Award-winning Theresa Clower demonstrates how to create beautiful flower bouquets from the garden
By MOIRA SHERIDAN
When you see Theresa Clower in action, it comes as no surprise that she’s an award-winning floral designer. Owner and principal designer of Theresa Floral Design, she works out of her home studio in Newark with her goldendoodle, Jeff, close by. Moving at warp speed she cuts, strips, bends, binds and weaves random flowers into an art form fit for a magazine cover.
When I visited her on a rainy morning last week, she guided me through the process in a sort of master class/ coffee klatch during which she shared wisdom and insights.
Clower’s philosophy toward her art comes up again and again: “Use what’s available in nature, but make it your own, alter it in some way. People take things from their garden and think they have to re-create what it looked like out there and the reality is it’s much more interesting if you don’t. Cutting things a certain way, placing them a certain way – that’s the art of it.”
Since I’m guilty of cutting and plunking without a thought to design or creativity, her words struck home.
While she specializes in weddings, for our joint venture she chose a simple hand-tied arrangement, something to embody autumn’s splendor. Pulling on high boots and grabbing her pruners, Clower and Jeff headed outdoors to a pair of curly willows flanking the path leading to her backyard.
“When we moved here in 1990, it was just this big ugly blue house and one plant,” she says. “I took the landscaping class at University of Delaware and focused on the bones of the garden.”
That decision proved useful in the long run. Filled with trees, shrubs and grasses, the garden has matured into a low maintenance landscape. It also occasionally provides some of the material she uses in arrangements.
She quickly cuts an armful of willow branches, a handful of Hosta leaves, hydrangea heads and some magnificent fruiting viburnum in front of the house. Once inside her studio, she opens the door to a massive walk-in refrigerator, and we remove a brigade of flower-filled buckets – roses, yarrow, dahlias, celosia, mums, grasses and stems from various shrubs.
She gets most of her plant material from wholesalers and some local purveyors. The color palette is bold like a splash of peak fall foliage. Almost immediately, I realize I have to learn a new language.
With Clower, a member of the prestigious American Institute of Floral Design, an extremely competitive organization that tests applicants for admission, I could easily have been intimidated by some of the new vocabulary. I knew a little about conditioning flowers – cutting their stems and soaking them in tepid water – but armature?
Clower’s straight-forward, easy manner and her obvious love of what she does puts that to rest. Selecting tools like a master carpenter, she explains the first step of any good arrangement. Curly willow, stripped of all leaves, will provide the support system – armature – for the flowers to keep them in place.
Wresting some back from Jeff, who is having a good chew on them, she cuts them into manageable lengths and bends some of the thin tips down, tying them at the bottom to create the framework in which the flowers will rest. From there, the fun begins, and I resist the urge to plunk.
Throughout the morning, Clower explains that her path to a full-time floral design career meandered through the business and nonprofit world. After getting a degree from the Maryland Institute of Fine Arts and, later, a master’s in public administration, she used that training for 35 years from local to state to the national level, ending up in D.C. at a mentoring organization for children.
“Meanwhile, I had started a business on the side with florals because they were always just a part of me,” she says, telling the story of how she designed a hat made entirely of lily of the valley when she was 11.
She studied floral design at Longwood Gardens, where she now teaches in the continuing education program, and continues to learn, focusing on European and Japanese design.
“When I left D.C., I went full force into floral design in 2008 after doing about two weddings a month for a long time. I’ve rewired, never retired,” she says of her business, Theresa Floral Design.
Her lush designs are consistently rated in the nation’s top 5 percent among client reviews on the website, weddingwire. com, and weddings are her business’s bread and butter. For a typical event, she may spend an average of 15 to 20 hours, but working solo isn’t always feasible.
“It’s very intensive, and two weeks ago I had a five-wedding weekend, and there’s no way I could do that alone without pulling 80-hour weeks. I have to use freelance designers,” she says.
You can find her down in the trenches, up on ladders and anywhere she needs to be to get the job done. For a couple who were old-film buffs, her research became inspired.
“I got a whole lot of metal film reels on eBay and created really cool arrangements by weaving the flowers through them,” she says. “Some of them even had actual film on them, and we worked it into the design. That’s the type of thing I really enjoy.”
As we work, stripping leaves off stems and placing tall, airy bronzetoned mums towards the top and the larger hydrangea heads at the bottom, I learn to literally branch out a bit, taking Clower’s advice to pull some flowers up here, add a little something for balance and hang the magnificent roses to the side.
The curly willow springing around the arrangement in a fall-themed rustcolored container brings it together in a way I hadn’t anticipated, and I’m thrilled with the result.
Clower’s arrangement, which she pulls together in half the time it took me, is show-worthy, the deep colors resoundingperfectly. For all her rich, lush designs, Clower shares that she prefers the sparseness of Ikebana, a Japanese floral art form she has been studying for six years.
“What really gets my juices flowing creatively is contemporary design,” she says, pointing to dramatic, silver-painted displays in her dining room. “The Japanese culture is fascinating to me, and I’m not talking traditional. I’m talking the Sogetsu school of (Ikebana) design.”
In her kitchen sits an arrangement made from dried, painted leaves and seed pods spilling from an upright copper rectangle. The minimalist style reflects Sogetsu, which encourages Ikebana students to be individual and imaginative.
Outside, she has collected several large green Osage orange seedpods in a birdbath and entwined them with bittersweet. Both in house and garden is abundant evidence of her floral artistry, and as I head home with my arrangement, I’m grateful to have learned from a master.