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Bountiful Bouquet of Roadside Weeds

Bouquet of Roadside Weeds

Bouquet of Roadside Weeds

A bouquet of roadside weeds. My roadside. Quite lovely, don’t you think. Two kinds of aster, blackeyed susans, lots of goldenrod, tansy and a bit of a cheat – red highbush cranberry (Viburnam) berries and some rugosa rose hips. Mother Nature must love us a lot to give us these beauties in such abundance.

Constance Spry in the 21st Century

Recently I was able to find a used copy of Constance Spry’s book Flower Decoration which includes a few black and white photos of her arrangements. Actually, she did not use the word arrangements, but decorations.

If you look really closely at the decoration on the cover of this book you can see that it includes fruits, seed heads, and grasses in an almost invisible vase. I suspect this is not one of her own arrangements by a  painting by an artist the publisher has not chosen to identify, however Mrs. Spry was influenced by the painters of this sort of still life.

When she came to the US in January of 1938 on a speaking tour the press had a field day with headlines like “Decorator for the Windsors Uses Vegetables or Weeds if They Are Ornamental.”  She was unruffled and said, “Provided the plant is beautiful, I cannot see why I should not use it for decoration just because it has the added advantage that it can also be eaten.”

Barbara Wise does not arrange or decorate flowers for indoors but she designs hundreds of containers a year at the Southern Land Company. When she is not creating and planting she is on the loose admiring other arrangements. On her blog she has been documenting plantings she has created and visited. She knows that Constance Spry’s theories are alive and well outdoors as well as indoors. This container is a perfect example. Mrs. Spry loved urns and was alway on the alert for old urns, and she was notoriously famous for her love of kale as a decorative element.

I had to reduce this photo that Barbara sent me to get it to fit but the kale is clear and if you look closely you can see that the planting contains chard as well as pansies, grass and other graceful foliage plants.  A tour of Barbara’s blog, bwisegardening, will inspire you with many more container plantings.

How Constance Spry Prepared Her Flowers

Gloria Pacosa uses Spry's method

Many of us probably don’t fuss very much when we are making a flower arrangement for our dining table. We run out into the garden and cut a little bit of whatever is in bloom and a few leaves, put them in a vase with little fuss and we are done.

However if we are make a more important arrangement for a special party, for a friend’s wedding, or the church altar, we will need more flowers and foliage and we should take more care with preparing them.

According to Sue Shephard, author of The Surprising Life of Constance Spry,  “She always picked her own garden flowers at least a day before they were needed, and put them in deep pails of water in a cool place. This enabled them to absorb plenty of water before being exposed to the rigors of travel, warm rooms and over handling during arrangement.”

She also often removed most of certain flowers’ leaves to help them last longer, and for the design. This spring I am planning to try an arrangement of lilacs only, no other flowers and no foliage – just like Constance.  My friend Gloria Pacosa follows many of Spry’s in her arrangements.

Gloria's foliage

Swiss chard and kale!

Spry’s Fresh Bouquets

Photo Courtesy of Debra Prinzing

Constance Spry found beauty in places others had not noticed. The unexpected drama of the plants she used surprised and delighted people. She turned to the vegetable garden and found one of her favorite plants – kale – but used other vegetables and fruits to brilliant effect.

Her arrangements would not have the same  startling effect today, because the ideas she propounded, her cry to forget about the rules and have fun, to see beauty in the commonplace have actually become commonplace today.

Garden author and blogger Debra Prinzing is working on a beautiful book,  A Fresh Bouquet, with photographer David Perry. Their journey among flower growers, the flower industry, and floral designers is being captured in their A Fresh Bouquet blog. There I found instructions very similar to what Constance Spry was following and teaching in the 20’s and 30’s.

Photo Courtesy of Debra Prinzing

“Use twigs and branches as well as more common foliage, conifers  and broadleaf evergreens.

Use fruits and berries, and maybe vegetables.

Use other natural materials, seedpods, pine cones, grasses, moss.

Use commercial flowers with restraint. Flowers are not always necessary.”

