Flower power
Some of the flowers destined for flower barrels and boxes in downtown Brattleboro grow inside a green house at Rashed’s Garden Center in West Brattleboro.

Flower power

A massive groundswell of volunteer energy and community funding keeps Brattleboro in bloom, thanks to Dick DeGray, with help from friends, a loyal florist, assistants, and an appreciative public. (Oh, and also some people walking by.)

BRATTLEBORO — Richard (Dick) DeGray arrived here over 40 years ago as a contractor for the former Vermont Yankee Power Plant in Vernon.

“I'm retired,” says DeGray with a laugh, “except I'm not retired at all.”

There is good reason for his contradictory statement.

DeGray volunteers his time, to the tune of 40 hours a week, as the person in charge of the flowers planted all over town in hanging baskets, boxes, hayracks, and the large planters he describes as “coffins.”

DeGray - who still finds time to work downtown at Galanes Vermont Shop, which he owns with his wife, Missy Galanes - remembers how the decoration of Brattleboro began in 2012.

“I've always enjoyed flowers and gardening. Missy and I kept looking at the downtown area, wondering why we didn't have flowers downtown,” he recalls.

So DeGray and Galanes requested a meeting with Andrea Livermore, then the executive director of the nonprofit designated downtown organization known at the time as Building a Better Brattleboro (BaBB).

“This was in October, and we thought it would be nice to put some colorful mums out on the street,” he says.

DeGray made a list of what was needed. Then Livermore took one side of Main Street, DeGray took the other, and they went to each business, asking who wanted to purchase a whiskey barrel full of chrysanthemums.

That first year, the impact of the 27 arrangements of yellow mums on the downtown sidewalks inspired the merchants to do more.

'It makes a great impression'

Ten years later, the flower project has firmly taken root and now has a name, Bloom.

There are 95 whiskey barrels in the downtown area, with 29 hanging baskets; seven giant hangers grace the clock on Main Street, at Pliny Park, on the Kyle Gilbert Memorial Bridge, and down Elliot Street. In addition, 17 planters, called “hayracks,” grace the foot of Main Street over the bridges.

This year, custom-built flower boxes were added on the stone wall at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center.

“We call them coffins because they're heavy enough that it takes four people to lift them,” says DeGray with a laugh. “They're heavy, but they look spectacular up there.”

DeGray says, “When you get into the junction at the foot of Main Street, you have boxes, hanging plants, and eight whiskey barrels. There are flowers on the two welcome signs from Hinsdale and another on Route 30 by the Retreat Farm. It makes a great impression coming into our town with so many flowers to welcome our visitors.”

Additional flowers have supplemented as the years have progressed. Now, floral displays at the Wells Fountain, in Harmony parking lot, Elliot Street and, most recently, out in West Brattleboro, stun with their additional beauty.

For their floral contributions, DeGray and Galanes were jointly named Person of the Year by the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce in 2019.

Flowers as commitment to community

The Bloom project continues to be funded by the same organization, now known as the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance (DBA), the designated downtown organization as defined by the state Agency of Commerce and Community Development's Vermont Downtown Program. This status provides access to grants, technical assistance, and networking opportunities.

The DBA is led by a volunteer board of directors that includes local business owners, property owners, educators, and town representatives. Funding is provided by grants, donations, and a special assessment tax on downtown properties in the Downtown Improvement District.

“Our mission is to nurture the vitality of downtown,” says Stephanie Bonin, DBA's executive director since 2017.

What started as a “pass-the-hat” project is now an annual $23,000 expense that represents “a huge portion” of DBA's $80,000 annual budget.

“Some people might look at that line item and think it's too much,” she acknowledges.

But she points out that skeptics “need to understand that a large portion of that money goes to owning and maintaining a truck.”

And, she says, “more important than that, flowers are more than a decoration. It is a commitment to our community. It's how we greet others as people come into town. It creates a visual welcome and keeps the downtown area vibrant and welcoming.”

The DBA covers a specific geographical area. The property owners are the people who are paying for the flowers in an area which runs up to the Common, south to the foot of Main Street, and up High Street, just past the parking lot.

Flowers are changed three times a year, according to the season. The first week of May, the pansies go in, replaced around the beginning of June with the summer flowers. Around Sept. 20, the fall chrysanthemums get put into the containers.

Ahmad Rashed, owner of Rashed's Garden Center on Marlboro Road, has been involved with the project since DeGray and Galanes approached him that first year.

“My background is in chemical engineering, but I discovered how much I love to grow plants and started my business here,” says Rashed, who arrived in the area from his native Jordan almost 31 years ago.

The project has grown big enough that one 96-foot greenhouse is now dedicated to Bloom and the 105 arrangements that will blossom from the plants that he begins in his greenhouses in February.

Rashed grows everything in his greenhouses from small cuttings, starting in mid-February. He says he is always studying the plant trials, being careful to select varieties that can do well in heat and drought conditions and withstand the exhaust from the cars downtown.

He also chooses plants with strong colors - often in pink, purple and yellow hues - so that the planter displays are striking and can be easily seen from the distance of passing cars.

