Mechanics of flower arranging

The practical approach to arranging flowers starts with the acquisition of the flowers themselves. They may be home grown, bought from a florist, or received as a gift.

Choosing the flowers

When you pick flowers from your garden or buy them from your florist, try to select various sorts that will go well together. For instance, do not take spiked flowers entirely, such as gladioli, snapdragons, and delphiniums. Seek a combination such as peonies (a ball shape), delphiniums (a spike), and lilies (trumpet-shaped). They are much easier to arrange and create a much more pleasing effect than all of one type.

If they are bought, to be sure of getting fresh flowers it is wise to find a good florist and stick to him. Every reliable business man wants to please his customers.

Don't buy flowers that the florist has used in window displays, where they suffer from exposure to glaring sunlight or to the heat of the electric lights that illuminate the show windows.

If a large quantity of flowers is needed to decorate a house or room for a single occasion, and quantity rather than lasting quality is the objective, it is frequently possible to get them at a good price by letting the florist know in advance that on a certain day you will take an assortment of his cut stock that is near the end of its vigor. The flowers will stand up for the occasion for which you want them, and probably expire soon afterward, but this is what you have bargained for.

Finding fresh flowers

All flowers except stock should feel crisp. In buying a rose, the buds and leaves should feel crisp. A soft flowerhead means that the rose is "pickled"-that it has collected so much moisture that it is waterlogged. A black stem means that the rose has been in water too long. Buy green-stemmed roses only. Petals of a fresh rose should pop at a pinch. If a snapdragon or a gladiolus is waterlogged, the water in the stems actually may be felt. Always buy strong-stemmed flowers.

The safest time to buy any flower is when it is most copiously displayed in the florist shop, indicating that it is at the height of its blooming period and thus at its healthiest.

A waterlogged, old orchid sometimes shows bruise-like water spots on its petals. A slight brown tint on the backs of chrysanthemum petals indicates great age. Iris petals curl with age, as do petals of bulb flowers. Calla pollen should be yellow; if it is white on the pistil, the flower is getting stale. Chrysanthemums, carnations, and dahlias cannot survive being cut when they are too green. Buy only full-blown ones.

Chrysanthemums and orchids last the longest of cut flowers. Some chrysanthemums last as long as 2 months in water well cared for. Two days is old age for pansies. Gladioli should last almost a week; godetia and pompom dahlias may last almost 2 weeks, lilies, especially regal and auratum lilies, for 10 days. Anemones, zinnias, asters, and the blooms of most flowering shrubs are long-lasting. Statice and strawflowers reach a good age. Tulips may survive 5 or 6 days; they are the longest lasting of the spring-flowering bulbs. Four days is a good, long life for cut roses, snapdragons, stock, cornflowers, carnations, peonies, and Canterburybells.

Making cut flowers last

Aspirin in water to revivify flowers is simply a myth, along with putting a penny in the water. It doesn't hurt flowers but it doesn't help them. When a flower's days have run out, there is no chemical trick for bringing them back to life. Certain chemicals seem to prolong a flower's life because they kill the bacteria which may form in unchanged water. Water stagnated by bacterial action rots stems, causing the death of the flowers.

The bacteria may be combated as well by changing the water at least once a day, cutting the stems daily and stripping all soft foliage from the portion of the stems under water.

The best time to cut flowers is in later afternoon, after the sun has gone down, or in early morning, when the dew is still on them. Plunge them up to the neck in a bucket of cold water and leave them there at least 2 or 3 hours. If there is room, put them in the icebox overnight. The ordinary icebox temperature of a few degrees above 4o is perfect for cut flowers. Freezing temperature, however, ruins them, so when a window is opened during freezing weather, take flowers out of the draft. Heat also harms cut flowers, so do not stand them on or near a radiator. If the room which they are to decorate is heated, put a pan of water on the radiator, a simple home method of moistening the air.

Special stem treatment

When cutting the stems of poppies, poinsettia, euphorbia, and other plants that contain milk vital to the flower's life, put a flame to the cut to seal in the fluid and keep the flower from bleeding to death. The cut in a dahlia, which carries its vital fluid in the portion of the stalk about the stem hollow, may be sealed by dipping it in scalding water.

Crush the stems of hard-stemmed flowers such as peonies and chrysanthemums at the bottom so that they can imbibe water more readily. Stock has a stem so hard that it must be hammered. The blooms of woody plants, such as quince and forsythia, come on hard branches that require two cross cuts at the end with a sharp knife.
The waterlily is an exceedingly delicate bloom which has a tendency to close up when cut, but a few drops of paraffin poured into the centre of the flower will hold it open. The petals of a chrysanthemum hang together so that if one drops they all start to shed; if one petal falls out, drip tallow into the hole it leaves to preserve the flower head.

When cutting rose stems, always use a sharp knife and cut on a slant to give the flower the widest possible mouth for drinking. Roses carry their water in a thin skin inside the bark, and cutting with scissors might squeeze this skin into the bark and block the waterway.

