There remains an entrenched belief amongst the flower buying public that British garden flowers do not last as long in the vase as those purchased from the florist or supermarket.
Inevitably this will vary from species to species but fundamentally those picked and harvested locally should have an immediate advantage. The vast majority of shop bought flowers will have been grown in Columbia, Ecuador and Kenya, will have flown thousands of miles across the world to the flower auctions in Holland, been transferred overnight to UK flower wholesalers and subsequently purchased by retail florists ready for sale to the public.
There is a certain, and I agree rather idyllic perception, of walking around your flower garden on a sunny day in a large floppy hat and trug, cutting big open flowers and taking them back to the house and placing them straight into a vase of water to grace the rooms of your house. Unfortunately, as Linda Beutler in her book Garden to Vase quite rightly points out, the reality is that assembling good bouquets and arrangements with a long vase life takes time, planning and patience.
How you handle, prepare and condition your cut flowers is critical. If neglected or rushed this will indeed lead to disappointment.
It is important to remember that plants and their flowers are living things that require water, food and good health to prosper. When you cut the flower you are immediately severing it from the supply of water that will keep the cells turgid, from the food that is normally generated by photosynthesis in the leaves and you will have created a significant wound that will be prone to infection by bacteria and other micro organisms.
Inevitably cutting the plant in this way will be a significant shock and you need to ensure that air and bacteria do not start to block the all important xylem and phloem vessels that will continue to carry the water and food along the stems of the cut flower.
If bacteria, debris or fungal growth start to block the vessels in the stem it will significantly reduce the longevity of the flower. It is important that all buckets and secateurs that you use are cleaned prior to cutting your flowers.
Time of day
The best time of day to cut your flowers if first thing in the morning before the sun begins to heat the air. Overnight the stomata on the leaves will have closed, reducing the transpiration of water, and allowing the cells of the plants and flowers to become fully turgid. Once the sun comes up photosynthesis begins and the stomata open allowing the flow of carbon dioxide into the plant and the resulting oxygen to escape. At the same time transpiration of water occurs through these stomata and in hot weather the plant may not be able to draw up sufficient water to replace that being lost.
If you cannot pick in the morning then it is possible to cut during the evening as the air cools and the plants are well saturated with the sugars produced during the day.
The tools you use to cut your flowers should be clean and sharp. Remember that you want to keep the vessels open so try to use cutters that will not mash or block the tiny vessels. Use cutters with by-pass blades rather than anvil secateurs.
Cutting your flowers at the right stage
If you cut your biggest, brightest flowers when they are too mature they will not last long in the vase. If the bees have got to your flowers and have already pollinated the blooms they will already be moving onto their next stage, dropping their petals and putting their energy into seed production.
For example, all the daisy type flowers, such as Cosmos, Rudbeckia and Ox-eye daisies, will not last long if the pollen has matured and the flowers have been visited by pollinating insects. The way to tell is by touching the centre of the flower with the tip of your finger. No pollen should come off and colour your finger.
Many flowers like roses, tulips and daffodils, will need to be cut before they open when the buds are first showing some colour. Poppies are best picked when the bud is just about to burst open.
Cut into water
We always cut our flowers straight into cool clean water in the field, cutting the stem at an angle to create a greater surface area for the flower to take up water (so that the cut end is not flat against the bottom of the bucket). We strip off any leaves that will sit below the water surface. The latter is important as any leaves below the water will quickly begin to decompose and create the infections that we want to avoid.
If the flowers or foliage are cut and then left awhile in the air, air bubbles will begin to be pulled into the vessels and inhibit the free flow of water up the stem and into the flower causing the flower to wilt.
Some flowers that produce a sticky sap (eg. Poppies and Euphorbia) will benefit from searing when they are cut. Searing the end of the cut stem in boiling water or with a flame will stop these substances contaminating and poisoning the water and will help water uptake.
On woody shrubs and stems the important vessels for water uptake are in the cambium, the living layer of cells between the bark and the dead heart wood. After cutting the stems at an angle, split the stems vertically up the centre to give as much surface area as possible for the uptake of water. It may be beneficial to shave back some of the bark to reveal and expose the bright green cambium.
Mixing flowers of different types
It is worth being aware that some flowers effect the longevity of other flowers and you should be careful of cutting them into the same field bucket. An example of this is with daffodils and narcissus and these should be cut into a separate bucket. The water should be changed every 20 minutes or so to check to see if the stems are still dripping sap from the cut wound. Keep doing this until the sap stops running and then they can be left to condition. Once the sap has stopped narcissus can be incorporated into arrangements with other flowers but do not be tempted to cut the stems again or the sap will start to run again.
It is also appropriate to do this with other plants with toxic sap like Euphorbia and Campanula.
This is such an important part of preparing and nurturing the flowers which you will have been lovingly looking after and growing for many months. It is not to be rushed.
Your flowers should be placed in cool, deep water for at least 2 hours (preferably overnight) before you start to use them in bouquets or arrangements. Keep them in a cool room out of direct sunlight whilst they are conditioning.
With woody foliage you will need to condition for at least 24 hours and more if you can. The tips of the shoots may initially droop but you will find that they eventually perk up if left long enough. The key message is be patient and you will be rewarded.
There are varying opinions on whether the addition of “flower food” to the conditioning water is valuable or not. Commercially available “flower food” contains sugars to feed the flowers (now that they have no leaves), help them take up water efficiently and keep the water free of bacterial infection. This is such a small cost that for us it is simply part of maintaining the good health and cleanliness of the flowers that we have invested so much time in growing over the summer.
James C. Schmidt from the University of Illinois makes a valuable point about the impact of hard and soft water on the longevity of cut flowers. He indicates that hard waters and those “softened” with a home water softener are unsatisfactory for keeping flowers fresh. Clearly if you are growing flowers in a hard water area there is little you can do about this but the use of “flower foods” may be particularly valuable in hard water areas (because they lower the pH of the water).
Beware ripening fruit
It is worth remembering that ethylene is naturally produced by all ripening fruit. Exposing flowers to ethylene will speed up the development of your cut flowers and eventual death. Don’t be tempted to leave your flowers conditioning in an out house or kitchen where you are storing fruit or other ripening vegetables.
Any finally ….
When your flowers and foliage are fully conditioned you can now let your creative juices flow. Cut the stems once again as you arrange them to help further water uptake and increase the flower life.
If arranging in a vase try to replace the water regularly to keep your flowers in tip top condition for as long as possible.
When delivering our Honey Pot Flowers bouquets by hand or by courier we always include detailed care instructions and flower food to help the recipient achieve the best from their flowers. We often get feedback and comments from delighted customers telling us how pleased they are with their long lasting bouquets.
It is important to recognise that although there are general principles to observe, ‘one size does not fit all’ when it comes to cutting and conditioning cottage garden flowers. There is a wealth of additional hints and tips available in the following books where specific flowers benefit from a slightly different or a specific approach.
“Speciality Cut Flowers” by Allan M. Armitage and Judy M. Laushman (ISBN 0-88192-579-9)
“Garden to Vase” by Linda Beutler (ISBN 978-0-88192-825-9)
“Cut Flower Garden” by Erin Benzakein and Julie Chai (ISBN 978-1-4521-4576-1)
“Grow your own wedding flowers” by Georgie Newbury (ISBN 978-0-85784-253-4)
“The Cutting Garden” by Sarah Raven (ISBN 978-0-7112-3465-9)