No, dear, those aren't wildflowers

I am happy to share the following, which appeared in the national Field To Vase website, for which I am proud to be a guest contributor. Field to Vase is dedicated to helping the public better understand "Slow Flowers", or the growing movement of localizing the flower industry. 

Please view the website at http://fieldtovase.com/  and see the June 6, 2014 blog posting.

 Early spring bouquet of daffodils, andromeda and magnolia.

Early spring bouquet of daffodils, andromeda and magnolia.

I hear it all the time - “Wow, I love how natural your bouquets look with all those wildflowers in them,” and I think to myself, “Ah, the sorcery!”

While it might look like this farmer just goes out and grabs whatever she finds, and in a sense I do, it is only there for the taking through very careful planning and planting.  Ready to find out more about how YOUR “wildflower bouquet” came to be? 

In the suburban area where I farm, my biggest limitation is space.  I know a good number of local, small-scale flower farmers, and every winter, as we assess the previous year and look forward to a new growing season, we face the same daunting task: how do we fit everything we need, for each and every bouquet or wedding piece needed for every week of the growing season, into our growing space? If I need a specific flower, or more like twenty or so specific flowers and greens for YOUR bouquet on June 24th and your best friend’s bouquet on September 15th, I had better have them planted so I can cut them when needed.  Step 1 of your bouquet is called PLANNING.

When I say planning, I mean mega-planning. Spreadsheets like you wouldn’t believe.  How many of each flower needed for a bouquet? Make that every bouquet. How many seeds to plant?  Is it a sunflower or lily that gives me one bloom each? A snapdragon that might give me two? Ageratum, dahlias or zinnias that give me even more, but won’t bring their blooms until a bit later in the season? How many square feet needed per plant? How many plants and how much space needed for an expected bouquet count? Now let’s talk timing and color. How long from seed to flower, or seed to seedpod if I choose to use some of our other botanical elements? Am I planting for some pastel beauties or some amazing “summer brights” as I call them?  Do you want bright red in June, or would you prefer peachy tones, pink, dusky rose?  What matches terrifically, and what is a near muddy miss?

Dissecting your bouquet a bit, we will likely find one focal flower.  It’s the one that I usually put facing you in the center of the bouquet – a sunflower, lily, peony or hydrangea, for example.  It is often the largest, but sometimes it is not the single flower that truly grabs your attention. More on those little goodies in a bit.  For now, think a minute about you as a gardener. Spring comes. You excitedly plant a few sunflower seeds, which, in time, move into your garden. Each gives you one dazzling sunflower. All is great. Not so for me. 

Because of its one flower limitation, and because I cut the flowers, when it comes to finding that focal flower for your bouquet, as a matter of course, I must plant several varieties of sunflowers, lilies and the likes every few weeks from spring to midsummer, say mid-July.  To make life more efficient for myself, I often plant two or three different varieties at once, but I plant varieties, which take slightly more or less time to bloom.  If all goes to plan, a one-time planting will eventually supply focal flowers, in succession, for two or three weeks. Seeing the beauty of spreadsheets now, are we?  So, Step 2 of your bouquet, as just described, is called SUCCESSION PLANTING. It’s making sure I have the flowers I need when I need them, each and every week. 

In each bouquet, I next add a handful of secondary blooms, such as zinnias, dahlias, black-eyed-Susans, phlox or daisies, for example.  These give unlimited combinations of substance, texture and color. For some of these I’ll succession plant. For others I rely on plants that come up every year but might flower in a particular window of time. Many of these blooms have their own particular cultural needs. Where I live, for example, dahlias do not quite survive the winter. So, every fall, after frost, I dig the dahlia tubers out of the ground, cut them, clean them and store them for the winter. Come spring, planting the dahlias is just another task that goes into making your bouquet.  Anemones thrive in the cool season and love water, but watch out so they don’t rot. Perennial plants, such as phlox, black-eyed-Susans and daisies eventually need to be dug up and divided. Just another task and how many do I have for which weeks? Stock likes to grow in cooler conditions; let’s cue the succession planting to give me soft bronzy colors for my fall bouquets. So, Step 3 might be called INDIVIDUALIZED CULTURAL CARE for the tremendous number of plant types I use to make different and interesting bouquets from April to November.  Translate “seasonally fresh” into “ever-changing, well-planned, and a lot of juggling and individualized work.” 