For the full post click here.

Constance Spry

Constance Spry

“I want to shout out: do what you please, follow your own star; be original if you want to be and don’t if you don’t want to be. Just be natural and gay and light-hearted and pretty and simple and overflowing and general and baroque and bare and austere and stylized and wild and daring and conservative, and learn and learn and learn. Open your minds to every form of beauty.” Constance Spry

Those passionate words came from a woman who was born into poor circumstances in England in 1886. There was little beauty in her world, but young Connie Fletcher spent most of her ‘Saturday pennies’ on packets of seeds so that she could have something pretty.  No one could have dreamed that one day she would be arranging flowers for British royalty, and hobnobbing with the bright lights of high society.

In her excellent biography, The Surprising Life of Constance Spry: From social reformer to society florist, Sue Shephard takes us from Spry’s humble beginnings, to her 1929 meteoric success as a ‘flower decorator’ to the noble and wealthy in London, through the wartime years when her efforts led her into the kitchen as well as the garden, and closing the circle with arranging flowers for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation and back to teaching

Spry held several jobs into and through the 20’s beginning with a traveling program in Ireland educating people in an attempt to wipe out TB. That job led her to a short lived marriage and a son. She  then worked for the Red Cross; as a welfare supervisor; as an educator for the Ministry of Aircraft Production; and as headmistress in a school for teenage factory workers where she added flower arranging to the curriculum. There she saw the girls’ hunger for beauty, and showed them how flowers could fill that hunger.

At the same time Spry’s local fame as a flower arranger grew, as she did the flowers for friends’ parties and wedding. In 1929 she agreed to do large arrangements for the windows of a new fashionable perfumery. This was an adventure; Spry was always ready for an exciting project. The shop was to open in November, not the best time for interesting flowers, but when the carillons rang out in joyful celebration the windows  were filled with “old man’s beard with silvery seed-heads, copper colored leaves, great trails of hops turned to strawy gold,” and heavy green orchids she added at the last moment thinking that all those ‘weeds’ might not go over very well.  The windows were a sensation and the beginning of her business. It was also a lesson in the use of plant material that was usually discarded “gone with the wheelbarrow”.

Along the way she set up housekeeping with Ernest Spry and became known as Mrs. Spry, but they never were officially married.

Later Shephard tells us, she met the artist Hannah Gluckstein, known only as Gluck. Their quiet relationship was accepted for four years in their circles, until Gluck ended it. This had not been widely known until Shephard’s book..

All during the 30’s Spry was The Person to arrange the flowers for society parties. She and Syrie Maugham, the famous decorator, known for her white rooms, often worked in tandem. At one elegant party Spry used celadon vases filled with “white lilies, eucalyptus, green hydrangea heads, lichen covered branches, with perhaps one brilliant spike of scarlet anthurium for drama.” Such combinations became all the rage.

She traveled to France to arrange huge pink peonies, cascades of lilies, lilac and flowering laurel, acanthus and white yucca for the wedding of the Prince of Wales to Wallis Simpson,  Her friendship and work for this couple put an end to other royal commissions. For a while.

She did not do all this single-handedly. At one time over 70 people trained in her style were employed by her business.

At the end of the 30’s Spry came to the United States under the auspices of the New York Botanic Garden and the Garden Clubs of America for lecture tours. She was such a success that wealthy New York matrons prevailed upon her to open a New York shop. She loved new projects, and with her usual enthusiasm and energy she plunged in. However, with the declaration of war in Britain, she returned to do her bit.

Her energy and optimism never wavered. The war sent her in a slightly new direction – the vegetable garden. Her thoughts about fresh vegetables and cooking would sound up to date today. The kitchen garden had always been a part of her decorating. She once said, “One has only to look at the lovely line and form of a group of kale leaves to realize that the humble kitchen garden can hold its own with the aristocrats of the hothouses.”

Indeed, Shephard makes it clear that Spry’s approach to gardening, and to ‘decorating’ with plants changed the way that we handle flower arrangements today, looking for original plant combinations and unique containers.

