It was while writing an article on “The Flower Girls of Brooklyn” that Lisa Przystup realized she might want to master the art of floral arranging herself. She spent a handful of days at Brooklyn-based florist Emily Thompson. Then, frustrated with writing, she turned back to the idea in earnest last summer while taking regular trips to upstate New York, where the flowers grow wild and plentiful. She started playing around with different arrangements before splurging on more exotic blooms from her neighborhood florist, balancing the cost with “a few stems from the local bodega.”
This down-to-earth approach is apparent from the moment I step into her Greenpoint apartment, where she makes us tea while watering a mounted Staghorn fern that hangs over the fireplace. “This environment is the opposite to what they like, which is swamps. I’ve killed two already. But I’m not allowed to have more,” she says with a sly smile directed toward her fiancé, Jonathon Linaberry, the voice behind one-man blues band The Bones of J.R. Jones.
Flower arranging, Lisa explains, crept up as a real venture “kind of like a relationship, when at first you’re pretending not to care but really you do.” Following a stint assisting Taylor Patterson of Fox Fodder Farm in October 2013, she launched James’s Daughter Flowers (yep, her dad is James). A friend introduced her to bag designer Clare Vivier, who needed flowers for her recently opened New York space, which led to another gig at Steven Alan Home, then Loeffler Randall and Rag & Bone came knocking…
With her business taking root, a few realizations have sprouted up along the way. “At a certain point you have to just let go and trust. Things won’t always be exactly how you want. Flowers give shapes that happen on their own.” And with that in mind, we asked Lisa to give us her top tips for arranging, choosing and caring for blooms (plus a few sources of inspiration if you’re feeling stuck).
1. Cut off a strip of chicken wire a few inches long and create a ball in your hands that will fit into the bottom of the vase. Fill the vase with water. You can also make a grid pattern over the opening of the vase. I usually just use this technique on clear vases with clear tape so you can’t see it.
2. Add greenery to establish an asymmetrical base, followed by your statement flower (in this case, roses and amaryllis). Use roughly three to five each. Then add your secondary flowers (ranunculous, tulips and anemones). Good tip: If you’re not happy with the front, spin the arrangement around. I usually work looking at the front but sometimes when I see the back I like it better.
3. Construct layers: I like to build up. So, for example, I’ll cut one flower pretty long then trim another just shorter than that, so it rests right below the longer flower while simultaneously hiding the stem. Again, there are no hard and fast rules here. Some of the most breathtaking arrangements I’ve seen have a lot of negative space and unruly, random stems sticking out here and there. The general idea is to keep the eye moving. There should be a natural movement to the arrangement that keeps it visually interesting.
4. How do you know it’s done? You just sort of do. Sometimes you have to walk away and stop fussing with it. Like writing, you can endlessly edit and re-edit and re-write and and and… (Remember the “letting go” refrain?)
5. You’re working with a perishable item and there’s no magic trick to drastically extending its shelf life. That being said, there are several things you can do to make sure they don’t wilt so quickly and stay looking fresh longer:
– Trim the stems of the flowers right before you add them to your arrangement and use a sharp tool. Dull blades can crush the stems, and the bloom won’t be able to drink as efficiently. Also, trim it at an angle, so the opening/surface from which the flower drinks is larger. Don’t forget to trim the greenery (leaves etc.) as well.
– Keep the flowers in a cool place out of direct sunlight.
– I’ve never tried the whole bleach, Sprite technique – sounds like nonsense to me. I suppose the bleach would help cut back on bacteria in the water, but, like I said, I remain ever skeptical of something that promises radical results. A book I have called The Flower Recipe Book advocates changing the water daily by using the spray nozzle on your faucet to fill the vase while simultaneously tilting it and emptying the dirty water. That stresses me out just thinking about it, though, like walking and chewing gum.
*A note on budgeting: I usually have a rough estimate but it’s not an exact science – more like a crazy sort of mathematics. I’m still learning. There have been times that I’ve been short, other times I’ve had quite a few blooms left over, or I will nail it and use exactly what I bought. Try eyeballing it. When making smaller arrangements, like my little Mason jar bouquets, it’s easier to do the math: a couple sprigs of greenery, two or three showstopping flowers and a handful of filler/secondary flowers. Done.
Lisa’s Top 3 Sources of Inspiration:
The Flower Recipe Book, by Alethea Harampolis & Jill Rizzo
Simple, recipe-style breakdown of basics and flowers from the ladies behind San Francisco-based florist Studio Choo. A great book for beginners.
The Little Flower School blog
This is the teaching project of Nicolette Owen (Nicolette Camille) and Sarah Ryhanen (Saipua). They both make such gorgeous, wild arrangements. I like to go to their sites for visual inspiration. The Little Flower School blog is very educational, and the two women hold workshops all year long in various places around the world.
The Culture of Flowers, by Jack Goody
I just got this for Christmas and haven’t delved into it yet, but it looks like a feast of information. The author is a former Professor of Social Anthropology in the University of Cambridge, and the book explores “flowers and their symbolic function across the centuries.” Yes, please.
All photos by Matt Kashtan