Embracing your inner florist

Sharon Jessup Joyce

A bouquet for you closeup

When I was a child, my aunt Lorraine owned a flower shop. It was magical to watch Lorraine and her assistant Germaine pull buckets of flowers and greens from the refrigerator cases and create floral fantasies with a handful of blooms, filler greens, a container, some ribbon and their own creativity.  The shop was filled with colour and scent, and I loved watching the two women work. My favourite moment was when one of them would step back from an apparently-finished arrangement, tilt her head to one side, and then add or remove just one bloom and nod her head in satisfaction. Perfect!

Unfortunately, unlike Aunt Lorraine, nobody pays me to arrange flowers, nor do I have the variety of blooms in my garden that she had in her shop, but flower arranging continues to be one of my favourite creative pasttimes. Here are some tips I learned from my florist aunt:

  • Think in groups of three or five (three roses, for example, surrounded by smaller flowers or filler greens).
  • Think one: put a large or bright (or scarce!) bloom in the centre as the focal point, then build around it with smaller and less eye-catching blooms.
  • Greens are a place for the eye to rest between brightly-coloured blossoms.
  • Foliage from blooming plants can be separated from their blossoms and used strategically as greens to fill holes.
  • Greens also help support blossoms when used at the back and sides of an arrangement.
  • A container or vase should be chosen in proportion to the flowers: put big, showy peonies in a big vase, and delicate lily-of-the-valley in a dainty, old-fashioned crystal or china vase.
  • Balance arrangements, but don’t make the two halves mirror images: if you have spiky flowers sticking out at the left, have something sticking out at the right, but it need not be the same type of flower.
  • For drama, give an arrangement both fullness (lots of flowers and greens) and height/width (tall, thin blooms, such as lavender or bleeding heart to stand out from the body of the arrangement and draw the eye up and out).
  • Use colour like an artist: balance light, dark, bright and soft in different zones of your arrangement.
  • Think about where your arrangement will sit: do you need a round arrangement that looks nice from all sides, a low arrangement that will allow dinner guests to see one another across the table, or a large arrangement to sit against a high wall?

The photo below shows a bouquet that sets an old-fashioned mood. That’s because traditional flowers, including rose, peony, sweet pea, lavender and hydrangea, are combined with limited use of filler greens  — the fullness is provided by the blooms, not greens. This old-school arrangement is enhanced by the antique pink transferware pitcher serving as a vase. Note that small peonies (pale pink) were used so the roses (dark pink) would not be overwhelmed.

A traditional arrangement in a transferware pitcher:  the lime green unopened hydrangea, dark green hydrangea leaves and rich purple lavender ground the soft pinks of roses and peonies, while the pitcher gives the arrangement a classic feeling.

A traditional arrangement in a transferware pitcher: the lime green unopened hydrangea, dark green hydrangea leaves and rich purple lavender ground the soft pinks of roses and peonies, while the pitcher gives the arrangement a classic air.

One of my favourite parts of arranging flowers is to use something other than a vase to hold them. Below is my favourite mug (by Sally Ravindra of Purcell’s Cove Pottery in Nova Scotia), hosting perennial sweet peas in white and mauve. I love how the turquoise pottery mug looks against the colours of the blossoms, and how the twining mug handle echoes the twining of the sweet pea tendrils. I am willing to drink my tea out of another of Sally’s mugs for a few days in exchange for enjoying this on the windowsill beside my computer.

Simple and lovely: perennial sweet peas in a beautiful pottery mug.

Simple and lovely: perennial sweet peas in a beautiful pottery mug.

The role of scale is apparent from the two arrangements below. Lush peonies were cut with longer stems, supported with large cuttings of trailing bleeding heart and large hosta leaves, and then placed in a tall, open-top crystal vase. Everything about this arrangement is big and generous. I didn’t worry about the tendency of the peonies to droop and the open, untamed reach of the bleeding heart, but let this garden bouquet look natural and unfussy.

