ve tried a few varieties, but my favorite for floral design that warrant them a sizable spot each year in the garden have to be the red and white currant, with their long, rambling habit and small clusters of fruit, and indigo rose, with a deep, purpley black set against a dark leaf.

Indigo Rose tomatoes were the inspiration for this mid-summer shoot, photo taken by Jenna Powers.

Indigo Rose tomatoes were the inspiration for this mid-summer shoot, photo taken by Jenna Powers.

I add to my clematis collection each year, but if I had to pick only a few, I would certainly choose to keep the beautiful, nearly blue ‘Betty Corning’ and the common, yet easy to grow and abundant ‘Sweet Autumn’. Flowering vines like these rank highly in the most-coveted category in my heart, right up there with the blossoming branches.

Rest assured, we will continue to seek out and grow gorgeous foliage to compliment the local blooms that make their way into the studio week after week to satisfy our couples’ interest in the unusual and remarkable.

The Farm Studio

Our growing season has come to a close for 2018, so I wanted to reflect upon the many many weekends this year that we have filled our little studio to the brim with buckets and buckets of freshly harvested flowers from the farm for our delightful couples. I thought it might be fitting to share how we operate the studio, week to week.

The outside of our little studio building. The front facade is covered in vinyl siding, for reasons unknown (and maybe best left unknown). But the other three exterior walls are all chippy-charming.

The outside of our little studio building. The front facade is covered in vinyl siding, for reasons unknown (and maybe best left unknown). But the other three exterior walls are all chippy-charming.

Our studio is about as old as our home (circa 1880ish) and was used as the summer kitchen, then transformed into a storage shed of sorts when the luxuries of indoor plumbing and electricity were bestowed upon the property. When we decided to start offering wedding design services, I hardly even considered the building as suitable for a studio - it was so dark and depressing in there, filled with junk from previous owners, the windows covered in crappy wood paneling.

A healthy handful of ‘Xanthos’ cosmos outside the studio door. The first of the season.

A healthy handful of ‘Xanthos’ cosmos outside the studio door. The first of the season.

Nothing a little elbow grease and a paint sprayer can’t fix though.

A creation using all the best flowers: Merton foxglove, coriander, white echinacea, ‘distant drums’ roses, ‘starlight dancer’ nicotiana, cupcake cosmos, astrantia…

A creation using all the best flowers: Merton foxglove, coriander, white echinacea, ‘distant drums’ roses, ‘starlight dancer’ nicotiana, cupcake cosmos, astrantia…

We cleared it out, Brad built some large tables, I filled it with some vintage cabinets and shelving, installed some light fixtures I salvaged from an old shoe factory, and away we went.

Farm flowers are harvested Tuesday and Wednesday, we sort through our wholesale orders heading to the city for our florist friends, and I begin pulling buckets for our own weekend weddings. I also comb through the garden, looking for special ‘secret menu’ items - varieties of flowers that we are maybe testing out, and don’t have sufficient quantity to offer wholesale.

This year my favorites that we tried out and I only wished I had more were ‘creme brulee’ annual phlox (Phlox drummondii), 'Southern Charm’ verbascum, and ‘supercrest’ Celosia.

Charming me into another dimension.

Charming me into another dimension.

Rest assured, we will have no shortage of these charming beauties to share next year.

I loved these airy centerpieces, created for a mid-July wedding.

I loved these airy centerpieces, created for a mid-July wedding.

For a typical wedding, we begin designing on Thursday morning, first by assembling our ‘flower bar’ by color and texture, and snapping a photo because it’s always so beautiful. This is also where I take a quick sigh of relief, that the vision of the couple is being realized. I also can identify gaps in my color palette, or areas where we may need a little something-something, and one of us runs out to the garden to fetch some more stems.

100% small farm grown weddings are always beautiful and fun to create. We most often pull-off this during August and September, when we are simply swimming in gorgeous flowers.

100% small farm grown weddings are always beautiful and fun to create. We most often pull-off this during August and September, when we are simply swimming in gorgeous flowers.

A reasonable work day is important to me. We aim to start designing around 9AM, and cut off the work an hour before sunset, at the latest. I find I never create my best work when tired, I want to give my team the opportunity to take care of themselves and come back to the studio feeling refreshed and energized.

I much prefer to throw all the frass on the ground and sweep once at the end of the day.

I much prefer to throw all the frass on the ground and sweep once at the end of the day.

Also, artificial light is the pits.

This bouquet was snapped atop a dirty chest freezer…but the lighting was great!

This bouquet was snapped atop a dirty chest freezer…but the lighting was great!

Our workspace, our way of doing things, is ever-evolving. Many a-lesson has been learned, and always The Hard Way. Next year, we will be taking our studio on the road for several events, and if I have gleaned anything from our home base, it’s to have plans, procedures, and methods. This is creative work, however our medium requires specific skill sets to keep our flowers fresh and beautiful, and our minds clear and focused.

Bud vases packed for a September affair. You may have detected that I only own one pair of sandals: you are correct.

Bud vases packed for a September affair. You may have detected that I only own one pair of sandals: you are correct.