She also captures the verve of this un-prepossessing woman  who inspired David Austin to name one of his hardiest roses after her, and whose exhortation to be confident and  to plea

please ourselves in the garden can still inspire us today. ###

Between the Rows   January 15, 2011

Constance Spry – Two Degrees of Separation

Yesterday, Christopher Petkanas in The New York Times Design Section called Constance Spry a ‘Flowering Inferno.”  I have written about Constance Spry myself in the past, once after interviewing a neighbor, Charlotte Thwing, who has since passed away, but who in her youth worked for Spry in her Madison Avenue shop just before World War II.

Petkanas, in talking about a new biography, The Surprising Life of Constance Spry, bySue Shepard, passed on much juicier gossip than I ever got from Charlotte.  Spry never legally married her second husband and later she had an affair with a cross-dressing artist, Hanna Gluckstein!  However, he never mentioned the Madison Avenue shop. I certainly hope it is in the book.

My Interview with Charlotte Thwing (published 11-2000)

Recently I saw a full page florist ad with a profusion of gourds, pumpkins, artichokes, millet, wheat, kale, sage and Indian corn arranged in profusion with roses, mums, daisies, miniature calla lilies and waterlily. The arrangements were lovely. Any of us would have been happy to put such centerpieces on our Thanksgiving table.

Very pretty. Definitely not shocking. But shock is what greeted Constance Spry”s outrageous arrangements in the Britain of the 20s and 30s. She was possibly the first to break down the barriers that existed between the flower garden and the kitchen garden. I think we can credit Constance Spry with many of the ways we use and decorate with flowers today.

Constance Spry is not a household name. Certainly not to Americans, not even American gardeners, although those rose lovers among us may have noticed that David Austin, the great British rosarian and hybridizer, named the first of his English roses after her. But there was a time when this woman who opened a flower shop and created unique arrangements enjoyed fame, and even a kind of horticultural notoriety among those who parodied and mocked her arrangements.

Spry explained herself, “If to use a kale leaf for its fine modeling, a bunch of grapes for its exotic bloom, a spherical leek flower for its decisive shape, a bare branch for its delicate strength, is to like strange materials, then I am guilty, but not guilty of liking them for any perverse reason.”

Among her many admirers was Beverley Nichols, the British gardener, writer and wit. He talked about “doing a Constance Spry” which is to say  “standing before a bed of hydrangeas, when summer has fled, and seeing beauty in their pallid parchment blossoms.  It means suddenly stopping in a country lane and noting for the first time a scarlet cadenza of berries, and fitting it, in one’s mind’s eye, into a pewter vase against a white wall.  It means bouts with brambles, flirtations with ferns and carnival with cabbages.”

Constance Spry was born in 1886. She had varied careers in health, joined the civil service during World War I and was headmistress of a school teaching young teen aged girls who worked in factories. It was not until the 1920s that she began arranging flowers and 1929 before she opened her first shop in London.  In 1937 a group of New York women invited her to open an establishment on East 64th Street between Park and Madison Avenues.

In August of that year Charlotte Cox as she was then, and who later became my friend Charlotte Thwing of Hawley, began an apprenticeship there. She had always been interested in flowers and after two years at Mt. Holyoke College, and a European summer she enrolled at Stockbridge, part of the Massachusetts Agricultural College and later the University of Massachusetts, to study floriculture.

Charlotte described Constance Spry as “ordinary, not at all aristocratic. She did not present an impressive appearance. She had everyday common sense. She never wore a hat, but always had gloves and high heels – and always seemed to be rushing.”

Photographs of her at that time show her as a solid, tweedy matron, but “she had a tremendous imagination and nothing stopped her,” Charlotte said.

Charlotte spent long days on the top floor of the shop building working with two other young women. “They trained us.  Almost everything was wired with very thin wire. The wire was to give you control.”

She used dried material, seedpods, and vegetables and fruits. “You always had to remember that you were creating Art.”

