the basics of arranging cut flowers

How should I treat stems – bash, burn, or sear?

Anything that looks floppy should have its stem ends seared in boiling water for 30 seconds. Give woody stems a bit longer – so bluebells only 10 seconds, whereas lilac needs one minute. Put 2.5cm-5cm (1in-2in) of boiling water into a mug and plunge the stems in. The amount of stem you sear is to an extent proportional to the length of stem you’ve cut. I sear 10 per cent. If it’s 6ft tall, sear 7in. If it’s 18in, sear 1-2in. Don’t leave the stems in too long or they’ll cook and disintegrate.

With short-stemmed plants, take care to keep the flower heads away from the steam. Enclose the flowers in a sheet of newspaper. Searing is easier and works better than burning the stem ends with a match, and you get better results with woody shrubs than by hammering their stem ends. It has a miraculous effect on vase life. Even if they have flopped already, many flowers will make a total recovery after searing.

What do I add to the water? And why?

Adding flower food to the water is important. You can buy proprietary brands in sachets to sprinkle into the vase, or you can make your own. It should contain some bleach or an acidifying agent, such as vinegar or lemon juice. The bleach or vinegar reduce the proliferation of bacteria. Tap water is alkaline, which is ideal for many bacteria. By adding a weak acid, you create a hostile environment for the bugs. Bacteria create slimy stem ends that make the vase water stink. It also blocks stems and prevents them from taking up water.

In a 30cm (1ft) tall vase, use one teaspoon of bleach or a good slurp – about five tablespoons – of cheap clear malt vinegar. The old wives' tale recommends that you add an aspirin, or half a glass of lemonade, to your cut flower water. Aspirin contains salicylic acid; lemonade contains sugar and citric acid. And bubbles are created by carbon dioxide, which forms dilute carbonic acid in water.

Proprietary flower food also includes sugar. The sugar feeds the flowers, but in my view, it feeds the bugs too. In our experiments at Perch Hill it seems to add to the vase life of sweet peas, but nothing else. I always put a drop of bleach in water with strong-smelling plants such as alliums, cleomes and any brassicas, to prevent their characteristic pong from developing.

Which flowers are the most long-lasting and which are fleeting?

During the early few months of the year, bulbs are a very good bet and long-lasting. Go for things in – or nearly in – their natural flowering season. This month that would include plants such as freesias, anemones, amaryllis, hyacinths, tulips and the better-lasting daffodils such as 'Paperwhites’.

Do you have any tips for foolproof arrangements?

I love just dropping single stems or small single species bunches into narrow-necked bottles and scattering them down the middle of the table or around the room. And I like arranging stems through a noughts and crosses flower grid. This supports delicate flower heads (or those like camellias with short woody stems) and keeps them just out of the water in your favourite bowl.

For delicate small flowers like snowdrops, put a bunch of several stems through each square. For larger flowers, add just one to each.

It’s worth knowing that turquoise and acid green are both very flattering colours for flowers. Look out for vases in either of those colours. Pewter also looks wonderful – jugs, mugs, bowls and plates.

What basic kit do I need to deal with cut flowers?

I always use florists’ scissors which have stronger blades than normal scissors and their fine tips are less cumbersome than secateurs for small-stemmed plants.

I use traditional metal milk pails for picking my flowers; they look good and are very durable. You can easily carry two, one slung over each arm. You need two; one filled with water for plunging cut flowers into, and the other for stripped leaves. Floristry buckets are narrower (good for tulips) but they don’t have handles so you can only carry one at a time.

I also have pin-holders in several sizes, heavy metal discs with spikes on the upper surface to hold in place the stems that create the structure of your arrangements. I much prefer using them to Oasis (florists’ foam). Waterproof glue-tack is an absolute must-have. Use this to stick pin-holders to the bottom of a vase. You need to use this when both vase and pin-holder are clean and dry, or the stuff will not stick.

How do I get a stained vase clean again?

For straightforward shapes, I use bleach/Milton tablets with a bottle brush. Cut glass vases or those with narrow necks are difficult to clean, so I use Steradent denture cleaner and swirl it around with Magic Balls (copper balls for cleaning decanters).

Which flowers are worth buying? And which are better home-grown?

Flowers such as lilies and amaryllis, which have pricey bulbs, are best to buy, but almost everything else I prefer home-grown.

If you have only a tiny garden, grow the things which don’t last long, such as dahlias and huge, highly scented cabbage roses. These you’ll never find to buy.

All plants picked from the garden benefit from a rest before you arrange them. This means giving the flowers a few hours, or best of all, a night, in a bucket of water in a cool, dark place. Fill the buckets with tepid, not ice-cold, water; the plants absorb it more easily. A rest increases vase life by a quarter or more.

Remember the order: 1. Pick, 2. Condition, 3. Rest (cool and dark, ideally for 12 hours), 4. Arrange

What plants do you recommend for foliage?

Start any mixed arrangement with foliage. The more leafy stuff you use, the more your arrangement will look nicely home-made rather than florist-bought.

For primary foliage, I often use Euphorbia oblongata, its brilliant acid-green colour adds brightness and contrast. This is one of the best foliage plants because it has a robust, upstanding structure which makes it an ideal base for any middle-size arrangement. It also has thin stems, but a generous horizontal top, so you don’t need huge quantities to create an effective dome. Find a foliage plant with those three characteristics and you’ll be away. A word of warning with euphorbia: pick – and arrange it – with gloves on so you don’t come into contact with its allergenic milky sap.

At the florist you’ll find bupleurum, which plays the same role, and the pretty, winter-flowering evergreen Viburnum tinus is also excellent at this time of year.

The second foliage is a filler. Many plants can fulfil this role, but ideally you should choose a different colour and form to the primary foliage. Slot it in, filling up any gaps.

The third foliage is for the upper storey, so it should have an interesting architectural shape. The idea is to break up any over-neatness and make the arrangement as three-dimensional as possible. An interesting grass or seed pod, or vertical leaf spike such as 'Bells of Ireland', is ideal.

Watch Sarah create a beautiful hand-tied bunch and demonstrate the different layers and how to put them together. Create your own flower patch with our range of flowers for cutting.