The heads of carnations, peonies, and roses should be sprinkled with water to harden the petals, and blooms and foliage of gardenia should be drenched. On the other hand, petals of lilies, orchids, and sweet peas are spotted by sprinkling.


Flower holders comprise the most important equipment in flower arranging. One of the easiest and most efficient holders to use is the needlepoint holder, which is simply a leaded base from which rises a dense cluster of sharp needles. The ends of flower stems may be stuck onto it in almost any position. Individual preference may be for other types of holders, however, such as the hairpin type, a nest of wire loops rising from a base. Even the old-fashioned "Birdcage," which is a framework of crossed wires in the form of a half-sphere, has its use for a mass arrangement. Try placing one firmly on top of a smaller needlepoint holder.

If no holder is available, tall containers may be packed with sphagnum moss, fern, or evergreen clippings to hold stems in place and support them.

The perfect holder does not exist. This would synthesize the very soil in which the flower grows. It would be a substance through which the flowers could receive moisture and which, at the same time, would support the stems. Someday someone may devise such a holder and make a fortune with it.

Holders should be anchored to the bottom of the container with modelling clay. A handful of crumpled chicken wire, placed in a tall, wide-mouthed container over the holder, gives additional support to long stems or branches which cannot rest against the sides of the container. In addition, the mouth may be stuffed with foliage to form a verdant surface from which the flowers rise from the rim of opaque containers.

Foliage as a Holder. In using foliage for a prop, use the flowers' own foliage. Leaves have a definite relationship to the flowers of the plants they adorn. For example, the ugly foliage of the orchid is a fitting background for the bloom, enhancing by contrast the gorgeous colour and delicate texture of the flower; and the austere leaves of such showy flowers as calla are a fitting complement to the bloom.

Wire supports

Wire is used to shape stems into positions which the arranger wishes them to assume, splices broken stems, and helps to support heavy flower heads. If you are working with hollow stem flowers, such as the dahlia, you may run the wire right up the hollow. With other flowers, however, the wire should be wrapped firmly but lightly around the stems. Do not wrap foliage to the stem-leave it in place to conceal the wire. Keep two spools of wire on hand: Number 18 for stiff flowers and Number 24 for softer stems.

Wire should be used only when absolutely necessary, and then as discreetly as possible, so that there is no possibility of its showing. Otherwise, instead of adding to the beauty of an arrangement it creates a stiff unnatural effect.

Almost every quantity of flowers that you obtain, whether from the garden or from the florist, offers numerous composition possibilities. Get a design in mind and group the flowers toward that outline. The mental picture of the outline is simply your guide. Making the decoration geometrically exact would produce a forbidding stiffness. Following an outline in general terms is simply to make the decoration shapely instead of shapeless, in other words to make it a composition.

Appropriate to setting

Common sense is always a sound guide in arranging flowers. For instance, if you were preparing a container of flowers for use on a dining room table you would not think of using a tall, massive composition; the diners could not see one another without shifting or craning to peer around it. If the decoration were to ostand in front of a mirror, it would not be of such size or form as to hide the mirror and destroy its function, which is to reflect. A good decoration should improve, not detract from, the setting in which it is used.

If the problem involves the use of a large quantity of flowers in a small room, its solution certainly does not lie in jamming all the flowers into a single container, thus dwarfing the room. On the other hand, by dividing the flowers and using them in several compositions, decorations are provided to adorn several parts of the room.

It is not difficult to handle flowers neatly and they do not have to be arranged in the kitchen or on the back porch. It is wise to put the composition together at the spot which it will decorate.

Colour combinations

The combining of colours leads into one of the trickiest fields of human expression. Whole libraries have been written on the subject, and a thorough investigation of it would demand tremendous scholarly and scientific pursuit ranging from aesthetics to psychology to industrial art. This book proposes to confine its discussion merely to a reminder to those who group flowers for decorative purposes that their colour combinations should always be pleasing to the human eye.

When two or three colours are used together it is wise to follow a few simple rules, based on a rudimentary examination of a standard colour wheel. This wheel usually lists twelve colours, primary, secondary, and tertiary. Those next to each other on the wheel are analogous. Those opposite are complementary. Colours next to each other on the wheel harmonize through the subtle relationship in shading and difference that places them adjacently. Colours opposite one another on the wheel go together in boldly contrasting effect. Colours at right angles to one another on the wheel are likely to be discordant and combinations of them are better left alone by those not familiar with colour harmonies.

If a mixture of many colours is to be employed, they should be tied together by the plentiful use of foliage greenery, which is nature's blending agent. But the use of not more than three predominant hues in any arrangement yields better results.

The home flower decorator will be well aided by the powers of observation in the selection of colours. The colours of a room-the walls, the drapes, the upholstery-will suggest that they be carried out in the flowers to decorate the room. Don't be afraid of your own taste and don't fear to adventure among colour combinations of flowers. Good taste is not the exclusive possession of any limited group. The American people through the activities of garden clubs and other organizations, through the promotions of apparel designers and furniture, fabrics and paint manufacturers, through the consumer services of magazines and newspapers, are constantly given instructive information with which to enhance their own instinctive reactions.

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