The Boston Globe Magazine
August 26, 1999
Front Page

By Carol Stocker, Globe Staff                                                                       

The Florists Secret

Section: At Home

Gardener's Notebook

     What do women really want? Well, an awful lot of them want to be able to walk out their back doors into a beautiful garden and cut a bouquet of fresh flowers. Sounds like a modest ambition, but it's trickier than one would think.

Many flowers wilt without conditioning (see sidebar), and it's a challenge to cut flowers out of a landscaped display garden without diminishing it. That's why traditional estates like Hammersmith Farm in Newport, R.I., and Blithewold in Bristol, R.I., grow their cutting flowers in rows like crops. So I was intrigued when Pauline Runkle, who has professionally arranged flowers for the Boston Pops, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Dalai Lama, said she gets much of the material for her company, Floral Artistry, which specializes in corporate and private events, out of her home garden in Manchester-by-the-Sea.

Like other professional arrangers, Runkle buys most of her cut flowers. But she also grows flowers and foliage that are difficult to purchase commercially. 
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Her acre of planted flower beds, winding around another 3 acres of woods and lawn, is a masterful example of smart planting. It yields mountains of unusual material for arrangements over a long season, while still managing to look lush.

Runkle shared many tips on how to cut your garden and have it, too, during an interview this summer. Her garden is almost entirely composed of bulbs, shrubs, perennials, and self-seeding biennials that can be planted now to provide cutting material next year. (Early fall planting is Secret Number One to a floriferous spring and summer garden.)

Though Runkle indulges in a few high-maintenance delphiniums near her front door for the sheer glory of them, she tends to take a hard-nosed approach to getting the most cutting material for the least amount of effort. What she tries to grow are flowers, berries, and decorative foliage that are self-seeding, undemanding, and fragrant, that hold up for at least three days in arrangements, and that are expensive or impossible to buy from floral wholesalers.

It's a winning strategy as increasingly picky consumers thirst for the unusual in their bouquets, and it's one that can help make your own home-grown arrangements unique.

Starting with the soil

     It all starts with good soil, of course. When Runkle and her husband, Joe, an inventor, bought their house, the site was ledgy with little topsoil. Runkle's first act was to purchase eight trailer loads of loam.

Unfortunately, the soil must have been dredged from wetlands, because it came loaded with seeds of invasive purple loosestrife. Fifteen years later, she is still weeding it out.

Many ledges continue to protrude, but Pauline Runkle works with them. Or, rather, she plays with them. Some ledges act as pedestals for an unusually effective collection of metal garden sculpture, all natural subjects by Roger DiTarando of Vernon, Conn. An impressionistic metal goat stands triumphantly atop a rocky outcropping near the front door, surrounded by sedums and other alpine and deserty plants that prefer good drainage to rich soil.

April begins the cutting year in Runkle's garden, with pansies and unusual miniature daffodils, both of which she will place in small vials of water that give the stems extra length when tucked into arrangements. She also continues to cut from her large collection of winter-blooming hellebores.

April also yields no-maintenance lily-of-the-valley, self-seeding biennial forget-me-nots, and the neglected old-fashioned shrub spirea prunifolia, the true bridalwreath spirea, which blooms several weeks before the more common vanhouttei spirea with which it is often confused.

May brings tulips. As she does most spring bulbs, Runkle orders them from John Scheepers Inc. (860-567-0838) and Van Engelen (860-567-8734). ``They stand behind their product.'' She always plants several hundred White Triumphator lily-flowered tulips in the fall. She also likes the new grape hyacinth Valerie Finnis, with its scent and unusual shade of light blue.

Shrubs and trees

Shrubs and trees yield a wealth of spring flowers and summer berries. Runkle especially likes cranberry viburnums, lilacs, and Korean dogwoods, but has given up on the much-loved American dogwood, which has suffered from an onslaught of diseases. She grows variegated weigela and purple-leafed Rosa rubifolia, not so much for their so-so flowers as for their intriguing foliage, which is pretty all season.

June is rose month. Runkle's favorite of the many luscious David Austin roses (modern reblooming hybrids of antique varieties) are Eden and Heritage. Her yellow rose of choice is Austin's The Pilgrim. Though some New Englanders have been disappointed with the performance of these barely-hardy roses, Runkle swears they thrive in her Zone 6 garden. ``The secret is that they don't do much for the first three years. They're slow starters.'' The masses of peach-size baby pink Eden roses dangling from her patio arbor certainly look happy enough. ``I feed them compost and Miracle-Gro.''

She also grows cherry-apricot Baby Talk, a floribunda. Her top performer is Bonica, which has replaced Betty Prior as the rose that refuses to take the summer off. Runkle also grows the new disease-resistant Meidiland roses from France.

Fragrant mock orange, which she says takes several years to develop a fragrance, is another June shrub for cutting.

June is also the big month for self-seeding biennials, including white Excelsior and yellow grandiflora foxgloves and the yellow and white mullein, Verbascum chaixii. Americans have been slow to embrace biennials, which sound inconvenient because they take two years to flower, then die. But because many reseed in perpetuity once you introduce them to your yard, clever gardeners like Runkle are discovering that they are one of the shortcuts to maintaining a large flower garden without a lot of planting.

