Heady Scent

By Enise Olding


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On weekend visits, Peggy Dallamore’s grandmother would share pictures with her young granddaughter, of the wonderful flowers she’d seen on her trips to Hawaii. The pair would discuss the photos, look at tropicals and often put together floral arrangements. It was during this time that Peggy’s lifelong love of flowers and plants started to flourish, destined to lead her to British Columbia’s Government House where, in her retirement, she is a floral designer.

Born in Winnipeg, Peggy moved to Vancouver when she was 10. “I always wanted to become a teacher,” she recalls, “it was only a matter of time.” Married right out of high school and occupied with raising three children, her plans to teach were delayed. In the meantime, life took her for a while to Kamloops, where she found herself fascinated with the cactus, sagebrush and desert flowers of the area. “I just loved it,” she says, “and fooled around putting them in containers and around the children's sandbox, adding anything that looked interesting."

Later, Peggy’s life took a turn and she started her studies to become a teacher at the University of Victoria. It was here that she met Brian, who also happened to be a mature student. “Brian and I were taking the same course and we were working on the same project and looking for books at the library,” Peggy recalls. “I was babysitting three children for a relative that weekend and my own three and he came out to the beach with us the next day - two years later we were married, and had finished university.” Their first teaching jobs were in Upper Fraser near Prince George. “We were all in elementary school together!” Peggy laughs. Both she and Brian were teaching at the same school where their children were students.

Peggy now had another area of B.C. to explore and was particularly attracted to the wildflowers, fascinated with the fireweed, and would scan the roadsides and around the lakes for different species. At home, they had a burgeoning vegetable garden but not many flowers. Undaunted, Peggy pursued her passion by reading just about every book she could to learn more and more about native plant and flowers, floral arrangements, and all things botanical. Time passed and the children graduated from high school and set off on their adventures. Peggy and Brian moved to Victoria to spend time with their own parents.

The students in Peggy’s classrooms were always exposed to the wonders of plants. “In the classroom, anything I could do to get the kids interested in gardening, I did,” she says. For years, there was a mango tree for years in two of her classrooms, and Garry oak seedlings. She was involved in a school initiative that encouraged students to grow vegetables and flowering plants that would attract bees and butterflies. She even had a “garden in the hallway” before the carrot, lettuce and tomato starter plants were transferred to the school garden. Children and families took care of the garden during the summer and then ate the produce. Amazingly, there was no vandalism. “That is where I really became obsessed with gardening,” she says, “at home, at school and on the weekends.”

With retirement, Peggy anticipated that she would spend lots of time perfecting her garden. At one of the pre-retirement seminars she attended, Peggy realized that “when you retire you don’t have that group of people to sit down and talk with over coffee like when you’re working at school,” and she knew she wanted to have a similar, close-knit group around her in her retirement.

As a visitor to the Government House gardens many times – she attended their plant sales and knew people who volunteered there - it occurred to Peggy that working in such an environment would be perfect for her and, she says, “I was pretty sure I’d end up doing some kind of volunteer gardening there.” Peggy's neighbour friend gave her a membership form and she duly applied to become a member of the Friends of Government House Gardens Society and was asked to an orientation session, then started working in the grounds as a gardener familiarizing herself with the many different gardens. “I did a rotation in the gardens to become aware of everything. Little did they know,” she smiles, “that I was eyeing up all the flowers in the gardens and my favourite place was the floral designers’ garden, which is one quadrant of four nursery gardens for the whole property.”

Two wonderful years of working hard in her desired garden quadrant followed and during that time Peggy became familiar with the grounds, the gardens, the other gardeners and continued to learn all she could about plants, flowers and the requirements of Government House and its involvement in the gardens. She had not realized just how much work was required and her eyes were opened to what an important role the gardens, grounds and flowers played in the life of Government House, and how full and varied its calendar was.

As a novice flower arranger, Peggy became a Victoria Flower Arrangers Guild member and took floral design courses through that organization. She continued to build on her knowledge base, taking more courses and reading more books, while still working in the gardens at Government House. Eventually, Peggy's neighbour friend, the Head Flower Designer for Government House, encouraged Peggy to become a board member of the Friends of Government House Gardens Society and she continues in that role and is on various committees.

Now into her second year as a board member, Peggy says, “It seems hard to think I was ever a teacher.” The skills she used in the classroom are useful when she combines them with her gardening knowledge and creativity. For Peggy, it is not just artfully placing flowers in a vase, it is knowing the protocol required for events at which the flowers will form a backdrop, interacting with all the staff of Government House in preparation for special events and knowing the operational intricacies required. It is knowing which flowers will fare well in certain environments, their longevity, and their appropriateness for certain occasions or guests to Government House. Liaision with the Friends' volunteers and Government House personnel is as important as scheduling enough people to meet the needs at any given time. It could be 20 round glass vases for tables needing a team of 6 or more flower designers to assemble them, or three large elegant arrangements requiring three designers. Whatever it is, “we don’t want to waste anything,” says Peggy, explaining that volunteers when pruning and tidying the gardens always ask if there is a need for this or that, and will leave the discarded foliage at the garden designers’ door knowing it will be creatively transformed into spectacular floral arrangements.

Discretion and sensitivity are crucial in Peggy’s work.Finding out what is or isn’t appropriate in advance of the arrival of a special guest is all part of the job.

Some flowers and combinations are welcome in some cultures and not others, and Peggy needs to know what the visiting dignitaries would both appreciate and require. “While I’ve worked on creating the floral arrangements for the private rooms many times, I do not actually take them and place them in the rooms,” she says, as that is done by Government House staff.

Peggy has found in retirement she can indulge her passion, keep learning and, best of all, be surrounded by colleagues who work together and share a common interest in Government House. “I am pretty relaxed about it all,” she says, “confident that I can ask any question of my mentor, the Head Floral Designer, that I want to, and everyone is happy to share their knowledge. It’s a strong support group, and flexible. We’ll take a look at the flowers, talk about what we will do, and how best we can use them – it’s collaborative input, feedback and encouragement.”

As Peggy points out, they are all sharing the same passion. And the sense of contented enjoyment in the flower arrangers’ room in Government House is as heady as the scent from their flowers.

For more information about Government House, British Columbia, including visiting hours, history, garden information, tours and Friends of Government House Gardens Society, call 250-387-2080, email ghinfo@gov.bc.ca or visit www.ltgov.bc.ca

 

JUNE 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER ISLAND

 

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