Tag Archives: slow flowers

…wish you had a Winter Greenhouse?

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The Aloes begin to bloom in January

Maybe it’s a luxury, or maybe not…

One of the perks of running a nursery is that on any winter morning I can walk out to the heated 100′ greenhouse and smell the promise of spring. We can’t afford to have the heat cranked up….the thermostat is set at 55F in the warmer half, just enough heat to keep our Begonia collection from pouting . The rear 50′ section drops to 45F at night, and this is where we store our Salvia, Phormium, tender succulents, and plants for forcing.  As the daylight hours gradually increase, early blooming plants set buds and begin to unfurl.

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Today’s arrangement of cut and forced material, including Daphne, Hellebores, Echeveria, Aeonium , Begonia and Ivy

Up until a half  century ago, it was not uncommon for gardeners to have some form of greenhouse structure to protect tender plants, force bulbs and other flowers for arranging, grow herbs and to get a start on seed sowing. For the most part these were not formal glass houses, but homemade lean to’s and pit frames built into a south facing slope or dug into the earth to take advantage of geothermal warming. These “pits” were excavated to a depth of 4′ or more, with hay bales tucked along the perimeter for insulation. Recycled window sashes were used to allow light into the frames, as these were the days before plastic and polyethylene.

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A dear gardening friend, Elinor Malcom, who was one of our nursery’s first customers, loved her “pit” in Carlisle MA. where she wintered over many treasures including a collection of Camellias that belonged to her mother. Ellie’s mom had been an accomplished gardener and was good friends with Kathryn Taylor, who co-authored with Edith Gregg, the book Winter Flowers in Greenhouse and Sun-heated Pit, first published in 1941, now out of print.  My husband Chris was lucky to find a copy in a local used book store sometime ago. (PS…your library may have a copy!)

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pages illustrated with early photos of pit frames

This practical book does go into the how-to’s of small greenhouse growing, but I think the authors hit a happy nerve with their enthusiasm for solar pit houses. Ms. Taylor and Ms. Gregg showed how, with a little Yankee ingenuity and thriftiness, the average home gardener could have the luxury of blossoms and greenery during the winter months without electricity or heating units. The prose is entertaining and easy to understand and there are a number of good technical illustrations as well as charming B & W photographs.The women shared not only their successes but some of the pitfalls they encountered (no pun intended). The last chapters focus on recommended plants for winter forcing. I was greatly impressed with their expertise and ability to use materials  that were easy to be had without great expense, and I loved the simple but direct dedication at the book’s beginning: To the husbands who dug the holes”.

An online search indicated Winter Flowers in Greenhouse and Sunheated Pit is available as a used book on Amazon, but I would also recommend checking out second hand book shops.  For those who are interested in learning more about constructing a pit greenhouse, check out these links: Mother Earth News,  Inspiration  Green, and Solar Innovations. There are now many publications on the subject, some more suited to commercial growing.

Wouldn’t it help you to get through the winter if you could walk out your door after a snowstorm and bring in a gathering of fresh flowers and greenery?

Made Good on One Resolution

slowflowercollage2015I didn’t make good on all my promises for 2015, but I was resolute to make more fun time in the garden, and to create an arrangement, once a month at least, from plants found around my nursery and gardens. Let me present my 2015 Slow Flower Calendar.

Starting in the upper left frame and  across, the first is gatherings of lichen, bark and cones during January. Some months had fewer color options, but I found there was always something new to discover and play with. My office window sill was the spot that had the best light for picture taking…notice the changing color background.  December’s composition is a wreath using some of the same found materials that I began the year with. This resolution demands repeating, don’t you think?

Happy 2016 everyone!

Helleborus 'Ivory Prince with sprigs of Foxtail Asparagus and Pink Flax leaves

Using Hellebores as Cut Flowers

Helleborus 'Ivory Prince with sprigs of Foxtail Asparagus and Pink Flax leaves

Helleborus ‘Ivory Prince with sprigs of Foxtail Asparagus and Pink Flax leaves

The end of winter is upon us and the first Hellebores have begun to open, providing lush exotic blossoms for Slow Flower arranging, at last. I couldn’t help myself a couple of weeks ago and cut a bouquet from plants growing in the cold frame. Alas, after only a few hours, they had begun to flop over and looked wilted in the vase. I don’t recall this happening before, so I did some research.

