Garden to Vase: Growing and Using Your Own Cut Flowers

There seems to be a limited overlap between the universe of gardeners and the universe of floral designers. More’s the pity, for the two realms are closely allied in their love of plants and flowers.

Garden to Vase is written by a professional floral designer, garden writer, educator, and garden enthusiast. Linda Beutler’s intent is to break down the barriers between these two fields of interest. As most Pacific Horticulture readers likely fall into the first category (gardeners), this shift in perspective should be enlightening and could readily expand our enjoyment of what we grow.

After all, we don’t produce our fruits and vegetables just to look at them in the yard, but to harvest and enjoy them. The skills involved in creating a great meal from the harvest are both different and complementary to those of growing great edibles. The top chefs benefit from intimately knowing their ingredients, just as great gardeners carefully select varieties that will meet their standards for appearance and flavor.

Why should we not do the same for the floral and botanical aspects of our gardens? Even in the greenest gardens exists a wealth of plant material worthy of exceptional interior arrangements. A constant array of new and beautiful arrangements is food for the soul! When the pieces become leftovers, just toss them back on the compost pile.

Many gardeners, always on the lookout for the most rare and exotic plant to add to their collection, may discount the realm of floral design; but those who know fine floral designers cannot help but be impressed by the depth and detail of their knowledge of plants.

Garden to Vase is not, however, a step-by-step design book, but a book about plants. Specifically, it is a book about the parts of plants that leave the motherstem and wind up on your table. It offers guidelines on how to appreciate and treat them so they will last their longest and look their best.

How many of us know, for instance, that some flowers never quite figure out how to drink water once they are cut? Dahlias and hellebores could be categorized as total flops as cut flowers; yet, if treated properly, they can last up to a week in a vase. Did you know that the toxic sap of euphorbias will kill all other plant material in a container? There is more than meets the eye between the garden and the vase. It’s another realm of biology, chemistry, and physics, even for plants we think we know well.

Some of the material in the book seems almost too basic, yet even these topics include precious nuggets of new information expressed in an approachable and informative manner. For example, it is refreshing to know that some professional designers begin an arrangement with the green background materials, while others begin with the flowers—and neither is wrong. So, if you cannot make a mistake, why not begin cutting some of the flowers in your garden and playing around with them indoors?

One of the most appealing—and valuable—aspects of the book is the detail provided for hundreds of plants suggested for the cutting garden. Beutler goes way beyond the standard hybrid tea rose and baby’s breath with a sprig of leatherleaf fern; a number of the suggestions, such as staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), are, indeed, surprising.

Some of the specific plant information is typical of that found in horticultural books (botanical name, common name, annual/perennial, zone, size, bloom time). From there, the facts take off in another direction: parts of plant used, fragrance, culture for cutting, harvesting time, conditioning techniques, vase life, buying tips. This is the core of the book. If the buying tips from this section save you from making a mistake or two when purchasing flowers from a farmers’ market or florist, the book has earned its cover price.

Beutler holds no punches and definitely has opinions. As an example, in a discussion of grape hyacinth (Muscari), she notes, “if you want white, there is M. botryoides ‘Album’, but I am so partial to the blue forms that the white one always looks to me as if it has just crawled out from under a rock.”

Both informative and entertaining, Garden to Vase is a delightful romp based on solid professional experience. This coffee-table tome may well end up on your well-used reference shelf.

Lucy Warren, garden writer
San Diego, California