A primer on arranging flowers

Can it be the begining of September already? This has been a summer to remember. We really did set some records for days above 90 degrees as well as days without rain. Overall, it has been a pretty good season. Just walk through the Auburn Farmer’s Market on State Street and look at the fantastic array of locally grown vegetables being offered. Last week, Ben Vitale told me that it has been an exceptional year because of the quality of the produce and because having State Street blocked because of the construction has made it easier for shoppers to get in and out of the parking lot.

With good caretaking and a bit of luck, your flower garden must be very colorful right now. If you have been successful, now is the time to enjoy those flowers even more. Take them indoors and fill the house with color. I am luckier than most people because throughout the year there are flowers in the store that are past a certain date so I, and some staff people, get to take them home to enjoy. That allows me to always have a few flowers on the table. Even though we will not sell them, we invariably get six to eight days out of them.

So, let’s talk about arranging flowers in the home. This will be a two-part topic. Today I will mostly talk about the materials you may want to have on hand to make professional looking arrangement. To be sure, you can simply cut flowers, stick them in a Mason jar and they will still brighten the room. But, I always like to look around the house, the attic and garage to find a fancy basket, watering can, interesting pot or even an old colander to make that arrangement special.

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A sour subject, vinegar comes in many varieties

I remember, when I was a kid of 8 or 9, my mom would give me a grocery list. I would walk the three or four blocks to the Market Basket on the corner of Genesee and Van Patten to complete the chore. I got everything into the cart, excepting the vinegar. There were two kinds on the shelf, so I selected one and took my groceries home and inevitably the vinegar came into question. If I got the red she wanted the white, and if I got the white she invariably wanted the red. One day I got tired of it and I bought a bottle of each. I got quite a dressing down that day because I had wasted money, probably 7 or 8 cents, on an item we did not need. I trudged back to the Market Basket to get my money back on the red, she had wanted the white. It was Depression time, and 7 cents was a lot of money.

Life is different today. Nothing costs 7 cents, although vinegar is still very inexpensive. So before sitting to write this column I looked at the vinegar shelf in my kitchen. It is on the shelf below the one that has the 15 or 20 kinds of cooking oil that I will probably seldom use

It was hard to believe what I saw. Nearly 20 bottles of vinegar. Most, I am sure, were purchased over the years when I was doing a lot of cooking and when a recipe called for a specific vinegar, I got a small bottle of it. If I liked the recipe, I got a bigger bottle and then found recipes that I liked better, but used a different vinegar. And so it went.

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Catching up at the midpoint of summer

Here we are, right at the midpoint of summer. How did we get here so quickly? Today, I want to give most of this week’s column over to some of the things we need to be doing right now.

Actually, the idea for the column came up as I entered the front door of the store today. To my right were a trio of large pots, each with an old-fashioned spike plant and a nice selection of summer annuals. The marigolds by the front door looked healthy, though they could have used some deadheading, and then I looked to the left. The hosta leaves were beautiful, not even any snail damage. The whole scene, though, was spoiled by the dozens of floral spikes with one or two living blooms and a whole lot of nothing. Take some time today and wander through your garden, even if it is only a couple of container pots, and shape them up. Take off the flowers that have passed their prime, remove yellowing or dead leaves, and fluff up the mulch. Just a few minutes can turn a so-so-looking garden into a place of beauty. It is worth the effort.

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Where are the flowers?

Rose harvest at a plantation in Tumbaco, Cayambe, Ecuador, South America.

I looked back, and it has been five or six years since I wrote about where flowers come from, and during that time there have been tremendous changes in the marketplace. New growing areas have come on the scene and others have disappeared or gotten much smaller. Transportation has been able to keep up with the needs. Technology faster than the speed of light makes it possible to see what a particular grower in many parts of the world has in stock today, and in many cases whether a particular flower will be available five or six months from now. That is important when you are selling weddings. I, like most other retail florists, will say that it has become an exciting and fast-moving business.

This phenomenon, this shift of production, began in the early to mid-’70s, when agriculturists in Colombia saw a potential market in the U.S. They believed that they had the right climate to grow premium flowers. After all, so near to the equator, they had 12 hours of sunlight and by moving up and down the mountains, the Andes, they could plant their carnations at an altitude where the temperature always hovered between 55 and 60 degrees.

Come down the mountains and you’ll find the altitude where mums would grow; they thrive at 65 degrees. I do not believe that in those early days they could understand the depth and breadth of the market or the impact that it would have on the people of Colombia. The money people were astute enough to bring in professors from the leading colleges of agriculture.

