Backyard bouquet

Fresh floral and botanical arrangements are a great way to add color, life and energy to interior spaces, but the cost of having a professional do them on a weekly basis can add up quickly. Fortunately, there are easy and inexpensive ways to create your own arrangements using materials that can be found in the local grocery or your own backyard.

During the spring and summer, flowers in the garden abound, so clipping a few stems of what's in bloom for display in a vase full of water is a no-brainer. But when the leaves start to turn, using plant material cut from the landscape gets trickier.

To get some ideas for how to create beautiful autumnal arrangements, I talked to Randy Woods of Wicked Willow, selected one of Baltimore Magazine's "Best of Baltimore" in 2008. The Catonsville firm's work has graced weddings and events throughout Maryland and Washington.

Woods, along with Wicked Willow co-owner Tina Owens, specializes in event florals and décor, often incorporating unorthodox plant materials straight from the landscape to deliver a classically modern effect.

"Keep it simple," says Woods. "Don't use too many elements."

"It is best to stick with one type of flower, or one color, or different shades of one color and then maybe bring in two accents — an element that provides texture, and some foliage," he says. "If you want to bring in different types of flowers, definitely stick with one variety of foliage."

And don't just think about flowers. Foliage and other botanical textural elements clipped right from the backyard garden are a great way to personalize and seasonalize the arrangement.

Because not many flowers are blooming naturally in Maryland this time of year, bought flowers will have to suffice as the foundation for most arrangements.

Woods says a nice autumnal look can be achieved by starting with such flowers as dahlias, daisies, sunflowers and hydrangeas, or chrysanthemums like spider mums, Fuji mums and cushion mums. Limelight hydrangea is a particular favorite of Woods' because it dries nicely and will keep its color for months, so it can be incorporated into winter arrangements as well.

"Roses," says Woods, "are always the standard," and they make a great foundation any time of year. He also recommends hypericum berries, if you can find them, which "are beautiful for a fall effect and available in many different colors including bronze, rust, orange, red, and yellow, hues."

Once you have the base design of the arrangement, you're ready to embellish with foliage. With a seemingly infinite array of leaf shapes and colors, foliage can take an arrangement in just about any stylistic direction — from dainty or whimsical to modern and structural.

One of Woods' favorites is oakleaf hydrangea because it has "beautiful foliage with a nice texture and will hold up for a week to a week and half."

Honeysuckle vine is another favorite. Commonly found, "the foliage can either be left on or stripped for a unique look," says Woods. "I like to wrap the vines around the blooms in the arrangement to make a sort of collar."

"Ivy is also great," says Woods. "These days it is something people want to get rid of in the garden, but as a cut evergreen vine, it lends an architectural element to fall arrangements."

Pachysandra is another plant that works well, especially for low arrangements. Woods recommends using evergeens, too — any kind of holly, Southern magnolias, euonymus, juniper, spruce, and cedars.

Blue atlas cedars have a more unusual growth habit, and, says Woods, "they work well for a more modern, artistic, textural look and can be an interesting, unexpected way to do evergreens, especially around Christmas."

Interesting textures can be added to arrangements by incorporating common landscape plants with showy berries, seed pods, interesting branch configurations or flower buds.

"Purple hyacinth bean is beautiful right now," says Woods. "It has these great purple pods and is gorgeous cut."

"Nandina is nice because it has pretty foliage and berries," says Woods. "The berries turn from green to red in the winter."

This time of year, dried blooms and flower pods also make a nice accent. "Poppy pods are pretty, as are rose hips for a nice naturalistic, textural element," says Woods.

"For a plant with beautiful foliage and bloom stalks, consider Andromeda (Pieris japonica)," says Woods. Its lustrous green, elliptical leaves are one to two inches long and finely scalloped or toothed. The underside of the leaves is a lighter green, which creates a nice contrast. Andromeda's panicles of flower buds, set in the summer, persist in a tassel-like arrangement through winter and then bloom in the spring.

Woods also suggests that the branches of an "ordinary" Bradford pear tree are good for adding height to an arrangement.

"The leaves, even after they change color, will persist on the branches for a long time," he says. "I will cut [the branches] and strip all of the leaves except for at the end, which makes them become very architectural and exotic."

Curly willow has become a commonly used branch for adding texture to an arrangement. Because of its pervasiveness, Woods prefers Harry Lauder's walking stick. The contorted corkscrew growth habit of the branches creates a big visual impact.

When the arrangement is finished, Woods says keeping it fresh requires just a little water — warm, not cold — and attention.

"It sounds obvious," he says, "but keep your arrangement watered. Use a preservative in the water and change the water at least every two days to help keep the stems from getting clogged with bacteria and algae."

Woods suggests using warm water, which flows more quickly from stem to bloom, for the first watering. It will hydrate the arrangement faster.

With the holidays right around the corner, a fall bouquet is perfect for those looking to add seasonal interest to decor. And you don't have to look any farther than your backyard.

"When people see plants in the landscape or garden, they may not seem interesting," Woods says. "But bring them inside, add them to an arrangement, and they are suddenly unique, architectural and exotic."

Dennis Hockman is editor of ChesapeakeHome Magazine. He can be reached at dhockman@chesapeakehome.com.

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