Cover 130

Where Cape Legends Flower

Cape Cod Life  /  April 2020 / ,

Writer: Susan Dewey

Where Cape Legends Flower

Cover 130

Cape Cod Life  /  April 2020 / ,

Writer: Susan Dewey

17 garden clubs to celebrate famous Cape Codders in a
special event at Heritage Museums & Gardens 

“Black Sam” Bellamy. Jackie Kennedy. Iyannough. Edward Gorey. Ralph and Martha Cahoon. Cape Cod has long been a place that attracts legendary personalities. Artists, writers, style setters, explorers, and visionaries have long thrived on this quirky, raised fist of America introduced to the world by Henry David Thoreau in his 1800s classic, Cape Cod.  

In celebration of those Cape Codders—and of many like Thoreau who helped define this coastal outpost’s unique natural and communal character—a special flower show will be held this summer, July 28-30, at Sandwich’s Heritage Museums & Gardens. Called “Cape Legends” and sponsored by the Southeastern District of the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts, the show will be held in Heritage’s Heald Center and adjacent Automobile Barn. The event is open to the public with museum admission.

17 area garden clubs will celebrate nearly 20 Cape Codders with more than 200 floral arrangements, educational displays, and dozens of horticultural specimens spanning the botanical gamut from Hydrangea arborescens to Zinnias

For 41 years, the Southeastern District has devoted endless time, energy, and enthusiasm to this annual event, which is created and managed by a committee of 25 garden club volunteers who spend an entire year working on the show.  

Dolores Ahern of Dennis, a long time member of the Garden Club of Hyannis, has been involved with the show since 1980. Ahern, who has chaired the Southeastern District show on multiple occasions and served on numerous show committees, says such dedication is worth the hours needed to make this large event successful year after year.

“There is nothing I don’t love about this show,” says Ahern, who ran a successful wedding/special event floral design business on the Cape for many years.  “In every show, the creative juices flow—the energy is just palpable. It is wonderful to be with folks who love this world of flower shows as much as I do.  Some of my closest friends, new and old are part of the blessings that have come into my life as a result of the flower show world.”

“The show started on the grass, in a tent without a floor at the Barnstable County Fairgrounds as part of the annual fair,” recalls Ahern, who also conducts workshops on floral design for clubs around New England. “The designs were often on unstable staging and subject to the vagaries of weather—it was often very hot, which could be tough on the plants and on the people!”  

Ahern notes that over the years the Southeastern District show, which has been held at Heritage since 2017, has evolved into one of the most sophisticated flower shows in the New England area. “Many of our design and horticulture exhibitors are among the most elite in the area,” she says. 

Supported by dozens of gardeners, floral designers, and educators from throughout the Federation, including experienced horticulture and design judges, attentive clerks, and friendly hostesses, Ahern and the flower show committee spend hours on countless details to organize and stage the event.

This is not simply a matter of gathering pedestals and backdrops, of putting up tables and arranging orderly spaces for flowers and plants. The staging crews spend months researching background fabrics and materials, looking for just the right color of paint for the pedestal, drawing, measuring and constructing eye-catching display and vignette areas.

“Staging is presentation and without good presentation, the exhibits suffer,” explains Ahern.  “At the first show I entered there was a class that was titled ‘Trapeze.’ There was a simulated trapeze line between two posts and we were to hang our designs on the line. The problem was that the ground wasn’t level and the designs all listed to the left. Good, effective staging enhances the design or horticulture specimens and does not overwhelm or detract from the exhibit.” 

For the 2020 district show, staging committee members have worked for months to come up with concepts, designs, and materials that will convey each Cape legend’s special appeal. This year’s designs need to convey the drama of a swashbuckling pirate, the genius of a telecommunications engineer, the colorful personality of an Indian chief, the elegance of a famous First Lady, and the weird, fantastical imagination of a horror story writer. With the show schedule (or program) in hand, floral designers will spend hours perusing horticultural texts, searching every corner of Pinterest, and putting together mock-ups with practice flowers from supermarkets and their own gardens.

Many of the Southeastern District’s entrants in the annual show have well established reputations as award-winning floral designers and have participated in national and international flower shows, such as the Philadelphia Flower Show, the Newport Flower Show, and even the gold standard of shows, England’s Chelsea Flower Show. Many are knowledgeable judges who have won coveted national awards and who conduct workshops throughout New England for garden clubs and non-profit organizations.

However, every year there are newcomers who start down this long garden path, guided by the appeal of an ancient, yet ever-evolving art form that celebrates the beauty and resilience of nature. Many Cape Cod garden clubs, such as the Osterville Garden Club, which has been in existence for decades, hold floral design and horticulture workshops to help their aspiring designers and growers learn the ins and outs of this sometimes confusing, but endlessly creative and educational world.

