by RONA MANN / Photos by Stephanie Sittnick

There are many articles that begin, “This place is different from any other,” and it’s generally a testament to some unique feature of that place, a good sales pitch.

Then there’s Ashleigh’s Garden which needs no “sales pitch” because it is a magical environment conceived, built on, and thoroughly dedicated to the wonder of living…and it all begins with “Winter.” Although she may be lounging near the door when you arrive, “Winter” will raise her rather enormous head when you enter, soon to be joined by “Sammy” and perhaps “Captain.” Just don’t let their size fool you. These are gentle, well-behaved Akitas who are fully trained and certified as therapy dogs. Their gentleness belies their size for they neither jump nor threaten; they merely look at you with big, soulful eyes and longing expressions, hoping you’ll stop a minute and pet them on your way into their wondrous environment.

If you must have a label, then Ashleigh’s Garden is a full service floral shop; but we can assure you it’s like none you’ve ever encountered nor will again because more than the stunning arrangements, the beauty of simple design, and their award winning wedding pieces, Ashleigh’s is a place of rescue, redemption, and hope. It is a place where life is found not just in the artfully designed blooms, but in every corner of the space, for Ashleigh’s is home not just to “Winter,” “Sammy,” and “Captain,” but to a few of their friends as well.

For starters, there’s “Harry,” “Widget,” “Garcia,” “Bridgette,” “Humphrey,” “Beakman,” “Olive,” “Morgan,” “Dede,” “Natasha” and “Ingrid,” “Josephine,” “Peaches,” “Gracie”…it is impossible to remember them all since “them” by last count includes: 3 Akitas, 36 parrots, two rather substantial Russian tortoises, a couple of Bearded Dragons (lizards), and whomever else Allison Sloane decides to rescue, save, and love. And that’s just within the walls of Ashleigh’s Garden. Sloane’s home menagerie includes emus, more cats, snakes… and well, you get the idea.

Sloane is as unique as her “environment.” A Connecticut native, she “came from a family of entrepreneurs, “so I always had a natural bent for business.” But Sloane also had a natural bent for the outdoors…for flowers and animals and the world around her. Two fine arts degrees later from Southern Connecticut State University, she immediately  opened Seaflowers in Essex right after college. That was followed by time spent hiking the Appalachian Trail to raise awareness of Lyme disease, of which Allison was an early victim. Then it was on to Raleigh, North Carolina working for the largest florist in the area before coming back home to settle in her native Connecticut. Ashleigh’s Garden was originally a garden store, opened nearly 24 years ago and named after Allison’s daughter. “I wanted to be close to her, so she came to the store with me every day.”

Ashleigh’s Garden grew as quickly as did the little girl, and soon Allison was incorporating a full service flower shop. But she did not want the typical. Instead, she was drawn to the sophisticated art of Dutch floral design which incorporates elegance, simplicity, balance, stability, dominance, proportion, and rhythm. It is an intricate discipline, one for which the florist must apprentice and one of the primary reasons Ashleigh’s Garden stands above the rest.

Allison’s “ark” began when she “rescued” a snake from a pet store in Virginia, “a place with horrible conditions that didn’t know how to care for animals. I decided a place was needed for animals no one cared about like reptiles and exotic birds, a place where people could become educated.” She started Ashleigh’s Rainforest in 2002 and soon had 137 animals of all types. “It was and still is all about unconditional love.”

Ashleigh’s Garden is cavernous in size, but Sloane has filled it with beautiful things, giving it a smaller and more personal feel: exquisite flowers (“we get 800 roses every week from sustainable sources, all pesticide free”), garden accessories, several lines of jewelry, gifts, and one of the largest card departments seen outside a Hallmark store!  Like the flower arrangements, everything is simple, elegant in design, and makes a statement. The jewelry is not ornate, but stands out in its simplicity and is very well priced. The cards run the gamut from the sarcastic to the inventive to the softly touching, and gifts are unique. This is not an in-and-out shopping experience, not by any stretch of the imagination. “It is not unusual for customers to spend an hour or two here because there’s so much to see, so much to learn, and so many animals to meet,” Allison smiles.

There are no pre-made floral arrangements at Ashleigh’s Garden. Everything is individually designed and crafted for each occasion, with their wedding work garnering awards every year. But Allison wants to talk about the animals since “the word of mouth we get for our flowers says it all.”

Parrots of many varieties, macaws, and cockatoos happily inhabit the bird rooms in the back of Ashleigh’s Garden, their greetings, protests, and chatter easily audible throughout the store; but if Sloane has her way, they won’t be there for long. She has launched a project of enormous proportion to build a rain forest right here in Connecticut. Well more than a pipe dream, she has engaged architects to draw up plans for this two story facility that is not just for animals, but for the people who care about them. There will be a tree of life, butterfly conservatory, rain forest aviary, adoptions, boarding, classrooms, workrooms, an exotic veterinarian, party rentals, a cafe, gift shop, and a place for local veterans to relax and enjoy the environment. It’s about a $40. million dollar dream, but Allison Sloan is used to making things happen. “We are actively seeking a corporate entity to underwrite this effort because with my background I can make it self-sustaining within a year. It will be like an onion…peel back the layers, and there will be something for everyone, especially the animals.”

If pandemonium is defined as wild and noisy order, then Ashleigh’s Garden is the place where it exists. But it is also a place of great beauty, of simplicity, and of dreams about to come true for happy brides, rescued animals, and the woman in the center of it all, fueled by hope and love.

This is Ashleigh’s Garden.

500 Main Street, Deep River  (860) 767-2889

EDITOR’S NOTE: Shortly after this story and its images were filed, “Captain,” the beloved elder statesman of Ashleigh’s Garden named for Allison’s dad, a WWII hero, passed away. He was a special soul, a major presence who will be missed by so many, most of all Allison.