Rashed uses so many plants for the summer flowers that he can't estimate the number.

“Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds,” he says with a chuckle.

He's already getting ready for the next round of flowers needed for September.

“We've just started growing the chrysanthemums for fall,” he says. “They will be a bright yellow again.” The planting takes place through most of June.

“We need small plants for the hayracks and medium mums for the flower boxes. We grow large ones for the big pots and hanging baskets, and we choose varieties that will be in full bloom in late September. We also net them so that when we receive heavy rains, the plants remain standing,” says Rashed.

By the end of the season, he will have grown more than 2,500 mums for his business. At least 600 of them will be for the Bloom project.

“Rashed gets a lot of credit,” DeGray says. “He picks the flowers and the varieties and puts together the look; then it's my job not to ruin the creations he makes,” he says, laughing.

Then his tone grows more serious.

“There are so many people who help with this project and who offer their time when I need them,” he says. “Rashed's has a big part, and I also receive the help that I need through the Recreation & Parks Department; the Fire Department helps me hang the tall hanging pots.”

The Public Works Department often lends a hand, DeGray says, gratefully acknowledging Foreman Paul Ethier, “who will change the timing on the [traffic] lights if I need those adjusted.”

“You know that old saying, 'It takes a village' - well, that's very true. It does take a village to pull off a project of this size,” he says.

From downtown to West B

For the past few years, DeGray and Galanes also have spearheaded a program to decorate West Brattleboro with flowers.

“The first couple of years, Missy and I paid for the West Brattleboro flowers because we wanted to expand the program, but the DBA only covers the downtown area,” DeGray says.

“The third year we did it, we had three hayracks on either side of the Citizens Bridge,” he continues. “Someone pulled the flowers out and threw them in the river. I stood on the bridge one Saturday with a sign, asking for donations and people driving by donated $300, and then Rashad's donated some flowers to replace what was lost.”

DeGray also raised funds for a light that now shines down on the sign that marks Creamery Bridge in West Brattleboro.

“I have an anonymous supporter who donated $900 for the light,” said DeGray, “I am so grateful for the many supporters of Bloom. People have been so supportive. We couldn't do it without them.”

“After the light was up and running, I wanted to have two window boxes over the front of the bridge,” DeGray says. Lester Dunklee from Dunklee's Machine Shop on Flat Street designed and built some brackets to hold the boxes.

“I just installed them the other day,” he says. “They look terrific, especially at night.”

The community has kept the flowers blooming there, with a number of donations ranging from personal support to corporate philanthropy.

“If folks want to specifically donate to the West Brattleboro portion of the program, they can stop by Galanes Vermont Shop on Main Street,” says DeGray.

Slaking the plants' thirst

How do all these plants get watered? The first few years, DeGray used a two-wheeled cart that held 10 watering cans.

“I'd fill them at Pliny Park and walk along Main Street to water everything. Seven or eight years ago, I realized I'd need a truck to be able to grow the program bigger. Watering by hand was too time-consuming,” he recalls.

After a conversation with Brattleboro Savings & Loan President and CEO Dan Yates, the bank donated some money so DeGray could purchase the first truck for the program.

“By the end of 2020, that first truck was having major issues, so Stephanie Bonin and I did some serious fundraising and within five weeks, we had $29,000 and we got another pickup truck,” DeGray says. “We put stickers on it so that some of the donors would see their names there, and that's when we named the program because the truck was named Bloom.”

The Bloom truck has a tank that holds 300 gallons of water. Thanks to the efforts of excavating contractor Ethan Stark of West Brattleboro, who “hooked up a pump that sits on the tank that is connected to the battery,” DeGray can water the flowers out the driver-side window.

“I start watering at 3 a.m. seven days a week because I must drive on the wrong side of the street,” he says. “I start out at the Kyle Gilbert bridge, go up one side of Main Street, and do the same all the way back down the other side.”

There are some safety issues, both with traffic and with the physicality of the job. DeGray has noticed from the beginning that if he's still out by 6:30 a.m., traffic can be a safety hazard. He has to drive the wrong way down Main Street for all of the watering.

“It takes 25 hours a week to water, but this is a 40-hour a week job,” he says. “When it's hot in the summer, there are several places that need water both in the morning and again in the afternoon. And then there is all the flower maintenance, the dead-heading to keep the flowers blooming.”

“That's my least favorite part of the job,” admits DeGray, who is 70 years of age with a back that is getting tender.

To water the hanging baskets, he uses an 8-foot stepladder in the back of the truck.

“Climbing up and down that ladder at my age is something I don't really enjoy,” he says. “And the pots can be very heavy to lift when I'm putting them in place. I've been fortunate to find some helpers along the way.”

“When I see people consistently out on the street, I get to know them, and I'll often ask them if they'd like to make a couple of bucks and give me a hand. They are often men in their 20s or 30s, and their youthful energy helps me a lot.”

One Saturday, he did just that with a young person, Vala.

DeGray says he had seen Vala standing around downtown with signs asking for money, and offered him some work. Vala agreed to help DeGray but said he'd return in an hour.