For those who are true hands-in-the-dirt gardeners—who know everything about a particular Hydrangea from each plant’s Latin name to its particular pruning requirements—the annual Southeastern District flower show offers a chance to share their own garden glories.

The Horticulture Division of the “Cape Legends” show will be held in the historic Automobile Barn at Heritage, a handsome stone structure housing a famous collection of vintage automobiles. Winding around the barn’s top balcony space, the horticultural specimens will include dozens of Hydrangeas from arborescens to quercifolia, herb gardens, displays of Cape-grown roses, coneflowers, lilies, and dahlias. There will be planters and dish gardens, hostas both tiny and huge, and delicate ferns.

“We happen to have a lot of great growers who can grow all kinds of interesting things,” says Falmouth’s Hila Lyman, a long time member of the Falmouth Garden Club, who has chaired the district flower show twice and has been involved in every aspect of the show’s management since 1996. “This show has really established a reputation over the years as being one of the top district shows in the state. We are noted for having really good design classes and also great horticulture, which is a real draw to people in and outside the district.”

Just as in the design and botanical arts divisions, a crew of horticulture division volunteers will be on hand to wash and stage hundreds of glass bottles needed for cut specimens, to explain to admiring visitors the arcane, but notable difference between an Oriental, or an Asiatic Lily, and to share growing hints to help Cape growers succeed in their own gardens at home.

Every morning before the show opens, a team of volunteers will carefully inspect each horticultural and design entry and those that are less than pristine will be replenished, or removed. Plants are watered, daylilies are deadheaded, and Hydrangeas misted. Designs are scrutinized for wilting blossoms, or shaky mechanics. When the show opens, visitors will admire the blue ribbon and major award winners and pick their own favorites—inevitably someone will say, “I just don’t get why the judges picked THAT design—I like the one with all the Hydrangeas and roses instead of that weird contemporary thing!”

Lyman notes that there are horticultural highlights every year in this show and unexpected plants and botanical specimens by Cape growers that delight show workers—and the public. “One year in the horticulture division we had what is known as a ‘challenge class,’ where we gave exhibitors packets of cherry tomato seeds ahead of time to grow and exhibit in the show,” says Lyman, whose garden in Falmouth is a wonderland of unusual perennials, vegetables, and flowering shrubs, carefully tended in raised beds. 

“This exhibitor arrived with a six-foot tall plant just covered in tomatoes—it was so big her husband had to help carry it into the show! The public loved it,” Lyman says with a smile.

More than 2,000 visitors gloried in last year’s Southeastern District show at Heritage, widely recognized as one of New England’s largest public garden spaces. In addition to several museums, Heritage features prized plantings such as Rhododendron and Hydrangea collections and more recent botanical attractions, such as the McGraw Family Garden of the Senses.

“The staff at Heritage is so gracious and generous with their time and efforts in helping us in innumerable ways to put this show together, maintain it and break it down when it’s over,” notes Ahern. “Also, the beauty of Heritage is a special treat to anyone who comes to see the flower show and discovers this treasure on Cape Cod!”

One of the missions of the Garden Club Federation is to increase the environmental awareness of each area’s community with Education Exhibits at selected flower shows. There will be four education exhibits in the “Cape Legends” show, including displays showcasing the Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts Audubon’s Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary, Spohr Gardens, and Heritage Museums & Gardens.

“All the exhibits—floral design, horticulture, and education—are valuable because we are sharing a way to present art and information through the medium of plant material,” says Ahern.

“It’s amazing how many people go through the horticulture exhibits with their notebooks, writing down the names of plants and asking the show hostesses questions about their own gardens,” notes Lyman. “Often the hostesses will hear stories about what visitors are growing in their own gardens.” 

“This flower show introduces visitors to plants they can grow in our area that they may not be aware of,” Lyman continues. “We have many adventurous horticulturists who try new varieties and exhibit them in the horticulture division, which can be great inspiration for growers in our area and beyond.”

Each year behind the scenes of the flower show on the final day, the committee will take notes, share opinions, and rest their weary feet. And less than a month later, they will meet again with some experienced hands and new volunteers to start planning for next year’s big event, which is certain to be the very best in show.

For more information, please visit the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts online at

Explore more Cape gardens here!

Susan Dewey

Susan Dewey, former associate publisher and editor at Cape Cod Life Publications, lives in Centerville where she grows vegetables and flowers for Cape farmers' markets, designs perennial gardens for her son’s company, Dewey Gardens, and enjoys living on beautiful Cape Cod year round.