This Philadelphia Garden Wedding Was Full of Emotional Family Moments
Noel Malara and Michael (who goes by Mike!) Clarke found themselves at the same local bar in West Chester, Pennsylvania, more than once before they officially met. "Mike would always smile and look at me from a distance, and it took a few different Saturday nights for him to build up the courage to come say hello," says Noel. But once the pair exchanged numbers, they struck up an immediate friendship. "We spent many weekends dancing at our local spot," says Mike, "and we went from weekend meet-ups to every-other-day meet-ups, sharing stories and talking all night." Six years later, on a trip to Disney World with Noel's family, Mike convinced Noel to take a pre-dinner detour to the beach, where Noel's sister suggested the two pose for a photo. "That's when Mike turned around and got down on one knee," says Noel. "What a special moment—in one of our favorite places, with some of my favorite people." Mike's planning paid off: "She is really good at figuring out surprises, but I caught her completely off guard this time," he says. "It was perfect."
Back home in Philadelphia, the couple looked at six different venues without finding one that felt right—until Noel and her aunt took a tour of the Morris Arboretum. "The first time I saw the Arboretum it was January—and freezing," says Noel. "As soon as I pulled up the long, winding driveway, I knew that I was going to like it. I could just see the vision that I had always wanted—lush green gardens, florals everywhere, plants, and tall trees." She reserved it on the spot, even though Mike hadn't visited it yet. "I trusted her," he says. "Once I got to see the place myself, I knew she had made the right choice. The grounds and gardens were beautiful, and I could instantly picture it all coming together."
On July 5, 2019, the couple finally got to see their dream of a "romantic, timeless garden wedding" come to life for 100 of their friends and family. "When I closed my eyes and envisioned our wedding, I saw little lights, greenery, soft flowers, and touches of gold, all wrapped up in love," says Noel. They filled the day with details that honored their families—including a memorial table full of framed photos of loved ones they'd lost and a performance of a song written by Noel's grandfather—and kept the atmosphere relaxed, romantic, and fun. "I wanted it to feel very easy and natural," says Noel.
Coming Up Roses
An elegant, understated invitation suite from Minted set the tone for the garden-themed event with a monochromatic embossed floral design across the top; floral postage stamps in a shade that mirrored the bridesmaids' dresses; and a wax stamp that brought in the gold accents Noel loved.
After trying on wedding dresses at eight different boutiques, Noel had almost decided on a different wedding dress—but when she casually agreed to try a form-fitting V-neck number with a long lace train and a low back from Bijou Bridal, she changed her mind. "When I came out of the fitting room, I was not expecting the reaction that I got from everyone, including the staff," she says. "I will never forget seeing their faces in awe. When I turned around and saw myself, that was the moment I felt like a bride and from that point, I knew it was the one." She accessorized the gown with sparkling drop earrings from BHLDN and point-toe lace heels from Bella Belle.
Leave it to the Experts
Noel left many of the details of her bouquet in the hands of the pros at Fresh Designs Flora and Events. "When I met with our florist, I showed her the bridesmaids' dresses and wanted them to do what they do best and choose all of the flowers," says Noel. The end result: A combination of ranunculus, lavender, roses, and wildflowers in a deconstructed oval shape. "My bridal bouquet was on the larger side, and it was absolutely perfect," she says.
Roses in the Garden
After a week of predicted thunderstorms, Noel and Mike were lucky enough to have the weather pass them by—almost completely. "There was rain all around our venue, but all we got was enough of a light sprinkle to get pictures with umbrellas," says Noel. She chose the color for the bridesmaids' dresses—"Cinnamon Rose" from Jenny Yoo, which stood out against the lush greens of the arboretum—but asked each woman to choose her own silhouette, updo, and earrings.
Men in Black (and White)
For the men, Mike and Noel settled on tuxedos from Sagets Formal Wear. "I tried on a black tux, which looked great, but it didn't feel special enough," Mike says. "We switched to an ivory coat of the same style and knew it was the one. I decided to use the black coat for the groomsmen instead." He also attended the groomsmen's fittings "to make sure no one ended up with baggy clothes—they had to look amazing, and they did," he says. His wedding-day accessories included a gold watch that Noel gifted him that morning and a necklace that was a 12th birthday gift from his late father. "Everyone in my family has a gold necklace with a cross pendant on it, and I wear mine every day," he says. "Since Noel would become part of my family, I gave her a gold necklace of her own that day."
A Biblical Welcome
The couple let the location take center stage with a minimalist ceremony setup. "The grounds were so lush it really didn't need much besides the white ceremony chairs," says Noel. "Our florist designed a gorgeous floral structure that softened the space. We had a lovely welcome sign that listed a scripture: 'I have loved you with an everlasting love,' Jeremiah 31:3."
Noel's father, Alfred, prayed with her as he walked her down the aisle to a song with lots family significance. "We chose to honor Noel's grandparents and used a piano piece composed by her grandfather when he was a teenager," says Mike. "As her grandfather has been gone for so long, only a few family members know how to play the song and it was never written down." The couple passed a recording of the song to the Philadelphia String Quartet, who were able to transpose and arrange it. "We surprised her family and Noel walked down the aisle with this beautiful song playing. Everyone cried, myself included," adds the groom.
Eyes on Each Other
Mike insisted on saving his first glimpse of Noel for her walk down the aisle. "I distinctly remember feeling my heart pounding in anticipation," he says. "She finally walked out and I couldn't help but cry. She looked absolutely beautiful and the song matched, and I just felt whole. It was the moment we waited so long for, and it was so worth it. She walked down the aisle and the world stopped around her, and it was absolutely perfect."