Peonies making a big statement

Peonies make a big statement framed by open stems of bleeding heart and large, spade-shaped dark green hosta leaves edged in cream.

In contrast, this next photo shows an arrangement in a small vase with a narrow top, which gives the flowers it holds the look of a nosegay. Delicate sweet peas and the smallest hydrangea stems on the bush are framed by lavender to create a confined round arrangement. I didn’t use any greens for this bouquet, keeping the focus on the blossoms and letting lavender and two sweet pea stems serve as the only points of expansion from the tight round shape.

Petite and perfect round arrangement echoed by the vase's round base

This petite and perfect round arrangement is echoed by the vase’s round base. The colour of mauve hydrangea blossoms is brought out by the purple lavender, while a large volume of white sweet peas offers an alternative to using greens as filler.

My final tip about flower arranging is that sometimes you don’t have to. One perfect rose or three stems of fluffy hydrangea in a plain water glass can be glorious, bringing your garden indoors in the simplest way possible, as shown in the photo below.

Three stems of hydrangea in a plain cylindrical drinking glass offer variety enough, with their spade-shaped glossy leaves and mix of pink, cream and unopened green blossoms

Three stems of hydrangea in a plain cylindrical drinking glass offer variety enough, with their heart-shaped glossy leaves and mix of pink, cream and unopened green blossoms.

I have a lot of lavender in my garden, and while lavender is one of my favourite filler flowers when other blooms are the stars of the arrangement, I also like to give it a chance to shine on its own, as it does in the photo below.

A tequila bottle serves as a rustic vase, holding lavender bowed by the garden's prevailing winds; Afro-Canadian artist Malcolm Muleme's "We are" serves as beautiful backdrop

A tequila bottle serves as a rustic vase, holding a variety of French lavender bowed by the garden’s prevailing winds; Afro-Canadian artist Mathias Muleme’s “We are” serves as a beautiful backdrop.

As much as I enjoy arranging flowers, I also love the smiles of pleasure when I give the arrangements away. This summer I’ve enjoyed giving bouquets to a 100-year-old friend who lives in a nearby nursing home, a birthday bouquet to a friend who moved to an apartment and no longer has a garden of her own, a couple of arrangements to be enjoyed by our wonderful veterinary clinic staff, and a vase of hydrangeas to accompany a salad luncheon we took to my dad, who lives two hours away in a highrise. Oh yes, I also sent photos of one of my arrangements as virtual bouquets to nieces in Toronto, Vancouver and Switzerland, just to let them know I love them. Not exactly like the real thing, but I know they appreciated the thought!

Food, family and flowers: our older daughter Cassie with hydrangeas we took to my apartment-dwelling dad to grace the luncheon table.

Food, family and flowers: our older daughter Cassie with hydrangeas we took to my apartment-dwelling dad to grace the luncheon table.


An old-fashioned cutting garden in a modern suburb

Sharon Jessup Joyce

Flowers from our garden for PAH 2

People used to have flower rooms on big country estates.  The flower room was easily accessed by a side door, and would have one or two deep-aproned sinks, a countertop — which might be an old wooden table or built-in counters — and shelves of vases, shears, ribbons and other accoutrements for arranging flowers. One of the ladies of the household would be responsible for picking and arranging  bouquets for strategic locations in the house, including the entrance hall, the sitting room and of course the dining room. Arranging the flowers was often the job of an unmarried daughter, and depending upon her inclinations and the size of the estate’s outdoor staff, she might pick the flowers herself, or a staff member might pick them and leave them in buckets of water in the flower room for the lady to arrange. Given my humble ancestry, I would actually have been peeling the potatoes in the kitchen, not arranging the posies in the flower room, but I still take pleasure in the fantasy whenever I create bouquets from my own garden.

