Debra Prinzing

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How to choose the freshest bouquets and flowers at your local farmers’ market

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

Field-grown peonies should be selected at the “marshmallow” stage, when the heads have just a little give when squeezed.

Forget flowers grown far from home. You’ll find the best blooms right in your own neighborhood – straight from a local flower farmer.

The growth of local farmers’ markets is staggering – up 17 percent nationwide in 2011, according to the USDA (USDA Farmers’ Market Data). And as more farmers’ markets establish in communities across the U.S., you can be certain to find more beautiful flower stalls, which is great news for the DIY floral designer, hostess and nature- lover.

When you shop at a weekly farmers’ market, look for fresh, seasonal and uncommon floral crops – you’ll be wowed by the selection and quality. Yes, it’s fun to meet the people who grow these blooms. But you can also learn from their experience and knowledge — ask your flower farmer for tips on how to care for their beautiful stems at home. Here are some of the best ways to enjoy farmers’ market flowers and extend their vase life:

Selection: Most farmers harvest their crops as close to market day as possible, ensuring very fresh varieties – straight from the field. Shop early in the morning for the best choice (plus, flowers are always happier when it’s cooler!). If the market is in an uncovered location, expect to see large awnings or umbrellas to keep the floral products out of direct sun. Look at the stall’s hygiene – are the buckets clean and filled with fresh water? Be sure to ask “Where is your farm?” and “Why type of growing practices do you use?” – let the vendor know you appreciate sustainable practices.

What to look for:

  • Shop the Farmers' Market

    Chicago floral designer Lynn Fosbender, owner of Pollen Flowers, relies on Midwest flower farmers for her summertime vase arrangements and bouquets.

    When choosing a mixed bouquet, look at all the ingredients to see that they are equally fresh. The focal flowers, softly-textured delicate elements and foliage should feel plump; not wilted or limp. When selecting a straight bunch, often called a “grower’s bunch,” check that all the stems are similar in length and all the blooms are similar size.

  • Flower heads should be relatively tight on most varieties, ensuring that they will continue to open in the vase on your dining table.
  • Some flowers, such as dahlias, do not open further once cut, so what you see is what you get. Others, like zinnias, can be fully open and they’ll last well over a week.
  • With lilies, such as Stargazer or the Asiatic varieties, choose stems with plump, tight buds and possibly only one full bloom – you’ll have more than a week of enjoyment as those flowers open in succession.
  • Sunflowers should be about half or two-thirds open and will soon look fuller as their petals unfurl in the vase.
  • Tulips should have a tight head with the tips of the foliage as tall as possible (if the tulip head is far above the foliage tips, it means the flowers have been in water for several days, as the stems continue to “grow”).
  • Daffodils that are tight in bud will open beautifully to a full trumpet shape indoors.
  • Peonies should be in the “marshmallow” stage (squeeze the bud gently and you’ll feel a spongy quality – like a marshmallow). If you buy fully-opened peonies, they won’t last long at home.
  • Garden roses should not have tight heads or fully-opened heads; look for a partially open rose head.
  • Tall or spiked flowers, such as delphiniums, gladiolas and snapdragons, should have tight or closed buds along the top one-third of the stem, with the lower two-thirds in bloom; those upper-most buds will open in your vase.
  • Lilacs are not known for lasting more than 5 days or so – but their intoxicating fragrance makes up for their shorter vase life. Pick lilacs with the top florets still in bud.
  • Hydrangeas should be almost fully open and they will need lots of fresh water – up to their necks in a vase – to ensure that the entire stem is hydrated.
  • All stems should be clean, stripped of their bottom foliage, and not slimy. Any remaining leaves should be fresh and un-bruised.


SLOW FLOWERS: Weeks 8 and 9

Sunday, March 3rd, 2013

Been busy here . . . in the midst of Flower & Garden Show season, so I missed last week’s bouquet. Let’s play catch up and here, I’ll feature Week 8 and Week 9:


Oh how I love this combination of everyday garden blooms, including daffodils, forsythia and euphorbia - with a few sprigs of variegated geranium for contrast.

Oh how I love this combination of everyday garden blooms, including daffodils, forsythia and euphorbia – with a few sprigs of variegated geranium for contrast.

The spring green color of new growth is indescribably beautiful.

The spring green color of new growth is indescribably beautiful.