The moment was just as emotional for Noel. "This is one of my best and favorite memories," she says. "I saw nothing but him and when I got closer I could see the emotion in his eyes and how he was crying. It was such a sweet moment and the kind that you will never forget for the rest of your life."
He Said, She Said
The couple exchanged vows in a Christian ceremony officiated by Reverend Chuck Blair of NewChurch Live. They put a twist on the traditional script by including personalized words in a unique format. "Instead of writing vows, we wrote three things that we wanted each other to know on our wedding day," says Mike. "It was a little different and worked very well."
Husband and Wife
As the new Mr. and Mrs. left the altar to "Marry You" by Bruno Mars, they were all smiles. "So many people told us to try our best to soak in the day of the wedding and that it would go by so fast," says Noel. "I truly didn't understand how fast it really goes. If I could go back, it would be just to stop for five minutes with Mike in the moment and enjoy everything that was going on around us."
After the ceremony, guests moved to the cocktail hour area for mojitos—the couple's signature drink—and passed bites that included empanadas, bacon-wrapped shrimp, and dumplings. The newlyweds used that time for a portrait session together and with their families—but heard later that they missed some big reactions to the instrumental lineup from the Philadelphia String Quartet: "They played Noel's grandparents' wedding songs—that brought tears to her grandmother's eyes," says Mike. "I was told that the Game of Thrones theme was a favorite and that everyone started singing along to 'Sweet Caroline.'"
The portrait session during golden hour also captured Noel's complete look—including her custom veil, which she says was harder to source than her gown. "I knew I wanted to look soft and not overly done," she says, but at her local stores, she couldn't find a veil that fit her vision. "Everything was stiff and also would not surpass my train. I dreamt of a soft silk tulle that flowed like water—I wanted it so dreamy and free." Her 160-inch royal-length veil from Sibo Designs was perfect: "When I received it in the mail, I put it on with my pajamas and danced around my bedroom," she says. "I then Face-Timed my mom to show her that my dream came true."
Table for Two
Noel and Mike shared an intimate meal at a sweetheart table backed by the floral structure they'd used for their ceremony. The menu put together by Company's Coming Catering included a mixed greens salad with pears, feta, and hazelnuts; salmon, filet mignon, and eggplant-spinach ravioli; and sides of garlic mashed potatoes and roasted vegetables.
Up in the Air
Long tables flanking the sweetheart table were dressed in natural linens and paired with white chairs. Large-scale floral arrangements on towering gold stands appeared to float overhead, while thin wreaths of leaves and twinkling lights from Wild Stems made the tent feel lush and cozy. "The linens were all white for a crisp and clean look and allowed the florals to be the showstoppers," says Noel.
Greens and Gold
Loosely gathered runners and delicate garlands ran along the length of the tables, creating a background for shimmering votive candles. "The place settings had gold chargers with each guest's name in handwritten calligraphy," says Noel. "There were candles everywhere for the romantic feel that I wanted." Lewes Lettering created the table numbers—acrylic rectangles in slim gold holders that matched the sign at the entrance to the ceremony.
Two Special Dances
The couple's grand entrance into the reception preceded two special family dances. Noel and her dad danced to "Fathers and Daughters" by Boyce Avenue, while Mike and his aunt chose Ben E. King's "Stand By Me." "My mother had passed away in the months leading up to the wedding, so I knew this would be a really tough moment for me—I also didn't want a room full of people crying," says the groom. "I felt that this song wouldn't be as heavy emotionally while still fitting my thoughts and feelings. Luckily my aunt kept things light and put on a bit of a show—afterwards she admitted that she did it for herself just as much as me."
For Noel and Mike, cake tasting at The Night Kitchen bakery was the simplest part of the wedding-planning process. "We picked our flavors so fast," says Noel, "[they] made it so easy for us!" The winning cake was a four-tier confection that included chocolate chip cake, carrot cake, vanilla cake with raspberry filling, and vanilla cake with lemon curd—all decorated in subtle white with cascading sugar roses and leaves. "All four tiers were completely gone by the end of the night!" says Noel.
On the Floor
Unsurprisingly (for a couple who got to know each other dancing at their favorite bar, at least), the dance portion of the evening became one of the newlyweds' most memorable; a DJ from Mazz Entertainment kept the floor full all night. "The entire dance floor got crazy, and I'll never forget jumping up and down in my wedding heels to 'Jump Around' by House of Pain," says Noel. Says Mike, "A few songs later we're ending the night with 'Shout' by Otis Day and the Knights, and when it's all over, we're all left wanting more."
Photography, Denise Marie Photography
Venue, Morris Arboreteum
Event planning, Forever Love Events
Catering, Company's Coming Catering
Flowers, Fresh Designs Florist
Videography, City South Films
Officiant, Rev. Chuck Blair
Calligraphy, Lewes Lettering
Cake, Night Kitchen Bakery
Bride's gown, Bijou Bridal
Hair, Marissa Grace Artistry
Makeup, Makeup by Carly G.
Bridesmaids' dresses, Jenny Yoo
Flower girl dresses, BHLDN
Groom's and groomsmen's tuxedos, Sagets Formal Wear
Lighting, Mazz Entertainment
Transportation, Hilton Garden Inn
Favors, The Dapper Doughnut
Rings, John Fish and Son
Tent décor, Wild Stems