Summer School: How to assemble a flower bouquet
Tucked away in the north central community of Charlotte, Unity Farm stretches across 54 acres. Several rows of fragrant flower beds welcome visitors with an explosion of pinks, reds, creams, and oranges.
The farm was started a decade ago by Cathy Wells.
“I am not a farmer by training," Wells says. "I am a landscape architect, there's a big difference. I had four draft horses, gotten divorced and wanted to stay here, and wanted to keep on working with them."
Standing in a small wooden shed, Wells is surrounded by buckets and buckets of fresh-cut flowers.
“I have always wanted to own land and be a land steward," she says. "I took the Small Women's Business Program in Burlington, started out thinking I was going to make a living growing kale in the winter.”
After one winter, Wells ditched kale for flowers. Her friend, a florist in Shelburne, admired the marigolds that Wells was growing on her farm, and encouraged her to grow some zinnias.
And so, the seeds of Unity Farm were planted.
“Now we have 65 different kinds of annuals, probably 35 different kinds of perennials, ornamental shrubs, it just keeps going," Wells says.
Flowers are a language, and after 10 years, Wells is nearly fluent. From seeds to bouquet, flowers require fine-tuned maintenance, care, and assembling. Wells says ideally, it would be her and five full time employees running the farm.
But for now, she only has three farmers on staff. That includes University of Vermont senior Alana Potts. She’s assembling today’s market bouquets.
Potts started working with flowers two years ago, on a small farm in Martha’s Vineyard. Now she can whip a bouquet into shape in two minutes.
"No one here has ever gotten to a minute, but two minutes we will take," Wells says.
But because I am a beginner in bouquet making, Potts slows down to thoroughly explain the process to me.
It all starts with the harvest. When it comes to picking the flowers, Potts and Wells tell me about the “shake test”.
“If you shake it and it's just like a little wobble, versus, like, you know, complete wobble, then these will hold up,” Potts says.
Most flowers should be picked before they are fully opened, so that the bouquets will last longer.
"We want our flower bouquets to last a week to 10 days," Wells says.
"Once you get in a rhythm, its really fun. It can be kind of overwhelming, because we pull all the flowers out in the morning, and usually like, looking at everything, I'm like, OK, like I have a lot of stuff here. How am I going to use this?" Alana Potts, farmer and master bouquet assembler at Unity Farms in Charlotte
She runs me through the flowers that will be going into today's bouquets. Sunflowers, marigolds, triloba rudbeckia, dara, zinnias, basil, gomphrena, goldenrod, explosion grass, and hot biscuit.
"Every flower fills a different niche within a bouquet,” Potts says.
And different flowers have specific needs. For example, basil doesn’t like being in a cooler, so the markets that keep their bouquets in the cooler will not include basil.
"Once you get in a rhythm, its really fun," Potts says. "It can be kind of overwhelming, because we pull all the flowers out in the morning, and usually like, looking at everything, I'm like, OK, like I have a lot of stuff here. How am I going to use this?"
Building the bouquet
Next, Potts leads me through the actual building of the bouquet. Unity sells their bouquets at places like City Market Co-op in Burlington, Healthy Living and Philo Ridge Farm.
Market bouquets have, on average, 15 to 18 stems.
Unity likes to break down the elements of a bouquet into five different categories. It’s a system they borrowed from Floret Flowers, a flower farmer and influencer based out of Skagit County, Washington.
Airy Elements: these delicate ingredients add whimsy, movement and interest to any bouquet.
Focal: the main flower that the bouquet will be built around, typically something large and showy.
Spikes: colorful vertical elements that really grab customer’s attention and accent the focal bloom.
Disk: these round-headed flowers are great at taking up space and filling in holes.
Filler: I rely heavily on greens to fill out each bouquet and provide textural interest.
(from Floret Flowers)
“Start with something really sturdy, hot biscuit, pair it with a focal flower, so right now we are using sunflowers, because we have tons and tons of sunflowers," Potts says.
A focal flower is the biggest flower, Pott explains. If sunflowers aren’t in season, they will use a rose lily, lizyanthus, or a few zinnias. Next comes the filler.
"I kind of pad things around that," Potts says. "So I start with one focal flower… you have some foliage, goldenrod before it blooms, nice to put around that sturdy middle part."
This juvenile goldenrod is without its signature mustard-colored tendrils.
"Then we use discs," like dara, Potts says.
Dara is a lacey, circular flower that looks similar to Queen Anne's lace. Basil and mint are often used here as well.
Next, Potts adds air.
“Which is kind of what it sounds like," she says. "It's just something that has like kind of more wispy, airy aspect to it, and kind of like, give dimension and stuff."
Potts ends her bouquet by adding two flowers called explosion grass at the end. They are thin green stalks with feathery crowns. She then lops off two inches from the shortest stem, and places the finished bouquet in a bucket of water.
“I take a lot of pride in the bouquets that I make, I genuinely love making the bouquets, and trying out new things," Potts says.
Making a great bouquet is just the start. Wells says aftercare is equally as important.
“Flowers do not like sitting in a sunny window," Wells says. "That will age them very quickly, so we recommend you have them more out of the sun. They really like cool temps. They do better in a cooler room.”
Wells also recommends changing the water every day, which will help flush out the bacteria in the water. In addition, it is important to cut the bottom of the stems a half inch or so every so often, so that the flowers will rehydrate.
If you want to try your hand at making a bouquet, Unity Farm’s flower market is open Friday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
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