All ingredients were harvested from my Seattle garden:
  • 5 stems donkey tail spurge (Euphorbia myrsinites)
  • 3 stems Euphorbia characias
  • 5 stems variegated rose mint scented geranium (Pelargonium Graveolens Group ‘Variegata’)
  • 7 stems forsythia branches (Forsythia x intermedia)
  • 7 stems daffodils (Narcissus sp.), unknown cultivars
5¾-inch tall x 5-inch diameter glazed ceramic vase
From the Farmer
Working with euphorbia: Most plants in the spurge family produce a milky-white substance when cut. It can be irritating to the skin, so be sure to wear gloves when handling the plant. While harvesting, I place the stems in a bucket of water, separating them from any other cut ingredients. Then I bring them into my kitchen where I dunk the tip of each euphorbia stem into a bowl filled with boiling water from the teakettle. This seals the stems.  Some experts recommend searing the tips in a stove top flame, but that has proven too messy for my liking.


A simple length of linen twine gathers these garden hyacinths. They practically arrange themselves!

A simple length of linen twine gathers these garden hyacinths. They practically arrange themselves!


8 stems hyacinths (Hyacinthus orientalis), grown by Alm Hill Gardens

7-inch tall x 7-inch square glass cube
Detail of the gathered bouquet

Detail of the gathered bouquet

Seasonal Choices

About those long stems: The typical garden hyacinth blooms on a relatively short stem – maybe 4-5 inches at the most. This limits the way hyacinths can be used in floral arrangements. According to Gretchen Hoyt, the way to stretch those stems is to trick them into wanting more light. “The longer you can deny them light, the more they stretch,” she explains. At the commercial flower farm, this process begins in dark coolers where bulbs are pre-chilled. When they are transferred to the greenhouse, the hyacinth crates are placed (in the shadows) beneath tables where tulips grow. If Gretchen wants to elongate those stems even further, “I’ll throw newspaper over them,” she says. Leaving bulbs on the stems is optional, but some designers do so to give the arrangement a rustic appearance.

A meadow in a vase

Saturday, August 21st, 2010

The September issue of Better Homes & Gardens features my “Debra’s Garden” column encouraging readers to add ornamental grasses to their seasonal flower arrangements.  

"Meadow in a vase" is the theme of my September column for BH&G

The photo that accompanies the piece depicts a gorgeous autumn bouquet bursting with asters, fall foliage and miscanthus blades.  

Its sultry palette includes dark purple, russet-red, gold and green elements in a clear, glass vase. As a footnote, I promised to show off my favorite grasses for cutting and flower arranging here on this blog.  

As it turns out, I’ve been seeing a lot of wonderful ornamental grasses and grass-like design ingredients lately. These days, I have dreamy plumes of fountain, feather, and silver grasses on my mind.  

There’s something both completely romantic and purely modern about grasses in floral arrangements (or in the landscape, for that matter). Here’s a peek at what’s caught my eye this year, including my favorite grasses for cutting:  


Owned by Diane Szukovathy and Dennis Westphall, Jello Mold Farm is one of my favorite local flower sources here in the Pacific Northwest. Diane and Dennis use sustainable practices and recently they’ve delighted floral design customers with gorgeous late-summer grasses. You can find Jello Mold Farm at the Queen Anne Farmers’ Market every Thursday – be sure to check out the incredible selection of downy and fluid grasses.  

Here are a few show-stoppers included on Diane’s “fresh list” that she emails to customers every Monday. The four images you see here were taken by Diane: 

Jello Mold's RED JEWEL MILLET, with large, elegant, arching, red-toned seed-heads approximately 5 inches long

Jello Mold's GREEN MILLET, with 3-inch-long, fuzzy green seedheads and a wonderful texture

These awesome examples are ornamental millets, not edible ones. 

While actually cultivars of Pennisetum glaucum, you can almost convince yourself that they are relatives of the corn family if you squint. 

When cut for bouquets, the plants yield both the sweet, furry seed-heads, as well as the strapping, wide leaf blades. Both plant elements are useful in an arrangement as beautiful counterpoints to blooms. 

Like many good things, “more is better.” For example,  I like to gather several seed-heads together in a clump and inset them into the arrangement. 

It’s a pretty picture to have three to five seed-heads cascading out of a bountiful grouping of seasonal flowers and foliage.