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  • Writer's pictureMarni Jameson

Raise Your Flower Arranging Game with These 12 Tips from Top Floral Designers

A few months ago, I wrote about the not-so-pretty side of the floral industry. I learned, in addition to the fact that it’s not all a bed of roses, that the quality of flowers you and I can buy at Costco, Trader Joe’s and some grocery stores, is as good or better than what the floral shops buy. The key difference between our buying flowers direct and florists buying them is that they know what do to with them.

Great floral design is an art. When you want to send flowers for a special occasion, or you’re having one yourself, like a wedding, you want a fantastic floral designer on the job. But what about those in between times, those weeks when you just want to add a little gracious to your living?

Bringing home store-bought flowers is an easy way to do that. However, when I buy a bunch of flowers and plunk them in a vase, it looks like I, well, bought a bunch of flowers and plunked them in a vase. To find out how to take that grocery store bunch from meh to wow! I picked the brains of two top floral designers.

Barbara King owns Valley Forge Flowers, in Wayne, Penn., and has been a regular on the QVC television home shopping network for over 20 years, and now has her own line of outdoor living products on the show.

“Our customers often say, ‘I don’t want it to look like came from a flower shop,’” she said, laughing.

“So the goal is to try to look like you didn’t try?” I asked, to be clear.

“Pretty much,” she said.

Steve Rittner is a third-generation florist who teaches floral design classes at Rittners School of Floral Design, in Boston. His grandfather founded the school 70 years ago. “When I was a munchkin, the talk around the dinner table was about flowers, flowers, flowers,” he said.

Here's what they said we could do to boost the oooh and ahhh factor of our store-bought flowers:

1. Add something from your own yard. “If the flowers you bring home from the grocery store have an FTD look about them,” King said, “go outside, cut something from the yard and stick it in the arrangement. You will transform the arrangement into one that looks organic, and bring your outdoors inside."

2. Visit the herb garden. If you grow herbs in your yard, snip sprigs of rosemary, thyme, parsley, etc. If you don’t grow herbs, visit the produce aisle of your grocery store. Adding herbs to a floral arrangement is especially nice for dining room centerpieces because the herbs’ smell compliments the meal.

3. Cut stems short. Create a chic arrangement by cutting the stems short, so flowers fall just above the rim of the vase in a mound that is low and compact. Replace the typical fern leaf that comes with the bunch with vinca vine or other less-expected greenery.

4. Add a seasonal flourish. When putting flowers in a clear vase, embellish the water with fall crab apples, winter cranberries, and slices of summer citrus. This fall, perk up a bouquet of boring mums by nesting in small bunches of colored cauliflower or fall leaves, King said. Glass stones and pebbles dropped into clear containers can also add color, texture and interest.

5. Choose alternative containers. An interesting vase will automatically upscale the design, Rittner said. Collect several pretty vases a cut above mason jars. Search your cookware for a wine chiller or soup tureen. Keep non-waterproof containers from leaking by inserting a clear vase, a thin plastic liner or even a plastic bag into the vessel.

6. Branch out. Whether you have bouquets of hydrangea, roses, sunflowers or a mixed bunch, you can never go wrong adding “branchy stuff,” Rittner said. Curly willow, birch branch, kiwi vine, or eucalyptus will instantly make an arrangement look larger and more interesting.

7. Arrange in hand. For a natural “hand-picked” look, arrange flowers in your hand, Rittner said. Lay flowers across one palm and hold them like a nosegay. Adjust them until you like the mix. Tie stems with a pipe cleaner or raffia. Then cut the stems and drop them in water.

8. Don’t fear the foam. Foam-based arrangements let you put flowers where you want and hold them there. Soak floral foam in water for five minutes, and cut it to fit snugly in your container. If you let it stick up half an inch or more over the rim, you can add stems horizontally. When pushing stems into the foam, hold the freshly cut stem low and feed it into the wet foam gently. Don’t hold the stem high and jam it in or you can clog it.

9. Don’t sniff at fakes. “Using artificial flowers used to be a big no-no,” King said, “but they are so superior now. They look real, and even feel real. It’s such a trick of the eye, even professionals can’t spot them.”

10. Moss it over. Because the underpinnings of foam-based arrangements aren’t always pretty, cover your mechanics with a layer of moss, Rittner said. You can find Spanish or sheet moss at floral supply or hobby stores.

11. Don’t get hung up on rules. Some say you can only mix tropical flowers with tropical flowers. Others get snobby about mixing expensive with inexpensive flowers. Nonsense, Rittner said. “You can mix protea with roses, or bird of paradise with bells of Ireland, and come up with really interesting floral art. And I won’t hesitate to mix hydrangea with inexpensive carnations.”

12. Dip and crown. No flower leaves King’s shop without being treated with Quick Dip, which prolongs flower life by preventing stems from clogging, and Crowning Glory, which she sprays on finished arrangements to seal and protect them. Both are available online.

Photo caption: Be Your Own Florist — For a festive fall centerpiece, try hollowing out a pumpkin. Drop in a plastic liner or a glass vase filled with floral foam. Fill the foam with seasonal flowers, branch material, Spanish moss and dried peppers or pepper berries. Prop the pumpkin top against the arrangement as a finishing touch. Photo courtesy of Rittners Floral School.

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