How Margaret Hooten is Creating Special Moments in Her Gardens

Whether singing a lullaby to her young followers or arranging bouquets from her beloved flower garden, early childhood music teacher Margaret Hooton's creations are music to the eyes.
Hooton Flowers


In a lilting soprano that could tease a toddler to sleep — as this early childhood music teacher often does — Margaret Hooton chats as she meanders through a muddy patch that soon will be a riot of colorful blooms.

This is Hooton’s second walk through her beloved garden since returning from vacation, when she checked it out at midnight with a flashlight.

Scissors in hand, she clips and artfully arranges flowers as she rounds her home in Mt. Lebanon’s Mission Hills, delighted to see old favorites sprouting among new floral friends, some of them gifts from fellow gardeners. “Ooooh, smell this,” she urges, sniffing the bouquet that is emerging — daffodils, purple tulips, yellow and pale-pink peony tulips, viburnum, bleeding heart, apple blossoms and a sprig of mint.

Her formal, 1920s-era Caste Brothers stone Tudor and its mature gardens retain their good bones. But the home Hooton and her husband, Mike, have lived in for more than 30 years is also a welcoming, contemporary space for entertaining family and friends. (Hooton is as adept at blending ingredients for a one-pot or a grill surprise, enhanced by her home-grown herbs, as she is at throwing together a nosegay.)

Hooton Open

Living in Color

In the kitchen, it takes but a minute for Hooton to extract the perfect vase from the mountain of handmade pottery that decorates one wall; most were made by her son Robert, an art teacher in Bethel Park, but others were handcrafted by local artists. She sets her creation on a countertop, snaps a photo and offers it to her guest, who suddenly is motivated to dine at the table with a centerpiece tonight instead of on the couch in front of “Jeopardy.”

Life changing? Perhaps not. Still, the flowers are a brief treat, serving as a reminder that gifts don’t need to be expensive or enduring, unlike large, pricey floral designs we order and expect to last a week.

“The stuff I do is very fleeting,” Hooton acknowledges. “You enjoy it for one or two days.”

Her smile underlines pleasure in proffering cheer to anyone who will accept; she often posts pictures of her petite bouquets on her Instagram page (@MBHooton), where dozens of folks will pause on an ordinary day to soak up a bit of beauty. So far, she has posted more than 130 unique bouquets on Instagram, each captioned with a simple list of the flowers used.


A Musical Beginning

Hooton grew up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, one of 10 children of a physician and a homemaker who tended stately peonies and lilacs in their front yard but also rented a vacant lot to grow vegetables. She attributes her patience for gardening to her mother but, like her dad, prefers flowers, a hobby they shared enthusiastically over many years and miles. Her family also was musical; Hooton’s dad taught her to play guitar. An affinity for gardening and music connects her and her siblings to this day.

When a job for her husband with Heinz’s law department lured the couple to Pittsburgh, Hooton rented a plot at the municipal golf course where she experimented with “easy seed flowers — zinnias, cosmos and bachelor buttons.”

Wall Hosta

Then they moved to their “forever home,” which was begging for gardens. “So I just dug up the lawn and started growing flowers,” Hooton says. She soon met like-minded neighbors who were eager to exchange tips and plants, including Nancy Smith, who designs and cares for Mt. Lebanon Library’s gardens.

When Hooton, Smith and neighbor Mark Trumbull volunteered to maintain the public planting bed in the traffic circle between their homes, Trumbell remembers Hooton’s dad sending some of his famous red canna lilies to help them get started. The cannas thrived there, but, ironically, things came full circle years later when the trio received an SOS — “My cannas didn’t make it through the winter,” said Hooton’s dad. Soon, some of his own donated flower tubers were heading home to him.

In the 1970s, Hooton started as a music major at University of Iowa but switched to journalism, although she remained a singer in the school’s choir and traveling show group. When her children were young, she worked in public relations for cultural arts organizations, but eventually found a way to share her joy for the world with children. “When did we decide we’re not all worthy to be singers and artists?”

Guitar under her arm, a head full of silly songs in her repertoire, and not a shy bone in her body, she found a position at St. Paul’s Episcopal Nursery School, where she so captivated her young audience that then-director Winnie Feise convinced the school to pay for Hooton to attend early childhood music training at Duquesne University. The university later retained Hooton to design courses that integrate the arts into early childhood curriculum.

These days, she teaches workshops for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, visits classrooms in Pittsburgh Public Schools, presents at national conferences and regularly emcees Carnegie Museum of Art’s Holiday Party for Special Guests. The Friday after Thanksgiving, she and her brother, Bob Barnett, a professional tenor who traveled with the Army Field Band and Soldiers Chorus, presented a free interactive family sing-along at Mt. Lebanon Library. And she still is eagerly welcomed at St. Paul’s, where her spring program — a whirl of clanging, leaping, twirling, singing and scrunched-up scarves that magically turn into beautiful flowers — creates harmony between music and nature.

Wall Yellow

Creating Moments of Beauty

Back in her garden, Hooton grows about 40 varieties of flowers, an accomplishment she attributes largely to taking risks and cutting her losses.

“Half the stuff I plant doesn’t make it, so I just plant something else,” she says. “One of the funniest signs I ever saw on a garden tour said, ‘This looked so much better in the catalog.’”

She has begun showcasing her music online for children in the same spirit she offers her bouquets. On any night, you might find her on the Facebook page Planting Seeds of Love, where participants can share ideas, songs, activities and lesson plans for children, reading a classic good night story for toddlers, perhaps turning it into a lullaby with an impromptu melody.

“Little bits of beauty are accessible to anyone,” Hooton says. “I drive through the countryside, and almost everyone has a basket or a patch of flowers in front of their home. It doesn’t have to be fancy.

“I have had success with seeds from expensive places and also have had fun growing zinnias from seeds I bought at the Dollar Store … Bringing a little beauty into the world doesn’t have to be expensive.”

Categories: HOME + Design