Here’s a little botany. There are basically 2 categories of Hellebores: the caulescent group, which means the blossoms are born in multiples on stems produced the previous year (includes the species foetidus and argutifolus) and acaulescent group, which send up flowering stems from the plants base as winter’s end draws near (i.e. the orientalis hybrids, commonly known as Lenten Rose). In the past few decades, breeders have been crossing the 2 groups and we now have hellebores that fall somewhere in between.  The acaulescent types, meaning the showy Lenten Roses, should be picked when the flowers have aged a bit and the ovary (the seed pod in the center) has begun to swell, which is the same time that its pollen and anthers will have begun to drop. These slightly aged blossoms last longer cut (in the past, I must have unwittingly cut older blossoms). If you must pick young just opened buds, cut short stems. Note that the caulescent types, such as H.  foetidus, hold up better without flopping.   Helleborus ‘Ivory Prince’, shown here, is a cross between the 2 types, and offers the best traits of both.

Cut stems, Hot water, Dip cut stems for 30 seconds

Cut stems, Hot water, Dip cut stems for 30 seconds

The next step is to condition the stems in hot, almost boiling water. Dip the stems into hot water and let sit for 30 seconds. Remove, then place in a vase of water with a tiny bit of vodka, or about 1 T. vodka per quart of tap water.  I have read that some people skip the hot water treatment and instead sear the stems over an open flame, but that makes me hesitate.  Hellebore blossoms will hold up longer in a cool room.

Do you have a tip that you would like to share for keeping Hellebore blossoms fresh?

Winter Gatherings

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Thursday morning it was 0 degrees F. The last 2 days it has made it into the 20’s…there is a dusting of white stuff on parts of the garden, and it does glisten in the early morning light, adding icy pastel tones. Still, I can’t help but become impatient with this cold snap. This is the time period when sourcing local material for Slow Flower Arrangements gets limiting. The garden is offering less and less, except for the last of the red twig dogwoods, the holly fruits, and of course, the various evergreens. I wanted to create an arrangement to honor January….but didn’t want it to sing Merry Christmas.

Perhaps there would be botanical wonders in the woods behind our house…lime green mosses, perhaps, or some other little bits of color which would nod to early winter, yet offer interest and promise. Too cold to unearth moss though; silly me, it all was frozen solid to whatever surface it clung too. There were, however, fallen branches everywhere covered with lichen, in lovely colors of an almost iridescent silver green, and also another form we call Old Man’s Beard in pale sage…color shades I always return to…cool, tranquil, mysterious.

There were some “freeze-dried” mushrooms attached to some logs which I pried loose, and of course pine cones dotted the woodland floor. I gathered what I could and returned to my workspace. At first I thought I might try a faux bois style centerpiece, but then I spied the planter bowl I had bartered succulents for with a ceramicist I knew. Lovely bowl…interesting botanical artifacts….I had enough to create something pleasing to look at.

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Winterberry and Willow Wreath

wreath_winterberryFB500 Each day grows shorter, one by one, until the winter solstice, and we are all craving more color and light.

To brighten the darkest days I created this sunburst of a wreath making use of Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) and Curly Willow (Salix matsudana) from the garden. Branches are clipped and tucked in a sphagnum moss covered frame.  This is a wreath for outdoor display as heat and dryness will hasten the berry drop…. I’d also recommend  wall placement as opposed to hanging on a door. The repeated opening and closing jostles and loosens  the fruit, and could be a little messy.

I’ll report back how long it lasts outdoors….at least through the New Year I hope, unless the birds think its their holiday present.

The Slow Flower Challenge

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A possible collection of stems and fruit inspired by Slow Flowers

Yesterday, I did the perfect thing on a rainy November day. I attended a thought provoking lecture by Debra Prinzing , author of the best selling book Slow Flowers at Blithewold Mansion and Gardens annual fundraiser luncheon. The phrase Slow Flowers is a take on the Slow Food Movement embraced by the food industry with its focus on sustainability, using local crops and food products. By supporting the Slow Flowers movement Debra is encouraging us to not buy imported cut flowers from South America, Europe, Israel etc. (just think of the fuel costs, pesticide use, and more). We should look to what is in season. Much material is waiting to be picked in our backyards, on our windowsills or being grown by local flower farmers and in nearby greenhouse operations.

In her book, Slow Flowers, Debra illustrates how she took on the challenge of creating flower arrangements using only locally sourced material each week of the calendar year, including winter. I think her title is a bit misleading;  some of the plant material she uses, especially during the winter months, is in the form of foliage, branches, fruit and seed pods, when flowers are more limited. Totally cool…sometimes limitations make way for creative thinking. Yes, Debra is from Seattle, a climate which is kinder than what we have here in New England, and one would expect she has more plant options. Still, I left feeling committed to take on this challenge. Maybe not a different arrangement every week, but once or twice a month could be doable.

