A vast bunch of flowers can brighten a room and your life, especially if no one has to pay for them, or they were bought for you with love and friendship. Flowers evolved to attract birds, bees, pollinating wasps and the other third parties involved in plant's sex life, and humans have been breeding them to be even more attractive to us for thousands of years. No wonder flowers make us happy.
Failing massed blooms, a few branches of greenery plucked from the garden look pretty good all by themselves in a vase, especially if they happen to be laden with small golden winter cumquats, or branches of bay tree that will subtly scent the room. In a pinch, you might even bring your resident garden gnome, as long as he isn't too laden with moss or bird droppings to be respectable. An indoor garden gnome is a conversation piece - you can explain to friends that you have bring him inside each winter out of the cold.
Flowers picked from winter gardens seem to fall into three camps: those that are too tiny for anything except miniature vases, like primulas and pansies; flowers who instantly drop their petals if someone even sneezes in the hallway, like camellias and Iceland poppies; and blooms that just need picking and bunging in a vase to be instantly magnificent, like daffodils, jonquils and tulips. But even those rarely last as long as flowers bought from a florist.
How come? Why do florist's flowers stay practically perfect, even though they can be days or even weeks old by the time they're purchased, have travelled long distances and are possibly even imported, while fresh, home grown blooms droop and drop? And how can you keep your vase full looking fresh and floriferous?
- Grow the right kind of flower. Florist's blooms are varieties grown to have long strong stems that take up moisture and the plant food dissolved in it, as well as to tolerate cold storage. Look for varieties bred for the florist trade, whether seeds or potted plants. They'll be long stemmed and longer lasting, but possibly not as lovable. Your garden flowers will probably be more fragrant, possibly more delicate and often more glowing, as if they have brought in sunlight instead of what they've absorbed from their hydroponic system.
- Commercial flowers are also well fed. Nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium deficient blooms drop their petals earlier, whether they are in the vase or in the garden. Commercial growers have "feeding for long life" down to an exact art, and their flowers are often grown in vast hydroponic halls where the temperature is at the optimum for nutrient absorption. Your garden can't compete with temperature control, but you can make sure you feed your flowers whenever they are actively growing, or apply slow release plant food each spring.
- Treat flowers as a living species - one that is part way to reproducing itself, as the seeds are ripening as the flower petals fall. Plants survive best if well fed and watered, and that includes the flowers in your vases. Change the water often, or at the very least, top it up often - winter warmed houses are often dry, and water in vases evaporates fast.
- Increase nutrient take up by adding some kind of "flower extender" i.e. plant tucker. You'll also help keep your flowers fed by keeping both the fewer stems and vase free of slime, which clogs the uptake. (Note to botanists: this is a vast oversimplification. Do not send me corrective emails). Wash your vase in diluted bleach, or at least hot soapy water every time one lot of flowers are finished, too, then let them dry well before you add new flowers. I should add that I have never actually done this. The best I manage is to pour the yukky water outside where it won't stink up the kitchen sink, then give it a few quick swirls under the garden tap, but even that is enough to slowdown the gunge growth.
- Snip off the ends of the flowers whenever you change the water, so that the new ends are in better shape up "up taking".
- One mildly weird trick is refrigeration. Back in my non air-conditioned youth in Brisbane working in what was then regarded as an upmarket "entertainment venue" (i.e. it had strippers on Saturday nights, and a swan carved out of lard decorated the lunch time buffet) the vases of flowers were all put in the cool room each evening with the cabbages and leftover beef Stroganov. (And the chef, who by about 8pm each night was curled up with a bottle of rum among the watermelons, but that's another story).
Bunging flowers into refrigeration doesn't just slow down their maturing while there are in there. It seems to shock them into slowing down for a while after you take the out. If you adore your flowers enough, put them in the lower part of the fridge each nights. At the very least, keep them in the coolest part of the room, away from sunny windows and heaters. But just one night sitting next to the milk and orange juice may well keep your flowers' petals from dropping for several more days, or even longer.
Actually I've only done this a few times, in early courtship when presented with a rose of great sentimental value. I rely on the principle of "grow lots" when it comes to filling my vases with flowers. Any medium size garden can have is "lots", with just three camelia bushes, early and medium and late blooming; three different variety of rose; a dew handfuls of daffodil, jonquil bulbs and liliums and good old gladioli for summer. You are now set for a year of spectacular vases.
When your vases look a bit tatty, bung the contents onto the mulch somewhere unobtrusive, and pick some more. I don't spend more than 30 seconds on arranging our flowers, but that isn't advice - I adore beautifully arranged flowers, and wish I could learn the skill, but after several decades of trying have realised I can neither arrange flowers nor crochet and another 20 lessons isn't going to improve my lack of skill in either of them.
But planting another 20 daffodil bubs each year so the vases are full in late-winter, plus a few rose bushes, camellias and maybe some kangaroo paw or miniature banksias? That's a cinch - even if you only have pots to plant them in.
This week I am
- Waiting for the delivery of the bare-rooted fruit trees ordered mid-summer- but you will still find masses of bare rooted trees and ornamental shrubs to choose from online and in garden centres. Bare rooted plants are a lot cheaper than potted ones in summer;
- Realising that our bay tree has doubled in size in six months and has begun to shade the solar panels, so has to be pruned by at least two-thirds. Luckily it is extraordinarily hard to kill a bay tree. But it's still a wonder how a tiny stick 25 years ago could turn into today's six-metre monster;
- Rejoicing in the first bright yellow Banksia roses of spring, even though it's still winter;
- Also grinning at every single camellia bush in the garden, several of which lost all their leaves in the drought and fire winds, but every single one has come back with leaves and blooms this winter, even the one that had been leafless for two years. Never give up on a well-established camellia;
- Choosing which tomatoes to grow this year. I usually buy a couple of advanced potted ones, and grow at least two or three other varieties from seed. This year I'm trying a thick fleshed mini Italian variety, Ornelia FI, a hybrid with old fashioned taste and texture but which sets and ripens well in cool temperatures.
- Planting a modern hybrid asparagus, with the romantic name of UC157 FI, bred in California to crop well in high temperatures with little watering, which is just what we need. We grow about half a dozen heritage asparagus varieties, including the giant stemmed ones, but there seems to be almost no difference in flavour or size if the plant is well fed, well-watered and well-established, though the purple ones might possible be a little sweeter. On the other hand, I love purple veg, and I haven't tried a blind taste test.