Zinnia ball gown by Johnny's Selected Seeds

A luxe gown, fashioned from Johnny’s Selected Seeds’ cut flower trial grounds

            For the third year, the floral team at Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow, Maine, is fully embracing the spirit of American Flowers Week by sponsoring a floral fashion for our annual botanical couture collection. Hillary Alger, floral and herb product manager, and Joy Longfellow, manager of the floral trial program, have supported Slow Flowers designers in previous years, helping with the harvest and providing production. For 2020, the two floral experts were inspired to create their own floral gown.

hillary alger sketch

            Hillary relied on her fine arts training, and together with Joy, the duo tapped their extensive knowledge of the Zinnia genus. “We took your urging seriously, Debra — to feature one type of flower,” Hillary said. “Zinnias are Johnny’s second-most important flower crop after sunflowers and we always have a big trial plot. Not only do we love them, but we have them in abundance — enough to make something extravagant like floral fashion.”

American Flowers Week 2021 with Johnny's Selected Seeds

            The women spent much of last summer brainstorming. “We kept asking each other, ‘Can we do this?’ ‘Can we make it happen?’,” Hillary says. “At one point, we decided we were ‘in,’ and then Joy and I walked the fields to figure out what appealed to us. We loved the eucalyptus and Mahogany Splendor hibiscus leaves combined with zinnias for a bold, grand palette.”

Zinnias are Johnny’s second-most important flower crop after sunflowers and we always have a big trial plot. Not only do we love them, but we have them in abundance — enough to make something extravagant like floral fashion.”

hillary alger, johnny’s selected seeds

            Their project began with a foundation: a bridesmaid’s dress in Joy’s closet, one that fit her well, but was unlikely to be worn again. Hillary sketched a body-flattering concept incorporating the shape of Joy’s dress and added a decadent floral bustle to trail behind. She constructed the dress in two parts, first using a fusible webbing to attach the wine-colored hibiscus and sage-green eucalyptus foliage to cloth panels for the bodice. “We needed to keep the leaves wet so they wouldn’t curl off the fabric, so we spritzed the panels and layered them between wet paper towels until it was time to attach to the dress,” Hillary explains. Volumes of fine-mesh window screening and layers of tulle netting were gathered to form the bustle — the canvas for thousands of zinnias.

zinnia varieties

            After picking buckets and buckets of flowers, the Johnny’s team, including volunteer co-workers, convened at Hillary’s home to clip and glue flowers in an array of red, scarlet, rose, purple, wine and coral petals. There are 39 zinnia varieties and seed mixes in the Johnny’s catalog, with many of them represented in this luscious garment. The finished train, covered in a floral pavé, suggests draped tapestry.
            The team hit a snag when attaching the piece around Joy’s waist, though. “The bustle was so heavy and the skirt structure wasn’t strong enough to stay secure on Joy’s hips,” Hillary recalls. “My husband, Jon Hill, came home after work to find a shop full of flowers as we tried to solve the problem. Luckily, he is both a mechanical engineer and excellent sewer. He fashioned an industrial-strength belt-corset that fit around Joy’s waist — and it was perfect.”

joy in zinnia fields

            Joy is more likely found wearing her favorite plaid shirt and jeans as she records and evaluates quantitative data in the flower fields. Dressing up in a zinnia gown and wearing makeup isn’t her typical “look.” “Thankfully, I have a friend who is a professional opera singer, and she was excited to give me pointers and a bunch of her makeup supplies,” Joy adds.
            Johnny’s staff photographer Kristen Earley documented the beautiful dress in the zinnia fields during a pre-dusk golden hour session late last summer. She captured a perfect moment to savor, when the colorful multi-petaled flowers are at their peak.
            For Hillary, this was much more than a project to showcase zinnias and other cut flower varieties in Johnny’s catalog. “Making a flower dress was extra special; for a lot of us at Johnny’s it was the first time we actually had done anything together since March of 2020. It was this really magical, joyful moment that only comes from doing something communal.  A few people stayed on through the photo shoot, just to help and watch. They couldn’t pull themselves away. We were all on Cloud Nine.”

Creative Team:

Floral Palette: Maine-grown annual flowers and foliages from Johnny’s Selected Seeds,  johnnyseeds.com, @johnnys_seeds
Designer: Hillary Alger, Johnny’s Seeds
Model: Joy Longfellow, Johnny’s Seeds
Hair/Makeup: Joy Longfellow
Photography: Kristen Earley, Johnny’s Seeds
Location: Johnny’s Trial Gardens, Winslow, Maine