Everyone is desperate to learn the secrets of designing with dahlias. That’s what Sandra Sigman of Les Fleurs in Andover discovered last year when she announced her Dahlia Workshop Under the Stars, to be staged at the Stevens-Coolidge Place in North Andover.
“It sold out in minutes, and we had a long waiting list,” she recalls. Ten lucky quick-responding attendees snagged spots in the intimate Stevens-Coolidge Place greenhouse to spend the evening under twinkly lights coaxing dahlias to do their bidding in bouquets like they had never concocted before.
Dahlias produce undeniably awesome blossoms, but it wasn’t just about flower arranging. When Sandra Sigman is at the helm, flowers fly and spirits soar with the greatest of ease.
Part of the inspiration for the event came from the venue itself. Through its wedding work, Les Fleurs has partnered frequently with the Stevens-Coolidge Place, where voluptuous flower-filled beds intersect with manicured grounds in a historic setting. Originally in the Stevens family since 1729, Ashdale Farm was transformed into an estate by Helen Stevens, wife of John Gardner Coolidge (a prominent diplomat and descendent of Thomas Jefferson).
Beginning in 1918 and working with designer Joseph Everett Chandler, Stevens eventually kitted up the property with all the components that a grand estate would need, including extensive cut flower beds and a potager. Upon her death in 1962, the property was bequeathed to the Trustees of Reservations, who stewarded the estate while restoring the gardens.
As a source of inspiration, the Stevens-Coolidge gardens overflow with ideas. But the dahlias were the blossoms that truly sparked the eureka moment for Sandra Sigman. “Dahlias are so lush and beautiful; they have a certain mystique. They sparked the workshop.”
It wasn’t just about the blooms. The picturesque 1926 greenhouse snugged in beside the Stevens-Coolidge rose garden always tempted Sigman for its workshop potential. Once primarily dedicated to nurturing fruit off-season, the “the Grapery” now winters the gardens’ tropical container plants. In September 2019, when Sigman held her workshop, the greenhouse was empty.
To play into the fairytale mood, Sigman crafted a bower of vines to arch over the entryway, brightened by water-tubed dahlias tucked into the branches. Festive lights were strung inside the structure to brighten the ambiance, while benches holding ingredients waited for the group to find their mojo with dahlias.
Why dahlias? “Do you know any other flower with so much variety in size and color palette?” asks Sigman.
For the event, she went to Russells Mills Flower Farm in South Dartmouth to fetch 300 dahlias in shades of apricot, pale peach, soft orange, and whisper pink. “I selected hues that would work together, rather than a mass of different colors.”
As part of her formula for success, she also offered a range of types and sizes. “It’s easier to arrange if you mix sizes beyond the ever-popular huge dinnerplate shape,” Sigman explains. And she brought roses, foxgloves, snapdragons, and hellebores to mingle with the dahlias. “We didn’t want the finished bouquets to feel like round balls. Ferns and other greenery also lighten compositions.”
The evening began with a tour of the gardens, still shimmering with autumn blooms, led by Laura Bibler, who restored the Stevens-Coolidge garden in 2010 to its historic roots. From there, the group returned to the greenhouse with all the ingredients, ready to master the art of dahlias.
Sigman had previously conditioned, hydrated, and refrigerated the newly cut flowers for a day. Hollow stems of the dinnerplate types were filled with water to help them last several days. Everyone worked with a pre-sealed watertight pedestal terra-cotta container fitted with a pin frog “to keep the stems from popping out of the vase.” With a little coaching urging them to move through the gamut of colors, attendees proceeded to create take-home works of art as evening fell.
By the time it was dark, everyone was fully dexterous with dahlias. Every arrangement was a masterpiece—but that’s exactly what Sandra Sigman had predicted as the outcome. “In the end, the flowers were the true stars.”