Debra Prinzing

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Bouquet-making with spring bulbs

Friday, March 4th, 2011

A textural display of two colors of tulips with curly willow and camellia buds on stems fill this vintage green urn.

The Northwest Flower & Garden Show, the country’s second-largest indoor flower show, was staged last week. It was a great show and I’m sure I’ll be posting future stories about some of the wonderful design ideas, plants and speakers that inspired me. But right now I want to show off some of my floral design projects with simple instructions. The arrangements are from my talk and demonstration last Thursday on the Smith & Hawken DIY Stage. 

Here in Seattle the crocuses and snowdrops are only just now blooming. Daffodil foliage is just a few inches out of the soil. So my talk on “Floral Design with Spring Bulbs” was geared to the flower-lover who seeks out local blooms from growers in his or her own backyard. 

One such grower is Alm Hill Gardens, owned by Gretchen and Ben Hoyt. You can find Alm Hill flowering bulbs and other cool crops like lilacs and peonies year-round at the Pike Place Market and at weekly outdoor farmer’s markets including Ballard, University District and West Seattle.  I encourage you to always ask questions about where and how the flowers you buy were raised. There is nothing better than meeting the farmer who actually grew your bouquet.  

Fun on the Smith & Hawken DIY Stage

For a few weeks prior to last week’s flower show I had fun playing with tulips, daffodils and narcissuses, and hyacinth flowers to come up with the techniques I wanted to teach. 

The detail photos you see here are from those samples, so the tulips (sadly) are not Alm Hill’s, although they are still fresh and locally grown. During my demonstration I was too busy to stop and photograph each project, but perhaps someone who attended will surprise me with their pics, as my friend Lorene Edwards Forkner did yesterday when she showed up with a CD of a few photos from the talk (THANK YOU!). 

For each of these projects, my goal was to use an organic method of stabilize the blooms, rather than the conventional green foam blocks called “florist oasis.” That product, I have learned, is a carcinogen that contains formaldehyde (why would you want to touch or breath it?); and furthermore, it does not break down in landfills. I do understand why designers have used it for years. So far, there really isn’t an organic alternative to organizing and arranging flower stems to maintain the perfect form or angle. Yet increasingly, I am meeting and interviewing floral designers who consciously shun the green foam and use alternate materials to stabilize flower stems.

Here's a selection of my flower-stabilizing options, including lots of vintage glass and metal "frogs"

Here are a few options: 

  1. Pebbles, sand, gravel or marbles in the  base of a vase
  2. Pliable twigs wrapped around the inside of a vase to create a basket weave-like framework. One designer who David Perry and I interviewed uses shredded wood shavings called Excelsior inside her vases. This is the type of material used to ship wine bottles, and it’s biodegradable.
  3. Good, old-fashioned flower frogs in ceramic, glass or metal. I’ve been picking these up for a few bucks at weekend flea-markets. One of my favorite is a half-dome cage. It is heavy so it sinks to the bottom of the vase; and it has 3/4-inch square openings, which is ideal for woody stems. These are the arranging tools of the past, seriously useful for the present!
  4. Foliage. I often start an arrangement using soft, fluffy foliage as the “base” that peeks out over the top of the rim. For winter/early spring arrangements, Dusty Miller is a nifty option. It is lacy and soft – and it lasts for up to 2 weeks in water once cut. Once you fill the vase with the foliage, all the other flower stems can poke through the foliage and they will remain in place.
  5. Balled up chicken wire is another time-honored trick for stabilizing especially larger arrangements. It also works well for wide-mouthed vases. Get a roll at the hardware store (my local hardware store told me the proper name for this stuff is “Poultry Cloth” – whatever). You will need use wire cutters to trim off the length you want. Use gloves to protect your hands from wire scratches and create an open “ball.” After inserting into the container, make sure that a portion of the wire emerges above the rim so your design looks fuller.

All these fresh spring details play so well together, especially the sprouting willow branches and the camellia buds.

Design One:  Tulips (2 colors) with curly willow and camellia buds. I used a 4-1/2-inch diameter x 2-inch high dome-style metal flower frog in a vintage lime-green urn with handles.