Charlotte remembers that Spry used any kind of container, watering cans, tea pots, baby shoes, baskets.  “But the flowers were the main thing. The vase was essentially hidden.  For example she would use a flat white vase with white flowers and trailing branches. Her arrangements were very clever and interesting, never dull.”

Constance Spry’s arrangements showed up at society weddings and the windows at Bergdorf’s, the fashionable department store on Fifth Avenue.  “I don’t remember that we ever did a funeral although back then funerals were the bread and butter of the florist business.  Of course there were weddings.  Constance Spry did the wedding flowers when the Duke of Windsor, who had abdicated as King of England, married Wallis Simpson.”

Just before the shop opened Brenda Frazier, one of the most beautiful and famous debutantes of the time, had her coming out party. “The arrangements for Brenda’s party were very important. It was my job to take big magnolia leaves, and strip them so that only the veins were left. Then they were gilded,” Charlotte said.

After her apprenticeship in New York, Charlotte returned to Holyoke where her father was a well-known doctor. In March 1938, when she was just 25, she opened her own shop, The Flower Bowl.

“I had gotten a fantastic education by observing.  I think education can be caught, not always taught.  No other florist was like mine – and I intended to educate the town.  For my first Christmas I did arrangements in blue and silver – but never again,” she laughed.

The war ended Constance Spry’s New York shop, and marriage in 1941 changed Charlotte’s career as well.

The thing that did not really change was Charlotte’s approach to life – an approach she shared with Constance Spry who said, “I want to shout out – Do what you please, follow your own star.  Be Oriental if you want to be and don’t if you don’t want to be.  Just be natural and gay and lighthearted and pretty and simple and overflowing and general and baroque and bare and austere and stylized and wild and daring and conservative and learn and learn and learn.” #####

Constance Spry – The Rose. Those who grow roses may be familiar with the name Constance Spry because of David Austin’s beautiful pink rose. Here is the rose’s story.

David Austin, the British rose hybridizer, wanted to combine the shrubby growth habit of old  fashioned roses with the ability to bloom throughout the season like many modern roses.  One of his earliest experiments was to cross the Gallica ‘Belle Isis’ (which he later saw was not pure Gallica but included some Ayrshire rose) with the Floribunda ‘Dainty Maid’.  ‘Belle Isis’ was chosen for its fragrance, good health, and the shape of its flowers; ‘Dainty Maid’ was chosen because it also was a healthy variety with large, but single flowers in a clear shade of pink.

Austin was surprised that the size of the bush he created was not small as he expected . It was large and somewhat sprawly, but the flowers were gorgeous, large cup-shaped blooms with the myrhh scent that is typical of the Ayrshire rose, a family of ancient ramblers.  He felt the roses had “refinement and delicacy” and was pleased even though he had not achieved repeat blooming. It is one of Austin’s first hybrids, and remains one of his most popular roses in spite of its relatively short bloom season.

In a gentle enough climate, Zone 5 or warmer, this rose is often used as a climber,

Austin showed these roses to the great rosarian Graham Thomas who then introduced the rose to the public through the Sunningdale Nurseries in 1961. They named the flower ‘Constance Spry’ for the famous teacher, gardener, and flower arranger who had died the year before after a fall down the stairs. It is said that her last words, were ‘Someone else can arrange this.” ####

Beverley Nichols, was a great fan of Constance Spry and I am a great fan of them both. I wrote about them here.

The photo of Constance Spry is courtesy of the Design Museum. For more information about this fascinating woman who was a flower arranger, author and social reformer click here.

Hurry Up and Wait

Snow on April 16

A wet snow was falling on Friday morning. It did not last long on the ground, but the day continued wet and chill and not suitable for gardening.  I was happy that I had spent most of Thursday cleaning out, weeding and putting some semblance of an edge on the Herb Bed in front of the house. Since we added the Entry Walk to the Piazza and Welcome Platform, the Herb Bed has expanded to approximately 33 feet long, and 5 feet deep.

With all that room I added a rose, and three golden Henryi lilies and three White Henry lilies last year. I can’t wait to see them. I also seeded some spinach on April 1 and it has sprouted and has managed to survive the snow and cold rains. I guess that’s why they call it a hardy cool season crop.

