Flowers in your house should be personal—your house and your flowers are subject to endless variations and exceptions, and for that very reason it is difficult to give beginners a neat handbook on just how to arrange their flowers. Boil an egg for ten minutes and at the end of that time you have a hard-boiled egg, despite the intensity of the heat or the size of the egg or the pan. But place six Darwin tulips in a glass vase and you may or may not make an arrangement.
But then, how does one begin composing arrangements rather than putting flowers in water? Where does one start? Start with the flower.
In a broad general way a flower arrangement might be divided into five parts: the flowers; the container; the location, where the arrangement is to be placed; the mechanics, how the flowers are kept in place and alive; and last the arranging, or putting together of the flowers and container. Let's take each division and look at it separately.
One may see a flower for years without ever looking at it. This may seem very elementary, but the first process in arranging flowers is to look at the flower. Study the flower as if you had never seen it before. Look at a tulip growing in the garden, examine it with the care of a scientist and the eye of an artist.
This is an exercise to apply to any flower you are working with. Make little back-of-the-head notes on the way nature arranges flowers .. . a grey mullen hugging a grey stone wall, wonderful-combination of colour and texture . . . yellow dandelions shouting on a green lawn. Look at nature closely not so much to imitate as to learn about combinations of colour, form, and texture.
Train yourself to be open-minded about what constitutes a container, yet critical enough to avoid what is forced or obviously contrived. A silver water pitcher, a wicker bread basket, a pony brandy glass, an earthenware crock are as acceptable containers for flowers as the classic urn and vase. Reserve frying pans and teapots for their original functions.
The relationship between flowers and containers is fundamental, for the container is half of the arrangement even if hardly any of it is seen in the finished composition. A delicate flower does not automatically have to be arranged in a fragile container. Its very delicacy can be emphasized by the contrast of a coarse, rough-textured container. Testing and experimenting will establish this perception of where a contrast is more exciting than a similarity. However, heavy long-stemmed flowers and branches need sturdy containers to keep their practical balance. An arrangement that is top-heavy and looks ready for collapse at a slight nudge is disturbing.
Build your collection of containers gradually. Let it grow along with your knowledge, otherwise it will be cluttered with too many passing fancies. Keep all your containers in one place so that, when you are in a hurry, you can sweep your eye across the shelf or cupboard and select the right container for the flowers in hand.
Where the flowers are to be placed has an important influence on the size and shape of an arrangement. There are times when you'll work in reverse, make an arrangement and then look for the place. It's less logical, but if it's more spontaneous for you to work that way don't discourage yourself by trying to be logical.
Remember, placed in front of a mirror the back side will be part of the arrangement. On a mantel the arrangement is usually above eye level and is seen from the front and both sides. On a coffee or dining table it will be below eye level and seen all around. Whether it is placed against a figured wallpaper or a white painted wall or pine panelling are outside conditions which influence the quality of the arrangement when it is placed. Make a note of all the places in the house where flowers might be used: the front hall, mantels, buffet, dining table, end and coffee table, desk, chest, lowboy, window seat, stair landing, floor, bedroom, kitchen.
Watch that your arrangements don't become obstacles for the young and old and for family pets. If your two-year-old is determined to demolish all coffee-table arrangement, keep the table free until he is older. Test one arrangement in three or four places. If it seems crowded, you know it is too large for the space; if it seems lost and insignificant, it is too small. Right then take time and make an arrangement scaled to fill a particular space. A small coffee table overwhelmed with a large bouquet loses its purpose; the flowers confuse instead of decorate.
Arrangements for the dining table are a separate study. Think of table flowers as a decoration rather than a centrepiece, for the arrangement may not be one piece and may not even be placed in the centre. Experiment with arrangements at the side or end, especially if you have a large table for only two or three people. Play with fruits, flowers, and ornaments. Vary the table decoration with your mood, the seasons, and your company.