  • Note that the curly willow is starting to sprout tiny green leaves. That’s what happens when willow stands in H20 for a few weeks inside a warm home.
  • As for the camellias, these are branches left over from a photo shoot last month. The dried leaves were crunchy and unattractive, but the buds were plump and interestingly shaped. So I grabbed my floral shears and clipped away the leaves. The chubby buds on the branches are a nice architectural accent.
  • I first inserted the willow and the camellia branches, forming an open “nest.”
  • Next, I inserted 10 red tulips, cutting their stems short so the flowers are close to the opening of my vase.
  • Finally, I added the yellow tulips, cutting the stems longer. You will note that none of the short or tall tulips are the same height. I like to stagger them so there is a less formal feeling to the design. As I inserted the tulips, I used the framework of the branches to also help support their flowerheads, especially the tall ones.

Flower stems, shrub twigs, pebbles and twine. Deceptively simple!

Design Two: Daffodils and red-twig dogwood branches. I used a 6-by-6-by-6 inch glass “cube” vase and filled the bottom 1/4 with medium-sized pebbles. 

  • The inspiration for this design comes from a Winter 2008 edition of by Design, which is published by The Flower Arranging Study Group  of the Garden Club of America. In the article, Cres Motzi demonstrated a way to layer a row of cut branches over the opening of a rectangular container and “strap” them on with twine to create a framework for inserting branches. Her design also used floral foam inside the container, but I find that completely unnecessary here.
  • Detail of the twigs as they are strapped onto the vase.

    I cut 9-inch lengths of pinkish dogwood branches, lining them up in parallel rows across the opening of the vase. Available at craft stores like Michael’s, twine-wrapped wire is an ideal material to strap around the bottom of the glass vase and over the twig arrangement. It can be twisted taut and secure. There is a band of twine on either end of the twig arrangement.

  • This design is so simple and serene that it called for a singular flower. Fifteen just-picked daffodil stems look great here. I inserted them into openings between twigs and twine, staggering them in an informal arrangement. You can see how well these stems stay upright, aided by the pebbles in the base of the vase.

Shades of white, silver and pewter make for a pretty wintry floral palette.

Design Three:  Hyacinths, Dusty Miller and pussy willow branches in a vintage oval vase. Here, the Dusty Miller foliage is the stabilizing element for the other stems. The vase is a 6-inch high vintage 1940s piece. The opening is an oval, approximately 7 inches long x 4 inches wide. I love this vase! It came from a visit to Old Goat Farm in Orting, Wash., owned by my friends Greg Graves and Gary Waller. Their nursery and shop is filled with surprises, including some vintage pieces like this.

  • Even here in the dead of winter, good old Dusty Miller (Senecio cineraria), a shrubby perennial from the Mediterranean region, is holding its own. Gray and kind of ubiquitous the rest of the year, Dusty comes in handy when one needs a soft foliage ingredient to contrast with darker greens. I robbed this batch (with permission) from my friend Nancy Finnerty’s Madison Park garden two weeks before I used it in the flower show demo. This stuff is pretty ironclad. Cut the stems as long as possible and start filling up the vase with them. The leaves are deeply cut and lobed; when used in a floral arrangement, they take on a lacy profile.
  • Insert 5 or 7 long-stemmed hyacinth flowers. Right now, Alm Hill Gardens is selling

    Ready for a close up!

    creamy white, dark pink and deep purple varieties – and the scent is truly intoxicating! Gretchen explains that she gets the longer-than-normal stems by starting the bulbs in the dark. Those poor babies are reaching for light during their growth phase, so that’s why their stems are much longer than the ones you or I would grow in the ground. Pretty gorgeous stuff. Again, notice that the stem lengths are staggered.

  • Finally, insert 7 or 9 pussy willow branches, also at varying heights. These are from a grower in Oregon and I like how they resemble floral exclamation points in this wintry white arrangement. This design is long-lasting. If the hyacinths decline (yet they still look great and this arrangement has been finished for 8 days!), you can always replace them, cuz the pussy willow and Dusty Miller will keep on keepin’ on for at least twice as long.

