Fix that blooming bouquet

Nothing is more enticing than a flower-filled garden. It encourages us to gather blooms by the armload and bring them indoors. Then, as we are faced with a mound of unorganized color alongside an empty vase and with the uncertainty as to which bloom to pick up first, our enthusiasm wanes as quickly as a punctured balloon goes flat. We could, of course, drop in the flowers as a bunch, but that's the easy way out.

Fixing a bouquet is a lot like planting a border. Both need a sound foundation and follow the same fundamental design principles.

Whereas a garden is prepared to promote strong root development, a flower arrangement depends for its stability on the firm footing of a holder to keep stems from falling out of place.

The holder can be plastic foam (Oasis being probably the most familiar brand), which is the easiest to work with, especially in a tall vase, or it can be a flower holder composed of sharp, closely set spikes. This latter type should be secured to the bottom of the vase with floral clay. It doesn't take an Einstein to figure out that the best location for tall flowers -- be they in the ground or on a table -- is at the back of a design so they don't obscure what's in front. At the rear, too, stately blooms create a background for shorter ones.

A gardener learns early that in a border, flowers of different kinds don't produce much of an effect if they're dotted around individually -- one here, another there. Instead he groups them in rows or drifts. In a container (the catchall term applying to a vase, bowl, compote, urn, or whatever), they're done more or less that way, too. But whereas in a bed the snapdragons, for example, would all be fairly uniform in height and stand reasonably straight, in a flower arrangement you'd want some to curve o r lean at an angle. If they don't, you can correct that by cutting stems at varying lengths and inserting them in the holder to spread out like the ribs of an open fan.

The dimensions of a bed determine the number of flowers that will fit in it. But the choice of whether you plant it with a mass of small flowers or fewer bigger ones is up to you. With a vase, its character and size control the nature of the contents. If it's a large and important-looking one, the plant materials displayed in it should be, too. By the same token, you would hardly pick peonies or brightly colored jumbo zinnias for a dainty pastel porcelain basket.

Because the container is so decisive in setting not just the tone of an arrangement but the scale and proportion of the flowers as well, it's not a bad idea to take it into the garden with you when you collect your flowers. This way you can better judge relative sizes, heights, and colors and can estimate the quantity you'll need, thus avoiding waste.

Holding blooms of one kind or another against a container also helps train your eye. Until you've actually made the comparison, you might not realize how much better a soft-colored rose looks in a mellow pewter goblet than in a shiny brass bucket that would be far more congenial with marigolds. Then, too, you won't make the mistake of cutting 6-inch-high liatris for a foot-tall beaker, because you'll be able to see right off how lost they'll seem. One of the first rules an arranger learns is that the ta llest point of a floral design needs to be at least 11/2 times as great as the highest or widest dimension of the container, depending on which one measures more.

With your container at your side, you'll be inclined to put the flowers directly in it, perhaps even making the arrangement on the spot in the garden. But if you do, you might be sorry. What you would save in time you'd lose in the life of your plant materials. For flowers to remain fresh for the longest possible time, they must first be hardened.

To do this, cut the stems on a slant to expose the broadest attainable surface for taking up moisture, then stand them in a bucket of deep, fresh, clean, lukewarm water (their heads above it) for several hours in a cool, sunless place. Thus fortified, they can endure longer the more meager supply of moisture encountered on display. So when you journey into the garden with your vase and sharp clippers (a necessity), carry a pail of water with you and plop your posies into it as fast as you cut them .

In collecting, be guided by the functions the flowers will serve in the design. Choose tall, spiky types like snapdragons, bells of Ireland, delphinium, or liatris to frame the arrangement and set its balance and axis. In scouting out candidates, look for the tallest, straightest, and most statuesque flower and assign it the central quarterback position on the team. Its height, as noted earlier, should be measured in proportion to the container.

Picture your design as taking the shape of tiers of fans cut progressively shorter, each layer superimposed on the one above it.

In spacing through, strive for an airy, open appearance and don't jam up flowers against each other. If you were setting out plants in the garden, you'd leave growing distance between them, and the same holds true in a cut-flower composition -- except that in this setting the distance is called ``nodding.''

As you build your design, follow the semicircular outline made by the first row, cutting stems shorter and shorter the closer the blossoms are drawn to the center and to the rim of the container. In the second tier, you could use salvia, plumed celosia, astilbe, or heather, or even sprays of clethra or lacy fern.

As you fill in the design, you could mix in some nicotiana, daisies, yarrow, or cosmos, depending on what you have and your color scheme. To create depth, the mark of a true arranger, tilt some flower heads forward and turn others to face slightly right and left.

For the heart of your design -- as well as its focus -- incorporate larger flowers such as zinnias, marigolds, lilies, or hydrangeas, to give you a few ideas, but include at least two or three of whichever kinds you choose. The repetition, although the colors needn't necessarily all be the same so long as they blend, will give the design continuity.

The sharp differences in shape between spiky and round flowers are almost certain to leave gaps. You can fill these in without spoiling the light, airy effect by tucking in what are called transitional materials. Examples of this class are statice, pompon chrysanthemums, buds, deutzia, and springs of small-leaved foliage.

Foliage is useful in other ways, too. Added at the back as the very last step, purple-leaf plum, ligustrum, or euonymus lends finish and richness to the arrangement. And if you really want to convey the notion that you know what you're doing, poke in a couple of ivy or hosta leaves (previously soaked in water for two or three hours so they'll last) down low in front to drape over the container and soften its hard edge.

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