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