The Stissing House Inn at the crossroads in the center of Pine Plains has been a focal point for both sustenance and celebration since 1782, operating almost continuously as an inn, tavern or restaurant since its inception. In March 2022 came a new keeper of the Inn to give a new lease of life to this historic gem.
Despite her stardom in the high-octane Manhattan restaurant world, Clare De Boer’s vision for the Inn’s next incarnation was simple. Inspired by the Shakers’ outlook on life, the next stage of the Inn’s existence would be a celebration of the honesty, simplicity, and beauty of making use of what we already have around us. Farm-to-table, nose-to-tail, no-nonsense, luxuriously simple food, served in the minimal, rustic beauty of the building’s impressive tavern and warren of small dining rooms.
Foodies may have been beside themselves with excitement. I, on the other hand (cue eye-rolling from my family), was agog for her take on floral décor! Wanting flowers that would complement both the ethos and ambience of the place and, as with her culinary ingredients, allowing them to speak for themselves, Clare was after a supplier of flowers whose beauty came from their seasonality and simplicity. To my delight, taking what can only be described as an epic leap of faith, Clare invited me to be a tiny part of her endeavor by providing these flowers each week for the Inn.
Yes we did: winter flowers
A year of weekly flowers all grown within 20 miles of their destination? Could we do it? Grown without heat or pesticides or even to my never-ending source of woe, a cold-frame, let alone a greenhouse? The answer, dear readers, is “yes we did.” And I’m here now to tell you how we did it and – more to the point – how you can too. If ever there was proof that no flower ever needs to find itself in the cargo hold of a plane, this is it!
Although the restaurant opened in March 2022, for ease we’ll start our floral year in January and with the brilliance of the forced bulb. I had started a staggered planting of these in late October/early November. All but the paperwhites and amaryllis, which were left in a warm spot in the house, were initially kept covered in light-blocking sheets of newspaper in our barn and then, when it was heading to freezing on the thermometer, moved into our miserable, dark, unfinished basement. Talk about making use of what you already have.
In order of bloom, starting from mid-December, we had amaryllis, paperwhites, hyacinths, iris reticulata, muscari, narcissi, and finally tulips. I’ve said this before on these pages but it is worth repeating – and especially at this time of year as now is the time to get your bulb orders placed – as an obsessive gardener who lives to be outside with hands in the dirt, there are still few flowers I grow that give more joy and more satisfaction than a winter-forced bulb. Absolutely no green fingers required, all you need is a pot, some potting soil and a cold, dark space. Please, please, please try this at home.
What I love about forced bulbs is the options you have to display them. I grow all my bulbs in small individual pots and then, when I have enough at the same stage of bursting, I repot them together into a larger container. Again, tapping into the Shaker vibe of no-nonsense, simple but beautiful utility, my bizarre collection of copper pans, urns, chamber pots, and even an antique enamel baby bath were put to use.
A further benefit of forcing a succession of different varieties of bulbs is that they lasted from mid-December to mid-April. Not once during those four months did we need to buy a greenhouse-grown, flown-in flower. Just as they were finally tapering off, along came the garden-grown cut tulips, narcissi, and the bursting of spring tree and shrub blossom.
A side note here on the Shaker ideal of making use of what you already have. If you are pruning your fruit trees in the depths of winter, don’t discard those branches. Bring them inside, stand them in a few inches of water in a bucket, and over the course of the next few weeks, watch those seemingly dead branches break into life. This way you’ll have – as we did – forsythia, magnolia, quince, pear, and crab apple blossoming long before they bloomed in the garden.
Off to the races: spring flowers
Come mid-May and we were off to the races floral-wise. For the next five months my dilemma was often what not to include in the weekly selection. The flowers cut from my regular flower beds each week included peonies, allium, bearded iris, philadelphus, sweet peas, foxgloves, phlox, delphiniums, echinacea, hydrangeas, dahlias, and chrysanthenums.
It was not just flowers grown in my garden that got put into service though. Wildflowers – known to some more unenlightened types as weeds – are some of the most beautiful seasonal flowers. Hesperis, cow parsley, buttercup, Queen Anne’s lace, wild carrot, fleabane, sumac, goldenrod – even just grass and seed heads. Responsible foraging, along with the encouragement of these plants into my own garden, was a regular source of beauty.
As foliage and supporting filler, I used just about everything and anything – perennials, shrubs, trees – solomon seal, alchemilla, Japanese anemone leaves, beech, and amelanchier branches – and a myriad of the what I call “just-there already” creepers, climbers, and shrubs that populate our back garden woods. Don’t ask me what they are – they are just there!
I’m a big proponent of using vegetables for floral decoration. Just because they’ve passed the stage for culinary harvest, does not mean their time is done. Again, use what you already have. We put asparagus ferns, rhubarb seed heads, tomato vines, kale leaves, cardoons, and artichokes all to good use. I’m also not sure where I would be without the joy of pathway herb volunteers and thus the dill heads, nigella, and chives plucked from my vegetable garden paths.
Less obvious beauty: fall flowers
Come the fall and the tailing off of new blooms, we got creative and looked for beauty in the less obvious. The emphasis shifted from green exuberance to structural integrity. Grasses, seed heads, and the saved dried flower heads of previously fresh blooms were commandeered. Pumpkins, squash, and gourds in every hue and shape were found.
Then, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, it was December and it was time for holiday décor. Locally sourced evergreen garlands of fir and spruce and a traditional Christmas tree were joined by bundles of holly, mistletoe, and winterberry, stacks of pine cones and, just like that, the first of the paperwhites and amaryllis came around again.
So, that is how we did it. Twelve months of local seasonal flowers, nothing flown just all garden-, farm-, and hedgerow-grown. Simple, minimal, using what was immediately on hand to create immense beauty. I like to think our Shaker forefathers would approve.•
Pom Shillingford is an obsessive gardener originally from England and now based in Salisbury, CT. She offers seasonal cut flowers through English Garden Grown. Find her on Instagram @english_garden_grown.