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Flower Arranging for Skeptics

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Flower arranging always had a musty mystique around it for me. I’d think of fussy old ladies arranging church altar flowers or impossibly complicated and beautiful pieces put together by professional florists. “Don’t try this at home!” those flowers screamed. So I didn’t. I stuck mixed bunches of supermarket blooms in a vase with as much thought as I put the pasta in the pantry.


But now I’m more likely to spend fifteen or twenty minutes actually arranging my flowers and getting much nicer results. What changed? I watched a few experienced flower arrangers at my local garden club. I call my friends’ advice “guidelines,” not “rules,” because flower arranging shouldn’t be intimidating. If you can put together an outfit, you have the sense of color, balance, texture, and form you need to put together flowers.


My gardening friends turned me on to the essential tool of the flower arranger—cheap and readily available florists’ foam. This is the porous green stuff (often known by the brand name Oasis) that both holds water and keeps your flowers in place. With florists’ foam, you can use just about any container—a basket, a spray-painted cat food can, or even a hat—to make an arrangement.


My friends showed me how to place the foam high enough in the container so that you can insert some stems sideways and avoid a spiky look. They also told me to always place the greens in the arrangement first. I was starting with the flowers and then filling in empty spots with foliage. Why didn’t I figure out that when you put greens first, the flowers show up much better?


I also learned to use at least three different greens for the most interesting arrangements. Don’t limit yourself to the filler that came with your flowers. You can get hosta, ferns, balsam, and other foliage from your yard. If you don’t have a yard, take a tip from professional flower arranger Betty Call of Stow, Massachusetts, who raises houseplants, including peace plants and palms, just because their leaves are so handy.


From another pro, Constance McCausland of Ipswich, Massachusetts, I learned that you should use twice as many white flowers as colored flowers in your arrangements, because the color white tends to recede.


Betty Call told me to start with the tallest plants in the middle of the arrangement and work outward. I also learned that your flowers should be about two-thirds taller than your vase. It’s best to put the largest flower heads near the bottom of the arrangement. And my friends showed me, it’s not cheating to use florists tape, wire, glue, or whatever it takes to keep your flowers in place. Just don’t let this stuff show; that’s as rude as it used to be to let your slip show.


Inspired, I made a Christmas centerpiece. I used the shiny red snare drum from my son’s cast-off set as a container. I filled it with laurel, holly, and pine from my backyard and red roses and red and white carnations from the supermarket. I added a few silver Christmas balls for sparkle. Even with these unglamorous materials, the centerpiece looked so good on the table my brother-in-law thought it came from a florist.


A bunch of just-picked daffodils plopped in a plain earthenware pitcher will always appeal to me. But I’ve found the fun in home flower arranging. When the sprit moves me, I try to keep in mind this advice from expert Betty Call: “Let the flowers tell you what to do.”

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