Sunflower Power

RANCHO LA ZACA–I’m not at the ranch now; I’m in New York, but it’s been gray and drizzly day here and I thought some California sunshine might be nice. California sunflowers, better still.

Sunflowers at RLZ
Our first crop of sunflowers at Rancho La Zaca (click to enlarge)

We planted a patch of them in June and in August they were in full flower. Who knew a 20-pound bag of bird seed could bring so much joy?

Sunflowers in basket
Sunflowers are arranged in smaller glass containers then placed in this large, flat-bottomed basket, positioned on the table before hand. When I do it again I

I confess they are not the easiest flowers to work with. You need a million of them to make a full, lush arrangement. The good news is they are inexpensive, and near ’bout indestructible, so a lot is a little, if you know what I mean. Because the stems are so long and thick, taller vases and containers work well. For lower, more compact arrangements, I’ve learned from experience that oasis is the way to go. Oasis is a firm, spongy foam block that you soak with water, place in the flower container, and “plant” the flower stems in. The foam is soft enough to pierce easily, but strong enough to support the stems–even big, floppy sunflowers. Modern floral designers have moved away from using oasis in arrangements, but it’s a great thing to have when you need it. Available at any floral supply place.

For a dinner one evening I arranged a big basket with sunflowers and surrounded it with vegetables and with these pretty little wild gourds I picked while hiking with friends in the Figueroa Canyon–not far from Michael Jackson’s Neverland.

Big basket of sunflowers on table
Our outdoor dining table is 8 feet across and can seat up to 14. The bad news-good news is that it needs a huge centerpiece. The size and scale of sunflowers work well here.

On the other hand, a few small arrangements can be as effective as one large one, and you can sprinkle them around the house after the party.

Sunflowers and hurricanes
Several small bouquets of sunflowers are filled in with sprays of whatever’s growing around the ranch.
Sunflowers in vase
For an informal lunch, sunflowers in a crockery vase atop a vintage table runner
Sunflowers and purple napkins
As the compliment to yellow, purple is a great color for table linens, and it echoes the color of the San Rafael mountains that surround us.
Squash placecard and purple napkin
Those little gourds have come in handy more than once.

Earlier this month we hosted the wedding of our ranch manager, cowboy, IT expert, and all around great guy Wyatt Cromer and his beautiful bride Brianna Hill.

It was my honor to do the flowers for the casual rehearsal dinner the night before, and what happier flower to use than sunflowers? Our crop was over by then, but the farmer’s market in Solvang had plenty, thank goodness.

We set five 10-foot-long picnic tables end to end between rows of the vineyard.

Long table in vineyard
Five 10-foot picnic tables are placed end-to-end between the vines. You couldn’t ask for a prettier setting, or a more romantic one.

As the evening had a Mexican theme, I used Mexican pottery, bowls and platters we already had on hand. The idea was to line the center of the table from end to end, and to intersperse them with hurricane lanterns and votives. And by the way, no, I’m not crazy about the color of the tablecloths. Too minty. Lesson #1: Don’t trust the sample. Lesson #2: Don’t let things like this ruin your day. This is a nighttime event and no one will notice.

Sunflowers at rehearsal dinner
When too much of a good thing is just right…
Sunflower center arrangement
We put the largest arrangement at the center of the 50-foot-long table. Scattered among the flowers and candles were the large, seed-filled centers of the faded flowers from our own crop. They dry beautifully, so I may use them again at Thanksgiving.

To add a touch of drama, I got the idea at the last minute (typical) to rig up some sort of curtain that we could pull back to reveal the table as we announced dinner was served. Here’s where Felipe Hernandez, vineyard manager, winemaker, and so much more, rode to the rescue. Felipe and company managed to rig a re-bar curtain rod between the grapevines. We had to slide rocks into the curtain hems to keep them from billowing out like a sailboat spinnaker. The curtains came from Pottery Barn, and moral support and manual labor was generously supplied by friends Kate Firestone, Whitney Kelly, and the RLZ team of Susie, Juan, Maestro, and Samuel.

Kate and sunflowers
The valiant Kate Firestone, who helped tremendously. In the background is the gerry-rigged curtain, temporarily  tucked behind the post to keep from blowing every whichaway.
Yellow placecards
In keeping with the casual tone of the evening, but in the interests of guests mingling, we had escort cards rather than a seating plan. On the inside of each gentleman

It all worked.

Sunflowers and candlelight
Sunflowers and candlelight, so simple yet so effective. Keep in mind that dinner tables at outdoor parties need lots of candlelight. Don
An all-female Mariachi band entertained, and they were fantastic.
Party in progress-at table

We had a grand time, and Wyatt and Brie were beaming from start to finish.

Brie and Wyatt
Brie and Wyatt Cromer, newlyweds. (And it’s not you; it’s me who took the out-of-focus photo.)

The wedding on Saturday afternoon in the olive grove was beautiful and dear. Love really is grand.

And I’m already looking forward to next year’s sunflowers. This time I’ll use various species and stagger their planting times so we have blooms from August to October. I’m feeling sunnier already.

Frances and sunflowers in vineyard
Me, and the flowers for Wyatt and Brie. Loved every petal.