Fresh flowers: The picks and tricks

With Chelsea back in bloom this week, gardener Grace Alexander reveals how you can turn your home into your very own flower show

Harvest your flowers, especially dahlias and roses, then combine with herbs, fruiting branches and vegetables in urns and vases in the house.

I may have to break this to you gently but your fantasies of cutting flowers in a floaty dress and laying them in a wicker trug? You can harvest tomatoes like this if you wish, even runner beans or beetroot if you must, but not flowers.

Practical and easy to manoeuvre, a garden trolley is a huge bonus if you have lots of flowers and buckets to carry

Aside from the fact that flowers cut best first thing in the morning – definitely not floaty dress weather – you need to cut them into water. So first and foremost you’ll want a robust bucket, preferably with two handles as water can be heavy, and a trug. In fact, if you have to carry lots of flowers and their containers, I strongly recommend a good garden trolley, too.

My kitchen garden, which was once my back lawn, boasts not just vegetables but a tap, too, which makes filling up buckets for my cut flowers a lot easier.

Each time you cut a stem, remove the lower leaves – these they will go into the trug; the stripped stem goes into the bucket of water. How many leaves you strip off is a matter of taste, but when you place them in a vase, any leaves below the waterline will rot and reduce the life of your flowers significantly.

Remember always to cut your flowers when they are just starting to come out. Roses are best cut when the sepals have turned back. Cosmos when one single petal has turned out. Peonies when their buds are soft but not yet unfurled. Foxgloves, delphiniums and lupins when about a third of the flowers are open and two thirds are still in bud. The exception is dahlias, which do have to be open.

At the dinner table, opt for just a few focal flowers for drama, some foliage for background and a couple of fillers for scent. Any urns or jugs shouldn’t be higher than your guests’ chins when seated – otherwise they will get in the way of conversation.

As fading or ‘over’ flowers won’t last in the vase any better than on the plant, deadhead as you go along, and put those flowers into the trug. Dahlias and roses particularly benefit from you keeping on top of this.

Your flowers will then need a rest and a drink in the bucket of water before they’re ready to arrange. Anywhere cool, airy and dark is perfect. Think of how you would dry your washing on a washing line, and do the complete opposite: keep them away from any sunshine or breezes. If you cut in the morning, then a daytime rest is enough. If you cut in the evening, leave them overnight.

While a willow-branch rich can be an attractive feature, be aware that will branches pushed straight into the ground are likely to root. If you want a living sculpture, that’s fine but it is an assertive plant and gets very big. Willow needs to be completely dried out before it is let anywhere near soil to make sure it doesn’t do this.

Then, once you’ve got your fresh flowers in their vase, the same principles apply. Keep them cool and out of direct sunlight and, of course, change the water religiously – think every day.

HOW TO CREATE A SEASONAL BOUQUET

While flower arrangements for myself tend to be simple – a mug with a rose in it, or an old ink bottle with grasses and seed heads – creating a seasonal bunch to give away is such a joy and simple, too.

Flowers cut at their best first ting in the morning. If the dew is heavy or it’s raining, still cut but make sure the flowers aren’t packed tightly into your bucket.

YOU WILL NEED

7 stems of flowers
7 stems of foliage
7 seedheads, stems or fruits string or garden twine brown paper

  • Start by removing any unwanted leaves from each stem to avoid them getting in the way.
  • Lay out all your flowers and bits of greenery on a table in front of you, and take up the first piece in your non-dominant hand.
  • Use your other hand to pick up and add the different stems, alternating foliage, filler and flowers so everything doesn’t clump together and come out looking lopsided.
  • Keep the hand holding the flowers quite relaxed, forming a circle with your fingers and thumb, so that your hand can actasifitistheneckofavase, then just keep dropping the flowers through the circle.
  • Alternatively, if this feels a bit difficult, use a jug or vase with a narrow neck and keep adding your foliage, fillers and flowers.
  • Once you are happy with your arrangement, tie a piece of string around the stems in your hand or the neck of the vase or jug and tighten.
  • Finally, for a professional touch, wrap using brown paper

This is an edited extract from Grow and Gather: A Gardener’s Guide to a Year of Cut Flowers by Grace Alexander (Quadrille, priced £20)

MAKE YOUR BLOOMS LAST…

…with florist Marianne Johnson’s flower-arranging tips

When choosing flowers, either from your garden or shop-bought, look for ones that are tight in bud or just starting to open, with any stem leaves green and firm, not floppy or yellowing.

Before putting in water, trim about 2cm off the bottom of each stem and cut at an angle to increase the surface area that is exposed to water. Woody stems such as hydrangea and lilac need more of a boost, so add a slit up the stem, too. Take off any leaves that will sit below the water line and, to keep your water clean, change it regularly and snip the ends each time again.

For tall stems you will need a container at least half their height to avoid droopy heads. Blowsy flowers such as peonies and roses need space to open, so wide-neck vases suit them – I’m a fan of curved vases that echo their shape and let them unfurl.

When you are low on vases, jugs work really well for mid-length flowers and tumblers for shorter ones. My current obsession is filling different ceramic water jugs with fresh flowers and simple foliage – I love how the wide neck encourages the greenery to trail out for a rustic look.

Marianne is founder of sweetpeaflowers.co.uk

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