I also moved some six packs of lettuce, broccoli – and even cosmos – down to the cold frame early this week.  The seedlings survived strong sun on the two days when I needed to open the ‘lid’, as well as near- freezing temperatures. They are sitting in a plastic tray so that I can add water every day and keep them watered through osmosis action.

Seedlings in the cold frame

Other six packs of parsley, cosmos, and zinnias are doing well on a windowsill upstairs. I planted more seeds as well: Sakata Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes sent as a sample; Seed Savers Exchange Hot Biscuits amaranth given as a sample at the nursery trade show; and purchased seeds including High Mowings Belstar broccoli; and Renee’s Garden cosmos, and Blue Boy Cornflower. I am determined that this year I will have flowers for cutting and arrangements as well as veggies on the plate.

Nothing much is happening so far in the new Front Garden. Lettuce and spinach have been planted, but without composted manure from the local horse farm I haven’t tried to plant the second bed there. I did go down to the Potager and weeded and dug one bed. I planted blue sweet peas, another sample from Seed Savers, as well as swiss chard and onion sets. I had to hurry because I did only have the day – as it turned out.

Daffodils are still coming. Everytime I have to drive down Route 2 I see more and more of the Mystery Daffodils coming into bloom. This is the third spring for these beautiful flowers which appeared mysteriously – and no one knew who had planted them. The secret leaked out a little bit, but I have kept my lips sealed. I love thinking about this Secret Sharer, making all of us smile as we drive back and forth to work or on our necessary errands.

I have daffodils, obviously of late varieties, but I have been admiring the progression of foliage on the trees with special attention and joy this spring. Flower arranging is not my forte, but I thought I would have some luck with foliage arranging. There are wild cherry buds, deep red ornamental plum leaves, birch catkins and I’m not sure what else.   I stuck in a handful of daffs and brought the arrangement to sit on the Coffee Table for social hour at church. It was admired!

A Trio for Trillium

Jeff, Gloria and Lisa

Last Sunday was muddy and dreary but the group that gathered in front of the blazing fire at Curtis House in Ashfield was as bright and sunny as a summer day. We had all gathered to have Jeff Farrell, Gloria Pacosa and Lisa Newman, the newly formed Trillium Workshops, teach us how we could all have cutting gardens to fill our houses with fresh flowers while leaving our flower borders intact.

These three friends came together hardly more than a month ago to share their collective knowledge and experience and to have some fun. It all began when Pacosa, a floral designer and owner of the multi-faceted Gloriosa and Co. (, called Ashfield friend and neighbor Jeff Farrell and asked him to help with a cooking event. He said he couldn’t cook but he could help with gardening.

Hmmmmm. That started the wheels turning and they quickly called Newman and before they knew it they had a name, a list of programs they could offer, and a website, where they could promote them. “This is kind of guerilla organizing,” Newman said. “We have no shortage of ideas! We decided to just do it.”

The list of workshops  calls on skills they all possess. Farrell is a skilled professional gardener and garden consultant. He currently tends 12 gardens including the garden in Heath that belongs to Northampton artist Scott Prior, previously owned by Elsa Bakalar. At the beginning of his career Farrell worked for several years with Elsa Bakalar and he has arranged three tours of that garden giving gardeners a chance to see the interesting and varied progression of bloom beginning on June 20, and later in July and September.

I met Gloria Pacosa years ago when I worked at Artspace (then called the Arts Council) and was impressed with her sense of design and exquisite craftsmanship, all in evidence at the cutting garden workshop.

The vivacious Lisa Newman grew up gardening and has spent her professional life in publishing, but often connected with gardens, scouting for gardens and organizing photo shoots for various publications like Horticulture and other magazines and book publishers. She gets to test and review new tools and equipment. A good person to know!

I wanted to attend this workshop because flower arranging has never been my forte. I put a bunch of peonies or autumn branches in a vase and call it a day. I needed Trillum.

