Girls’ Night Out(side)

At Nancy Ross Hugo’s Flower Camp, students learn the art of floral arranging, commune with one another and get a creative nudge on how to spot beautiful design elements underfoot.

Photography By Stacey Evans

In Virginia, in the world of gardening enthusiasts, Nancy Ross Hugo is the equivalent of Jerry Garcia—she makes us all want to leave our day jobs to follow her. As a speaker and writer, Hugo was a source of inspiration long before others began singing to the tune of Green Gardening, now so popular. Luckily, this naturalist and coordinator of the Remarkable Trees of Virginia Project is also the director of Flower Camp, a special place where gardening groupies can congregate for two days, learn the art of floral arranging and find inspiration in and from the countryside. Perhaps most important, the students learn to see the natural world with a whole new eye.

     Situated on the James River in picturesque Buckingham County, about 30 miles from Charlottesville, Flower Camp is a rustic weekend retreat. Hugo convenes the camp four times a year (two sessions each in the spring and fall), when weather conditions are most pleasant. (There is no air conditioning.) There are typically 20 “students” at each camp, and they spend the weekend observing nature, experimenting with new floral art forms and arranging techniques, sharing their personal backgrounds and just having fun blending art with nature. The campers eat well—getting gourmet meals (Friday dinner through Sunday brunch) in a screened dining pavilion with nice breezes and a panoramic view. The students are encouraged to think creatively, and they benefit from exposure to quirky, playful decorating concepts in addition to more traditional floral styles such as “country casual.” Whether mingling in one of the two cottages, the quaint bedrooms of the big farmhouse or its communal room that feels a bit like a bunkhouse, the overnight part of the experience is said to be like a big pajama party. Sisters come to spend quality time together. Friends give the camp weekend to each other as birthday presents, and wise husbands bid for them at school auctions to give as gifts of rejuvenation.

     Hugo describes Flower Camp as “a cross between Garden Club and Outward Bound.” There isn’t much physical exertion, really, but on the road toward learning to make distinctive flower arrangements, there are early morning hikes to look closely at lichens and moss, and to find that holy grail of the search—“a really good stick.” says Hugo. A good stick can distinguish an arrangement (and be reused for years to come). Hugo teaches her students how to look at natural materials as potential design elements, thus stoking everyone’s creative instincts.

     Many students come in feeling tentative and leave as confident floral designers. Campers Judy Morton and her friend and neighbor Julie Wafer-Trayah are master gardeners in Arlington, Vermont—experts on plants in the ground—but neither had ever done arrangements. At Camp’s end, they could not wait to get home and tromp through the woods seeking fodder for their new art form.

     Other campers had similar epiphanies. Having been told to bring materials to contribute to a group arrangement, several campers felt they had nothing in their yards to share. After the camp, they realized they had missed seeing objects of natural beauty such as the delicate curved line of an unfurling fiddlehead fern or the startling colors, patterns and textures of stems, barks, leaves and pods. “Flower Camp is about getting to see more of the outdoors,” Hugo explains. “Whatever gets you outside and looking at the natural world improves your design.”

     Campers learn by doing. As soon as they arrive, they get small, shallow dishes and tiny wire pin holders with which to make an “Asian-inspired mini-arrangement.” They must include one element that represents heaven, one that represents earth and one symbolic of man. In another exercise, each person is issued a cobalt-blue vase and a shadow box for gathering materials that are appealing. In the evening, each box is placed in a circle around a campfire, and each student explains why certain objects inspired her. The different squares reflect the individuality of each designer, of course, and other students can react to what they see.

      Indeed, the group discussion around the campfire, when everyone pulls up an Adirondack chair and shares, is a key part of the camp. There, individual thoughts and ideas become a collaborative experience. “The point is, when you bring these minds together, people know more than they think they do,” says Hugo.

A fun auction also builds camaraderie among the women. Campers are told to bring $1 in change to bid against each other for items brought from home, such as a container or a pass-along plant. Raising the stakes from, say, 35 to 36 cents can get very serious—but precious extra pennies can be earned by such means as sleeping in an upper bunk.

     A popular activity is the Container Challenge. Each camper selects a “horrible” container, says Hugo, “to see what you can do with one that seems impossible.” Memorable items have included a corroded car muffler, a Slinky with a liner, and a pink plastic trash can. Instructors do a variation on this theme they call Dueling Containers, in which they compete to see who can take the strangest object and make the most interesting presentation of it in the arrangement.

     Hugo and her staff are improvisers. “The thing I love about Flower Camp is that people say, ‘Did y’all have this planned?’ The answer is ‘No!’—we wait to see what shows up,” says Hugo. “I love the creative process. I don’t like anything formulaic. I enjoy watching one person watch someone else and another, then build on that. I like someone evolving … and willing to try something new.”

     Hugo has six professional designers who help her at the camps. An instructor for the last 12 years, Mary Garner-Mitchell was a graphics designer and illustrator for the Flair section of The Richmond Times-Dispatch when she first came as a camper. Libbie Oliver, the former head of floral services for Colonial Williamsburg, is an expert on 18th-century floral design. Mary Claire Coster is known for exuberant floral wedding designs, and Rhonda Roebuck teaches a nature journaling workshop. In it, students sketch botanical parts, make notes on the environment and write their Thoreau-esque, poetic thoughts. Instructor Sue Tolson, family therapist, understands the spiritual and psychological value of the weekend. Says she: “It can be a real emotional process for people to tap into parts of themselves that have not been tapped into.”

     Flower Camp was born informally, when a group of friends came to the Hugos’ farm to arrange, starting in the late 1980s. Along the way, family bonding experiences have literally added onto the facilities. When Hugo’s goddaughter Erin Armstrong Bishop got married in the barn in 2004, her family built the steps up to the loft for the ceremony. The family affair continues today with Hugo’s daughter, Kate Binns, a caterer, creating many of the camp’s gourmet meals, garnished with fresh herbs from the garden.

     After dinner, campers adjourn to the barn, where the talk turns to drying natural materials and wreath making. The barn’s rafters are strung with Chinese lantern, lavender, cockscomb and mint. Various grasses bathe the room in amber. Drying racks hold hydrangea, staghorn sumac, honesty, yarrow and magnolia pods. The instructors demonstrate how to gild a plant, spraying a bit of gold into a plastic bag and then placing plant material, such as a hydrangea or fern frond, inside. The paint grabs the edges and gilds them “with just a twinkle,” says Tolson. “There are few things that can’t be improved with a little Future Floor Wax.” She sprays the wax to seal greens and dried materials so they will not shed or drop seeds.

     As Hugo explains various drying processes, she demonstrates how to assemble a wreath made of artemisia, mountain mint and hydrangea to be “gloriously poofy.” Campers smile when she reveals her excitement at its subtle shades of brown: “Nancy loves dead stuff,” quips one student.

     As a self-reflection exercise at the end of the weekend, Hugo sometimes asks participants to write with a feather or a stick using ink made from pokeberries. She suggests that they write a thank you note to Mother Nature on a piece of river bark and put it in a spot where it will biodegrade. Some choose to write a prayer or a haiku. “The object, really, is to provide a situation where everyone will be quiet for 30 minutes so they are hearing things they did not hear before,” Hugo explains. “It’s a nice interlude.” In all these ways, the thought-provoking retreat becomes, itself, a work of art.

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