The holidays will soon be here and one way to celebrate the season is with a floral arrangement or two. Placed on a kitchen or dining room table, a coffee table, mantlepiece or a countertop, flowers make a room festive and inviting. Whether you buy fresh flowers, or receive them as a gift, you can often extend their vase life from three or four days to as much as two weeks.
“If you buy cut flowers, the first thing you should do is strip the bottom leaves off the stems,” says Heidi Joynt of Field & Florist, an instructor at the Chicago Botanic Garden. “If you don’t, the leaves decay and bacteria will grow in the water.” Bacteria cause the common green film that forms at the bottom of a vase and shortens the life of the arrangement.
Joynt recommends changing the water every day and adding a drop of bleach. “It sounds counterintuitive, but a drop of bleach will keep bacteria down and won’t harm the flowers.” Place the arrangement away from direct sunlight and heat. A fan, radiator, or forced air vent will cause the flowers to dry out prematurely if they are placed too close.
It’s easy to make your own bouquet with store-bought flowers. “It’s a lot of fun,” Joynt says. “Sometimes you can go crazy with colors and textures, but if you limit your color palette, you’ll be more successful. Choose a color and let it guide the process.”
Flower arranging starts with picking a flower color that you’re drawn to, such as berry. “Use it with magenta, bright pink, and red—leave out yellows and oranges, and that helps keep the arrangement simple,” Joynt says. “When there are lots of different colors, your eyes don’t know where to go.”
For a centerpiece arrangement, she might use a container that’s 5 or 6 inches tall and wide. “The centerpiece should be low and lush so you can keep eye-to-eye contact with your guests.” If you want a taller arrangement, she suggests placing your elbow on the table with your arm straight up. The maximum height of the arrangement should be at your wrist so that you can still see across the table.
Although many stores sell green floral foam to hold stems under water, Joynt discourages their use because they are not easily biodegradable. Instead, she prefers floral “frogs”—glass or metal disks with holes or pins. The frogs are placed inside a bowl or vase where they hold the stems upright. Strips of clear floral tape, available at craft stores, can be criss-crossed on the top of a bowl or vase to hold stems in place, too.
Don’t overlook your garden for sources of seed heads, pods, dried leaves, and colorful stems. Red-twig dogwood or curly willow stems, seed heads from ornamental grasses, poppies and coneflowers, rose hips, hydrangea blossoms, and tiny branches snipped from evergreens can enhance your autumn and winter arrangements.
“You can forage for things like thistle heads,” Joynt said. “Some of these things are hard to find in flower shops, but they have a wild, seasonal quality.” Ninebark (Physocarpus) branches, holly with red berries, and viburnum berries join some of her creations.
The idea for an arrangement may come to her as she builds a base of leaves for texture. “I love working with foliage, especially evergreens like blue-gray juniper with bright green cedar. Sometimes I use dark blue privet berries, which are wonderful if you have a white dusty gray-green palette.”
Heidi Joynt collects blooms from the "Field" part of her business with Molly Kobelt.
“Building a lush, seasonal tablescape is such a beautiful way to greet your guests,” Joynt said. “It’s the idea of abundance, celebrating the harvest, gratitude, and being together.”
Small champagne grapes can be tucked among the flowers and around the base of the arrangement. Along the length of the table, bittersweet vines are added for another dimension. “They could be used in the arrangement and then trail down the center of the table.”
Don’t overlook adding candles of different sizes or placing them on pedestals of different height. Fresh fruits, such as pomegranates, apples, and pears, along with sprigs of herbs, can be worked in and around the centerpiece. “It’s fun to use edibles like wild thyme. And rosemary works really well in winter arrangements.”
The best part? You can do this ahead of time, arranging the tablescape the night before or the morning of a party before you set the table. Let the celebrations begin.
Nina Koziol is a garden writer and horticulturist who lives and gardens in Palos Park, Illinois.