Old-fashioned hollyhocks are her dominant biennial this month and a signature flower in her professional arrangements, as they don't ship well enough to be marketed as cut flowers. They must be arranged in a vase of water, not the green florist foam called Oasis. They also require a sulfur spray every two weeks to banish disfiguring rust disease. (Though the maroon-black hollyhock Nigra is the rage now, Runkle says it's not effective in arrangements.)

Horay for hostas

Runkle also begins cutting hosta foliage in June and continues through the season.

July and August bring fragrant buddleia, ``the best thing in the world for a little bouquet by somebody's bed.''

Runkle collects hydrangeas of various kinds, which she purchases from specialists at the Bell Family Nursery (503-651-2887; catalog $4.50, refundable with purchase, from Box 389, Aurora, OR 97002; fax 503-651-2648). Through the summer these shrubs pump out bouquet-size flower heads of papery bracts, which can cost as much as $7 a stem to purchase commercially.

A little-known native perennial called queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra Venusta) produces flower heads as large and pink as cotton candy.

``I don't do very much with annuals at all. They don't last very long in flower arrangements.'' But three she does bother with are fragrant heliotrope and cosmos, especially the white strain of Sensation, and the sunflower varieties Italian White and Mahogany. She also cuts seedheads of annual nigella, which are everlasting.

Fall is a rich time for arranging, with the berries of cranberry viburnum (V. trilobum), the inflorescences of artemisias and ornamental grasses such as miscanthus, the colorful fall foliage of witch hazel, and the blooms of asters and scented geraniums. Runkle also grows dahlia varieties with purple foliage. A plot of cute miniature pumpkins adds humor to the autumnal garden and the arrangements that come out of it.

Flowers that make the cut -- and those that don't

Here is Pauline Runkle's list of the best and worst flowers for growing for bouquets.


Biennials. Forget-me-nots (Myosotis scorpioides), foxgloves, and hollyhocks are all good for cutting. Leave a few to reseed.

Catmint. Perhaps the easiest blue flower. Long-lasting. Fragrant gray foliage. (Not to be confused with catnip.)

Cosmos. The best annual. Easy to grow and arrange. White Sensation is choice.

Daffodils. Easy and perennial. And they can be mail-ordered in many varieties not available through florists. She likes the fragrant and diminutive Ice Wings, Petral, Thalia, Sun Disk, and Poeticus.

Flowering shrubs. The best bargain. Especially spireas, mock oranges, viburnums, buddleias, hydrangeas, and shrubs with colored foliage or berries.

Lady's mantle. The best filler because its green sprays make other flowers look more vivid. A self-seeding perennial that tolerates shade.

Lilacs. Easy. Fragrant. She orders early and late varieties through Fox Hill Nursery (207-729-1511).

Lily-of-the-valley. Fragrant. Easy. Expensive to buy.

Peonies. Zaftig Victorian beauty. Some are fragrant. ``But they come and go so fast, you should grow them in a separate bed.''

Roses. Unusual but easy types. Give them three full years to establish themselves, but after that, yank them out if you're not satisfied, and give the space to another variety.

Tulips. An amazing range of types, mostly unavailable from florists. Runkle buys wholesale through catalogs and pulls up and discards the inexpensive bulbs after harvest, as they're at their best only the first year. Her favorites include Swan Wings, White Parrot, and Spring Green.

Variegated Solomon's seal. Easy in shade. Unusual and effective in arrangements because of the arching stem.


Annuals. Most don't last as cut flowers.

Dark maroon and ``black'' flowers. Though faddishly popular, they disappear like black holes in arrangements.

Day lilies. Good garden plants but bad cutting flowers, because each bloom collapses after a day and just hangs there.

Delphiniums and monkshoods. The flowers shatter.

Japanese maples. The beautiful leaves drop.

Lilies. Even if you're not cursed with the red lily-leaf beetle, they're cheaper to buy as cut flowers.

Oriental poppies. Fragile, short-lived, and hard to arrange.

Sweet William. Too stiff. 


People should only expect a flower arrangement to last three days, Pauline Runkle says. But conditioning will certainly increase the life of cut flowers. ``And floral perservatives really are necessary. There's lots of new ones on the market. But I think they're all pretty much the same.''

She always uses ultra-clean buckets that have been washed with bleach to kill germs. The most important aspect of conditioning flowers is to recut the stems under water, even if you've received them as a gift through a florist. (``Purchased roses dehydrate in shipping. To rehydrate, lay them in a sink full of water horizontally while you recut the stems.'')

After harvesting material, Runkle trims (but does not rip or pull) the leaves from the stems so none will be under water in the finished arrangement. Then she recuts the ends in a bucket of nearly hot water. Runkle cuts a cross 1 to 2 inches up the length of branches of shrubs. ``The woodier the stem, the hotter the water.''

Then she sets her buckets of blooms in a cool dark place overnight to encourage the flowers to drink up before they're arranged.

Fresh cut daffodil stems exude a poison (that's why they're pest-proof), so Runkle conditions them separately from other types of flowers. But they can be added to mixed arrangements after conditioning.

After re-recutting (under water, of course) and arranging, she keeps the vase filled. ``Cut flowers drink all the way up the stem, so don't just have 3 inches of water in the bottom of the container.''

You don't have to change the water, Runkle says. But when topping off a vase after a few days, she holds it under running water and flushes it.

Some types of flowers last longer than others, so pull out the faded ones to keep the arrangement fresh-looking.

P.O. Box 1603, Manchester, MA 01944.
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