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Some history of houseplants and their study

As we begin our new season of houseplant care, I think this would be a good time to explore how we got all of those beautiful foliage and flowering houseplants. They certainly aren’t native to our land. Many of them originated in far-off places around the globe. Think orchids from South America and the Philippines and the islands of the South Pacific. The philodendrons originated in the West Indies. Today, we call that area the Caribbean. And different varieties of our ornamental figs spanned the globe, different varieties originating in the South Pacific and all over Africa.

In today’s world, all this globetrotting would seem quite easy. You simply hop on a plane, go somewhere, hire a local guide and look for different plants. But how would you know if it has already been discovered? And if you did find something, you cannot imagine the trouble you would have getting by the plant inspectors at the airport. They are there to protect us from diseases and insects that we do not already have in our plant world. They are very meticulous. So, even today, it is not a small thing to bring in these plants.

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The significance of lucky bamboo stems

First of all, I do want to thank the several readers who pointed out an error in last week’s column about lucky bamboo. It seems that I left a “Y” off an important word. It read “luck bamboo,” not “lucky bamboo.” I guess I should be paying more attention to my spell checker. But it does point out the fact that the column is being read.

I do want to say that researching for last week’s column and this one has been a fascinating journey. I learned a lot about plants, culture — especially Chinese — and myths. I think that is why I so enjoy writing. It is, every week, a learning experience.

To begin with lucky bamboo is just one of the names attached to the plant. Depending on what part of the world you are in, it might be called curly bamboo, Chinese water bamboo, friendship bamboo, goddess of mercy plant and ribbon plant. Actually, this confusion really points up the need for our systems of botanical (Latin) plant names. No matter where in the world you might be, the plant will be easily identified as Dracena sanderiana.

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A bamboo that is not a bamboo

Yes, I want to spend this week talking about that ever-popular plant that we see more and more of this time of year. But before I begin, I want to give a big “thank you” to a whole group of people who made my summer most pleasant. I am talking about that hardy group of 20 or 30 people who, for the last five months, rain or shine, hot or cold, have managed to be at our own farmers market in the Curley’s parking lot from 7 a.m. until 2 p.m. every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. The produce, most locally grown, has been fresh, crisp and fantastic. But the market is more than the produce. It is friendly place where you can chat and meet friends and where when you ask a question or for a recipe, these folks can be very helpful. So, marketeers, thanks for a great season. Have a wonderful winter. You will see me on the first Tuesday in June.

Let’s talk about luck bamboo. It seems to be everywhere, mostly in groceries and home improvement stores, and garden centers. I’m sure that you will recognize it from the adjacent picture. First, let’s get one thing straight: It is not a member of thebamboo family of plants; it just looks like a bamboo plant. This plant is a member of the very large family of plants, the dracenas. Its botanical name is Dracena sanderiana. Okay, enough of the Latin.

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A guide to arranging houseplants

As we start to look forward to those long, dreary winter days, my thoughts turn to houseplants, those green living things that brighten the home and give us hope that the spring green will soon be appearing. In case you don’t know it, I am not a winter person. I guess you might say that I put up with those three or four dreary months so I can enjoy the rest of them, right from the first iris in the spring until the last orange leaf drops from the maple tree.

Let’s talk about those houseplants. I think that I do not want to talk about care and handling; I’ve covered that pretty well recently. Instead, I want to write about the overall types of plants, and how to use them.

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Shower time can help houseplants

Today, I want to I want to spend a few moments talking about autumn houseplant care. Taking a little time right now with the plants you love so much will keep them healthier throughout the season. They’ll give you fewer problems and a whole lot more enjoyment. Whether the plants have been in the house or on the patio these past few months, they are probably very dusty and, most probably, have more than a few tiny insects living on their leaves. I learned what I am going to tell you many years ago, but the whole scenario is fresh in my mind. Continue reading

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More tips for drying flowers

I thought we would do one more column on how to dry flowers, so you can make attractive bouquets that will last through the winter months. That’s right: Most of them will give you several months of beauty, but you need to remember that they are not plastic flowers. Even they wear out their welcome after a few months. We tend to get tired of that colorful dust collector on the dining room table. Isn’t that what flowers are all about — fleeting beauty? That’s why we buy them in the first place. We want to perk up a room, cheer ourselves or a friend for a few days.

With drying, we are trying to extend the beauty, the mood, for a few weeks or months. Yes, you can have dried flowers that last longer if you spray them with lacquer or even hairspray. The enemy of dried flowers is moisture from the air, and a good spraying will seal them against humidity. Sometimes we just do not want to dispose of them. Each May, during their short season, I pick a lot of lily of the valley from my garden and put them in small vases around the house. Gradually, the water evaporates and the stems of bells dry. Each year, when I need those same vases, I find them where I left them 12 months ago. They still remind me of the beauty that once was.

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