On a late April morning in upstate New York, the first delicate blooms are bursting through the soil. Overhead, cherry blossoms explode from the bud in clouds of cotton candy pink. Often this time of year feels like one step forward with a warm day, the return of the sun, and the first crocus to break the cold earth and then two steps back with a surprise spring snowstorm and the return of winter coats. But as I make my way to the floral workshop in the cavernous Basilica Hudson, a restored 19th-century riverfront factory, it’s clear that spring is officially present thanks to a display of the season’s finest floral offerings, from blush anemones and coral peonies to towering bunches of sunny forsythia and dusky hellebores.
The bloom’s varied colors, textures, and forms will guide those of us gathered here as we learn how to construct arrangements with grace, movement, and fluidity from two of the floral world’s beloved designers, Ariella Chezar and Nicolette Owen. Through demonstrations, discussions, hands-on guidance, and practice, we’ll soak up their wisdom and techniques for creating lavish, large-scale arrangements; floral installations; bouquets; and centerpieces.
As a writer, flower enthusiast, and novice arranger, I’m along for the ride, here to learn new skills while also observing the more seasoned attendees as they refine their practice. Participants have traveled from across the country and Canada, and even as far away as Lithuania, with a variety of floral backgrounds ranging from wedding professionals and floral designers to flower farmers and garden hobbyists. We’ll spend the next three days of the floral workshop surrounded by blooms from many of New England’s most prolific flower farms, including Cedar Farm in New York, Renaissance Farm in Vermont, Little State Flower Co. in Rhode Island, Maiden Flower Farm in Massachusetts, and Fivefork Farms in Massachusetts.
The flowering branches, ranunculus, hellebores, specialty tulips, hyacinths, fritillaria, anemones, and sweet peas are all sourced locally, while roses from Rose Story Farm in California and ranunculus from 3 Porch Farm in Georgia round out the mix. “Spring tones are so connected, from dusty violet and mauve to warm golds, peachy apricots, and lime yellows,” Ariella tells our group. “There are so many directions to explore. And with no client dictating our design, we have the freedom to create palettes that really push the usual boundaries.”
Ariella and Nicolette offer complementary skill sets, and throughout our time together, they take turns teaching. We begin with centerpieces, focusing on an organic style that embodies nature’s fluidity. “If you are using nature as a guide, then you want to picture how flowers bloom in the field,” instructs Ariella. “They never grow at the exact same height; they can be short, tall, curved, or straight. When you mimic that in an arrangement through layering, it looks more alive.”
While we put her teachings into practice, our conversations flow, covering everything from event design and color theory to trends and strategies of the floral business. After two years of pandemic-related isolation, it’s clear that everyone is eager for connection. “I’m here as a fan of Nicolette’s work, but I’m also here to meet other florists and hear about their challenges and successes.” says Dianne Black of A Wild Vine in Toronto. “As much as I love the creativity of floral design, I’m equally interested in the business side.” Serbio Uzcategui of Piropo Flowers in New York City shares the sentiment. “I love the work I’m doing in my floral studio, but I’m open to learning from others,” he says.
Following the centerpiece exercise, we take our newfound knowledge and move on to bouquets and other arrangements over the next two days. And it all culminates with the closing event on the last day—a farewell dinner complete with elaborate floral displays and table settings. “Ariella has an incredible ability to envision an event in its entirety, from the linens and candles to the centerpieces and floral installations,” says Nicolette.
The cavernous space fills with soaring forsythia branches complemented by touches of gold and robin’s-egg blue. Our own centerpiece creations fill the tables, paired with tiny bud vases of daffodils. Above, twinkling fairy lights illuminate the tall windows and soaring ceilings. The overall effect can only be described as pure magic. And as the sun sets golden over the Hudson River just outside, we enjoy cocktails, dinner, and the deep connection that comes from a shared passion for the transformative power of flowers.
By Christine Chitnis | Photography by Corbin Gurkin