Sunshine for the Soul


SAG HARBOR – One loyal customer told Anastasia Casale, the owner of Sag Harbor Florist, that when she dies she wants her ashes spread around the florist’s shop.

“A temple for the senses is what I like to call it,” Casale says.

Casale is petite with tightly wound dark curls tinged with highlights. She is as sweet as one of her cut flowers, but instead of a Grade A she is a type A. Exactly the combination you need to run a successful business on the East End where one may come in contact with a few other controlling types.

“I want you to say that we have peonies overflowing in crate boxes,” she says as the rain falls on the popular round flowers in front of her Victorian retail space.

Indeed, the front porch is overflowing with a mix of flowers and flowering branches, many cut from the flower farm she shares with her boyfriend in Baiting Hollow.

Under the ornate cornices of the former whaling captain’s home built in 1835, ornamental cherry blossoms twist up the porch columns, and dogwood branches fresh from the farm fill a tall vase in the corner. Hothouse columbine and foxgloves line the front steps, just across the street from the port of Sag Harbor.

“In the springtime we bring in flowering branches such as cherry, quince, pussy willow, crab apple, peach blossoms and dogwood and spring flowers such as peonies, lilies of the valley, viburnums and lilacs to the shop,” Casale says.

The lilacs are not common lilacs, they are double French lilacs grown on the farm and cut fresh that morning. Double French lilacs are darker in color and produce an extra row of petals for a more dense and fragrant flower.

“We also grow Japanese lilacs and Hungarian lilacs,” she says.

Casale advises banging the bottom of woody lilac stems so they absorb enough water when you put them in a vase or an arrangement, otherwise they will wilt and die very quickly, unlike a rose, which you would just cut on an angle. Every flower needs to be handled and conditioned differently to preserve the delicate blossoms.

“I love to use seasonal flowers in our arrangements,” she says.

“We are a really specialized flower shop.”

On the floor inside the shop’s door, arrangements await local delivery. Peonies are mixed with the double French lilacs and a touch of viburnum, which makes for a simply elegant, not to mention fragrant arrangement.

The arrangements are in the tight-clustered French style. The designer is not opposed to recreating a Dutch master’s painting with a more loose, airy and graceful appeal.

Casale is not formally trained. She learned the floral art and trade by doing. Before she bought Sag Harbor Florist, she worked at the shop with the previous owner for 10 years.

Eight years ago, while working with another floral designer in Bridgehampton, the business became available to purchase and she jumped at the chance.

“It was always what I wanted to do,” she says.  “Flowers were always a huge part of my life, thanks to my mother who was an artist and a nature lover. She loved color, texture and what Mother Nature brought to us every season,” she says, “we were forever taking walks through the woods and along the beach year-round gathering little treasures.”

Casale grew up in Westchester and summered in Sag Harbor.  She moved out East full-time to attend Southampton College, where she studied social work. Four years ago, she moved the flower shop from its longtime Main Street location to the current space on Bay Street.

“The purpose of having the shop is to sell what nature is all about. Bring outside inside every season,” Casale says as she moves into the botanical gift section of the shop.

“Say there are oak floors and fireplaces decorated with birch logs that we sell from the farm,” she says.

Casale’s boyfriend, Keith Pierpont, a former floral designer and event planner in Manhattan, turned a 13-acre peach farm on the North Fork into a flower farm 10 years ago. Past experience of what sold best and his own taste dictated what was planted

“In terms of plant material, he planted varieties of hydrangea, varieties of lilac, peonies, lily of the valley and viburnum, because they are among the favorite of his cut flowers. And they are most in demand,” says Casale.

“We plant the young plants in the spring, so that the plant has a chance to establish its roots, as opposed to planting in the fall, when they sit dormant all winter. We give the plants a few years to establish themselves before we cut from them.”

Because the soil is very sandy and these are thirsty plants, in order to retain moisture the grower adds a combination of horse manure and mulch, which also acts as a fertilizer.

“The late-summer flowers that we cut are Hydrangea paniculatas, such as limelight hydrangea, tardiva hydrangea and unique hydrangea,” Ms. Casale says.

Hydrangea is the farm’s largest crop. If hydrangeas are not in season that does not mean hydrangeas are not offered.  “We import flowers year-round that Mother Nature cannot produce,” she says.

“We purchase new varieties of plants every year from wholesale companies across the country. We are always looking for uncommon varieties.”

The grower recently planted David Austin garden roses, dozens of varieties of daffodils, columbine and foxgloves to add to his ever-expanding list.

Don’t confuse the flowers that you buy in the grocery store with the flowers sold in her shop.

“Big box stores have put a squeeze on local specialized flower shops by mass-producing and selling lower quality,” she says, “We only buy top grades.”

Dark-pink hydrangeas with white edges and shiny thick leaves are so perfect they look artificial on display in their terra cotta pot, grown in a local greenhouse.

The Baiting Hollow flower farm has no greenhouse, annuals or flower stand. The farm grows perennials that are cut and sold to the flower market in New York as well as to other flower shops.

Twice a week, Casale goes to the flower market in Manhattan at four in the morning to buy and sell flowers.

“We search for and use only the freshest ingredients like a recipe. The outcome is a delicious scrumptious arrangement,” she says, “and creative, don’t forget ‘creative.’ “

Casale plucks a twig of rosemary from another pot and pretends to place it in an imaginary arrangement, “We love to use fresh herbs.”

In the winter they bring in ilex berries, holly and mixes of evergreens from the property to add to the floral arrangements.

Casale grabs a frame from a shelf with a quote by horticulturist Luther Burbank, “Flowers are sunshine, food and medicine for the soul,” she says.

“Don’t you think that’s true?”