I’ve always loved old-fashioned bouquets of flowers. You can’t achieve them with the sort of evergreen foundation plantings that have become First rosecommonplace in urban properties. Instead, you need an old-fashioned cutting garden, which is simply a garden filled with plants that will provide blooms suitable to cut and arrange into bouquets. The best cutting garden plants have multiple blooms (think peony or hydrangea), that will provide enough flowers for several bouquets and still look pretty in the garden. If you plant single-bloom plants (such as daisies or irises) you will need to allocate space for lots of blooms.  Some plants bloom more than once in a longer season, such as perennial sweet pea, while others, like many roses, often bloom over an extended period of time.  This variety in blooming time and number of blooms is an important consideration in growing a cutting garden.

If this is starting to sound like you need a big garden, relax. You don’t need a country estate to make a cutting garden that will provide generous — and varied — bouquets from spring to fall. You can create a cutting garden in a small urban or suburban garden, or even on an apartment balcony. In addition to growing flowers that bloom copiously or over an extended period, make sure you grow plants whose flowers have stems that are long enough and slender enough to allow them to be arranged in a vase or jug. You also want some plants that will serve as greens in a bouquet, since greens help to frame and support the flowers.

In our Kingston suburban garden, which we began planting 10 years ago when we moved into this house, there is currently dark pink bleeding heart, white lily-of-the-valley, white and pink perennial sweet pea vines, a pale pink peony bush, two rose bushes (one a shell-pink David Austen and one a dark pink tea rose), several clumps of three varieties of lavender (two dark purple and one mauve), and four mophead hydrangeas, which bloom in shades of cream, pink and mauve.  These blooms give us bouquets through the spring and summer. For the fall, we still have  lavender, a second blooming of sweet peas, usually more hydrangea blooms, and the rosy late blooms of Autumn Joy stonecrop. We have garden beds in the front of the house, along the driveway, along the shady sides of the house, and in the backyard. Our lowest-maintenance garden beds are built up with extra soil, enclosed with rocks or low rock walls, and top-dressed with mulch. They are also the healthiest and prettiest beds.

My cutting garden has mostly pink, purple and white, because those are the flower colours I prefer. I always plant a few annuals New hydrangea settles inin our front garden bed, to fill in the gaps around the perennials, so some years we also have shades of soft yellow. I don’t care for red or orange flowers, so I don’t plant any, though I sometimes regret that decision a little in the fall. If I was better organized and less squeamish about putting aluminum sulfate into the soil, we could have deep blue hydrangeas, which you can achieve with regular application of aluminum to the root area, but I always chicken out or forget to do it. Anyway, it’s fun to see how the colour of the hydrangea blossoms varies even on the same bush.

Ferns in JuneYou also need greens in a cutting garden. We have four varieties of hosta and two types of fern growing along the shady side of our house. Hosta comes in a variety of shades of green, from a blue-gray to a brilliant lime green, to striped, and it’s fun to combine the right shade of hosta to complement the flowers in a bouquet. I love the gray-green hosta leaves against our palest pink flowers, while the lime green hosta leaves look gorgeous with dark purple lavender or brownish-pink stonecrop.

The best way to grow a cutting garden is to first research what plants will grow well in your garden. This is based on your climate, including temperature highs and lows, severity of winter, and average rainfall. Check growing zone information for your area online or through gardening guides. With a fairly modest investment of time and money, you can alter your soil’s composition. You can also commit to watering your garden regularly, but there’s not a lot you can do about average temperatures, severity of winter, or sun Hornet approvesand shade patterns. And unless you are willing to invest in daily work in your garden, you are better off planting things that will thrive under the natural conditions you have.  But there’s no point whitewashing this: a cutting garden will demand some work in terms of weeding and watering (when Mother Nature does not oblige). After all, the reason why those evergreen foundation plantings are so popular is that they are low-maintenance. Flowering plants demand a little to a lot more care. Be aware, too, that many plants that produce beautiful blooms also attract butterflies, bees, wasps and hornets. If you have an allergy, as I do, you will need to work with a little more caution alongside these garden visitors.

We’ve been lucky when it comes to pests such as slugs and aphids, though I did lose all my lilies to beetles. In general, though, I’ve had a successful organic flower and herb garden in two different locations for a total of more than 30 years. It seems that careful plant selection and plant location are key – along with luck, I’m sure.