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TOP L-R: Asparagus, Aster ‘Ezo Murasaki’, Stewartia, Hakonechloa.  MID: Hydrangea quercifolia, Viburnum, Cardinal Candy, Euphorbia ‘Ascot Rainbow’, Hydrangea paniculata.  BOT: Spirea ‘Ogon’, Chrysanthemum ‘Wil’s Wonderful’, Kolwitzia ‘Dreamcatcher’, Acer shirasawanum ‘Jordan’

So today, November 7th, I began the challenge. I gave myself a half hour to select plants. A walk about the garden revealed a vast array of choices. I decided to limit my palette to these 12 selections.

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November 7th arrangement

Here’s the result. When it comes to botanical arrangements, I prefer the “just picked from the garden” style…not contrived or fussy, but exuberant in that cornucopia kind of way, with some unconventional stems tucked in for surprise. Maybe when winter cuts my supply short, I’ll explore the more minimalist style of Ikebana. Are you inspired to take on this challenge? Let me know what discoveries you find locally and that are in season.  

I plan to post an image of what I find and come up with for my next arrangement on the Avant Gardens Facebook page in a couple of weeks. “Like” us if you haven’t already done so to follow my postings. I’ve also been asked by Debra Prinzing to post images at #slowflowerschallenge # slow flowers on Instagram. You can enter your slow flower arrangements there too.

Pumpkin Succulent Arrangements

 

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I have a confession. I am obsessed with pumpkins and gourds, and can’’t drive by a farm stand without stopping and selecting a bushel full to add to my collection. To me, they are sculpture in an amazing array of forms, sizes, shapes and textures. Those of you who have followed this blog or have visited Avant Gardens know that one of my other obsessions is succulents. I wasn’’t the first arranger to think of combining these obsessions, but clearly gourds and succulents pair well.

Timing couldn’’t be better. With frost imminent, I have just dug dozens of succulents out of pots in the garden and will soon run out of space in the greenhouse. As an advocate of the “Slow Flower” movement, extolled in Debra Prinzing ‘s book by the same name, I’m always looking for ways to use plant materials in arrangements which are in season and on hand in my garden or windowsill. Thinking that  you might want to create your own succulent arrangement, I’m passing on this quick tutorial.

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Materials needed: a pumpkin or gourd, dry long fiber sphagnum moss, floral pins, spray adhesive and tacky glue, plus an assortment of succulents in an array of shapes and sizes in coordinating colors (that’s not hard..most coordinate so well with each other.)

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First, use the spray adhesive on the top of the pumpkin so that the sphagnum moss can cling to it, and loosely extend the moss over the crown. (Note: I didn’t do this here, but would recommend removing the pumpkin stem). The moss acts as the “planting medium”, and will later be sprayed with water to hold moisture. Next, using floral pins and if necessary, tacky glue, secure the trailing succulents onto the moss.

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Next begin to add the larger succulent cuttings, like the rosette forming Graptoveria shown here. Apply a little bit of the tacky glue to the base of the stem and carefully arrange in the moss, using a floral pin to secure in place. Continue with the smaller succulents to fill in the bare spots. It will take awhile for the tacky glue to securely dry, so let the arrangement rest overnight, and check the next day to see if the cuttings seem well attached. If a few stems are loose reapply glue. Carefully transfer your pumpkin to a spot where all can admire it.

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Your arrangement will look terrific for weeks. The succulents will hold up well for awhile without water, but you can mist the arrangement with water if they become a little shriveled. The sphagnum moss will hold just enough moisture to keep the arrangement fresh. Since you are not hollowing out the pumpkin, the fruit will not quickly decay (as hollowed out pumpkins tend to do).  The little pin pricks from the floral pins do minimal damage. Keep the arrangement in a bright cool spot (too much warmth and darkness will encourage decay).

You may find 6 weeks from now that your gourd or pumpkin is beginning to go bad, but the succulent cuttings are still fine. Remove them from the arrangement and try to root them in a tray of sand and perlite, if not already rooted.  Keep them in a sunny window and you just may have a collection of plants for next year’s garden.

Purchase Cuttings for Arrangements.

Forcing Winter Branches

The witch hazel, Hamamelis ‘Jelena’, is already in bloom

You wouldn’t know it by looking out my window today, but this past Sunday afternoon it hit 50 degrees. I walked about the garden taking inventory, and just as I had hoped, buds were beginning to swell on spring flowering trees and shrubs. To my delight, the Hamamelis (witch hazel) blossoms were beginning to open. It was a perfect time to cut some branches for forcing indoors.

