Saturday, March 11, 2006

Cutting flowers for arrangements is more than snip and pluck

Cutting flowers from a home garden and arranging them attractively doesn't require the skills of a Master Gardener, but a Penn State Cooperative Extension gardening expert says the picking is easier if gardeners remember a few tips.

"When you walk in the garden to cut blooms, the stems should be placed immediately in water, a process we call conditioning," says Emile Swackhamer, horticultural extension agent in Lehigh County, PA. "Flowers that have been conditioned in water look fresher and last longer in arrangements."

Swackhamer recommends carrying a bucket partially filled with lukewarm water to put flowers in as they are cut. Choose flowers with longer stems, so they can be re-cut later to fit an arrangement. "Use sharp shears," Swackhamer says. "Make the cut above a bud to ensure new growth and more flowers."

The best time to cut flowers? In early morning, just as the dew is drying, or in the evening. Never cut flowers during hot temperatures, particularly in the afternoon. "Cut only the most perfect blooms," Swackhamer says. "Observe the garden to see when the flowers reach their most beautiful stage. That is the time to cut, and it will vary from one flower to another."

Swackhamer recommends cutting cluster flowers (such as delphinium, foxglove or lilac) before all the flowers are open. Other flower types, such as sunflowers or zinnias, must be fully open before cutting.

Cut flowers should be arranged loosely to allow air to circulate, and water should be lukewarm during conditioning for most flower varieties. Keep the flowers in the water at room temperature for several hours or overnight. Swackhamer says gardeners can use a flower preservative in the water. "They make flowers last longer by maintaining the acidity level at a pH between 3.5 and 5," she says.

To prepare cut flowers for arrangements, first remove most of the leaves. "They will rot and foul the water, and stems will look better," Swackhamer says. Then, double-check which lengths you want, and re-cut the stems underwater. Cutting underwater will eliminate bubbles that can prevent stems from taking up moisture. "Stems are cut on a slant so they can take in the most amount of water available when resting on the bottom of a vase or container," she explains.

To make an arrangement last as long as possible, cut stems and change the water and preservative every day. Keep the flowers out of direct sunlight and store them in a cool spot overnight. "I put them out on the porch where the temperature is cool and the humidity is high," Swackhamer says.

* SPECIAL CONDITIONING POINTERS

Milky sap flowers (asclepias, poppies, poinsettias): To prevent sticky sap from blocking water uptake, place the stem in boiling water for ten seconds or hold it over a candle flame to sear the end.

Woody stems (lilacs, butterfly bush, mock orange, rhododendrons): Split the stems with shears to allow more moisture to be absorbed. "Be careful not to crush the stem," Swackhamer says.

Foliage: "Ornamental leaves are best conditioned standing upright, like flowers," Swackhamer says.

* WHEN TO CUT

Fully open: Calendula, black-eyed susan, gaillardia, dahlia and zinnia.

Half-to-fully open: Anemone, azalea, bachelor's button, bee balm, daisy, daylily, delphinium and lilac.

Others: Bleeding heart (four or five florets open), daffodil (as color shows in bud), gladiolus (one to five buds showing color), iris (as first bud opens), poppy (night before opening) and tulip (from bud to half open). Roses should be cut as the second petal unfurls above a five-petal leaf.

--Courtesy of Emile Swackhamer/Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences.

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