Flowers in the Garden and Entertaining in Your Soul

A love for the Southern garden, passed down through generations, unites two friends and spawns a small business.

Debbie Ollis and Jenni Baria

Debbie Ollis and Jenni Baria cemented their friendship over an 18-year tenure as principal and vice principal, respectively, at St. Mary’s Catholic School in midtown Mobile, working side by side to help their students blossom. The pair still works together, but instead of at school, they are up to their elbows in flowers. They founded Gloria’s Midtown Flower Shop three years ago because, as Ollis laughs, “I don’t sleep.” The pair works after hours and on weekends (in addition to two full-time jobs) around Ollis’ kitchen table to create wedding centerpieces and bridal bouquets for clients, saying the work is almost therapeutic. But, more importantly, it’s in their blood.

The business is named after Ollis’ mother, Gloria Dolon, who passed away several years ago. The pair say she was a true Southern lady — adept at gardening, entertaining family, making the holidays special, and was always surrounding herself with pretty things like flowers. “She could make anything grow,” remembers Ollis. “She loved flowers and working in her yard and was so good at arranging.”

As a child, Ollis learned the fine art of using what you’ve got from her mother. “Mom and I would go across the street into the swamp and pick neat little things and put them in a vase on the table. It didn’t matter what it was.”

Baria agrees, saying that picking and arranging flowers runs in her blood, too. “That’s part of what we do here in the South. We put flowers on the table when we gather. Every holiday, even football games. That’s just part of our Southern culture.” A love of gardening was handed down through her family as well, although she admits her thumb isn’t quite as green as Ollis’. “I like to plant but I am not as handy at it. Debbie’s yard is a showplace.”

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 But the dynamic gardening duo shares duties equally in the business, leaning on each other as needed and pitching off each other’s schedules. “Since Debbie still works at a school, I usually make the run to the wholesale florist before it closes. I have that flexibility.” Then, everything is delivered to Ollis’ kitchen door where three refrigerators await. “One for family, two for flowers,” they both laugh. And the creative work can begin.

 While the pair certainly gives most of the credit to their Southern gardening forebears, they save some praise for Mobile’s event and floral master, Ron Barrett, too. “When we first started doing this, Ron was kind enough to come to our house for several hours and walk us through the ins and outs, what to do and not do,” remembers Baria with appreciation. All three creatives sat around that same kitchen table where the duo now make their bouquets and agreed on one essential principle: “It needs to look like God made it.” 


Ollis and Baria say to always look around your yard first (or the yard of your neighbor, cousin, mom etc., with permission of course!) to see what’s available and start with that. Then fill in with purchased florals and greenery where needed. Look for these go-to plants in the yard:

This quintessential Southern vine will be blooming purple bunches come April and will smell like spring in south Alabama! 

With small stems, these do well in tiny bud vases. The sweet scent is unequaled, but don’t touch them or the petals will brown!

Boston ferns will last pretty well, but other ferns don’t. Experiment before you use it.

Gorgeous and Southern, these massive blooms only last for a day. Pick right before you need them.

Cast Iron Plant 
The large, versatile leaves can be folded over and tucked in or left high and tall. 

“Oasis is your best friend. That’s our motto because it holds the arrangement.” – Jenni Baria

Ginger Lilies 
They will fill the house with a wonderful smell. Just put three in a tall vase and you’re done!

Mock Orange 
It stays green all year long, holds its shape and looks great in a boutonniere.

The fresh scent of this woody herb is perfect for boutonnieres and holds up well when cut.

In the fall, some nandina in an arrangement is the perfect addition with its autumn colors. 

Every southern wedding designer uses smilax. The trick is to put fake down first and then add the real to make it full. 

Clippings from these traditional hedges make a pretty wreath. Trim your boxwoods or offer to trim your neighbors, but only as often as they can stand it.

Hosting a Brunch or Shower

“This smaller, round arrangement is like a fresh spring balloon!” – Debbie Ollis // Photos by Chad Riley

About the look: 

A lot of times at a brunch, you don’t have a lot of room on the table (think of squeezing an entire bridal party around your dining table!), so you need something small. And you want a low arrangement so you can still talk to the people sitting opposite you. 

What’s in the arrangement:

Hydrangeas from the yard, cabbages from last winter’s planters that are starting to burn up in the Spring sunshine, spray roses and tea roses from the grocery store, and Japanese yew from the hedge in the yard.

“I plant cabbages in my planters in the winter and by spring they are burning up so you need to cut them anyway,” says Ollis. “Use them in an arrangement! I love to mix cabbages and roses in tiny vases for dinner parties.”

Entertaining on the Porch or Patio

About the look: 

The straw basket makes this cheerful arrangement feel casual and homey. Line it with a plastic container for water and use oasis to hold the stems.

What’s in the arrangement:

Everything here except the greenery can come from the yard! They used tulips, daisies, sunflowers, gerber daisies, snapdragons and delphinium. Those don’t all bloom at the same time, but use what you have and buy from the store to fill in.

Throwing a Dinner or Cocktail Party 

“This was my mother’s cut glass bowl,” says Ollis about the serving piece that once might have held ambrosia and charlotte russe.“I love it when brides use heirloom pieces for florals at their weddings.” – Debbie Ollis

About the look: 

This dramatic arrangement makes a statement and is perfect for the center of a buffet or even for a wedding reception. You can make this same arrangement on a larger scale also. 

What’s in the arrangement:

For this arrangement, the ladies used greenery from the yard and florals from the wholesale florist to ensure big blooms, like playa blanca roses (sometimes you can find them at Costco!), irises, tiny lavender roses and waxflower mixed with pittosporum (the variegated leaves) and curly willow. They buy fresh curly willow from Fresh Market and dried from Hobby Lobby. The ladies love to put Spanish moss between the oasis and the glass. What could be more Gulf Coast?

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