For a recent Taste of Place dinner honoring Preston Farm and Winery, SHED floral designer Sue Volkel decorated the tables by filling tall glass vases with pale grasses and stalks of flowering wild fennel.
She filled small glass vases with clutches of delicate feverfew flowers, wild sweet peas, and small strands of ripening strawberries, still hanging from the vine.
The effect was magical.
Varying the heights allowed diners to converse easily above the small vases, their faces visible below the tall ones. The strawberries leant an air of fantasy, as if to entice fairies to table. But perhaps this is all a bit prosaic.
What the flowers truly offered was their own very real sense of place, a perfect complement to the meal’s intent. And what made the effect so effortless?
Well, Sue’s ineffable talent, for one thing. But also: The plants grow together naturally in the fields and tidily in garden beds.
“You learn a lot about flower arranging from gardening,” Sue says. “With gardening, you identify everything. You learn what it is. With gardening, you learn that things that look beautiful together in the yard translate to looking really beautiful in a vase.”
Trained as a painter, Sue took jobs as a gardener to support herself through college. Working as an interior designer, Sue uses what she learned from her grandmother, a talented hostess, to arrange flowers.
But she stresses that there aren’t many rules. Now at summer solstice, the tall white Queen’s Anne Lace and singular blue chicory flowers that proliferate along Sonoma County roads have her entranced.
“The white with that light blue — how beautiful is that right now?” Sue says. “I really like being able to bring things that are unexpected to the table. It makes me feel so good when people say, ‘I have that in my yard, why didn’t I ever think about using it?'”
Having worked to help design the interior as it was being built, Sue has been with SHED since before the doors opened. She’s been in charge of the flowers for over three years now, bringing fresh farm and foraged bouquets in five days a week.
Offering flowers from our immediate area grown by the farmers, friends, and neighbors that surround us is an important ethos for SHED. Just as we support the Slow Food movement, so does SHED support Slow Flowers. It’s all about sense of place and recognizing graceful, unique beauty.
“Every season brings its own favorites,” Sue says. “Summer brings roses and hydrangeas and you wonder what are you going do when they’re gone.
“And then,” she laughs, “the crab apples come in.”
Sue’s Quick Tips
• Cut flowers as early in the morning as you can.
• Condition them in water for 24 hours before you do the arrangement to properly hydrate the stems and extend the flower’s freshness. Keep them in a place as cool as you can find.
• If you cut roses out in the field, you always want to give them a fresh cut before you put them in water. This isn’t as necessary if you’re coming right into the house.
• Generally, it’s wise to re-cut flowers that were harvested more than 30 minutes before or are brought home from the store. The bottom of the stem will have sealed a little bit and water won’t otherwise penetrate.