Learn to create lush, floating-on-air flower arrangements from a supernatural talent.

By Johanna Silver
April 18, 2019
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Max Gill's first floral-design gig was spur-of-the-moment. It was 2002, he was working as a bartender, and his good friend Zoe was getting married. One pal had been charged with handling the food, another would DJ, and Gill took on the flowers. Though he'd always loved buying blooms for himself at the corner market, he'd never done anything official. Realizing he'd sorely underbought at the San Francisco Flower Mart, he spent the day before the wedding foraging golden fennel blossoms from under the freeway overpass and frantically assembling them in his apartment. He had some learning to do, but the experience flipped a switch in him: "Before I knew it, it was three in the morning, and I hadn't eaten or had a cigarette in hours," he says. Which is to say: He got lost in the art of it. (And don't worry-he quit smoking more than a decade ago.)

While the medium was new to him, Gill had found solace in creative pursuits since childhood. "Give me a pencil and paper, and you could safely take your eyes off of me for hours," says the designer, who also went through a serious clay-sculpting period. He discovered gardening at age 12, when his family moved from upstate New York to Berkeley, California, during the summer, leaving him with three long months and no friends. "That's when I discovered I loved to weed," he recalls.

In college, Gill explored acting, "but it turns out I'd rather set myself on fire than go to an audition," he says with a laugh. Instead, he immersed himself in the history of art and theater and obsessed over age composition, studying the use of lines to draw an audience to a focal point.

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After Zoe's wedding, he added floral arranging to his list of part-time jobs, which included masseur, dog walker, and barkeep. And right away, he got a very lucky break: an arranging apprenticeship at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters's famed farm-to-table restaurant, which was serendipitously located next door to his bar gig. A few years later, he secured the weekly account there. In keeping with the restaurant's mission, the flowers had to be locally sourced, a task that got a lot easier in 2008, when Gill moved back into the house his family had bought when he was 12-and began tending his own garden in earnest.

Today the sought-after designer, who also does weddings and special events, lets his yard guide his designs and provide materials he can't always find at the market. "Bud, blown-out blossom, even dried foliage-they all have a part in an arrangement," he says. His current obsession is fruiting branches, and some of the ones he uses-Meyer lemon and Granny Smith apple-come from trees he planted during his first California summer.

No longer frantically hacking fennel from the side of the road, Gill moves slowly in his backyard now, drawing parallels between theater and floral design. He's compelled by the mini-dramas he sees-how a plant's struggle results in an arched branch or a different-colored leaf. He uses those moments as inspiration, and does his best to preserve each storyline from soil to vase. "I'm in the garden daily," he says. "Sometimes it's just for 10 minutes, but I find it incredibly comforting to have my hands in the dirt."

Learn how Gill draws out the natural swoop of a stem or twist of a vine, and helps his flora reach its fullest, most fantastical potential.

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Play to Their Strengths

"I want my arrangements to look like they could have grown right out of the vase," Gill says. Here, he clipped 'Ebb Tide' roses and three types of clematis vine: Clematis 'Niobe', C. 'Madame Julia Correvon', and C. viticella 'Walenburg'. To keep the stems in place, he wound the vines up strong, thornless blackberry canes, and tucked branches of the shrub Abelia into the outer edges.

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Go All in with Color

"I like to keep the palette simple," says Gill, who groups hues in a line or clusters them en masse, "so your eye has either a path to follow or a spot to rest." For this arrangement, he combined 'Polka' and 'Lady of Shalott' roses, 'Peach Melba' nasturtiums, and ninebark from his garden with bristle mallow and immature strawberries, and nestled them all in a bowl by Nedda Atassi Ceramics.

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See the Big Picture

"It's nice if there's some breathing room and negative space," says Gill of his expansive silhouettes. For example, this V-shaped grouping of blush-to-pink 'Heart Throb' dogwood, 'Merlin' hellebores, 'Pink Lemonade' blueberries, and 'Queen Red Lime' zinnias has a central valley to break it up. The footed vase was made by Oakland artist Peter St. Lawrence.

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Lead the Witness

Gill often places branches first to create overarching lines that pull the audience in. White-blooming spiraea and philadelphus and vines of Montana-clematis foliage make this sweeping statement. White cosmos and apricot-hued Icelandic poppies, ranunculus, and garden roses draw eyes right to the center.

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Embrace the Unexpected

"I'm a sucker for black flowers and foliage, because they're so rare," Gill says. For this dramatic bouquet, he combined black chervil (a.k.a. dusky lace) and snakeroot leaves (Actaea simplex 'Black Negligee'), blue throatwort (Trachelium caeruleum 'Hamer Pandora'), baby black eyes (Nemophila menziesii 'Penny Black'), and standout 'Molly Sanderson' violas, which he considers an unsung cut flower.

"In the garden, they can wilt completely or freeze solid and totally bounce back in a matter of minutes," he says. 'Molly Sanderson' provides an alter ego to the normally cheerier pastel versions. "It's like Samantha's naughty cousin on Bewitched."

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