Toolkit for the Home Florist

Garden Party

Recently I've been approached by quite a few people looking to learn about arranging flowers at home. Professional floral designs can be expensive, of course, and there is a time and place for them (otherwise I'd be out of a job!), but I think these days, DIY flower design appeals both as a frugal alternative and as a comforting domestic and artistic task.While a simple, unfussy arrangement can be stunning, of course there's more to floral design than just sticking some stems in a vase, and I'll be introducing you to various techniques in this column from time to time. But for now, let's start at the beginning and talk tools.

A lot of specialized items common in flower shops aren't necessary for the home toolkit. That being said, if you're going to dive into this as a hobby, why not collect a few relatively inexpensive tools for your arsenal? It's part of the fun. Here are my favorites, along with some suggestions for a basic vase collection:

Shears. You'll want both a pair of scissor-like shears and a set of garden pruners. (Good-quality pruners have a built-in wire cutter at the bottom of the blade as well.) Personally I like Fiskars brand for scissors and Felco for pruners. Neither of these are cheapies, but this is not an area where you want to skimp. You've got to have good sharp shears and pruners to make clean cuts; otherwise you risk damaging your stems (which could impede the flower's ability to absorb water). If you like giving flowers as gifts and want to use ribbon, keep a separate pair of scissors on hand for ribbon-cutting.

Utility Knife. Sometimes a knife is more useful than shears when it comes to getting a nice clean cut. Also you'll want one for stripping the bark off the ends of branches (a great way to prep branches for maximum water absorption without damaging them).

Frogs. Floral frogs are little weighted spiky disks that go in the bottom of a container as an aid for placing stems exactly where you want them. These are a tremendously useful alternative to the even more useful but environmentally disgusting floral foam. They can be kind of expensive, but used/vintage ones are often available at flea markets. Don't bother with the plastic ones, which don't work very well in my experience.

Scotch Tape. An even easier alternative to using a frog is to make a grid of scotch tape over the top of your container; you can place your stems in the squares created by the tape to allow for a more structured arrangement. Click over to this post for a nice photo tutorial.

Floral Tape. You might not need to use floral tape much if you're not making corsages, but it's useful if you want to incorporate succulents into your arrangements (check out our tutorial here), or if you think you might venture into wreath-making or something along those lines.

Floral Wire. Some florists use wire (and tape, for that matter) to manipulate uncooperative stems, but I tend to be more inclined to use the natural form of the flower just as it comes; that being said, wire is needed if you want to work with succulents (see above) or sometimes, for a more elaborate centerpiece, it's nice to use wire to bind a few stems together into a bundle. Start with some paddle wire and a few lengths of something thicker, like 16-gauge.

Stem Stripper. I don't personally work with tons of roses, but when I do, the stem stripper is a must for removing the thorns. It's also helpful for berries and other thorny types. Sometimes I use it to strip the arms of little baby palm leaves too. If you're working with flowers and foliage cut from your own garden, it's likely that you'll appreciate having a stem stripper on hand.

Twine. Jute twine comes in handy if you like to make hand-tied bouquets for gifts. Some people use rubber bands, which are just fine, but I find that twine is less likely to damage the stems. As you're working you can tie small bunches with twine and combine them together into the larger bouquet.

There are some other obvious items that you'll want to have on hand... rags for sopping up spills, a couple of buckets for conditioning your stems and keeping them in water while you work. Newspaper to protect the surface of your table or countertop. And of course: vases. Needless to say you can use almost anything as a vase, from a cereal bowl to an old suitcase; look around in your travels, at flea markets and in thrift stores, for interesting options. In the meantime, it's nice to have some few tried-and-true containers on hand. For a basic and versatile vase collection, try these:

Two or three mason jars, clear or blue glass. I like the quart size best for bouquets. Old ones are available on ebay, or you can just buy the new canning jars.

Two basic cylinders, one glass and one opaque. Any vase with a relatively narrow opening (but not too narrow) is a good place to start, and I like a basic cylinder, which looks streamlined and modern.

One ceramic cube. Choose a neutral color like brown or olive green. Opaque containers make for an elegant and clean presentation, which is why I like ceramic. And a cube is a simple and timeless choice.

One large glass or ceramic globe. A sphere-shaped vase with a small opening (maybe 4 inches or so) in the top is a gorgeous and dramatic container for a buffet centerpiece. I have one that's etched glass (cheap) and one fancy glazed ceramic one, painted with an Asian design (a wedding gift). At almost every party we have I use one of these for the centerpiece. They're fantastic with bunches of branches or with something weepy and romantic, like tulips.

Floral supplies are easy to find online and at craft stores. If you have a local flower market, pay a visit there as well; the supply vendors are often open to the public. And please feel free to add your own home flower arranging essentials in the comments below!

(Images: Caitlin Atkinson/Flora Grubb Gardens; Smith and Speed Mercantile; Fred Aldous; Blooms by the Box; Apartment Therapy)