Above all, pick plants you love. That sounds obvious, but there are fashions and fads in garden plants just as there are in everything else. If Peony ready to open 2you like a plant — and for perennials, you want to like the foliage as well as the flowers — and do your due diligence to determine that it will thrive in your garden (or on your balcony), don’t be talked out of it in favour of a plant that is on sale at the garden centre, easier to source or being given away by your kindly neighbour. For example, I don’t like begonias, so I never buy any, even if they are just one plant in a planter basket that has lots of other plants I love.

In my next post, I’ll talk about arranging the flowers from a cutting garden into beautiful bouquets. But for now, I’ll end with the reminder that we want a garden we’ll enjoy, not just for the bouquets it will allow us to create, but also where it grows outdoors. Pictured below is a honeysuckle vine that blooms along a pergola in our backyard. It is not a suitable plant for a cutting garden, but the birds and butterflies enjoy it all season, as this little finch can attest.

Male house finch enjoys honeysuckle


Dreaming of sea glass

Sharon Jessup Joyce

Blog broken glass

Having achieved my lifelong dream of an ocean-front vacation property, one of the first things I wanted to do was make sea glass. When I Googled “making sea glass” I got back dozens of hits about using a rock tumbler to make fake sea glass. But I wanted a method for using the actual ocean to make authentic sea glass, and I couldn’t seem to find anything on the internet about how to do it. It was obvious I needed to break glass and get it into the ocean. The harder part was devising a method to keep shards of glass from floating around the Atlantic, to be harvested by someone else.

My plan, concocted with the help of Sarah, our son’s girlfriend, another (generally more successful) creative type, included ten easy steps:

1. Buy a suitable length of sturdy line (nylon rope).
2, Buy some window screening.
3. Buy or find some attractive coloured bottles.
4. Smash the bottles.
5. Pick out large and nicely-shaped shards.
6. Put chosen glass pieces in screening.
7. Tie screening up with line.
8. Wrap line around tree at shoreline.
9. Throw parcel into ocean.
10. Check regularly, and eventually harvest my lovely sea glass.

I accomplished #1 and #2 easily, buying climbing line, which cost less than I expected, at a sports store, and screening at a hardware store. So far, the project had cost under $20.

Completing #3, acquiring bottles, was the most expensive part of the process. An intelligent approach would be to collect empty (and free) bottles in interesting colours. But I wanted to get on with it, so I decided to buy products just to get the bottles that contained them. The motherlode for beautiful coloured glass is the liquor store, so I wandered the aisles one afternoon, admiring rich blues, delicate greens and even a pinkish-red.

“Having a party?” a staff member enquired brightly, noticing the Skyy Vodka, Bacardi White Rum and Bombay Sapphire Gin bottles in my cart.

“Making sea glass,” I replied, squinting at the two slightly different shades of cobalt-blue bottles I was holding up to the light. “Which shade is nicer?” I asked her.

“Can I ask a question about some wine when you have a minute?” A young man had approached the staff person just as she pointed to the bottle in my left hand. “I like that one a bit better.”

The young man looked perplexed. “Um…you know one is wine and one is vodka, right?” he asked.

“She just wants it for the bottle,” the staffer explained. The young man paused for a moment, then pushed his cart away without asking his wine question

With my new friend’s help, I finally settled on the three bottles I already had in my cart. I would add a Perrier bottle I had at home. That gave me dark green, pale green, cobalt blue with a nice hint of purple, and light, clear blue. I decided to allocate the liquor as a grocery cost, as a kindness to the project budget.

Blog liquor in mason jarsI was really looking forward to #4, breaking the bottles. The only thing I like better than throwing things is breaking things, so I was humming happily as I assembled my hammer, a large supply of paper bags and old newspapers, and the now-empty bottles. Oh, about that. I put the liquor in clean Mason jars, which I conscientiously labelled. When our daughter Olivia saw the filled jars, she said it looked as though I had been making moonshine.

