This section is from "The Horticulturist, And Journal Of Rural Art And Rural Taste", by P. Barry, A. J. Downing, J. Jay Smith, Peter B. Mead, F. W. Woodward, Henry T. Williams. Also available from Amazon: Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste.
The reason that people so often fail in arranging flowers is, that they put all the brilliancy together, and perhaps relieve it but slightly, or not at all, with that verdure which abounds everywhere in nature where flowers most charm us. Many persons go into the garden, and, gathering a lot of flowers, stick them closely into a vase of some kind, nearly as close, perhaps, as a broom is tied up. This results from their not seeing the reason why prettily marked flowers please us when set, so to speak, in wide spreads of rich verdure. The result of such a jumble is, that the product is about as attractive to the tasteful eye as a garden all yellow and red; and what should be the sweetest thing in the house is painful to look at compared to a flower and spray depicted on the vase which contains it, or perhaps on the wall of the room. As a rule it may be said that, by using a sufficiency of green, we could get rid of much of this awkwardness, and though it may not enable people to arrange flowers really well, yet a great advance is made when we recognize the value of green.
If you see a person who is about to arrange a vase of roses bring in a handful or two of the freshest and finest rose-leaves in the garden, you may be pretty sure that the roses will not look amiss when he or she has done with them. When arranging a dish of roses with short stems, we always begin by putting a circle of large and fine leaves around the edge (fern fronds are better), so that their points droop over; and by putting a profusion of them through the blooms, an infinitely better effect may be produced with half, or even quarter the number of blooms, than when they are "lumped in." But it is not enough to avoid what we will call lumping: it is desirable to give each flower its own place, so to speak. This is to some extent a mechanical operation, as in vases generally there is no resisting medium on which to place the flowers. You can not arrange them rightly without some little contrivance. For a flattish vase or dish, the best thing we know of is silver, or any other fine sand, in a very moist, though not actually in a sloppy state. This forms a capital planting medium, so to speak, and at the same time keeps the flowers fresh - at least, as much so as water does.
By filling the dish or vase with sand, full or thereabouts, and then when moist rounding it up a little in the middle, you have as good a preparation for the reception of flowers as can be made. Insert the flower-stems in it to the required depth, first having pointed them and stripped them of the lower leaves; and as the height of each bloom is of some moment, they may often require to be shortened, which should be done with a sharp knife in a slanting direction, and that will assist them in penetrating the sand with facility. By doing this you have the disposition of your flowers quite under command. If they be of a trailing or decumbent habit, it will be necessary to sink them nearly to the necks; and if they be of an erect or stiffish habit, like geranium or sweet-pea blossoms, they may be left as long as may be desired or convenient. Flowers, green leaves, graceful grasses, or any other addenda, may be thus placed at discretion. If a coat of the common ly-copodium be placed over the sand, so much the better; it would act as a capital resting-place for the flowers, and do away with the necessity of using a good deal of small stuff to fill up the interstices.
Indeed, a lot of long moss or spray of twigs cut to a level top and plunged in a narrow vase has often been successfully used instead of sand. Then again, where the receptacle for flowers is very shallow, like the lower tray of some ornaments for table decoration, a little sand is all that is necessary; but it should be borne in mind that such trays are suitable chiefly for flowers that may be cut short, and for little bunches of forget-me-not, lycopodium, and things which will form erect and somewhat compact little tufts, with short fern-spray, etc. Sometimes rather close little wire coverings are used for dishes and vases, and these certainly support the flowers well, and do away with the slightest necessity for crowding, but yet are inferior to the soft, moist masses of sand. It has just occurred to us that by growing the common lycopodium in dishes till it attained luxuriance, and then bringing them into the house, they would form capital cushions on which to place a few choice flowers. Indeed, we have no doubt of it.
