How to make the most of garden flowers in your home

Ciara Quigley in The Green Room flower shop in Roundwood, Co Wicklow. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Expert advice on how to present flowers stylishly in your home, while helping them last longer

Your garden has never looked better. Its flowers are bursting with colour and you’re tempted to bring some inside. But if you want to get the most from them, it’s not as simple as plonking a few sprays in a vase and sticking it on the window sill. With expert advice you can not only present them stylishly, you can help them last longer.

“First of all, don’t put the flowers on the window sill in direct sunlight,” says Ciara Quigley, florist and two-time Chelsea Flower Show medal winner. To prolong their life span, she recommends displaying flowers on a table or mantelpiece away from the sun and other heat sources.

Pulling a dusty vase from the back of the cupboard is another cardinal error. “It’s so important that you have a really fresh, clean, spotless vase,” she says. “Otherwise, bacteria will affect the life span of the flowers. And there should be no foliage whatsoever in the water. If there are leaves on stems in the water, they will rot and bacteria will grow.”

In terms of longevity, fresh water is the way to go . . . we can get a week from a display by cutting the stems and changing the water every two or three days

Her top tip for anyone putting flowers into vases, whether they come from the garden or a flower shop, is to cut the stems at a 45-degree angle. This exposes more stem, giving the flowers more opportunity to absorb water.

“But you must do this right before you put the flowers into water, not five minutes before.” If flowers are cut and left while you prepare a vase, the area that was cut will seal up.

As well as running The Green Room flower and gift shop in Roundwood, Co Wicklow, Quigley lectures in professional floristry at Sallynoggin College of Further Education. One of her former students, Rebecca Davidson, is now the Shelbourne Hotel’s senior florist. She says the lectures about conditioning flowers have served her well in her work.

“How you cut and prepare flowers is so important,” she says. “Oasis foam is great for events like weddings, but in terms of getting longevity from your flowers, fresh water is the way to go. Here in the hotel we can get a week from a display by cutting the stems and changing the water every two or three days.”

Rebecca Davidson, the Shelbourne Hotel’s senior florist, says she can get a week from a display by cutting the stems and changing the water every two or three days. Photograph: Tom Honan
Rebecca Davidson, the Shelbourne Hotel’s senior florist. Photograph: Tom Honan

She says gardeners can be reluctant to take flowers from their garden because they look so well but certain flowers are perfect for that purpose.

“I’m thinking of hydrangeas because you get so many heads on them and you are not going to notice it if you take a few off,” she says. “You can get a week out of them, maybe a week and a half depending on the variety.”

Their impressive heads mean they are perfect for displaying on their own, but she says they also look very well with peonies.

“Or you could add lilac. It doesn’t last as long inside but the smell is beautiful and if it’s from a large tree you are not going to notice a few stems missing.”

She recommends using foliage from the garden to add texture to the arrangement.

“The likes of laurel bushes are great because you can pick the longer stems from the back. You will get a few weeks from it. Wild ivy is also good for adding interest.”

And don’t forget the grasses in your garden when you are bringing the outdoors inside.

“Pampas grass is huge at the moment and that will really last,” she says. “It’s also great for drying. You can mix it with fresh flowers for something different.”

Sweetpea and Willow florist Sharon O’Connor says Pennisetum and Bunny’s Tail are useful grasses for foliage.

Sweetpea and Willow florist Sharon O’Connor loves to use unusual containers to show off her arrangements. Photograph: Tom Honan
Sweetpea and Willow florist Sharon O’Connor. Photograph: Tom Honan

“I use fern leaves too, and eucalyptus. I have a lovely spiraea with a white flower on an arch which looks stunning.” She likes to use wild strawberry leaves and asparagus leaves in small posies.

Quigley says a well-placed branch can offer texture while giving support to the flowers.

“You might need only three flowers if you have an interesting branch.”

Flowers are ready when there is colour in the bud and they look like they are about to unfurl. If there is no colour, they won’t have enough energy to bloom

But is there anything that is best left in the garden? O’Connor advises leaving poppies where they are.

“A cut poppy never does well for me. You are better to use a dried poppy head.” And Davidson says clematis doesn’t last very long.

“You’re better keeping away from any delicate or weaker stems. I have a potato plant with a gorgeous purple flower but the minute you cut it, it completely flops.”

And when is the best time to cut your flowers?

“They are ready when there is colour in the bud and they look like they are about to unfurl,” says Ciara Quigley. “If there is no colour, they won’t have enough energy to bloom when they go into the vase.”

O’Connor says the optimum time to pick flowers is early in the morning or late at night.

“Then plunge them into a bucket of water in a dark room and let them hydrate as much as they can.”

Florist and lecturer Ciara Quigley says her top tip is to cut flower stems at a 45-degree angle before putting them in water. Photograph: Getty
Cut flower stems at a 45-degree angle before putting them in water. Photograph: Getty

She says woody stems last longer and, to extend that life, put an inch-long slit in the bottom of the stem. She goes by instinct when looking at the right height of flower for a vase but, as a rule, florists recommend that the length of the flower stems should be no more than one and a half to two times the height of a vase.

Sweetpea and Willow specialises in wedding flowers and O’Connor loves to use unusual containers to show off her arrangements. She may be the only person to display flowers on a cat-scratching post.

“I won it in a raffle and never used it,” she explains. Long narrow water vials, which can be bought in a florist’s shop, are glued on to the posts and secured with twine.

Flowers are such a pleasure in the home so bring them in when they are ready, look after them and just enjoy them for however long they last

Her strawberry plants nestle in a silver colander, while pasta sauce jars are always repurposed.

“I never throw away a jar. Milk bottles are great too. A simple ribbon or a bit of raffia transforms them.”

She hangs trinkets around the necks of jars and puts battery-controlled lights around posy jars in old birdcages. “Trailing ivy looks really lovely in a birdcage and jasmine is lovely for the scent.”

Davidson suggests gluing long narrow vases, or water vials, at different heights on a conservatory or sunroom wall.

Florists recommend that the length of the flower stems should be no more than one and a half to two times the height of a vase. Photograph: Getty
Flower stems should be no longer than two times the height of a vase. Photograph: Getty

“You only need a couple stems per vase and it can look really well.”

Jewellery boxes, crates and hat boxes can all be repurposed to display flowers. “And you can make gorgeous arrangements in lovely cups and saucers. They look really delicate and are perfect for an afternoon tea.”

She also reuses old candle jars with interesting shapes.

“It’s a shame to throw them out. Pop a hydrangea head in one and it’s perfect for your coffee table.”

Quigley uses old perfume bottles, and other bottles with interesting shapes to display flowers.

“Line them up on your table or mantelpiece, put one or two flowers into each of them and it can look really effective,” she says.

She is one of those gardeners who is reluctant to bring her flowers inside. “They look so lovely where they are in the garden. But flowers are such a pleasure in the home so bring them in when they are ready, look after them and just enjoy them for however long they last.”