Gardening: Buying cut flowers

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Technically, winter is here — despite the lack of snow. The sun is often lurking behind gray clouds, and on a good day we get just nine hours of light. I miss the colors of summer. I still try to keep fresh cut flowers on the table — even if they're not flowers from my garden.

Cut flowers are among modern America's true bargains. For the price of a bottle of wine — or even a few of cups of fancy coffee — you can buy flowers that will grace your table for up to three weeks. But there are some things you should know about getting good table-life for your investment.

First, you need to buy fresh flowers that have been carefully tended — and you can't beat a florist for that. Yes, grocery stores sell bouquets, but many grocery stores sell bouquets in the fruit and vegetable department. Apples and some other fruits give off ethylene gas, which promotes ripening — or in the case of flowers, getting old and unattractive.

Cut flowers need to take up water to stay fresh and healthy. Stems tend to scab over after a day or two, which means they cannot take up replacement water, or not much, so they suffer. A floral shop has trained personnel who trim each stem in the store every other day, taking off three quarters of an inch each time. And someone who regularly changes the water to keep to keep it fresh. Chain grocery stores probably count on you buying their flowers before the flowers need to be trimmed or their water changed.

When you bring your flowers home, get them right in water. And follow the three-second rule: never take longer than three seconds to get your flowers in the vase after trimming the stems. Most florists give you packs of powder to put in the water, and the stuff works to keep flowers fresh longer. It inhibits bacteria from growing, which is good. Bacteria will impede water takeup.

If you want maximum life out of you flowers, never let leaves enter the water. Leaves will rot, promoting growth of bacteria. And keep your arrangement cool if you can. Putting it near a radiator or woodstove will shorten its life. If you have invested in roses or tulips, you may wish to move the vase to the entryway or mudroom at bedtime to keep the flowers extra cool during the night — or put them in the fridge.

Some flowers are better picks than others if you're on a budget and can't afford to buy new flowers every week. Here are my recommendations for good cut flowers:

Lisianthus: These look like silk flowers to me: perfect white, pink or lavender-colored bell-shaped flowers on long stems. Tough to grow in the garden, they are perfect in a vase — I've kept them for up to three weeks.

Miniature carnations: Each stem has two to four blossoms. They come in a variety of colors. Mix dark red "minis" with red roses to make a bouquet of roses look fuller. And even after the roses go to Valhalla, the carnations will still be good!

Chrysanthemums: These come in a variety of sizes and colors, from the huge spider mums to little guys. I love the scent of the flowers — it's not overpowering, but it's there if you sniff them.

Statice. I grow these for use as dry flowers, which tells you that they really do last forever – even out of water. They come in blue, purple, pink and white.

Spray roses: Instead of a single blossom per stem, these have two to five blossoms, giving you more bang for your buck. Will last about a week with proper care

Alstromeria: Each long stem has clusters of two-inch lily-like blossoms in pinks and reds, with yellow throats. Very long-lived. Great value.

Kangaroo paws: These Australian natives are fuzzy and cute. They come in pinks, reds and browns, and last very well. Not every florist will have them, but ask.

Looking for a fun project with your kids? It's easy to change the colors of chrysanthemums. Leave them out of water for 12 hours, then cut off two to three inches and put them in water with food coloring. Obviously, you should start with white chrysanthemums. The colors you get may not be exactly the color you see on the food coloring, but it can be quite dramatic.

Everyone loves to receive the gift of cut flowers, even guys. So treat your loved one — or yourself — to fresh flowers this winter. They're cheerful, and can make winter less oppressive.

Henry is the author of four gardening books, including a new, revised second edition of "The New Hampshire Gardener's Companion: An Insider's Guide to Gardening in the Granite State." His website is www.Gardening-guy.com.


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