Pacific Northwest | June 22, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineJune 22, home
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Avoiding Flower Flop
Following a few basics can keep bouquets blooming
A hanging vase near the porch displays the garden's blooming bounty every time you walk in or out the front door. Cut flowers will stay fresh for as long as two weeks outside if kept out of the direct sun and replenished with clean water.
You know we've finally passed the solstice when the garden spills forth armloads of flowers and foliage to cut for the house. Bowls of fragrant roses or jugs of sun-ripe dahlias speak summer as clearly as picnics on the beach or a Mariners game with the roof open. Harvesting the garden for indoor display is every bit as worthy a reason for gardening as gathering herbs and vegetables for the table. Next to my computer as I write is a fat orange glass stuffed with a spray of deep purple, sweetly scented lilacs, inspiring this column with their long-lasting loveliness.

If you plan to plunder the garden and part flowers from their roots, it seems important to keep them fresh as long as possible. How flowers are handled after cutting determines whether they wither away quickly or stay plump and blooming for days. Who should know more about all this than florists, who earn their living coddling perishables? I called up some florist friends and asked for their best tips on bringing the garden indoors.

The first bit of wisdom is to cut flowers early in the morning while their moisture content is highest; the evening is OK, too, if it hasn't been a long, hot day. When you're watering pots at daybreak, or are out on slug patrol just before dark, take a few minutes to snip some leaves and blossoms. Plunge stems directly into a clean pail of water right up to their necks, and put your poor beauties in a cool place for several hours to rest up from the trauma of being cut.
Illustration Now In Bloom
Carex flagellifera 'Kiwi' is a new introduction with unusually colored soft-green foliage spangled with glossy-yellow highlights. Its blades are so slender and light that it appears to shimmer. Like all the little evergreen carexes, its compact (under 18 inches) evergreen foliage is perfect for containers or trimming the border. 'Kiwi' likes full sun and moist soil.
Peonies, tulips, irises and lilies will open slowly and naturally in the vase when cut in loose bud with a little color showing. Roses, however, may not open at all unless cut when the flower is past the bud stage and nearly unfurled. With any kind of flower, avoid discolored leaves or petals, weak stems or fully open flowers. Each is a sure indicator you'll go to all the work of arranging them only to have the flowers quickly flop.

After the flowers have rested, it's time for the fun of arranging. Be scrupulous about using clean vases because bacteria and mold cause flowers to decline. Fill the freshly washed vase with cool water, and to discourage bacteria, add one tablespoon of purchased flower freshener, or one teaspoon of bleach, to every gallon of water. Be sure to strip away all foliage and thorns that would be below the water line, for bacteria builds up quickly if they're left to rot. Topping off, or changing the water often, helps to keep the stems strong and the flowers refreshed. Just think of the flowers gasping as the water line drops in the vase, and you'll be right there with pitcher in hand.

Every florist I spoke with urged cutting each stem again immediately before putting it into the vase. Using a sharp knife or scissors, cut at least 2 inches, at a sharp angle, off the bottom of each stem. Do it quickly because it takes only a few seconds for the stems to scale over, which prevents the flower from absorbing the water it needs to stay looking lively. If the stem or branch is woody, it needs to be pounded with a hammer or split up from the bottom by at least an inch, so the tough ends are able to soak up the water. Warm, rather than cool water, helps woodies to absorb moisture.

If a plant has "bleeding" stems, like poppies, zinnias or euphorbia (be careful, for euphorbia sap can cause a nasty rash), just singe the cut end with a match for several seconds to seal the pores before sticking it into the water.

Carefully handled flowers and branches should carry on lustily for at least a week in the vase, making it well worth denuding the garden a bit for the joy of flowers in the house. Once you've properly conditioned the flowers, arranging them is easy because garden flowers look best in simple arrangements that show off their natural beauty. Forget the frogs, floral tape and foam; you don't need mechanics with lovely, fresh materials. Just stick your bounty loosely in a vase, sniff, and enjoy.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is

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