“Turns out he was going to an [Alcoholics Anonymous] meeting,” DeGray says. “We started talking, and he told me that he had been before a judge who told him it was time to go through detox.”

Several years later, DeGray describes the helper as “strong, helpful, and trustworthy” and says he is not far from receiving his five-year sobriety pin.

“He's worked so hard for that pin,” DeGray says. “I'm so proud of him.”

Another person from the streets, Lou, has also began pitching in some hours for the Bloom project, doing consistently good work. He's been with DeGray for four years.

Lou now holds down a part-time job, with the potential of full-time employment in the fall. “I like the fact that he is a constant chatterbox, he always has something interesting to say. I really enjoy his personality and he's a hard worker.”

[Editor's note: Out of respect for Vala and Lou and their respective journeys, The Commons secured their consent to publish DeGray's comments about them.]

Vandalism and theft

Knowing the people who frequent the streets in Brattleboro has been a benefit for DeGray in terms of help, and also in the relationships he builds with them.

In the past, and as recently as two weeks ago, some of the flower boxes have been destroyed. Individuals on the Kyle Gilbert Memorial Bridge took all the freshly planted flowers out of the box and threw them in the rushing water below. DeGray has also had a problem with theft.

“The last three years I've had more problems with vandalism than ever before,” he says. “People pick out the plants that they want and simply steal them.”

“The sad part about what is going on now is that when I go out, I used to enjoy the ride. I'd listen to the radio, or just think in silence. It was just me and the town in those quiet hours,” DeGray says.

“Now when I go out, I'm not as relaxed. I'm thinking, 'What am I going to find today that is destroyed or tipped over?' It's pretty disheartening,” he says.

Last fall, vandals and thieves damaged or stole more than $1,000 worth of the mums downtown.

While DeGray does replace the hayracks that have been vandalized, timing is an issue. The current hayracks were planted and kept in the greenhouse since May 1, and the vandalism took place the beginning of June.

“Even though I replant, the plants I put in are now a month behind from all the others and it takes a long while for them to grow and look like the other boxes.”

It is the relationships that he has built with the people downtown that makes a lot of difference with the vandalism.

“I know most of the people on the street and I have a relationship with them,” says DeGray.

Usually, when something has happened to his plants, he can network his way through to find out who was responsible. From there, he usually can find that person with the help of others and then can often confront the vandal.

“There was a time when some of the plants were torn out and thrown in the river, and I asked around to help me find out who did it. When I received the name, I was able to locate that person and talk with them about why they did it. One time, I had that person help me with the replanting,” said DeGray.

Stephanie Bonin is grateful that DeGray can work with those who vandalize.

“Over the years, we have funded more help for Dick. These are people in our community who are out on the street,” she says. “He builds community and when damage does happen, Dick leans on those relationships to find out the who and the how.”

“Dick will go directly to the source and have conversations with them,” Bonin continues. “I think that is admirable way of handling the issue. It's his own restorative justice program.”

Bonin has strong thoughts about vandalism and continuing the program despite the occasional loss.

“If someone vandalizes your property and you keep cleaning it up, it's a message to the public that says, 'This is a place people care about,'” she says.

“You let your values and your commitment to your town be louder than the vandalism,” Bonin continues. “We don't want to give up. DBA supports the town in buying and installing more cameras. I think it isn't an either/or - we're going to keep doing all the above.”

DeGray agrees.

“The flowers have had such a huge impact on the town of Brattleboro,” he says, noting that he has recently posted photos of the flowers on the Brattleboro, Vermont Facebook group.

“The response has been nothing short of amazing,” he says. “People have said some wonderful things, and it means a lot to me. I see people on the street, and they thank me for my volunteerism.”

“The tourists love seeing all the beautiful plants. I see people standing next to the flowers and taking pictures,” DeGray continues. “People in outside towns are coming to town just to walk around and see the flowers.”

DeGray says he'd love to see more flowers, listing locations that include the I-91 bridge at Exit 2 and the Veteran's Memorial Bridge on Putney Road. “I'd also love to get a water feature into Pliny Park,” he says.

“I wish I had started this project in the 1980s,” DeGray adds.

Bonin has high praise for DeGray, whom she described as “an integral part of this program.”

“We are partners. We couldn't do it without him, and he couldn't do it without us,” she says.

Bonin points out Brattleboro's special culture of volunteerism.

“Sometimes I think about the commitment that Dick has given to this program,” she says. “There are many amazing people in Brattleboro who are just willing to give and give and give. I love it when people bring their specific talents to the table. The result is incredible when you allow people to do what they are good at doing.”

Rashed, who says he's honored to be a part of the project, agrees.

“I've lived in this town for 31 years, and it's a great place to live. I've raised three young men in Brattleboro. I want to see the town thrive, and I'm grateful for the support our garden center has had over the years.”

DeGray gets the final word.

“Last summer, while I was watering Pliny Park, a woman walked down the hill on High Street early in the morning. She told me that she had been going through a difficult time.

“She said, 'When I come down and I walk around the flowers, I feel so much better.'”

The woman walked back up the hill.

“I had tears in my eyes,” DeGray says. “I'd never seen her before, and I've never seen her again, but those few words keep me going.”

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