During my demonstration, I was so pleased that Gretchen Hoyt was in attendance with her assistant, as well as several other seasoned growers and designers – and they offered lots of suggestions and tips. One tip from Lorene’s bag of tricks os how to refresh H20 in a vase with so many complicated parts like the branched framework and the curly willow. Her technique is to first put the vase in the kitchen sink. Using the spray nozzle on the faucet, gently spray fresh water into the vase until the existing H20 starts spilling up and over the edge. If you continue for a minute or so, you will have completely replaced old, dirty water, with new, fresh water. Voila!

I'm working with locally-grown flowers and garden ingredients at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show.

If you are wondering about some of my other resources you see, here is a list:

  • Smith & Hawken copper watering can and other accessories are now available exclusively through Target stores.
  • The wonderful canvas work apron I’m wearing (right) was designed by my friend Janna Lufkin, who is a popular home organizing authority and stylist for Better Homes & Gardens and other outlets. Janna’s products are made locally in Seattle and available through her blog Be it Ever so Humble.
  • Tulips in February, grown locally in Northwest Washington by Alm Hill Gardens.

    Alm Hill Gardens can also be contacted for tulip deliveries. You can order any number of stems (there is a one-dozen minimum) of your favorite tulip colors and have them shipped via overnight or 2nd-day air.

  • To order or for more information, contact Alm Hill at or call toll-free at 855-ALM-HILL (855-256-4455). I took lots of photographs at their Pike Place Market booth last week and thought I’d share some of the yummy shapes and colors of these fresh, local and sustainably grown blooms. 

Finally, a special thank you to my partner-in-flowers, David Perry. The projects you see here will be featured in our forthcoming book, A Fresh Bouquet. And I can promise you that the photos he takes will be dazzling beyond belief.

We invite you to follow along with us on this journey at our blog, A Fresh Bouquet.

Floral design – straight from the field

Saturday, October 2nd, 2010

Even the Monarchs were willing to be photographed at the flower farm.

In a glorious Iowa field, I gathered flowers for my bouquets.

One knows she’s in relationship trouble when her own mother and dear friend Susan, who was her maid-of-honor in 1984, call to say, “I haven’t heard from you for a while, so I checked your blog to see what you have been up to.”

Umm. I’ve been on the road a lot lately. Way too much on the road for my liking. Being away from home and traveling for 15 of the 30 days in the month of September was ridiculous, but (I guess) necessary. Anyway, for the first time in three years, I went for a full month without posting an entry on this blog. Yikes!

There were many blog posts composed in my mind as an idea or notion would occur to me. “I should write that down,” I thought. But then, the droning lull of the airplane engine would convince me a quick “up in the air” nap was in order. Or I didn’t have access to the Internet. Or something like a deadline for a volunteer project or even – wow – a paying project . .  or someone else’s needs that were way more pressing came along.

So here we are in October – how apropos. The new leaf is turned. I don’t have to travel again until Oct. 12th and that is a single overnight jaunt for a photo shoot in Bellingham, 100 miles to the north.

Seriously, I should be able to squeeze in some news, insights, ideas, GARDENS, cool FLOWERS, and more between now and then.

The story I want to share here is from September 14-16. After six full and intense days for the annual Garden Writers Association Symposium in Dallas, I jumped on a tiny airplane and flew to Des Moines. I met up with the team I collaborate with at Better Homes & Gardens magazine. Eric Liskey (deputy garden editor), Jane McKeon (associate garden editor) and Scott Johnson (deputy art director) and I were up to our knees in flowers.

A view across the flower fields at Howell's Farm in Iowa. Isn't this just the most perfect cloud-filled sky you've ever seen?

Globe amaranth (Gomphrena sp.)

The flowers – ingredients for a how-to story on creating bouquets from field-grown arrangements – were in all their glory at Howell’s Farm.

Based in Cumming, Iowa (in Madison County – yes, where the bridges are!), Howell’s is a sixth-generation family farm. After decades of raising corn and other agricultural crops, current owners Fred Howell and family began in 1985 to grow everlasting flowers.

