A few weeks ago, a friend asked me if I’d do the flowers for her wedding. Now, I know that “doing” the flowers mostly means figuring out what flowers we should use, ordering them from a florist, and arranging them myself. But I couldn’t let it be that simple, and why would I want to? Every year I grow more flowers than I know what to do with, and every year I wish someone would ask me to supply the flowers for their wedding, their dinner party, their open house, whatever (don’t everybody jump up at once). The sad truth is that I just don’t have an active enough social life to put all of my own flowers to good use.
So I agreed to do the flowers for the wedding on the condition that they let me bring some flowers from my own garden, and they agreed with great enthusiasm. The bride loves sweet peas, and she also loves poppies—two flowers that are impossible to get from the florist because they are too fragile to transport. I also plan to bring as many filler flowers—little extras to round out what we get from the florist—as I can. Lady’s mantle, feverfew, and scented geranium leaves will all be at their best in June, so I’ll just bring them along and work them in where I can.
If you’ve got a Big Event of your own this summer, here are some suggestions for getting the flowers to bloom just in time.
Get started now. Even if you’re timing your blooms for, say, August or September, there’s plenty you can go right now to move things along. Dig as much compost as you can into empty beds, and keep them clear of weeds until planting day. Side-dress established plants with compost and scratch in a balanced organic fertilizer. Also, pay close attention to watering needs throughout the spring. You’ll be in the habit of watering by summer, but a dry spell in spring can stress young plants and throw off their blooming cycle later.
Overplant. It’s absolutely vital to have a backup, or several backups. I’m filling every vertical space with sweet peas, even the chicken wire around the compost bin. That way, if the flowers in one location don’t take off the way I thought they would, I’ve got plenty of other options. Don’t worry about stylish planting schemes—if you have a few empty spaces here and there in the garden, fill them with extras of whatever you’re growing for your big event.
Watch the clock. Many seed companies advertise that their annuals will bloom in 12 weeks from seed, but this assumes perfect growing conditions and probably a warmer climate than we have. Create a realistic schedule, and then pad it by an extra week or two.
Pinch and feed. Feed and pinch. You can hold plants back when you need to, and you can push them along, too. If my Iceland poppies start to bloom too soon, I’ll pinch off the young buds to encourage more flowers later. I don’t have time to waste with the sweet peas, so I’ll pinch off side shoots and encourage one sturdy, central stalk that will bloom earlier. And if the weather is unseasonably cold, you might consider creating a temporary greenhouse with plastic sheeting and stakes to warm the plants up.
To keep plants moving along, feed them a weak dilution of a balanced, organic liquid fertilizer every week, but switch to a “bud and bloom” formula in the last month. Follow the instructions on the package closely, and if you feed more often, make sure you use less. (For instance, if you’re going to feed the plants twice as often as the directions recommend, give them half as much food.) And if you’re an almost-organic gardener and you’re considering breaking your vows, this would be as good a time as any: during the last month before the big day, a mineral-based inorganic fertilizer designed to encourage blooming will push the flowers along without causing irreparable harm to your garden. Just don’t tell anyone I said so.
Get ready to cut. Plan on cutting flowers the day before the event. Gather your materials ahead of time—you’ll need buckets, sharp flower shears (don’t use paper scissors, because the blades can pinch off the stem before they cut), and professional flower food, which you can usually buy at a craft store or from a florist or garden center. It’s got just the right amount of sugar, acidity, and antibacterial ingredients to extend the life of flowers. (For a homemade substitute, try a dollop of lemon-lime soda and a few drops of bleach.)
Cut in the early morning or late in the evening when the flowers are holding more water in their tissue. Make a quick, angled cut, snip off whatever foliage will be underwater, and drop them into a bucket of warm water and flower food. Move the flowers into a cool, dark spot and keep them there until it’s time to arrange them. If possible, keep each kind of flower in its own bucket, and remember that different flowers have different needs. Poppies, euphorbia, and other flowers that excrete a milky sap, for instance, and do best if the cut end is seared quickly with a match to keep them from losing sap. (They’ll draw in water through the sides of the stems.) Many flowers, including poppies, should be picked just before the bud opens so they’ll be in their prime the next day. And always keep flowers away from fruits and vegetables, which can cause flowers to ripen and wilt prematurely because they excrete a clear, mostly odorless gas called ethylene.
When it’s time to arrange the flowers, cut the stems again and put them right into fresh water with more flower food. Keep the finished arrangements out of the sun and away from heat, and mist them with water to keep them looking good until the dinner party/reception/company picnic. And finally…
Be modest. When your guests arrive and shower you with praise for your floricultural prowess, just shrug and say, “Oh, these? You know, I got up this morning, and I saw these blooming in the garden, and I thought, oh, why not bring some inside.” You’ll know the truth, and so will I, but we’ll never tell a soul. After all, it’s all about making it look effortless.