In the Garden with Zezé

Every weekend, floral designer Zezé leaves Manhattan and heads to the flower fields of his own country property in upstate New York
Zezé's Flower Farm

With Peggy by his side, Zezé cuts peonies for his shop.

Zezé’s flower shop is like a jewelry box filled with glittering objects tucked among tiers of blooms. In the front of the store, you can spend hours mesmerized by the bling of blossoms beside European classic-style antiques. In the back, Zezé turns out bouquets like you’ve never seen before. It’s all about his inner brilliance and deft derring-do with color. But another secret is the floral designer’s source. Many of the ingredients for his arrangements come from the farm that he and his wife, Peggy, share with ducks, geese, chickens, peacocks, turkeys, cats, and miniature donkeys—as well as fields of homegrown flowers.
Zezé's Flower Farm, geese

Canada geese graze in a field accented by an urn.

Zezé's Flower Farm

An armillary sphere in the herb garden

Thirty-six years ago Zezé opened his First Avenue and 52nd Street shop, attracting and building a faithful clientele who adore his “more is more” philosophy of flower arranging. Born in Brazil, he was raised in a colorful world, and that verve is translated into everything he creates. Only three years after opening the Manhattan shop, he found a parcel with potential in upstate New York. Originally it was 18 acres of shambles between Hudson and Albany; now it is a 50 plus–acre dream. “As a commercial business,” Zezé says in his mellifluous Brazilian accent, “I do everything wrong. My shop is never open on Sundays, but it is very successful.” The reason why you won’t find Zezé in the city on the weekend has everything to do with the farm that not only feeds his shop, but also his soul.
Zezé's Flower Farm

Over the years, Zezé has planted many trees to grace the property, including a willow beside the brook and a white wisteria.

Regarding the couple’s first impression of the land, Zezé does not mince words. “It was not that great. Actually, it was very poor looking, but that’s all we could afford.” The farm’s initial renovation involved plowing up a field and feverishly planting flowers for his shop. Several decades later, the property is the sort of estate you might read about in a romance novel. Enter the gates, and an immense flower garden accompanies the drive on the way to various barns, coops, greenhouses, and the farmhouse. Wander the fields, and one-of-a-kind urns accent the contours of the land. A rustic bridge crosses a brook; arbors shoulder vines on the other side; benches and hammocks are everywhere inviting guests to settle in and slow down.
Zezé's Flower Farm

Peonies and irises were planted in rows for easy picking, while additional colors are added all the time.

When Zezé arrives in the country, his first order of business is to swoop into his garden and cut the ingredients for bouquets he places around the house. The cut-flower garden is over an acre of solid herbaceous peonies, Oriental poppies, bearded irises, and delphiniums massed together, all orchestrated to blossom over the longest possible period. “I put flowers in the kitchen window; I put them on the dining room table—it makes all the difference.” But he does not confine his foraging only to the cut-flower garden proper. He accesses the numerous trees, shrubs, and vines that he has added to the property as well, and those plants are intrinsic to his style. Zezé couldn’t do his brand of voluptuous bouquets without the beauty bushes, magnolias, yellow wood, clematis, porcelain berries, roses, and lilacs in his landscape.
Zezé's Flower Farm

A rustic bridge crosses the brook on the way to a gazebo salvaged from a nearby town square.

After accomplishing arrangements for the farmhouse, Zezé explores farther afield. Destination gazebos, cupolas, and other artifacts peppered throughout add to the property’s charm. These accessories on the site have the patina of age, none in perfect condition. Focal points unify the vegetable garden, rose bushes, and orchard. During their commute back and forth to the city, Zezé and Peggy would pass an abandoned Lord & Burnham greenhouse. “The glass was broken; trees were growing through the panes,” Zezé remembers. They made some inquiries, adopted the greenhouse, and moved it to their property where it was repaired. Now it’s filled with ferns, palms, and fuchsias that shower blooms on the floor.
Zezé's Flower Farm

Leo is a retired greenhouse cat who came with credentials.

Zeze Peony Arrangement, Zezé's Flower Farm

Complex color combinations are key to floral designer Zezé’s style. In an arrangement from his farm, he combines beauty bush, Rosa glauca, and honeysuckles with peonies and Oriental poppies.

Every Monday morning throughout the growing season, Zezé and Peggy cut blossoms to load one or two trucks to drive back to the city. He also accesses kale, Swiss chard, rosemary, parsley, basil, and mint from his vegetable garden. “I try to make a little country in each bouquet,” Zezé likes to say. And growing his own plants lets the designer go beyond the palette available at the flower market. He plants blossoms that provide the bold, suffused colors that he craves. “The flowers just let my creativity go,” he says.
Zezé's Flower Farm

Zezé and Peggy pause for a photo in the greenhouse.

Married for 37 years, Zezé and Peggy are rarely apart. In the flower market as well as when cutting blossoms, she is always by his side. “We’re a good team,” Zezé says. In the shop, they go over the orders together to discuss the mood a client is striving to achieve. Then Peggy gathers the blossoms from the cooler, and Zezé creates the arrangement. Although a florist’s life can be frenetic, Zezé has the formula for making it work over the long haul, and his country retreat provides much-needed balance to his hectic city life. “I’m a happy person,” he says. “I’m never depressed. I look around my garden and think, How fortunate we are!”
Zeze peonies As Zezé strives for arrangements that “bring joy to people,” and believes the best way to accomplish that goal is to produce his own ingredients—in the unabashed colors he loves and with the components that furnish the flamboyance that is his signature. Here are Zezé’s thoughts on what he grows and why.
  • “I grow Oriental poppies because it is very hard to find them on the market in the magnificent size and with the colors that I love—like peaches, oranges, whites with the black center, and the Spanish ruffles.”
  • “The foliage from geraniums and Solomon’s seal is beautiful, but you cannot find it in the market. In the past, foliage of these plants was used, but nobody else is doing it anymore.”
  • “Sometimes it is difficult to find the herbaceous peonies, bearded irises, delphiniums, bleeding hearts, and hollyhocks with the freshness and perfection of the flowers I grow myself.”
  • “I use herbs such as basil, parsley, rosemary, and mint for their summery fragrance in an arrangement. They are so fresh and smell so good.”
  • “I love anything that grows in the meadow, and the field grasses are beautiful for their texture. We have to show the softness of the field.”
  • “It is rare to have fragrant roses on the market. I grow the rambling roses for their scent and the rugosa roses for their single-petaled flowers and their hips in the fall.”
  • “I use any kind of vine—I especially like clematis, porcelain berry, and jasmine from the greenhouse in winter. The leaves are stunning, and I love the trailing accent in a bouquet.”
By Tovah Martin | Photos by Rob Cardillo

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