Years ago I got my hair professionally done for a wedding, and I remember the stylist saying, “I’m going to make it look like you did it yourself.”
At which point I thought, “Then why am I paying you?” Never mind that my hair didn’t look at all like I did it myself. It looked like she left a crew of workers inside propping it up with scaffolding. My hair recovered, but the lesson from that bad, big-hair day stuck: The beauty I most admire looks natural and effortless.
This is just one reason I enjoyed Clare Nolan’s new book, In Bloom: Growing, Harvesting, and Arranging Homegrown Flowers All Year Round (CompanionHouse Books, March 2019). This book is for anyone who is beyond the stiff spray of identical red roses, and who would rather echo the garden a bit more in their homes.
Count me in.
After I picked up Nolan’s book, I picked up the phone and called her at her home in England. As in her book, she kicked off the discussion with a compelling pep talk on why we should grow and harvest flowers at home.
“When you buy flowers at the store, the flowers are all at the same stage,” she says. “With garden flowers, you can mix buds with open blossoms and replicate what is happening in nature.”
And this is why I love what I do. I NEVER THOUGHT OF THAT. “Mixing a bud with a full bloom is the signature of naturalistic style,” Nolan says. “Plus, store-bought flowers often have these upright, straight stems, forced to grow in one direction, which isn’t what they’d do naturally. Flowers from the yard often have a little crazy wiggle, or a bug-nibbled leaf, giveaways that the bunch is homegrown, which adds a bit of magic.”
Snip not only flowers, she encourages, but also fronds, tree branches, stems with seed pods.
I feel a granola craving coming on.
“Plus, it’s cheaper,” she says. Now I’m really tuned in. “When your friend is coming for lunch, you can go outside and pick a bunch of sweet peas that you would pay $10 for in the store, but all it cost you was a packet of seeds. And you make a bouquet that isn’t symmetrical or perfect, but that is personal to you and your garden, and better than money can buy.”
Another reason I like In Bloom is because the photos of arrangements look so attainable,” I tell her.
“I’m so glad you said that,” she says. “I took the pictures myself, which was a risk. But I know how I feel when I pick up a cookbook and make the recipe and look at what I’ve made compared to the photo, and there’s this heart-sinking moment.”
“Every. Single. Time,” I say.
“I really wanted the photos to represent just me in the garden picking stuff I’d grown in real time. I didn’t want photos taken with a 10-person styling team,” says Nolan, who has worked as a writer and stylist for a variety of lifestyle magazines, so would know about that. Still, she tries to keep it real.
Emboldened, I went into my backyard, where I don’t have a formal flower garden. I looked around, and saw plants I’d never paid much attention to let alone thought to clip. I snipped a few boughs of flowering bougainvillea, some long grass, a branch loaded with unripe holly berries, and a few hidden peacock orchids. I plunked them in a clay wine chiller, set them on the kitchen table.
I stepped back and enjoyed a TA-DA! moment. The bouquet looked just like I did it myself, and that’s a beautiful thing.
Here are more of Nolan’s homegrown flower harvesting and arranging tips:
Harvest early and late. Pick flowers early in the morning or late in the day. Don’t cut flowers in the midday heat.
Keep it clean. Cut stems with sharp, clean clippers, and drop them straight into a bucket of water. Let them sit inside in a cool place for a few hours. Prepare your vase. It should be clean enough to drink out of.
Feed them. Add those little packets of flower food to the water. The potion really does prevent bacteria from forming and feeds the flowers.
No yard flowers? Because not everyone has an English garden, Nolan says shoot for a more natural look by getting store flowers and mixing them with greenery from your yard or foraged from a nature walk. “When you mix a bunch of peonies with roses and bring in your own greenery instead of using that rubberized green stuff from the store, it makes all the difference.”
Arrange with flare. To create a hand-tied posy, lay out all your pickings and your clean vase. Strip off any leaves that will fall below the waterline. Lay a few pieces of foliage across the palm of your hand. Add a focal flower, then a few filler flowers. Next – and here’s the pro trick – turn the bunch so stems start to spiral out at the bottom, a bit like the spokes on a wire whisk. Keep adding foliage and flowers, rotating the bunch with every third stem. Position flowers a little lower as you go to create a rounded shape.
Be disruptive. To break the symmetry and “add a little quirk,” pull a few smaller flowers so they stick out a bit, and maybe a branch. Aim for imperfection. Once you’re happy, tie the bunch with a string where you’ve been holding it. (The higher the tie, the tighter the arrangement.) Trim stems at an angle, so they’re even and fit the vase. Then enjoy what money can’t buy.
Bloomin’ Beautiful -- Pulling out a few small flowers disrupts this hand-tied posy’s shape, and gives this mix of mint and salvia leaves, tulips, and weeping birch a naturalist feel. Photo courtesy of Clare Nolan.