Remedial Flower Arranging

For the last month, I have stood guiltily by and
watched my flower garden fade. The daisies, feverfew, butterfly bush, and
catmint have bloomed so aggressively that I couldn’t possibly keep up with
them. After hacking his way through the flowers to get to the chicken coop
recently, my husband meekly suggested that I could cut a few flowers and bring
them into our bookstore. I had assumed that my flowers would be banned from the
store on the grounds that they shed pollen on the books, introduce spiders and
other charming but unwelcome creatures, and aggravate allergies. But having
flowers by the counter has been nice, and the Shasta daisies in particular have
proven to be well-behaved and long-lasting.

Really, there is no excuse not to
fill the house with flowers in the summer. Most flowering perennials need to be
cut in order to keep blooming; if you do this regularly, you’ll avoid the late
summer gaps in the border that I’m about to start experiencing as the summer
flowers wither and fall-blooming plants have not yet gotten going.

To make flower arranging really
easy, I’m going to share with you the one and only rule you need to know in
order to be able to take full advantage of whatever is blooming in your garden.
I learned this from florists when I was researching the flower trade; it is a
kind of secret weapon that works when time is of the essence. If your attempts
at flower arranging have failed before, consider this to be a one-step remedial
flower arranging course. Here it is:

Step one. Fill a vase with just one
kind of flower.

That’s it. There is no step two.

If you spend much time in flower
shop, you will quickly develop this idea that flower arrangements are complex
orchestrations of focals and fillers, complementary colors and textures, and
carefully calibrated shapes held together with wire and foam. But even florists
love the single flower approach, something they call a ‘monobotanical’
arrangement. It’s simple, clean, and it puts the focus on the flower itself,
not on the design.

And while I love a big, complex,
interesting flower arrangement that looks like it walked right off the canvas
of a Dutch master, there are some downsides to attempting these kinds of
bouquets in your own garden. They’re more time-consuming, which means that you
might try it once in the spring, but you’re probably not going to do it over
and over again, every week, all season long. Besides, some flowers fade faster
than others, meaning that you’re going to have to pull out withered stems and
clean up dropped petals as the bouquet ages. (If you don’t, those wilted
flowers can cause the rest of the bouquet to fade faster because of the release
of bacteria into the water and the release of ethylene, a naturally occurring
gas that speeds up ripening, into the air.)

So do this instead. Fill an
assortment of vases with water and bring them outside. Include a few larger
vases that can hold dozens of flowers, but also bring some bud vases, votive
candle holders, small bowls, teacups, shot glasses—whatever you’ve got. If
you’re feeling particularly industrious, add a few drops of bleach and a splash
of lemon-lime soda to the water. This gives the flowers sugar, citric acid, and
something to kill the bacteria, which more or less replicates what’s in
commercial flower food. Then walk around with your pruning shears and do some

Start with the flowers that are
threatening to take over your garden. Pick bunches of them, stripping off the
lower leaves as you walk. Fill the larger vases with those flowers. Remember,
just one kind of flower per vase. They all match; they look great together;
they’ll all wilt at the same time. That’s it. You’re done.

Now you’re left with those odds and
ends—that individual lily or rose, that hydrangea with only three presentable
blossoms, the clematis that is only just starting to bloom. Resist the
temptation to gather them all up and stuff them into one vase as a sort of
floral all-you-can-eat. Instead, just put a single flower into a single vase.
Repeat. Repeat again.

Florists know that repetition is
what makes a flower arrangement work, and you can use that idea to your
advantage. One little flower placed on every windowsill in your house will make
it look like you have a house full of flowers. A row of little flowers in
little vases running the length of the dining room table is far more
interesting and effective than one giant centerpiece.

Oh, and one other advantage to the
single-flower-in-a-single-vase arrangement: it is the easiest thing in the
world to toss one withered rose on the compost pile and replace it with another
one. This is something even I can manage.

So that’s your handy garden tip for
the month. And speaking of flowers, bulb season will be here before you know
it. Many of the bulb companies—Brent & Becky’s Bulbs, Old House Gardens,
White Flower Farms—will reward you for ordering early by giving you a discount.
It helps them by letting them know how many bulbs to order, and you can often
get interesting and unusual varieties that will be sold out later in the

So: Vases. Flowers. Bulbs. Get out
there. You know what you have to do.