Forcing is not difficult, but it helps to understand a few basics. Many woody plants (trees and shrubs) set their flowering buds during the previous growing season. They must undergo a dormant period (about 6 weeks) of cold temperatures. A sustained warm moist spell following this dormant period will break dormancy. You need to mimic this warm moist spell to trick your cut branches into thinking it is spring.

1. Walk about your garden in search of subjects, observe, and prune.

You can actually tackle some pruning as you search for stems for forcing. As you select branches, remember to consider the shape you want your tree or shrub to grow. Prune on a mild day, preferably in the afternoon. The day’s warmth will aid the plant in taking up water and sugars from the roots. Branches force more easily if they are less than 1/2 inch in diameter.

One of the easiest plants to break dormancy is Forsythia. Other plants to consider are Willows (Salix), Witch hazel (Hamamelis), Winter hazel (Corylopsis), Quince (Chaenomeles), Viburnum, Dogwood (Cornus), Flowering Cherry (Prunus).  I thought I would experiment a bit while I was taking inventory , so I also cut branches of Spirea, Magnolia and Birch (Betula).

2. Hydrate your stems

After you have gathered your array, fill a deep bucket or large pan with warm water, (for really big branches a bathtub works quite well). Submerge your cut branches in the warm water and leave them in a warm spot overnight.  You can add a small amount of lemon-lime soda or even Listerine (approx. 1T per quart of water) which will act as a preservative. The next day, under very warm running water, make fresh cuts to your branches. If you have thick branches (1/2? or more), you can split  and splay the stems an inch or so for better water absorption. Begin to arrange, or keep these stems in a cool space (45-50 degrees) for a week or so, until you are ready to use them.

A gathering of branches for forcing

3. Create your arrangement

In a fresh vase of water with a bit of preservative, create your arrangement. Some branches will burst open immediately, but others will need more coaxing. Remember your first attempts are about experimenting.  Branches which have an interesting shape or color will look fabulous even if they do not force (I’m thinking about the curly willow I used). Every week or two venture outside and select more branches. Take notes on what stems forced well in early February, and which ones might require more time outdoors as winter weather transitions into early spring.

Botanical Arrangements

Nature’s curiosities?.a good place to begin

Once or twice a year, during my grammar school days, our class would get to go on a field trip. One school outing which comes to mind was a trip to a natural history museum housed in a quaint rural church. Inside were small rooms filled with closets and cabinets containing preserved specimens of local flora and fauna: insects, butterflies, seed pods, feathers, all labeled and stored in jars or boxes. There were slightly morbid taxidermy specimens…I seem to remember a fox, who I felt so sorry for, and a bat. This cataloging of the natural world enthralled me. I saw it (and still do) as an art form. I would fantasize about mushrooms and beehives and dried flowers,  and dreamed of becoming a botanical illustrator when I grew up.

It is so interesting now, in our age of computer everything, that the influence of the natural world is playing such a big roll in home decor and design. Found branches become coat racks, massive gnarly roots become table pedestals. Naturalistic flower arranging has seen a resurgence as we all want to see more natural objects of beauty in our complicated modern lives.

Inspiration and instruction to get you started.

A book which is developing a loyal following is Debra Prinzing’s “Slow Flowers” Debra wants us to let go of our preconceived notions of floral arranging. She encourages us to walk past the grocery store bouquets imported from a location thousands of miles away. Instead we should all look at what is available outside our back door; to seek and use ornamental twigs, unusual foliage, seed pods and lichen, and to look again at plants which we shelter in a greenhouse or windowsill (I’m seeing a gorgeous begonia on mine).  No matter the season, there is beauty in the local flora to celebrate .

This brings me to an event I went to this past week: Flora in Winter, a fund raiser held at the Worcester Art Museum in MA. Talented floral artists selected a classical work of art and interpreted the work in an arrangement. I have to say I was impressed. Yes, many of the arrangements incorporated imported flowers and foliage, but many could easily be interpreted at different times of the year with natural objects found in your neighborhood.

An interesting botanical interpretation at Flora in Winter

This arrangement evokes a curiosity cabinet of flora and fauna

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to walk about your yard or nearby fields and woods to see what treasures you come upon. Perhaps you may want to introduce a new tree, shrub or flower to your garden so you will always have a  local source. Remember to cast aside any old rules and preconceived ideas about flower arranging.  It’s about experimenting and having fun.