Retired Russellville teacher shares love of flowers, creating arrangements from her own blooms

FRANKLIN LIVING MAY-JUNE 2024

For Russellville resident Brenda Oliver, growing, gathering and arranging flowers is more than a simple hobby; it’s a way to relax while doing something she loves.

“I usually keep a fresh bouquet on my kitchen table and one in my dining room,” Oliver said, noting she has also prepared arrangements for friends and family, including for the wedding of one of her children, Laura. “I enjoy decorating for Christmas and other holidays and special occasions,” she added. “My mother always had flowers, and I’ve always enjoyed them.”

Oliver is a member of Russellville’s Cultura Garden Club, which prepares and maintains the hanging baskets downtown as one of its service projects; the GFWC Book Lovers Study Club, in which she serves as president; Russellville First Baptist Church; and the local chapter of Delta Kappa Gamma, an organization for retired teachers, wherein she serves as the vice president. With all of this involvement, Oliver gets plenty of opportunities to make use of her skills in constructing colorful arrangements for both service projects and social projects.

“I’ve been over the Christmas decorations at First Baptist Church for probably 40-something years,” she explained, noting she has help now for things that involve a lot of climbing. “I have some really good women that are great decorators that help,” Oliver added.

Longtime love of flowers

Oliver said her love of gardening began in her youth. Her parents had a big garden and let her have a little back corner – “mostly sandy soil” – to herself. “I was tickled that we got to eat some of my vegetables before theirs were ready,” Oliver explained. “As a child, everybody said I had a green thumb.” She said she still has some of the seeds from plants her mother grew.

When her birthday rolled around each March, there was a wild honeysuckle bush she was especially fond of, and they would go out in the woods to hunt for a bouquet. “It grows wild in the woods,” she added. “It’s very pretty, and it smells good and just makes a good little bouquet.”

Relaxing through creating

“It’s a good way to be creative,” Oliver said of making flower arrangements, as she walked around her yard and that of her neighbor, Linda Holcomb, pointing out and gathering clippings of a variety of plants to use for arrangements. “It saves money,” she added, “and lets you add a personal touch. I find it very rewarding and enjoyable.”

Oliver said it’s “refreshing and inspiring” to bring the outdoors inside in this manner, noting it’s a good way to relax and enjoy working with her hands while creating beautiful arrangements.  “I have a flower container in the shape of a bassinet that people like to borrow for baby showers,” she said, adding she’s always on the lookout for flowers and ideas about how to present them. She said she doesn’t have any special favorite flowers, instead enjoying whatever is growing at the time.

“I love working with flowers,” Oliver said, “and it doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s surprising what you can put together with even just a few minutes. I really enjoy it, and I think it’s a great way to connect with nature and use your creativity. I’d recommend anyone try it. They just might find a new hobby.”

Oliver’s tips for flower arranging

  • Start with a piece of greenery, like aucuba japonica or magnolia.
  • If making arrangements for an event, some pieces may need to be added the last day if they don’t last as long as the other greenery and flowers being used. Magnolia can turn brown pretty fast, Oliver noted, so it’s good to wait and pick that on the day of the event. Aucuba japonica lasts longer.
  • Look around for something with shiny leaves or pretty colors. Knockout roses provide bright color but don’t last a long time.
  • Use what’s available. If it’s the right time of the year, consider a dogwood limb. In fall, options include pine and berries.
  • Consider using a “frog” – a special device that has holes in it and is placed in a vase to help hold the stems of arrangements at certain angles.
  • If there’s something special you want, buy it to add if desired, but focus on using what’s readily available without making new purchases. Hydrangeas are a colorful option Oliver recommends.
  • Be on the lookout for flowers to consider. Oliver recalled an instance when she found some growing at a dollar store that allowed her to cut off a couple.

Other interests

Oliver also enjoys cooking “just about everything. “Everybody loves my caramel cake,” she said, noting she learned to make the caramel icing from a program the Colbert County Extension held. “I made up a recipe for strawberry cake, and everybody loves that, too. I also learned how to make peanut brittle, and I had to keep it made for my dad to carry to work with him. They loved that peanut brittle. Later, I made about a hundred rolls for Christmas each year, to take to my mother’s house and to my in-laws.”

Bygone days

A member of the Russellville High School Class of 1965, Oliver graduated from the University of North Alabama, then called Florence State Teachers College.

When Oliver was little, her family lived in Russellville, and she attended a school called Pleasant Ridge, which is no longer standing, near Tharptown, where her mother worked in the cafeteria, cooking for the whole school. The school consisted of two rooms, one for first through fifth grades and the other for sixth through ninth grades.

Her family moved into a house in Muscle Shoals so her father could be closer to his work. He, along with her uncle and a couple of others, built the home. She mostly attended school in Sheffield through the 10th grade – the first place she had the opportunity to go to a library. “Oh, I thought that was the greatest thing I’d ever seen in my life,” Oliver recalled as she talked about her love of reading.

A retired first-grade teacher from Russellville City Schools, she taught school 41 years. One year, she started and ran a garden club for the whole first grade. “I taught the children all about the wildflowers we were growing and about how to paint with tempera paint to make pictures of the flowers,” Oliver said. “They learned so much about plants, and it was just really reinteresting to them. Each student made a little terrarium inside a two-liter bottle.”

Although the club didn’t continue after that year, Oliver said the enthusiasm the students had for the project is something she will never forget. “We had a little garden outside the room,” she added. “I sent pictures in to the state garden club. The kids loved all that. They loved it a lot. The other teachers did activities with their students, too. We had a good time with it.”

She is married to Troy Oliver, from Belgreen, and they are now celebrating 58 years of marriage. They met while riding the strip in downtown Russellville one weekend. “That’s how you met each other back then if you were from other places,” she explained. “I just happened to be on a date with a different boy, and we pulled in where Big Star is now (then A&P) to turn around, and there Troy was. I didn’t know him at all, and he found out who I was and started calling me and asking for a date. He was a senior in college, and I was a senior in high school.”

They married about a week before he deployed to Vietnam. While on time off, they got to spend a week in Hawaii. “At that time, the government paid for wives,” she explained. “You could go on standby. I had never ridden a plane before that. While there, we rented a red Corvette and rode all over the island in it. We had a good time.” They later made a second trip to Hawaii. Among her notable memories of that trip are a visit to the U.S.S. Arizona memorial. On another trip, they visited Puerto Rico.

In addition to their daughter, Laura Beth Oliver Agee, they also have a son, Jonathan Oliver, and an older daughter, Sharon Benfield.

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