My journey with American Grown Flowers to Alaska, Part II: The Field to Vase Dinner

From the moment I stepped off the turbo prop plane in Homer, Alaska I was welcomed with open arms by Beth and immediately felt at home.  I knew when I met Kurt and Beth in Washington, DC in May for the American Grown Flowers-sponsored First Lady’s Luncheon that this was a uniquely special couple.  I saw how they jumped in among the 20 designers offering to fill buckets, process flowers, prep vases and design with passion and ease.  They quickly become beloved friends among all of us.  When I returned home I had this burning desire to go be with them and support them for the dinner they were hosting on their farm.  I had only known them for three days but I felt like I had made life long friends and traveling 3,000 miles to their home, Scenic Place Peonies, in Alaska only seemed natural.  So I bought a plane ticket.  I was embarking on this solo trip for the pure reason of adventure and the need to continue this journey I was on to be a part of the fervent American Grown Flowers movement. Becoming the featured floral designer wasn’t even on my radar.  

When the opportunity was presented to become the Field to Vase floral designer Beth and I spoke almost daily discussing the layout, her vision and how I could execute it.  I usually see my venues before my events understanding the scale of how I should create my designs and what products would lend best to the architecture and ambiance of the space.  For this event I had to rely solely on Beth’s descriptions and our FaceTime calls where she would walk me around the property.   The recurring sentiment that I gleaned from our calls was that Beth truly wanted this dinner to reflect Alaska and Homer’s culture.  Homer is a vibrant fishing community with panoramic views of glaciers, snow capped mountains and the famous 4.5 mile Homer spit with a bustling dock of fishing boats.  The mountain range shifts in colors throughout the day providing a painterly backdrop, ever-changing ombre of glacial blue.  From the backyard and flower fields at Scenic Place Peonies you constantly have a breathtaking view of the glacial vista as the farm sits high above Homer on a bluff.  This view, the fishing culture and the peonies were to become the inspiration for the tablescape that 116 guests would dine among.  

 The view from the peony fields at Scenic Place Peonies' Homer, Alaska flower farm.  Photo by  Joshua Veldstra Photography

The view from the peony fields at Scenic Place Peonies' Homer, Alaska flower farm.  Photo by Joshua Veldstra Photography

Syndicate Sales, a major sponsor of the Field to Vase dinners, graciously provided all the vases and supplies. Their ombre blue Lula glass vase was the perfect complement to the glacial vista and the peonies.  Weeks before the dinner I created a mock up at home in Maryland with a variety of their vases and flowers similar to what I would be designing with.  As I designed I felt that the pink and coral peonies would be best highlighted with the color palette I was creating.  I also began playing with craft style fish netting, nautical roping and pieces of driftwood I had lying around my house.  I FaceTimed Beth when it was completed and asked what she thought.  She loved it but quickly informed me that their fishing netting and roping was very different than what I was using as well as their driftwood.  I wanted this to be authentic Alaska so I asked if she had the type of netting (seine) and roping (halibut line) that would be most appropriate.  With Kurt being a fisherman she of course did.  The tablescape evolved over the next weeks leading up to the dinner and even within that week.  Once I arrived and began to get a feel for what Homer and it’s community was I began to add the final elements that would tell a beautiful story.  Photos below by Joshua Veldstra Photography

After flying for 17 hours from Washington, D.C. to Homer, Alaska, I was exhausted, but as soon as I stepped on to the farm I was quickly jolted with renewed energy and sheer joy as Beth gave me a tour around the property. Walking among her blossoming peony fields with 20 cultivars (14 which are cut varieties) was like nothing I had ever experienced.  Not only did I quickly notice their oversized blooms but their fragrance and the sheer volume of blooms that dotted the fields was intoxicating.  It was a moment that truly took my breath away.  It was the most beautiful experience that overwhelmed all my senses.  I don’t think you even have to be a peony enthusiasts to be swept up in the romance of this flower en masse.  With the view of the Kachemak Bay in the background, rolling hills of colorful peony fields, the buzz of their honeybees and the screech of bald eagles above I knew this was a place that I never wanted to leave and a place that truly deserved to be celebrated.

