There is absolutely no doubt about it: I love flowers! I love growing both flowers and foliage. And I love flower arranging. If I didn't have my current job, I might become a floral designer. Then I could own one of the many interesting flower shops in New York City that provide other flower lovers with magnificent arrangements and bouquets for their homes and offices and for special occasions.
My love affair with one of nature's loveliest creations began when I was a small child. My father taught me how to grow from seed myriad cutting flowers. I started to plant tulip and hyacinth and narcissus bulbs.
I developed patience by learning how to sow long-germinating snapdragons, the seeds of which are so minuscule that I wondered how anything so microscopic could turn into anything important. I discovered the difference between iris rhizomes and begonia and dahlia tubers. I puzzled at the fleshy, sometimes hairy, and sometimes dark and knobby shapes. They miraculously sprouted green shoots that would leaf out and send up sturdy stalks of perfumed bearded beauties and fluffy dinner-plate-size show-off dahlias.
When I grew up and began establishing my own houses and designing my own gardens, I always included a cutting garden, a separate area where I would plant a succession of flowering plants to provide me with blossoms from April to October, from tiny lilies of the valley and muscari to huge dahlias and chrysanthemums. Then I would place vases on every table, windowsill, and chest of drawers.
As my skills as a grower improved -- and, for sure, the results some years were infinitely better than others -- I realized that some flowers were much better suited than others for arranging indoors. Some plants that are grown principally for their luscious foliage displays -- either in outside containers (alocasias, coleus, geraniums) or as mass plantings in the shade garden (hostas, rheum, hellebores, Jacob's ladder) are equally well suited to serving as dramatic accents, or statements on their own, in vases.
In my Bedford garden, I have always planted, and continue to plant, an assortment of plants that work well as what I call floral-arrangement contenders. And I am always finding new ones that surprise me with their versatility.
Clematis, long considered a flowering vine with blooms that should stay on a trellis or climb up a pergola, has become of great interest to floral arrangers, its flowers both long-lasting and dramatic. Likewise, the saber leaves of cordylines, the colorful foliage and fluffy puffs of cotinus, the giant elephant's ears of alocasias, and the almost black or mottled leaves of colocasias are now found either mixed in or solo in striking arrangements.
Cut stems of all kinds of orchids and even fruit on branches, such as crab apples, hardy kiwi fruit, and blackberries and elderberries, are finding their way into my vases. Sometimes when I am trying to figure out what arrangement to put on the dinner table, I am inspired by a walk through the woods, where I snip dozens of fern fronds and use them in a simple container for a beautiful display.
Mixing lots of plant materials can work on large and small scales. One way to unify disparate flower forms and textures is to stick to a largely monochromatic palette of purples, pinks, whites, golden yellows, or even greens. Sometimes it is fun to contrast colors and shapes, pairing spikes of gladiolus with circular dahlias, or red-black sunflowers with lime-green hollyhocks.
And don't think you have to use a traditional vase. I employ all kinds of containers to hold flowers, often grouping several small ones to create an arrangement. If you use a delicate porcelain piece, be certain to line it first with a bit of plastic to prevent the metal flower frog from scratching the surface, or use floral clay to affix the frog to the bowl.
Of course, I know that many of you don't have your own gardens. But all of us have access to very good sources -- flower markets, farm stands, and pick-it-yourself fields, as well as supermarkets and online shopping sites. Thanks to all of these, a vast array of flowers and other appropriate materials can be found year-round. Any of these sources can be tapped to create an arrangement or two, or even more, in your home whenever you desire.
Text by Martha Stewart