The race is on: The days leading up to "the most exciting two minutes in sports" are the most hectic time of the year for Lexington florist Patrick Howard of P.G. Howard Design.
When the announcer at Churchill Downs declares, "They're off," Howard can relax for the approximately 124.3 seconds it takes the 3-year-olds to round the track; then he's up and running again.
There are after-race parties and Sunday morning brunches that demand the florist's touch. And if one of his customers should be so lucky as to own the winning horse, Howard must be poised to scoop up the blanket of roses for safekeeping.
Guess who's coming for Derby: The horse racing world values its privacy, and Howard values his clients. So it's not easy to pry much out of him about who might be guest of honor at whose breakfast table this Saturday, admiring the artful centerpiece while scarfing down biscuits and grits.
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But based on information we can now reveal — that Howard provided the flowers for former President George W. Bush's visit last month to Spendthrift Farm — it's likely he's privy to guest lists that would be the envy of many a host. Every farm, he says, "has its own group of 'who's whos.'"
From Industry Road to Quality Road: Howard delivers to some of the most exclusive addresses in Central Kentucky, but his creations come out of a nondescript warehouse space and former gun shop on Industry Road. Go in search of P.G. Howard Design and you might be tempted to give up before the finish line. It's easy to overlook the small painted roses on the door and mailbox that are the only hints there's a florist blooming in this landscape of HVAC and plumbing supplies. Obviously, Howard doesn't rely on walk-ins.
Flower child: "I grew up in the flower business," says Howard, who was preparing arrangements for a sorority event on a recent visit. "My family owned Howard & Heafey, which used to be on Winchester Road near where the Sonic is now. My father ran the greenhouses and my uncle ran the cut flower end." Seated at a desk nearby is his father, Julian Howard, who's monitoring the proceedings to make sure they merit his seal of approval.
The petal doesn't fall far from the stem: "There were at one time 20,000 square feet of greenhouses," said Patrick Howard. "They used to let me drive the truck to pick up trash. As I got older I got to take deliveries." That was fun; who doesn't like to get a delivery of flowers? The receptionists would feign delight: "Oh, that's for me!" even when they knew better. Howard says he learned floral design by "watching really talented people" and just "doing it." In business on his own since 1995, he can't do it alone: extra help is corralled for busy times like these, and Howard relies heavily on Lexington artist Bob Morgan, whom he calls "my right-hand man."
Raindrops on roses and other favorite things: When flowers were grown locally for sale, says Howard, there used to be distinct seasons for blooms: hyacinths in early spring; gladioli in mid-summer, mums in fall. Now that flowers come from everywhere, and usually through brokers, "You can get anything year-round if you're willing to pay." Still, Howard loves tulips in spring, and mini calla lilies at any time. Other favorites? "Gerbera daisies always look so happy." And here's the litmus test: What about the oft-maligned carnation? "Every flower has its place. And everything goes in cycles. Mamie Eisenhower was a great carnation lover," he answers diplomatically. The carnation lobby's huge. Howard describes his own style as a natural "English country garden look." Think graceful flowers in simple glass vases. "Simple things can be the most beautiful," he says.
Talking shop: When Howard feels the creative juices draining from his julep cup, he knows the cure: "I love to shop." He finds inspiration by looking at color trends in clothing, displays in stores and catalogs. He combs Architectural Digest, Veranda and Southern Living for ways to make flowers look fresh and spectacular. He and his wife, Whitney, go on busman's holidays, to see how other cities incorporate flowers in office buildings and streetscapes. Even the buckets of summer blooms at the local farmers' markets give him ideas. Last August, he and Whitney opened a store on Romany Road that is more of a traditional retail space.
Like Chocolate Candy: Flowers are decidedly a luxury, and Howard has "definitely seen the effects" of the anxiety-ridden economy. Some customers have had to cut back. Some events have been put on hold this year. But at Derby time, the horse industry is still out to shine and still wants things to be "over the top," he says.
Star track: It's a fact that "flower people do get close to celebrities," says Howard. Knowing that stars like Jack Nicholson would be seeing his work used to get him excited, he says. Not anymore. Sir Richard Branson? Ho-hum. Usher? All in a day's work. Now he's just thinking, "Let's go get it set up." The real pleasure of the work, he says, comes from being given the freedom to be creative and seeing the customers pleased as mint-tea punch.
Not for a Regal Ransom: When Queen Elizabeth II made her 2007 Derby visit, Howard was official purveyor of nosegays and vases brimming with country-garden charm to Lane's End Farm, where she hung her crown at night. Will there be any royalty, greater or lesser, at this year's race? If Howard knows, he's not telling. Chrysanthemum's the word.