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Creating a Special Centerpiece

With some creativity and inspiration, you can easily assemble an outdoor arrangement or centerpiece that's lively, provocative, and unexpected.

Get Inspired
One of the best ways to get inspiration for centerpieces is to look to your table -- the napkins, the glasses, and the food you plan to serve. A centerpiece should pick up the colors of your china or linens, pulling the look of the table together. Popular color combinations for summer arrangements include whites, greens, and yellows, as well as warm hues like corals, oranges, and pinks. You may also wish to go monochromatic, for instance, picking a peach-colored flower to bridge the color gap between a raspberry and an orange hue.

Choosing the Right Elements
If you're unsure of how many flower varieties to use, aim for odd numbers -- three is a good place to begin. Two flowers of similar size paired with a smaller flower combine to form a lovely mixed arrangement. These bright blooms and summer plants are popular choices for outdoor warm-weather arrangements:
Dahlias
Lavender
Orchids
Wildflowers
Rose plants
Zinnias
Moss
Herbs
Wheatgrass
Olive topiaries

Finding the Perfect Filler
Garden flowers can be supplemented with cuttings of ferns, evergreens, hosta leaves, blueberry or crab apple branches -- these unique cuttings are far more interesting than standard fillers or leaves. For a cleaner arrangement, you may decide to skip the filler altogether, but in the summer, citrus branches and scented geraniums make pretty accents.

Prepping Your Flowers
If you're buying flowers from a shop, the florist should have conditioned them for you. But whenever you pick flowers from your garden or buy a growers' bunch at a farm stand, follow these simple steps to keep them in good shape.

Gather Tools
To cut and properly prepare any kind of stem, keep on hand: a sharp knife, scissors or garden shears, and pruners.

Measure and Cut Stems
Take a measured approach to cutting stems so that your flower arrangements always look their best. Dip a plastic ruler into the vase at an angle, and note the height at which you'd like the blossoms. Remember: When seated at the table, guests should be able to see each other above the centerpiece. Approximate the maximum height of your centerpiece by placing your elbow upright on the table and making a fist. Your arrangement should be no higher than your fist in this position. Set the ruler flat on your work surface, lay each flower on it, and snip all green and woody stems at the desired length at a 45-degree angle. This creates a large surface area, ensuring maximum water absorption. Use clippers or shears for woody stems and sharp scissors or knives for other flowers. If possible, cut stems under water.

Remove Foliage
For all flowers, remove any leaves that would otherwise sit under the waterline in the vase; leaves rot when submerged, encouraging algae and bacteria in the container and shortening the life of the blooms.

The Desired Effect
First, consider the proportions of the table, and decide how many centerpieces you need to create per table. You may only want to feature one centerpiece per table if you have a group of small round tables, but a setting of three small arrangements that everyone can enjoy may look more appealing on a large rectangular table for 10.

Consistency among the centerpieces creates a clean, modern effect. For example, if you have floating candles, consider forming a whole row of bowls that are identical in size and color, with three candles in each bowl. You could also keep it simple by setting three large bowls down the middle of the table. Conversely, using bowls of all different shapes and sizes in a mix of shapes and colors can also give off a unique and interesting effect.

Completing a Floral Centerpiece
A good ratio of flowers may include only three to five stems of your big, full flower, more stems of your medium-sized flower, and just touches of your smallest bloom. Create a base for your flowers by crisscrossing the thickest, strongest stems in the vase so they make a grid. Crisscross about five or six stems, making sure their ends touch the bottom of the vase. Then, begin adding other flowers into the vase vertically, sticking them in the triangle slots that have been formed in the "base" you've created.

The shortest stalks should be inserted last. However, if your vase has too wide a lip, it can be difficult to crisscross your stems. For a bulk flower in one color, such as red tulips, you can form the bouquet in your hand, then trim the stems before sticking the grouping into the vase to form your base. Then, you can easily slip the smaller flowers into the arrangement.

Special Accents
When you have several different flowers making up your arrangement, consider clustering similar flowers together. Gather three stems of a small flower, and position the stems in your hand at slightly different heights to give the grouping some depth. Once you've arranged them in your hand, stick the three stems into the vase together to create a unique accent to the arrangement.

Alternative Centerpiece Ideas
Don't feel confined to a vase when creating your centerpiece. When it comes to displaying lush, dome-shaped blooms -- dahlias, garden roses, gardenias, camellias, or peonies -- less is often more. Float a few big blossoms in a generous-sized bowl or single ones in smaller vessels. Cut the stems at a slant, about an inch below the bloom, just before floating in tepid water. If a flower has trouble floating, use a flower float, or cut a circle of bubble wrap, and thread the stem through the center bubble.

Additionally, you might choose to use a glass hurricane (perhaps with flowers around the base), or a few dishes filled with water featuring a large blossom floating in each. You may even want to place these dishes sporadically around the table with a few votives. Remember, whether your centerpieces are candles, flowers, or another structure entirely, place them in the spaces between guests so people can still see other across the table. Don't overcrowd the areas where a guest may place her glass or plate. A beautiful centerpiece should complement -- not infringe upon -- the table settings.