Being such gracious hosts, Beth and Kurt took me down to the Homer Spit for the grand tour and to treat me to a dinner at The Fresh Catch where they provide beautiful weekly table arrangements. (Almost every small business I visited throughout the week had at least one small arrangement showcasing the local peonies – the Homer community is incredibly supportive!)  I believe it was 8 or 9 pm when we were finally sitting down to eat but I’m not sure because the entire week I had no concept of time with the sun constantly high in the sky and casting a perpetual daylight glow.  Afterwards we drove to the end of the Spit and walked the beaches and began scouring for driftwood to adorn the Field to Vase dinner table.  The beaches were lined with these beautiful thin grey rocks and pieces of lava and coal.  They were very different than what I was used to on the East Coast beaches and not a beach that you lay on or walk in flip flops with sand between your toes.  They were rugged and quintessential Alaska.  I knew I needed these rocks on the table too.  Quickly my understanding of how this table was going to reflect the farm and the community was coming together. 

Wednesday and Thursday a storm moved in and heavy fog concealed the amazing view.  While mystical in itself I certainly missed the way the sunshine danced on the bay with the kaleidoscope of color in the distance.  During these two days I began to unpack and prep all the vases and supplies provided by Syndicate Sales.  I loved working among the crew in the packhouse as they meticulously cleaned each peony before storing in the walk-in cooler.  At times there were seven people processing hundreds of peonies.  The mornings were for preparing and sending out orders and the afternoons into the evenings were when they harvested, if it was not raining, and then cleaning of all the peonies.  This is not for the faint of heart – there is serious time consuming work that goes into providing a quality product!  It’s not just cutting a stem off a plant and shipping it in a box.  There is perfect timing required to harvest, and hours of detailed work.  Then there is the organizing of the peonies in the cooler and checking counts for orders and specifically that week for the dinner.  To bear witness to this well oiled machine gave me even greater appreciation for flower farming, especially this farm.  Additionally, somehow in the middle of all this, lunch would be prepared and served for everyone.  Whether it was Beth’s mother Margaret who was bringing down a pan of meatloaf she had prepared or Beth whipping up sandwiches for everyone – the crew was cared for and loved on even during the most stressful and exhausting time.  The feeling of family and camaraderie was ever present.

Everyone knew what their job was and worked hard to get it done.  On top of the regular crew,  Beth and Kurt had incredible support from friends and family from all over the country. Lifelong friends traveled from Anchorage, Kurt’s childhood best friend came from Texas, Kurt’s sister flew in from Michigan, Lisa Thorne of Thorne & Thistle came from Alabama, a few of Beth's daughter’s friends showed up offering their help, Debra Prinzing of Slow Flowers offered her design help as well as Rachel Lord of Alaska Stems and even Shirley their next door neighbor pitched in.   All gave so many hours and days of their help all for the love of this couple .  The support and excitement that filled the farm was undeniable.  Everyone wanted to see this dinner succeed and be the shining moment for this farm and for Alaska peonies.  And it was. 

To create the floral designs for the tablescape, Lisa Thorne and I harvested from Beth’s 30 ft by 70 ft high tunnel which felt like a Garden of Eden in itself .  Knowing that the centerpieces would need more flowers than just peonies Beth planted an array of flowers and foliage just for this event.  Thursday morning we gathered arm loads and buckets full of foxglove, delphinium, salvia, larkspur, snapdragons, bells of ireland, bupleurum, dusty miller, kale and lady’s mantle.  We also foraged around the property for ferns, alder greenery,  wild monkshood and Alaskan fireweed. Then with the help of Ashley Johnson, a designer and future dahlia farmer who was spending the summer working for Beth, we designed over 130 centerpieces for the two kings tables, cocktail area and bars.  We adorned the necks of all the ombre blue vases with halibut line and added oysters collected from the bay to each centerpiece for that authentic Alaskan maritime vibe.  

Friday we began our 16 installations around the farm.  I wanted every area where guests would be mingling or dining to be transformed into a peony wonderland. From the moment they entered the property they were greeted with the enchantment of lush peonies and a nod to Homer’s fishing community. We added all the installs Friday and greened up everything so that Saturday morning we could add all the peonies.  To be able to design with an unending supply of peonies was incredible!  If we ran out as we were designing we simply went into the fields and cut what we needed.  How lucky we were!  If only every event could be like this.  