Now I already know that perennials have a fairly short period of bloom, and I know a few annuals like zinnias and cosmos, but I never seemed to be able to put together a pretty bouquet or arrangement.  The Trillium crew anticipated my ignorance and handed out lists of annuals, perennials, herbs and shrubbery  and even vegetables that can be used in flower arrangements.  Suddenly I realized I  had many more plants in my garden that I could use, without even buying more seeds or starts, but I am never one to pass up a chance to buy more plants.

Some good annuals for arrangements are Bells of Ireland, pot marigolds, cosmos, delphiniums, love in a mist, snapdragons, snapdragons, sunflowers and salvias. You can use any perennials that are in bloom at a given moment, but I had never thought of pea vines, kale, chard, and dill from the vegetable garden as bouquet material. Foliage from oakleaf hydrangea, cotinus, and Diabolo ninebark which have dramatic dark leaves are useful additions.


After getting answers to our own garden problems, and a delicious tea time, Pacosa put together a beautiful arrangement in a pretty little tag sale bowl. That was an important tip for me. If you have inexpensive containers you can make an arrangement and give it away without worrying about reclaiming the vase.

I also learned from the demonstration that I haven’t been using floral foam correctly. It needs to be soaked ahead of time! I never knew. After the foam was in the bowl she topped it with moss from the lawn she had harvested last fall and stored in her basement. Branches of dark leaved azalea and pink stocks from the supermarket were the main ingredients. “I love pink and brown in arrangements,” Pacosa said.

Gloria's arrangment - fini!

After she even more quickly put together another very different arrangement in a tall vase it was clear she is never stymied.

For full information about additional workshops, April 25 – Container  Design and Planting; May 16 – Daffodil Workshop; and May 22 – Creating an Outdoor Garden Room for Entertaining and relaxing as  well as short demonstrations in the Curtis House garden on Saturday mornings while the Ashfield Farmer’s Market is in operation logon to

Other interesting and informative meetings are coming up. The Franklin County Giant Pumpkin Growers are meeting on Tuesday, March 30 at Turner’s Falls High School at 7 pm in Room 206. If you are interested in competitive pumpkin growing this is place to learn how to do it.  Call Lu or Sue Chadwick, 773-3283, for more information.

Ed Himlan, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Watershed Coalition, will be at the Greenfield Public Library on Tuesday, April 6 at 6:30 pm  to give a free presentation about the benefits of rain gardens, and how to plant and create one of your own. This program is organized by Greening Greenfield, and co-sponsored by many local organizations. ###

Between The Rows  March 27, 2010

Olympic Bouquets

Nancy Bond at Soliloquoy has a wonderful post about the Olympic bouquets that are given to each Olympic winner, gold, silver and bronze medal winners all.

It has been difficult to get a good look at the bouquets. They do not seem to be given or received with much ceremony, which is a shame because they are lovely.

Nancy tells the full story about constraints and requirements for designing these bouquets which is fascinating. It’s made me think about all the different ways flowers are used to celebrate or memorialize important occasions. You can expect to hear more about this as the year goes on.  Thank you Nancy for  a great post.

Another Way of Sharing the Garden

I am not a flower arranger. I do not do arrangements. In fact, I don’t have many flowers in my summer garden, so I rarely even think about making an arrangement.

However, as a garden columnist and blogger, I am known as A Gardener. Surely, as A Gardener I ought to be able to find a few flowers to stick in a vase without disgracing myself. Thus, when no one signed up to do the church flowers yesterday, and inspired by all the goldenrod in my field, I decided to volunteer. I think the result is as beautiful as the summer day.

To the goldenrod I added zinnias, red bee balm, purple gayfeather, a pink yarrow, pink dahlias and some fading hydrangea blossoms. My ‘vase’ is a nice heavy stoneware pitcher that is my usual vase because it is heavy and sturdy. I have cats and they are much given to sniffing, and knocking over, arrangements.

Flower arranging is not my forte, but I did plant the zinnias and the dahlias with the thought that they could go into fall arrangements. It is another way of sharing the garden.