When you have great ingredients, there's no need to get fancy. That principle, true in cooking, also applies to flower arranging, says floral designer Tom Pritchard.
"Start with materials that are perfectly beautiful, perfectly natural and perfectly fresh, and flower arranging is a piece of cake," he says.
The first place to look for those "perfect" materials is your own yard or garden, he says.
"Flower arranging doesn't have to be anything difficult or complicated," says Pritchard, who has co-authored a book he hopes takes the fear out and puts the fun into amateur flower arranging.
"Four or five garden roses in a crystal vase by themselves is an arrangement. So is one flowering branch from a fruit tree. So are a bunch of sweet peas stuffed into an enamel pitcher. Or a single wildflower in an old-fashioned glass.
"All these hysterical floral arrangements you see are merely attempts to disguise mediocre materials. Just like heavy French sauces were originally devised to disguise the taste of poor meat."
Pritchard and partner Billy Jarecki are authors of "Madderlake's Trade Secrets" (Clarkson Potter, 1994. $40), which is based on their experience as co-owners of the Manhattan-based flower shop of the same name.
The biggest obstacle to coming up with great arrangements, says Pritchard, is florist flowers. Like supermarket produce, they are primarily bred to ship well and last a long time, he says.
"And their stems are always perfectly straight, and their colors perfectly uniform. That's why they're boring. Garden flowers have more character and personality and are always preferable."
Californians have no excuse for not using garden flowers in their arrangements either, concludes Pritchard, back in Manhattan after a recent book promotion stint in Los Angeles.
"You have beautiful plants around you year-around," he says. "But you take them for granted because growing them is so easy. You don't realize how much material you have for arrangements right in your own yards."
Madderlake does not use florist foam or frogs in most of its arrangements. "When you use an oasis (foam block), you can put any flower anywhere, " says Pritchard, "but the results aren't as interesting as when an arrangement occurs more naturally."
So the shop begins mixed floral arrangements by wedging a branch from a tree or shrub into a container and allowing the crotches of that branch to provide the support system for the remaining flowers. (Choose a piece slightly wider than the vase so that pressure against its sides will hold the branch in place, suggests Pritchard, and one with a structure complex enough that you have plenty of options for flower placement.)
"The restrictions imposed by the branch create a certain logic," he says. "You put in the first flower, spin the vase around a bit, see where you need something else, and you just keep going."
Start with the most dramatic flowers and work toward the more ephemeral ones, Pritchard advises. Select the flowers that you want to spill over the edge of the container early in the game, too.
"Finding flowers that will create a beautiful bottom edge is more difficult than finding flowers that will carry the top," he says.
One of California's workhouse landscaping plants, the common garden geranium, is one of Pritchard's favorites for beginning arrangements.
"The lipstick colors of the flowers--pink, vermilion, orange, coral--are incredible--and the foliage is often interesting, too. I don't understand why more florists don't use geraniums. We love them."
Mandevilla vine is another Southern California garden staple Pritchard likes. "Little bits of that amazing hot pink here and there in a mix really livens it up."
Other common Southern California flowers treasured by Madderlake but generally overlooked here as arrangement material are agapanthus, nasturtiums, bottlebrush and firethorn.
If his shop were here instead of New York City, Pritchard might even have trouble following his own advice: "Know when to stop."
"We don't use filler flowers, and we don't add extraneous foliage," says Pritchard. "Where other florists would add those things, we leave empty space. And the more dramatic shape the flower has, the more space we leave."
Start with interesting flowers, and you don't need much else, he says.
There is much to recommend the Madderlake approach, says Janelle Wiley, who teaches her own version of floral design at Sherman Gardens in Corona del Mar.
"I like the fact they're trying to get people to lighten up and take chances," says Wiley. "That's what I try to do in all my workshops, too.
"People are so uptight about expressing creativity. They're afraid they're going to do things wrong or won't be as good as their neighbors. So anything that encourages people to let go of those fears, I'm all for."
Wiley manages the various color beds at Sherman Gardens in addition to teaching floral design classes there. Previously, she ran a floral design business out of her home and before that worked for other floral designers. All in all, she has 14 years of experience in the business.
Like Madderlake, Wiley also prefers to make arrangements without foliage. "Roses look especially good that way. All fully open and cut the same length so all you see is rose. Nothing looks more romantic," Wiley says.
Branches from fruit trees are good solo performers, too, she says. "A branch with five or six lemons on it looks great in a big ceramic pot." Other citrus, apples, pomegranates or persimmons also work well.
Wiley also often uses branches rather than frogs or foam to create the framework to hold together her arrangements.
"Most of us have some wonderful things we could use for that purpose right in our own gardens--Indian hawthorn, camellia foliage, azalea foliage, myrtle, all the citrus, waxy begonia.
"If you don't want to use a branch, an alternative mechanic (flower holding device) is crisscrossing four or five pieces of foliage with strong stems to form sort of a mesh."
As to the flowers themselves, Wiley suggests placing darker flowers in the center of the arrangement and lighter ones toward the outside. "Because they recede, dark flowers at the center make a bouquet seem larger," she says. She also likes to include at least three sizes of flowers and odd numbers of each. But, Wiley stresses, these are guidelines, not rules.
This type of free-style arrangement is not her sole style, however. Wiley also likes arrangements dense with foliage--a style she calls "English cottage garden."
The idea, she says, is to create the illusion that you've brought a patch of the garden indoors, background foliage, ground cover and all.
Wiley likes foliage so much, in fact, she sometimes creates arrangements of it sans flowers.
"Foliage in a variety of colors, textures and shapes can be very satisfying all by itself."
She does not share Pritchard's aversion to "filler" flowers either. "I think they add softness and finish," she says.
Wiley and Pritchard are in full agreement that floral arranging should be fun, not fearsome.
"It's better than therapy once you relax," says Wiley.
"Be playful," urges Pritchard. "People like it."
And they both believe the best materials for arrangements are often those nearest at hand. "I used to use bougainvillea in bridal bouquets a lot--something I didn't see anyone else do--but everyone liked," says Wiley. "And there are lots of plants like that around us--things you're so used to looking at you don't see anymore."
Says Pritchard: "Open your eyes and look around."
Tips to Pump Up Flower Power
Here is how Madderlake handles flowers before using them in arrangements:
* Cut flower stems at an angle to maximize the amount of surface open to water. Scissors can pinch stems shut; a sharp knife is preferable.
* Scrape the side of the stem for about an inch above the cut to open up more surface for water intake.
* Woodier stems need to be split by making two or three cuts and crosscuts with a knife or pruning shears. Also scrape away the bark an inch or two up the stem.
* Immerse all stems in water immediately after cutting.
* Remove all damaged and excess foliage, including any that will fall below the water level.