Holding an arrangement in place is particularly important to the novice. With experience one learns to establish a natural balance between flower and container, to select a container that will not require a holder, but for a beginner it is very reassuring to have the support of a holder and to know that a flower is firmly anchored where it is placed.
Learn to work with chicken wire. It is invaluable because it is pliable and adjustable to large, small, and medium containers. It is available by the yard at hardware stores. Use a lightweight gauge that is flexible and of a coarse one- or two-inch mesh. For the average container allow the piece of wire to be twice the size of the opening. Cut it with wire shears or pliers. Don't be afraid to push it around and make it work. In a shallow container the wire will slip unless it is fastened. Tie it to the container with a wire or light cord, across the sides and ends as you would tie a package; then cover the mechanics with your arrangement. Avoid using chicken wire in glass where it shows and is distracting to the finished arrangement.
Pinpoint holders are excellent for shallow bowls. You can buy them in all sizes and weights. Remember a small holder will not balance a large bouquet. An interesting piece of fruitwood or driftwood makes a natural holder; combine it with spring branches and flowers as part of the completed picture. Use a solid rugged container, submerge and wedge one end of the wood in the container, let the other end become part of the arrangement, and build around it with your dogwood and tulips.
Discover "Snowpac" at your florist. It is a spongy, moisture-retaining white plastic material in brick form, which can be cut into squares, pyramids and balls. Cut with a paring knife the form you wish to work with, soak it in water until saturated, cover it with waxed paper, and decorate it with short flower heads, ferns, and ribbon. Be as fancy-free in trimming it as when decorating an Easter egg.
Sheetmoss is almost as useful to the flower arranger as aluminium foil is to the cook. Cover a coffee tin with it and you have an enchanting container for short bunches of spring flowers. Tie it cornucopia-fashion around little bunches of snowdrops and scillas and arrange the bunches in a brown mug or weathered basket. Use it as a decorative lining in open-weave wicker baskets or as a garden carpet to trim and finish basket arrangements of hyacinths and cottage tulips. Readily obtained at nurseries and florists, it is a material that flower arrangers will cherish.
Think of arranging flowers at first as quietly and as simply as possible. Think of it as if you were playing the scale of C with one hand only. Don't worry about your inability to reproduce a Flemish masterpiece immediately. Who ever played a Beethoven concerto the first month they studied the piano? Work first with one kind of flower. Take six tulips, all cut the same length, all the same colour, and try them in six completely different containers. Try them with a holder and without. Decide for yourself which container is best for the flowers. Do you really need a holder to keep them in place?
Next, shorten to assorted lengths three or four of the stems, mix the colours to half pink and half red, and arrange these in the same containers. What difference do the shortened stems and colour change make? Do you still find the same container as pleasing?
Next, experiment in placing the arrangement. Set it on a coffee table, desk, buffet, window ledge, or dining table. Ask yourself why it looks more attractive in one place rather than another. Does it seem too high on the dining table? too crowded on the desk? too small in the hall? faded in the window? This kind of exercise or experiment takes both time and patience, and yet it is the most direct way to learn how to arrange flowers for your house.
Once you have developed ease in working with one variety, a sense of balance and proportion between flowers and container, a freedom to cut the stems short or long and match them either way with a suitable container, take another step. Work with two contrasting flower forms of the same color, say three pink hyacinths and six pink cottage tulips. Again you will want to test containers for this new grouping. The character of your material has changed and it requires to be looked at and studied freshly. Try arranging them as if they were growing beside each other in the garden.
Use a low tureen or basket, pack it with chicken wire, place your flowers, and cover the surf ace with damp sheet-moss. The moss heightens the spring-garden quality of the arrangement and hides the mechanics of the wire. Continue to experiment . . . discard the wire and moss, substitute a low squat earthenware pitcher as container, shorten the stems of two or three tulips, add three red-black tulips, and analyse the result.