Today, the farm is an 800-acre destination for people in search of the best varieties of decorative and seasonal crops. In the spring, summer and fall that means people come for the huge variety of annual and perennial flowers, herbs and grasses for cutting and drying. In the fall, they enjoy the amazing pumpkin patch and a cool corn maze. By the end of the year, in the winter, it’s the Christmas trees as main attraction.

After I landed in Des Moines, Eric and I drove out to Howell’s, about 25 miles outside of Des Moines, on a breezy, but gorgeous afternoon. Scott met us there and the three of us followed Erin Howell, Fred’s daughter, on a walk through the five-acre flower fields. As is my typical reaction whenever I visit a flower-growing operation, I was practically hyperventilating with excitement.

Celosia, plume type - what a great color!

This shows how windy it was as Eric (left) and Scott (right) held the oversized "silk" to cast a shadow for one of the bouquet vignettes.

The variety of flower form, color and vigor in Howell’s crops was dazzling. The setting itself was breathtaking. We talked through our options of ingredients, including what “design lessons” we wanted to illustrate in the story, what sizes and shapes of vases we needed to use, and how to CHOOSE among all the great flowers that seemed to say “pick me, pick me!”

Back at the editorial offices, the three of us huddled with Jane to talk about the floral design projects we wanted to assemble and photograph the following day. This was no small task. Everything has to be mapped out so we could envision how things will look on the pages of Better Homes & Gardens.

The sheets on Scott’s clip-board featured his sketches of mini-magazine pages, complete with thumbnails of vases, blooms and notes to show how a four-page flower arranging story might look. We had to think about a color palette for the vases, taking into consideration the textures and hues of each flower lesson. Then Scott raced out to pick up props from all his secret sources (including tables, stands, vases, pitchers, etc.) and Eric and I took a drive over to his personal garden. We needed a few extra plant ingredients to enhance the designs we had in mind, so Eric obligingly let me cut some lambs’ ears and goldenrod from his borders. What else? Oh! a visit to the mall to pick up a denim shirt for me to wear in the photo shoot.

BH&G staff photographer Blaine Moats wanted the perfect Monarch shot. He actually got dozens of perfect shots because the butterflies were amazingly cooperative.

Yes, there it is: Francesca's House

The next morning arrived bright and early and we met out at Howell’s around 7 a.m. Since Jane and I had designed the first two looks the afternoon before, we had a jump start for the photography. But then, the light seemed pretty good for a portrait, so Scott sent me out to cut flowers while our photographer Blaine Moats shot away.  As I walked between the rows of marigolds, zinnias, sunflowers and milkweed, filling my galvanized French flower buckets with stems, I thought: How lucky can a gal get? It was a joyous experience to just be there, to know that I was getting to create bouquets and arrangements that will be featured in the magazine sometime next summer, and to work with such talented, artistic colleagues.

We were soon distracted by a sight so compelling and awe-inspiring that we simply had to stop working. Well, except for Blaine, who just turned his lens on the scene and began to document it. A harmonic convergence of Monarch butterflies was waking up as the day began to warm. They seemed to want to pose for photos, since even I was able to capture some really sweet butterfly portraits as the winged creatures breakfasted on the nectar of hot pink “Kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate” flowers (aka Polygonum orientale).

Milkweed with Monarchs (Asclepias sp.)

Me again - can't stay away from those blooms!

If that wasn’t thrilling enough, by the time Jane McKeon arrived in the afternoon, I had another amazing sight.

“Look over there,” Jane said, gesturing to a distant and lonely farmhouse. “Do you know that it’s Francesca’s house?” Yes, this was the actual Iowa farmhouse used by Meryl Streep’s character Francesca Johnson in the famous film “Bridges of Madison County.”

Another reason to visit Howell’s Farm is to gaze across rows of flowers and see that setting. I may have to rent the film just to see that house on the screen, and to appreciate Meryl’s Oscar-nominated performance from 1995.

There’s lots more to share but my bouquet designs are embargoed until they show up in the magazine. I can’t wait to show them off to you.