Main Street News

Bringing the Outside In

By Published On: May 1st, 2024

For the two years I have been writing this column (how time flies), the focus has always been on sustainable seasonal flowers: how to grow them, where to source them, and why they are so important in our quest to reduce our great environmental clod-hopping footprint. Today is no different; although this month we are going to talk about the absolute joy of bringing the outside in, of why and how to bring all this seasonal beauty inside, as well as some tips on arranging and conditioning our flowers so we can enjoy them for as long as possible. 

Granny’s hall table

One of my earliest and most consistent memories is of my grandmother’s hall table. Without fail, a simple vase sat on this table, full of flowers freshly picked from her garden. Sometimes it would an exuberance of summer blooms, sometimes a sparse cracking blossom branch, and sometimes, in the depth of winter, a forced spring bulb. It wasn’t just possible to tell the month of the year from my granny’s hall table but even the week of the month. From the first snowdrops via camellias, narcissi, tulips, roses, and dahlias through the last of the fall chrysanthemums and finally to sprigs of holly, it was a week-by-week conveyor belt tour of the floral year.   

In the interim decades I feel we have been through a couple of not-so-welcome flower fashion cycles – the sterile yet ubiquitous white orchids, single-stem, pomander-style arrangements, and the horror of dyed flowers, all of which seemed to reject the very idea of seasonal local beauty. I’m happy to say that now – thankfully – the pendulum has swung back our way. We may still be subjected to the occasional Kardashian travesty of 10,000 red roses flown from afar, crammed into floral foam on a beach for an Instagram engagement photo, but these atrocities are becoming fewer and less admirable as the joy of celebrating real flowers where and how they grow returns.

A renewed enthusiasm

The combination of two things I don’t normally celebrate, COVID and social media, have played a large part in this. Access to information and inspiration in how to grow and arrange, coupled with the importance of creating a home that appeals to us both aesthetically and emotionally, and represents our values, has created a renewed enthusiasm for bringing the outside in.

Our understanding of the environmental cost of grown and flown flowers has increased along with a genuine desire to celebrate the uniqueness of the season at hand. Few and far between are pictures of holiday tables decorated with lilacs and peonies. Likewise, spring weddings with dahlias and fall ones with narcissi and tulips are rarely seen. Aside from emotional resonance, a large part of this is our growing understanding that flowers in season, and even more so locally grown flowers, look better, smell better, and last better. Think how you feel after a long-haul red-eye flight, and you’ll understand why! 

Every kind of beauty

The original proponent of bringing the outside in was Constant Spry, a trailblazing, formidable English woman who managed to arrange the flowers for both Edward Windsor and Wallis Simpson’s wedding and for the Queen’s Coronation. Clearly her diplomatic skills were something to behold as well! The first proponent of using not just traditional flowers but foraged foliage, vegetables, and even ‘weeds,’ Spry was responsible for reinventing floristry in England and really the rest of the world in the 1930s. Her mantra was, “Learn, learn, learn. Open your eyes to every kind of beauty.” Advice as relevant today as it was nearly one hundred years ago.

Certainly, it has been revered, revisited, and revived by several of today’s leading floral and garden designers, all of whom focus on bringing the outside in. Like Spry, they too are keen to share their knowledge and expertise so that we mere mortals can practice their art too. (A note here: flower arranging is like everything else: when you have little or no experience, it can seem very daunting. But just like with rocket science, there are basics, fundamentals, and rules that you can follow to get you started. The more practice you get, the better you will become, the more your confidence will grow, and the further you can push this. Unlike rocket science though, even your earliest and easiest arrangements are likely to bring you great joy. So, start small and simple, but do at least start.) 

Garden gurus

Today anyone with half an ounce of interest in flower arranging is likely to have heard of Ariella Chazar. Her 2019 book Seasonal Flower Arranging: Fill Your Home with Blooms, Branches, and Foraged Materials All Year Round is somewhat of a bible for me. With step-by-step instructions, it explains how to create a series of arrangements that ‘celebrate the splendor of flowers, the bounty of the changing seasons, and the wild beauty of nature in your home.’ Her latest book Home in Bloom: Lessons for Creating Floral Beauty in Every Room was published in March and takes this even further, again encouraging us to harness the transformative power of flowers in altering the energy within our homes. 

Another guru of mine is Sean Anthony Pritchard. He is a god on Instagram, where his still images of his Somerset, UK cottage adorned with the fruits of his garden capture the absolute joy and simplicity of bringing the outside in – vases of kale, anyone? I have been waiting with such bated breath for the publication of his first book – guess what – titled none other than Outside In – that I might have paid for international shipping rather than wait an extra month for its US publication date. If ever there was someone to convince you that there is always something thrilling that the garden can offer up, it is Pritchard. Flower, garden, interior lovers, one and all, this is a definite ‘Add to Cart.’

For those of you who want bite-sized week-by-week confidence-building mini-tutorials on bringing the outside in, may I recommend Willow Crossley’s Sunday morning Instagram tutorials @willowcrossleycreates. I’m not entirely sure I would want my floristry clients knowing this, but I have learned 90% of my arranging knowledge from these weekly snippets. Even if you are not into arranging flowers, Crossley’s five-minute-or-less lessons are a dose of such joy and enthusiasm they are an instant pick-me-up for even the most jaded amongst us.

Flower arranging 101

A few tips and tricks for tip-top flower arrangements:

Stage of bloom. Some flowers are best cut at a stage when they’ve barely cracked open – tulips for example. Others such as daisy-types and single stems – sunflowers, dahlias, and chrysanthemums – need to be just coming to full bloom when cut. 

Time of day. Ideally first thing in the morning is best as the flowers have had the previous night to fully rehydrate. Never cut in the middle of a blazing hot day.

Sharp snips. Make a nice clean cut across the bottom of the stem so the flower can easily draw up water. Repeat every time your flowers are out of water – you do not want the stems sealing over.

Clean vase. If your flowers are going to be drinking from it, you should be happy drinking from it. Crystal clean please!

Foliage. No leaves or buds allowed beneath the water line. Take them all off. 

Arranging mechanics. Do not use floral foam. If your arrangement requires any kind of support within the vase or vessel, invest in some floral frogs and/or just a scrunched-up ball of chicken wire. Both are easy to use, are absolute game changers in elevating an arrangement, and can be reused time and time again with zero cost to the planet. Unlike those evil green plastic blocks! 

Post arrangement. Keep your flowers out of direct sunlight and away from fruits and vegetables. Top up or change the water every few days.  And, to extend the enjoyment of your flowers, remove any stems as they go over or even reuse any long-lasting blooms in a second arrangement. •

Pom Shillingford is an obsessive gardener originally from England and now based in Salisbury, CT. She offers seasonal cut flowers through English Garden Grown. Find her on Instagram @english_garden_grown.