A mixed bouquet benefits from a little height for interest.  Here’s where the delphinium, snapdragons, plumed celosias and the likes come into play.  As with the other flowers, planning and succession planting are critical.  Step 3 – individual cultural care- is paramount with many of the spiky flowers.  Adding support netting to some of these stars, like snapdragons and delphinium, is crucial.  Without it, they love to bend over. The thing about snaps is, even if they start to bend over, as the tips of the plants continue to grow, the tips grow upward again.  Sometimes a curved stem is an absolute dream come true for design work, but not in your mixed bouquet.  For you, I’d like a straight stem.

 Lots of varieties of scented geraniums have wonderful foliage.

Lots of varieties of scented geraniums have wonderful foliage.

Greens, or foliage, are unspoken heroes of your bouquet.  They add volume and offer fabulous color contrast to strengthen the colors of the blooms.  Foliage also offers astounding variations in texture, color and growth habit, holding its own in the desirable design elements category. It is also a treat to work with scented foliage. Sigh. This highlights Step 4 of your bouquet -VARIETY.  Local flower farmers offer an ever-changing variety of bouquets.  The offerings are seasonal.  They have many unusual blooms and leaves.  Some of the blooms are unique farm to farm.  Some are grown by many, but might not ship well and are therefore not common in the general flower markets. When I put together a mixed bouquet, I commonly have six or seven types of flowers and greens. 

This brings me to Step 5 of your bouquet – FINAL TOUCHES AND ACCENTS.  This is what, in my mind, transforms your bouquet from present day to “vintage, old-fashioned wildflower feel” and is what I believe is the biggest reason people must wonder if I am pilfering wildflowers from my entire neighborhood!  It only takes a little – even one bloom of millet, one sprig of grass, or a few green goldenrod branches (yes there are cultivated varieties) arching out in multiple directions to lend a totally different look and feel to your bouquet. Back to spreadsheet central.  Back to space planning to provide the room and plants needed to make this happen and set YOUR bouquet apart from the rest. Back to local flower farming.

Finally, we land at Step 6- MASTERFUL DESIGN. Here we circle back to the ‘little goodies” mentioned above. Although the sunflower in your bouquet is noticeable and noteworthy, sometimes it is the deep purple aster that I use as an even more noticeable accent to YOUR sunflower that implores you to take these particular flowers home as YOURS.  Sometimes, it is the single stem of sorghum you have never seen before that calls to you.  Maybe it is holding five stems of dahlias, each with different but complementary colors or a couple of tuberose tucked in with alluring fragrance, which many say reminds them of Hawaii.  You see, your wildflower bouquet is no willy-nilly hodgepodge of growth. Far from it. In fact, when I say, “masterful design” let’s do the drum roll for the double entendre because I speak not only of the actual crafting and construction of the finished bouquet you hold in YOUR hands and make YOUR OWN, but also the masterful design that was put into motion mid-January and followed throughout the growing season, which allowed the actual crafting when the time came to make YOUR bouquet.  Even though YOUR “wildflower” bouquet was never created on a whim, it was, by design, my plan all along to make you think it was.

Taken together, this is what makes local flower farming so exciting. Having, at my fingertips, an absolutely amazing supply of plants with which to work and create on a daily basis and to share with you in YOUR bouquet is Heaven. As to the other steps that go into your bouquet, I figure you might already be familiar with them if you have done any bit of gardening.  Need I mention weeds, water, compost, and mulch? There is that, too, on a daily basis, but I must say the joy of flowers is worth it every second of the growing season AND the offseason!