Annabelle Hickson: Anyone can be a florist

Who says flower arranging is just for the pros? You don’t have to be the next Constance Spry and virtually anything is vase-worthy, says self-taught ‘bloom wrangler’ Annabelle Hickson.

Experimenting and playing with flowers is one of the greatest joys because it opens your eyes to the beautiful things growing around you. The ones that are already there, doing their thing, that you didn’t have to buy or water or prune. You start to notice them. A bit like words whose meanings you’ve just learnt, you start to see them everywhere. 

And the more you think about flowers for your home, the more you start to see the outside world through a kind of flower filter. You pay attention to what nature is doing around you, and even to the bits and pieces beyond the natural world. Old rusty buckets morph from junk destined for the tip into the perfect vessel for the mass of jasmine hanging over Mr Smith’s fence, which you will pinch in the dead of night.

Annabelle Hickson
Don’t be afraid to size up your bouquets, says Annabelle, who took up floristry after upping sticks from the city to a farm in Australia’s New South Wales. Here, chestnut branches from a neighbour’s tree wait to be transformed. Image: Annabelle Hickson

There are writers who say that one of the greatest unexpected consequences of writing is that you become a better reader. Similarly, I would say that working with flowers can help you become a better observer of the natural world. Anything that helps you focus on what is beautiful and interesting in your daily life, when so much can feel mundane and repetitive, should be cherished. 

So if, like me, you sometimes hear an annoying voice in your head that yells, ‘Put down the flowers and do something useful with your life,’ just ignore it. Continue to remove the thorns from your rose stems knowing you are on to a good thing – it’s a practice that can bring meaning, beauty and cause for celebration into your everyday life and that of those around you.

Annabelle Hickson
The wow factor here is achieved with different proportions and a colour scheme that includes white philadelphus branches and snowball viburnums, and pink wisteria and statice. Image: Annabelle Hickson

You do not have to be a trained florist to, as Constance Spry would say, ‘do the flowers’. I’m certainly not. I have come to flowers and foliage simply because I love to look at, touch and smell them. I want them to fill my kitchen and adorn my world for festivities big and small. Because I don’t have a full-time florist on hand to execute my vision, I’ve taken on the role myself. And, let me tell you, I have not encountered a single stern-faced gatekeeper along the way saying, ‘Mrs Hickson, drop the dahlias – you are simply not qualified for this.’ 

Just as you do not have to be a trained chef to cook delicious things at home, so too is the world of domestic florality open to anyone keen to give it a go.

See the following pages for my tips on making arrangements in a style that I personally like: a little whimsical and enormous wherever possible. Keep in mind that nothing has to be complicated to be good. 

First, do your prep

When it comes to cooking, I am a chop-on-demand kind of girl, but with flowers I like to have them all prepped and ready before I start arranging. I like putting flowers together quickly, before I have a chance to overthink them, and this process is helped if I have already cleaned the stems.

To prep your flowers, trim off the bottom leaves on each stem – any leaves that would sit below the water line in your vase will soil the water and reduce the life of your blooms. Next, make a diagonal cut at the bottom of each stem before putting them in a bucket of water, ready for your arrangement. The diagonal cut increases the surface area of the stems and stops them from sitting flush at the bottom of the vessel, which helpswith water uptake.

Annabelle Hickson
Playing with – and even around – the flowers like Annabelle’s children Tom and Harriet will give them more buzz. Here an old milk churn acts as a vase for Queen Anne’s lace – which grows wild in hedgerows all summer long. Image: Annabelle Hickson

If you are using roses you can easily remove the thorns by holding the flower near its head with your non-dominant hand. Then, with your other hand, clutch the stem with a thick tea towel folded in half and pull it down the stem, removing the thorns as you go.

When arranging, start by creating the general shape of your display with foliage, using chicken wire as a base. You might want to thin out the leaves a bit by snipping some off – you don’t want it to look too heavy. Insert the stems into a more-or-less central spot in the chicken wire so that they come out at different angles and depths. It’s helpful to keep this spot in mind as you arrange, imagining that the flowers should all explode like a firework from this point. I love an asymmetric explosion with a high side on the left, a low side on the right (or vice versa) and some negative space in the middle.

Size really does matter

The flower-to-vase ratio is important. When you look at floral arrangements from the bottom of the vase to the top of the flowers, you want to see two-thirds plant material and one-third vase, or at the very least, half and half. It is much more effective to work in groups of three of the same flower rather than just one, especially in larger arrangements. For example, with roses, stagger in groups of three, aiming for pockets of colour. Then add some bigger flowers, such as peonies or dahlias.

DO

Annabelle Hickson
Annabelle Hickson

This tiny vase of cosmos flowers looks great. The proportions are right and the cosmos sit freely in the vase.

DON’T

Annabelle Hickson
Annabelle Hickson

In this arrangement, there is far more vase than cosmos, making it look stiff and uninspiring.

Play with the palette

Choose your flower colour scheme in the same way you would put together an outfit. I like to work with shades that are close to each other on the colour wheel rather than opposite. I adore buff tones with apricots and browns; pinks with purples or reds, and yellows with whites. You may have different preferences, but it is worthwhile to start with a limited colour scheme, playing around and moving on from there. If you are working with sweeter colours, such as bright pinks and yellows, it’s often a good idea to add a bit of brown or a ‘dirty’ colour to tone down the arrangement.

Annabelle Hickson
Branches of blossom – here from the fragrant spring-blooming tree paulownia – will make a big impact; they’re sweet-smelling too. Image: Annabelle Hickson

Bearing your floral colour palette in mind, choose some foliage and other textural pieces, such as grass or branches with berries, to go with the flowers. Any little bits you can pick from the side of the road or a garden will help to give the arrangement a more natural, wild-and-woolly vibe.

Then clear the most suitable table you own, pile the flowers and foliage upon it, get a pair of secateurs and prepare some clean buckets filled one third of the way with water. Now you’re ready to make like you’re a very important Parisian florist.

This is an edited extract from A Tree in the House by Annabelle Hickson, which is published by Hardie Grant, price £25