Don't be in haste to dash on to arrangements of three varieties of flower until you feel very confident and at ease working and playing with two forms.
It is sometimes helpful, when beginning to work with three varieties, to consider the third flower as a filler or bridge that combines and harmonizes the contrasting flower forms. Soft, bouncy, feathery flowers such as alyssum, candy-tuft, sweet rocket, and gypsophilia are good to test as a blending third flower.
Bunching is a simple, charming—above all, foolproof—way of making a bouquet. Its size is controlled by the supply of flowers at hand and the stretch of one's hand. A bunch of violets is a complete bouquet. Three bunches, each in a separate low bowl, placed in a line down the middle of a table make a complete luncheon table decoration.
Make your bunch in many ways . . . all of one variety or of several varieties, collared with leaves or without. Small spring bulbs usually have only green splinters of foliage; ivy, cyclamen, and geranium leaves supply pleasant ruffs. Try bunching as they come in flower such plants as snowdrops, scillas, "Paper White" narcissus, valley, Roman, and grape-hyacinths.
Try this bunch experiment. Place in a small wicker basket one bunch of violets, one of forget-me-nots, and one of grape-hyacinths. The violets will be overpowering, so divide and form them into two bunches, removing two or three leaves if they seem clumsy and heavy.
Then work these four bunches into an integrated composition. When you are satisfied with it take it apart, cut the strings, and make a hand bouquet with the same material. Arrange it child-fashion, holding the flowers in your left hand. Place the hyacinths in the hand, as if they were small blue plumes, circle them with the violets, circle the violets " with the forget-me-nots; then ruff with violet leaves, bind the stems securely with raffia or cord, and place in a footed goblet. If you have four different coloured goblets, test how the colour of each flower seems to fade or brighten depending on the goblet in which the bouquet is placed.
Massed arrangements are merely many bunches grouped together, either short or long stemmed. It is best to keep all short bunches in one arrangement, the long in another. They can be mixed but it involves mechanical difficulties that are better left for another year. Massed arrangements have an extravagant, free-handed character. They are an unlaboured way for a beginner to create a bold effect.But remember they require a generous supply of flowers.
Bunch separately ten stems of pink-edged white tulips, ten medium pink tulips, and ten black-purple and let them arrange themselves in an ironstone pitcher. Try the black-purples high and at the back of the container, then shorten the rest perhaps two inches and place it in the front of the arrangement. Do you see any difference? Then, if you have the patience, loosen the bunches and distribute the colours up and down and all over. Which arrangement seems the boldest?
Stylised arrangements are frankly artificial, all for show and effect. They contradict all the laws and ways of nature. They are gay and amusing as party decorations but rather tiresome to live with day in and day out. In stylised arrangements you consider the flower not as a flower but as a piece of material with colour and form.
A simple stylisation is to mass or form a number of identical flower heads into one exaggerated blossom. Because the weak stem of the "Fantasy" tulip makes it a rather unreliable general arrangement flower, massing is a fine way to use it effectively. Take a dozen, cut the stems from three to seven inches ( the length is arbitrary and will vary depending on the size and quality of the flower ), and mass them into one giant rounded flower head. When finished it should look like an exotic, exaggerated rhododendron blossom. It is surprisingly easy to construct.
Take a finger bowl and pack it firmly with chicken wire, tying it in place if it moves about. Then mound the flowers in this and place them closely together, touching each other. They should completely hide and cover the bowl. Next place the bowl and flowers on a small cake or fruit compote, the flowers coming to the edge of the compote so that all the mechanics are invisible. Experiment in the same way with Dutch Iris . . . use one colour for an arrangement—all yellow, or white, or blue—rather than mixing the colours. Try them mixed and see if you don't prefer the solid colour.
After you feel completely at ease making simple arrangements, then investigate—if it interests you—the intricacies of line, point, and period arrangements. But, above all, continue to practice and experiment, asking yourself questions incessantly.