While I was getting organized, my husband was doing some legitimate chore or other. Laundry, I think, or maybe he was hanging pictures. Bob tries not to hover when I do things involving sharp or heavy implements, but restraining himself from hovering costs him enormous and often visible effort. This is because I have a considerable history of cutting, burning and bruising myself when doing anything other than reading quietly in a chair. Observing my preparations, he asked me to describe my planned method for breaking the bottles. He tried to do it in a casual, husbandly, just-interested-in-the-project sort of way, but I wasn’t deceived, especially when he left the room and returned with several of our less attractive cloth shopping bags.

“You could wrap the bottles in newspaper, put the newspaper parcels in the paper bags, and put the paper bag in these old cloth bags,” he suggested hopefully. That actually was a good idea, so when I took everything out to the deck, I included the cloth bags. I didn’t take the dog, who watched me reproachfully through the door. Cutting myself is one thing, but I don’t take chances with Spenser.

Blog broken glass and hammerIt was almost as much fun to break the bottles as I thought it would be, but my plan to tap the bottles near their bottoms, to prevent the middle of the bottle from breaking into zillions of tiny pieces, was thwarted by liquor bottle design. It turns out the punt (the correct name for the bottom), being thicker and curved, is harder to break, as is the narrow neck. Each of the four bottles I broke, one at a time, required multiple gentle-to-medium taps with the hammer, and it was only when I tapped closer to the middle that I heard the satisfying crash of breaking glass. That sound, and the sensation of the smooth glass giving way under my hammer, were easily the most fun parts of the project.

Step #5, picking out useful pieces of broken glass, was also fun. I had unusable glass powder and tiny fragments, as well as large curved pieces from the neck and punt that were just too big or too oddly-shaped. But there were lots of other pieces of broken glass that were a good size and shape. Interestingly, a lot of pieces were more or less triangular, which may explain why so much sea glass jewellery is triangular. Despite my attempts to be careful unwrapping and sorting the glass, I did get a few small cuts, one of which must have been deepish, because it bled for an irritatingly long time. I also got a couple of glass slivers, which I was able to remove (having developed very good sliver-removing techniques through much practice).  A website I saw later about another project using broken glass advised wearing heavy leather gloves. Good idea.

I set aside some other promising pieces of glass in yet another useful Mason jar, and carefully quadruple-wrapped the remaining broken glass in newspaper, putting it in new paper bags and the old cloth bags. Bob watched the containment process carefully, while pretending to be focused on unpacking the dishwasher. He didn’t offer helpful tips, so I think my disposal methodology was likely sound. Either that, or he redid it when I was out of the room.

Blog sea glass ready to go into oceanFor step #6, putting the glass in the screening, I doubled the screening to reduce the risk of sharp glass cutting its way through a single layer. It was heavy-duty screening, and I tested its ability to withstand the sharpness of the glass by poking with my finger at various glass points through the screen. It remained intact, as did my fingertip.

Blog Spenser helping with sea glassI let Spenser play with the line, to compensate for leaving him in the house during the fun parts. Figuring out how to tie the screen “bag” shut with the line, and  secure the line to a tree (steps #7 and #8) with enough length to keep it in the water, turned out to be the hardest steps. It didn’t help that it was a windy day, and our shoreline has large, difficult-to-navigate rocks at the spot where it also has a conveniently-located tree to use to secure the line to shore. After considering different strategies, Bob and I ended up adding a few rocks the size of golf balls to the parcel to weigh it down. We doubled the line and experimented with looping it around the tree. After being scratched by pine needles, we decided to loop the line around a nearby large rock, about the size of a kitchen range. We used both ends to tie up the screen parcel, knotting the line multiple times around the neck of the parcel to make something that looked like a clumsy drawstring bag.

