By Danielle Frum
I am by no means a professional florist or flower designer, but over time I’ve learned to make (and even enjoy making!) centerpieces for dinner parties and special occasions, such as Passover.
I’ve found you don’t need any special skills — just a willingness to be creative and follow a few guidelines (listed below). The resulting arrangements may not be as perfect as what arrives in cardboard from a florist, but they will definitely be less stiff (and certainly less expensive.)
Even on a very formally set table, I think flowers should look a little loose and wild — it brings an air of boho chic to the party, like the arrival of your artistic cousins from Tel Aviv.
For FT&V’s “Farm-to-Table” theme for this year’s Passover, I imagined something rustic and simple but bursting with spring. I happened to be in Ikea last week (which is an excellent source for inexpensive votives, pillar candles and vases of all kinds), where I found small farm-style cream jugs and glass milk bottles, the perfect size for centerpieces. Which brings me to …
Guideline 1: Keep the height of table arrangements below the noses of your seated guests. You shouldn’t need a machete to pass the salt, or have to part foliage to speak to the person across the table.
Next I visited my local garden store. Most times I like the challenge of using what is seasonal and growing in my garden — kind of like making a meal out of leftovers in the fridge — but barely anything is growing there right now. Supermarkets often have plentiful flower sections, and I’ve made some spectacular arrangements using fairly basic stock. For Passover, however, I wanted a more substantial supply of blooms to choose from. I was rewarded the moment I walked in: buckets of lilac branches, lacecap hydrangeas, tulips in every hue and, gasp, fat white peonies. Perfect.
Guideline 2: When choosing flowers, go for a mix of textures: bulky, slender, fluffy, delicate. Keep the palette, however, relatively monotone.
The most elegant table arrangements are usually all one color — this way they don’t compete with everything else that is happening, from the glassware to the china to the linens. All white doesn’t have to be boring if you mix up the types of flowers and add in cream tones with interesting greenery. At most, choose one accent color — one that will go with the room color or the place setting; then keep everything else neutral.
I didn’t have an arrangement in mind when I picked the flowers — I chose what I liked, keeping to the guideline of different textures. It’s always important to have a “bulky” flower to fill out the bottom and lend support to the lighter blooms that will end up on top. My usual go-to baseline flower is hydrangea, which are superb anchors and offer the beautiful visual quality of spilling over the sides. With a wider vase, I’d use a florist’s pin frog to keep everything in place. But because the tops of the jugs were narrow, I could use the peonies and lilacs as stabilizing base flowers in addition to the hydrangea, without a pin.
Guideline 3: Start building with the bulky flowers, and use odd numbers. This will shape the arrangement to your vase, and allow you to scatter the more delicate flowers whimsically, poking out here and there. I cut the stems of the base flowers so they rested on the rim of the vase. I also made sure they projected from all angles. Placing flowers in 3s, 5s, and other odd numbers works better than placing them in even numbers. So if you have only two tulips in a vase add a third.
Once I’m satisfied with the first arrangement, I make the others to match. It’s important to look at each vase from all angles, to make sure they stand up to viewing from all sides of a table. It’s also important to get rid of unnecessary greenery, leading me to…
Guideline 4: Be ruthless when pruning and cutting your flowers for an arrangement. You saw the photo of the branchy lilacs at the beginning. Most of that gnarled greenery was disposed of as it just got in the way. Ditto most of the outer leaves of the tulips were stripped off. If I were putting them in a vase en masse I’d still strip off most of the outer leaves to avoid en mess of excessive foliage.
But what about the milk bottles? I saved some tulips and freesia to place in these, to work as floral scrim in conjunction with the jugs. The effect I wanted to create was as if a spring garden was growing up the center of the table. The one exception to Guideline 1 is a tall arrangement that is spare and doesn’t interfere with sight lines across the table. Sometimes you can situate these between guests, so no one’s view is affected.
The finished products:
You can see in the top photo how they can be placed down the center of a table. You could also keep the jugs on the table, and move the milk bottles to a sideboard and even a powder room. It’s nice to keep a theme of flowers running through the whole house.