By filling the dish with very fine sandy peat, passed through a fine sieve, and rounding the center considerably up, pricking the common lycopod over the the surface, and placing the vases in a warm vinery, fernery, or moist and rather warm structure of any sort, in a month or two they will become masses of green, and droop over the margin of the dish. It may be propagated thus to any amount, as every bit grows as freely as grass. Half a dozen really good flowers inserted in this - and the pointed stems would pass as readily into it as into the sand - would afford a charming effect; and with a few bits of graceful ferns to counteract the lumpy appearance of the moss, it could not fail to be admired. The lycopod would look well for a long time, and when it faded or became dusty, others could be introduced from the stock so readily propagated. The dishes should have a hole in the bottom for the water to escape into an outer case. Of course this is quite inapplicable to costly, tall, or elegant narrow vases, but it would suit to a nicety low dishes for roses or any other flowers; and such are the most useful for general purposes, as by their judicious use you see the beauty of the flowers, and that alone - which is generally a gain.
For the tall vases we have often used sand; but where they are too fragile or expensive to risk breakage by filling them with heavy material, it is better to cut a bunch of some kind of spray - say box, yew, or any small-leaved plant - and trimming it off, put it in the vase, so that its top is about level with that of the vase, and on that surface the flowers may be inserted thinly and firmly as you please. From the above it will be seen that we A Chapter for Ladies on Gathering and Arranging Flowers. 279 have a horror of the bundling system. Every flower should stand distinct in the arrangement, and it is also very desirable to avoid the crowding in of too many colors into the one vase or dish. A few simple flowers, carefully selected from the woods or ditches - say the hawthorn, the forget-me-not, the wild grasses, the meadow sweet, the marsh marigold, etc. - a select few, observe, not too many kinds, and well arranged - will produce a better effect than all the flowers and colors of the garden lumped together.
Quiet sweet things, like mignonette, may be used in abundance as a sort of groundwork for the display of brighter flowers; and why not bunches of it for insertion into the necks of vases as well as the evergreen spray we named above? Decided colors should generally be grouped distinct from those of a quiet tone; but so varied are the forms and colors of the flowers of our gardens that it would be folly to be tied by any rule except this: Place the blooms thinly, and in the midst of refreshing verdure, as Nature does; the brighter the color, the more green should, as a rule, be employed. The procuring, or rather the selecting, of this green is an important point. Ferns of many kinds are valuable, but many other plants are equally so. Of the ferns, the apex of the fronds of the common male fern are highly suited for dressing the margins of large vases, dishes, etc.; while for more delicate work there are innumerable kinds in the way of the maidenhair, and, in fact, every elegant fern may be used.
Where there is much decoration of this kind to be done, it is well to grow a few of the most suitable kinds in some quantity for cutting at all seasons; but, generally, the spray of the more elegant conifers, such as cupressus nootkaensis and others, the arbor-vitaes, the neat and pretty new retinosporas, and, in fact, many things in this way will be found most valuable. They last much longer, are to be had in a fresh and green state at all seasons, and often furnish quite as graceful an effect as the ferns. Some of the better lycopodiums, too, or selaginellas, as they are called, are among the very best things that can be used, and in a warm place grow as freely as weeds. Finally, the selecting of the flowers and the cutting of them is worth a thought. The right way to do it is to gather a few suitable kinds in distinct little bundles - whether fern, foliage, or flowers - and then, when placed on a table, the arranger has simply to take the flower or frond he wants - a thing not easy when all are gathered in a promiscuous bundle. Another word: fail not to use the fuchsia and other pendulous flowers for drooping over the margins of all but the lowest dishes, to produce a charming effect.
Since writing the above we have seen large, very large vases, and very expensive, too (6,000 and 7,000 francs apiece), in Paris houses, filled tastefully with flowers - a capital medium for the insertion of the stem being found in rich flakes of deep moss, a layer well moistened being put in the bottom of the vase, and over that another layer with only its natural moisture. The flakes of thick moss are placed in just as they grow, and thus the flower stems pass down into them with the greatest ease. It must, however, not be supposed from this hint that the French always arrange flowers well; they do rooms, etc., for festive occasions charmingly, but bouquets are far more tastefully and beautifully done in Covent Garden. The other day a French countess presented to Mdlle. Patti a bouquet about the size of a sponging bath; if any lady took it about with her it must be in a refined sort of wheelbarrow; and many of the best bouquets to be bought in Palis display no taste or knowledge of. arranging flowers. - The Firld.