Blog sea glass longer shotI completed step #9, throwing the parcel into the ocean, with a combination of hope and anxiety. The wind and water were wild that day, so when I went down to the shore the next morning to check on the parcel, I half-expected to find it gone. But there it was, sitting securely in front of the big rock,though it was no longer in the water. The tide had receded, leaving the parcel of glass behind. For the next few days, Bob and I trotted down our wooded path to the water twice a day to throw our future sea glass back into the sea. Each time, Spenser barked madly and had to be dissuaded from going after it. Finally, we realized a good-sized rock on top of the parcel would keep it in the water, allowing the tide to surge in and out around it.

The first part of step #10, check regularly, was easy as long as we were at the house. Sadly, we are there only a handful of weeks each year, and we rent it out as a weekly vacation property through the warmer months. We will be able to let our glass-and-screen parcel stay in the ocean only when we are at the house, or when the house is vacant.

“So how long is it going to take, do you think?” Bob asked me.

I was on the internet, trying to find out, wading through dozens more sites about using rock tumblers. Other sites burbled about how much fun it is to look for sea glass along the shore. Still others told me something called beach glass comes from bodies of fresh water, and is not as desirable as sea glass, which comes from salt water. It was all very educational, but it didn’t answer the key question: when would we have our very own sea glass, from our very own shoreline?

And then I found the answer. Years. Actually, decades. More bad news: it seems that sea glass is formed by broken glass pieces bouncing freely around in the water. My little screen parcel, kept by line and rock in one spot, may eventually yield sea glass, but it will take even longer than if the glass was free-range. But I’m not giving up and resorting to a rock tumbler. Instead, I’m going to keep putting the parcel in the water whenever I’m at the house, and leaving it there through the winter when the house is vacant. I’m committed to the project. Maybe in a decade or so, if the glass shards look unchanged, or I get tired of removing, checking on and replacing the parcel, I can use the glass pieces in another project.

Later that day, I bumped into the liquor store employee, who greeted me cheerfully. “I can’t wait to hear how your sea glass project turns out! Make sure you keep me posted, okay?” I agreed warmly. She’s such a nice person. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that she and I will be long gone before our carefully-selected bottles ever become sea glass. Perhaps my future grandchildren will make necklaces from the bottles she helped me choose, and sell them to her future grandchildren.

In the meantime, I’ve discovered something useful. The Mason jars of rum, gin and vodka are the perfect size for the freezer.

Spenser on duty

On being a creative dilettante

Sharon Jessup Joyce

For many of us, being creative is a basic urge, like sleeping or eating. But our regular lives take up so much of our time and energy, the creative urge gets pushed aside. In my case, as wife, family member, pet owner, teacher and homeowner, there always seems to be something practical that needs doing for someone or something. It leaves my neglected creative muse waiting around in the corner a lot.

But if my poor muse never seems to be first in line, I have always managed to carve off regular bits of time for her. This time has added up considerably over the years to give me great joy as an amateur writer, cook, gardener, decorator, photographer, knitter, quilter and nature-lover. I am still the rawest of amateurs in some of these areas, and have become pretty competent, if I say so myself, in others. Not surprisingly, my competence is mostly related to practice. I cook and write a lot more than I quilt, so I’m a better cook and writer than I am a quilter.

But not necessarily a happier one. I like being on all parts of the learning curve, from the moment a creative activity first catches my attention, to the point where I can do something almost entirely from muscle memory. I even like the sometimes exasperating middle of the journey, when I know quite a lot, but can demonstrate that knowledge only a little. When it comes to creative pursuits, I’m a dilettante: an amateur who dabbles in a field of interest, often without achieving expertise.

That’s because creative dilettantes love the process more than the result. Something catches our interest. We envision. We try. We learn. We forgive ourselves for the usually imperfect results. Sometimes we even improve. And then we do it all with another activity. The disasters are funny stories to tell on ourselves. The occasional triumphs leave us feeling like Michelangelo, Hemingway or Julia Child.

When I was young, I thought creativity was synonymous with talent. Now that I am middle-aged, I have come to see that creativity is not about ability, but about attitude. It is simply the drive to take raw materials and transform them into our vision. It’s a way of interacting with the world around us, of finding the art in the ordinary. Innate talent is not required. Just the joy in doing.