Home & Garden

Centerpieces of attention

Sharon Bale's work is cut out for her in the next few days, and it is clearly not a bed of roses. At least, not quite yet.

In charge of making the floral centerpieces for the Bluegrass Ball — a black tie pre-inauguration event at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C., on Monday — Bale has been gathering supplies for months and ordering thousands of fresh flowers from local wholesale florists.

She also has been amassing cuttings of locally grown greenery, measuring the capacity of delivery vans, and keeping an eye on weather reports and temperatures for the 10-hour drive from Lexington to Washington.

"In floral design," Bale says, "if you don't use it, you lose it. This experience provides me with an opportunity for an unbelievable mental experience, with presentation given on a national level."

Bale started the design process for the 140 tables by picturing the effect she wants to achieve for the ballroom. Her vision includes a variety of heights, from table-hugging bursts of colorful flowers that will seem to float above the black tablecloths, to curly willow branches dotted with tiny lights that will rise high above the seated diners.

With 10 seats at a table, people generally talk more to their neighbors than across the large top. To enable ball-goers to see everyone at their tables. Bale said, she is using tall, see-through acrylic containers.

"I envision the arrangements, then the number and kind of flowers each will take to complete," she said.

Bale compiles a list of what she needs, then she talks with wholesale florists, including Bonnie Dowler of Stems on Delaware Avenue, to discuss what's available. She also double-checks to be sure she orders enough flowers.

Bale's dedication to using Kentucky-grown and -supplied materials is another factor in the final design, which will feature 274 stems of Kentucky-grown oriental and Asiatic lilies from Sullivan Farms in Rough River.

"I would like to use more Kentucky-grown flowers," she says, "but most of our wholesale growers produce for the summer market."

In addition to lilies, orchids, carnations and sprays of roses in vibrant colors are on her list. Bale takes into consideration not only color, quantity and cost, but the condition and quality of the flowers that will be coming in from all over the world, so they'll survive shipping and open their petals at the perfect moment.

And even though Bale has planned and directed floral décor for the same event at the two previous presidential inaugurations, there is still an edge of excitement, a bit of uncertainty and a mountain of planning involved in bringing everything together.

Imagine Cinderella's fairy godmother waving her wand to create a perfectly lovely ball scene. In the real world, Bale achieves the same result, but the magic takes hard work and know-how.

Bale will arrive in Washington on Saturday night with flowers, forms and equipment in tow, unload everything into a secure and heated workroom at the Marriott, then get to work rehydrating and unpacking the flowers and setting up supplies.

Because volunteers from the Kentucky Society of Washington, the ball's presenter, will assemble many of the arrangements, Bale needed designs that are "simple, uncomplicated and that people won't need 20 years of design experience to carry off."

Volunteers will begin working at midday Sunday and will return Monday morning to complete the job. "We'll need to move fast, chat, laugh and keep our hands busy," Bale said.

Volunteers will be given a recipe for each arrangement and watch Bale create a model, after which they'll work under her watchful eyes.

A floriculturist and horticulture professor at the University of Kentucky, Bale has been recognized for her innovative designs. She was recruited to do the flowers for the Kentucky Society's ball in 2001. From Martha Layne Collins to Steve Beshear, Bale has worked with Kentucky governors' administrations, creating floral arrangements for inaugural celebrations and other events.

It was Bonnie Tanner, assistant director for home economics extension at UK, who recognized Bale's skills and encouraged her to take on the Bluegrass Ball's floral project. Tanner said she appreciated Bale's ideas for incorporating Kentucky products and items — be they containers made from recycled tobacco sticks in 2005 to this year's brilliant colors, which Tanner says reflect Kentucky's diversity — in her designs.

Reba Morse, a member of the Kentucky Society of Washington who is in charge of decorations for this year's ball, is looking forward to working with Bale.

"The amazing thing is that she actually brings the flowers here from Kentucky herself, builds the prototype and shows the volunteers what to do," Morse said.

Chairwoman Anne-Marie Kelley says it's no wonder The Washington Post has chosen the Bluegrass Ball as an Editor's Pick of the inaugural balls.

"In contrast to many of the other events in Washington this week, the Kentucky Society of Washington's Bluegrass Ball presents an elegant sit-down dinner, this year prepared by chef Michael Paley from Louisville's Proof on Main," she said. "Mixed with the warm hospitality we Kentuckians offer, what could be better?"