As guests arrived on Saturday they were welcomed with a bouquet of peonies nestled in an Alaskan crab cage.  As they made their way down the dirt road there were more crab cages adorned with peonies and ferns from the property.  They checked in at the house and gathered their place card under a patio awning draped in white and pink peonies and a mix of American Grown greenery.  From here they made their way to the boutonniere bar where pre-made floral combs of white peonies and pre-made boutonnieres with peony buds could be chosen or they could try their hand at making their own creation with the pre-cut flowers and foliage. Some guests got creative and adorned their summer hats with blooms.  Everyone was in the spirit of celebrating.  Photos below by Joshua Veldstra Photography

Guests then ventured to the back of the house on the lawn with the view of all views for the VIP reception.  Here they could get a glass of California wine from Geyser Peak Winery or Passport to Dry Creek Winery, enjoy a freshly shucked oyster from Jakalof Oyster Company and then take a picture in the oversized pink peony frame with a perfect backdrop of the Grewingk Glacier.  Certainly a cocktail hour to remember! Photos below by Joshua Veldstra Photography

,The night was just getting started.  Guests were invited to a personalized tour of the farm led by Beth and Kurt, as they walked among the lush fields of peonies in full bloom and learned about the history of the farm and the variety of peonies they grew.  I gave a brief welcome and demo discussing the 14 cut varieties of peonies grown on the farm showcasing each in their bud and full bloom form.  Sara Lowe of LoweLove Calligraphy had created beautiful charred salmon planks with each of the peony names, which I commissioned just for this event.  During the reception, event chef Delicious Dave treated everyone to a live fish filet demonstration.  This portion was a last minute surprise as Kasey Cronquist had caught, the day before, an almost 45 lb King Salmon.  Not only did Kasey gift it for the filet demonstration, guests enjoyed it as part of the entrée which he deemed a true "river to table" meal. Talk about authentic Alaskan experience.  Photos below by Joshua Veldstra Photography

When guests were invited to the tent for the dinner, coordinated by event planner Rebecca Kopperud of La Boum Events, they walked over a small bridge lined with peonies and greenery. On each side of the tent were collections of crab pots and shrimp cages that also were adorned with bright peonies and ferns.  As everyone found their way to a seat, the scene unfolded: a lush tablescape of varying heights of vases filled with only peonies, flowers and foliage harvested or foraged on the farm.  The tables were lined with seine netting under the vases and in between the designs were pieces of driftwood, grey rocks from the shore, authentic glass seine floats that Beth and Kurt had collected from friends and votive candles nestled in sand collected from the Homer beaches.  On each guest's plate was an oversized bright pink peony tucked into the napkin and tied with glacial blue ribbon from Torn & Tied.  Overhead in each of the three tents, hung lushly draped greenery and peony chandeliers as well as giant hanging orbs from Syndicate Sales that were filled with peonies, moss, sand and votives.  All of these designs drew your eye out past the property where guests took in an amazing view of the glaciers and mountains.  It was a feast for the eyes!  

 No detail was spared giving this Alaskan dinner an authentic feel.  Photo by  Joshua Veldstra Photography

No detail was spared giving this Alaskan dinner an authentic feel.  Photo by Joshua Veldstra Photography

The Field to Vase Dinner’s philosophy is to not only bring floral enthusiasts and flower farmers together but to foster fellowship and to “break bread together” through a family style meal.  Volunteer servers passed trays of Delicious Dave’s “Neil Young Salad” adorned with locally grown nasturtium, platters of King and Sockeye salmon with a chimmichurri sauce and dishes of roasted carrot, beets and rainbow chard adorned with peony petals (all of which was locally-grown and harvested from various farms between Anchorage and Homer.) 

The wine flowed, friendships were made and we celebrated Scenic Place Peonies,  Homer and all of Alaska's peony farmers.  Guests left that evening with a beautiful bouquet of peonies and monkshood as a well as a Field to Vase Dinner Tour tote bag filled with the perfect swag for any floral aficionado.  The dinner left a lasting impression among all who came and brought more attention and support to the Alaskan peony movement solidifying the importance of the Field to Vase Dinner tour coming to Alaska!

 

More of my favorite images captured by Joshua Veldstra Photography