Bringing the outside in

Sunday, 31 March 2019

A new book on flower arranging

Much as I love flowers, I have never been any good at arranging them in a vase for the house. The only time I ever won a prize for floral art was when I got the gong for the least number of points in the overall yearly tally of the garden club I joined when I was 24. I do love receiving bunches of flowers and wish I could bring the garden inside at times, but books on flower arranging have always seemed too complicated, formal and technical for me, full or arcane rules of 'how it must be done'. So I was delighted recently when, out for a day with friends browsing in homeware shops, I stumbled across a just-published book on flower arranging that brings a breath of fresh air to the whole subject.

Cane-stemmed begonias in a vase, arranged by my sister Holly

Written by Annabelle Hickson, a Sydney-born girl who now lives on a pecan farm in north-west NSW, A Tree in the House (2019) records her journey in flower arranging that began with bringing simple bunches of wild flowers into the cottage on the farm to brighten it up, then getting into gardening to grow flowers for the house, to a career in creating amazing floral installations and teaching others about her methods. The book is brimming with photos of her work, which are truly inspiring.

A bunch of dahlias from the garden of Sandra Wilson in Sydney

The author gives some very practical advice in the early part of the book about flower to vase proportions (something I had never thought about before); various clever ways to hold flowers in vases, the simplest being a ball of scrunched-up chicken wire; preparing the flowers for the vase; what to add to the water to keep the flowers fresh for longer; then ways to create the dynamic, free-flowing style that she espouses for her arrangements, which often resemble a fabulous floral explosion, covering points including line, texture, shape and colour. She also suggests lots of unorthodox vessels for holding flowers, including rusty buckets, soup tureens, teapots, mixing bowls - even the kitchen sink!

We are treated to any number of hints and tips, such as how to use multiple vases together to form a more dramatic picture; how to arrange and transport a bunch of flowers to take to a friend (including the ingenious use of a hole cut in a shoe box to pop in the jar of flowers whilst taking it in the car, so that it doesn't tip over); how to make a beautiful arrangement using a bunch of flowers from a supermarket; even how to dry flowers such as hydrangeas for winter arrangements, something that I am keen to do.

Japanese windflowers from my garden in a tall vase

We are informed about all the sorts of flowers and other plant material that can be used in arrangements, including classics such as roses, hydrangeas, carnations and dahlias, and ones I would never have imagined to be suitable, such as Japanese windflowers, Clematis, begonias and nasturtium. The use of vines and trailing plants is recommended to give a sense of movement and spontaneity to an arrangement, and the importance of foliage is emphasised: some of Annabelle's arrangements use only foliage, often enormous branches of it! Some unusual material is suggested: stems from cotton plants; lichen-covered branches of deciduous trees; branches of citrus, chestnut and apple trees, laden with fruit; hunks of Australian mistletoe (a semi-parasitic plant seen growing on gum trees in the countryside); culinary herbs; and stuff foraged from beside the road or railway lines, such as wild fennel, grass heads and seed pods. Handy lists at the end of the books summarise this information, including plants that can survive well out of water.

Later in the book are wonderfully illustrated examples of some of Annabelle's big installations for various events, including weddings in wool sheds, lunches in paddocks, dinners in rustic halls, and funerals in country churches. Many of these feature spectacular and imaginative overhead arrangements and we are told how to actually go about creating these effects. Whilst I probably never will do anything like this, I found myself in awe and admiration about the effects that can be achieved, and an understanding of the basics of how it is done.

My first attempt at an arrangement for a friend after reading the book

The personality of the author shines through the book and an ongoing theme is the importance of seasonality in flower arranging, as a way of providing a vital connection with the inexorable cycles and forces of nature. Also, she notes that picking flowers and foliage for indoors makes us more aware of the beauty of plants and better observers of them, which I am sure must help us be better gardeners too in how we create planting combinations in our actual plots! Another idea that resonates through the book is the significance of community in our lives: I loved reading the stories of how Annabelle collected huge bunches of material from a country garden of a generous friend for one of the wedding installations, and how a group of women all got together to cut flowers for the funeral service of one of the locals. The simple joys of giving a receiving a bunch of flowers between friends also struck a chord with me, and I vowed to be better at picking flowers from my garden for others. I have also created a list on this website of all the plants in my plant directory that are considered suitable for use in vases. However, as the book suggests, it is worth experimenting with all sorts of plant material, to see what works. I'd love to hear of your favourite flowers and foliage for arrangements.

This is more than a book about flower arranging: it is a spirited celebration of nature, and the importance of nature in our lives. I thoroughly enjoyed it!