A Guide to Gathering & Arranging Flowers
Bridget Elworthy and Henrietta Courtauld share insights on gorgeous cut blooms.
Article and photographs excerpted from The Land Gardeners: Cut Flowers, by Bridget Elworthy & Henrietta Courtauld.
© Bridget Elworthy and Henrietta Courtauld 2019. Reprinted by permission of Thames & Hudson Inc.
This is the Big Top of our floral circus: heaving with flowers, strewn with petals and leaves; gardeners stepping over puddles of spilled water, chilly fingers wet from washing flower stems; large overflowing urns of rhododendrons sitting next to tiny silver cups of primroses. All of us breathe in the intoxicating scent of flowers, as if the air is thinner, lighter with the gentle fragrance of our blooms.
We are lucky to have a room that faces north and stays cool all year, but any corner of a house could work, ideally near a sink and tap, with a floor that can be easily cleaned, and shelves for storage. A spot in the kitchen or laundry, or a garden shed near an outside tap—either of these would be fine.
This is where we bring back our gathered flowers, leaving them to sit in buckets of water. It is where we prepare the flowers, conditioning and arranging them before we send them on their way. It is where we store vases, secateurs, gloves, floristry wire, waxed tape, luggage labels, and buckets—all types of buckets, but our preference is for galvanized-steel or enamel, and the odd bucket with side handles is also useful.
We have bundles of scrunched-up chicken wire and bowls of flower frogs or pinholders (vicious spiky things that you might find at the back of your granny’s cupboard) that sit in the bottom of vases to hold flowers. They are essential and mean we don’t use floral foam. This block of green foam once loved by florists is made of phenol formaldehyde, one of the oldest forms of plastic, and is not biodegradable. We also form wreaths of young branches and twigs in the bottom of vases as a natural way of holding flowers. It saves finding chicken wire and frogs in the compost.
We gather at dawn and dusk. When the light is soft early in the morning or dimming as evening comes, this is the time to pick flowers. It is when there are low levels of transpiration, the plant cells are more turgid and stems less likely to flop. It is a rare time when we, like our plants and garden, are tranquil.
Quiet moments in the garden: no one around, a sense of calm. We can hear the birds and see the shapes of shrubs and trees, sculpting them as we pick. This is perhaps our favorite part of growing flowers, looking carefully at our plants, choosing individual blooms to pick while knowing that we are helping the plant’s growth, stimulating strong shoots and flowering.
We try to use sharp secateurs to make clean cuts, as household scissors can crush the stems, preventing water uptake. Tempted in the early days to carry armfuls of flowers back to the flower room, we now cut and immediately place them into buckets of water in the garden, choosing containers to suit the length of the stems, from tall buckets for cosmos to shallow old tin washing bowls for short-stemmed roses.
We wait until the flowers grown on single stems are fully open before gathering them (chrysanthemums, dahlias, zinnias). If picked too early, the buds will not open in a vase. For plants with multiple buds on each stem—spires (agastache, delphiniums, snapdragons) and cluster flowers (ammi, phlox, yarrow)—we make sure they have at least one bud starting to open and one showing color before cutting them.
Similarly, other flowers seem to settle into their own skin as they mature. Lilacs, hydrangeas, and hellebores will drop when picked early in the season. However, wait until they are a little older and they are much more likely to last in a vase (hellebores in particular need to have developed their seed heads).
The print version of this article appeared with the headline: The Flower Room.