Gardening: Picking for vases


This is a hard time for those of us who love to go to the garden to pick flowers to grace the table. We've had a few weeks of cold weather, and even the hardiest of flowers seem to have faded away. So what can a gardener do?

Think outside the box. We can pick stems of shrubs with colorful or interesting bark. We can snip off branches of evergreen trees. And there are decorative grasses and even some dry weeds that have interesting form.

Actually, I do have one thing still blooming: my witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana) shrubs are in their glory now that their leaves have dropped. They are remarkable yellow blossoms that consist of curly yellow straps. Their fall foliage is yellow and the blossoms appear while the leaves are still on the branches – and are easily missed. Now the leaves are gone and the blossoms are prominent.

Witchhazel comes in several species. There is a spring blooming variety, H. vernalis, that blooms as early as March. Some varieties of this species also have spectacular fall leaf color. The variety Autumn Embers, a spring bloomer, has great fall color. I have yet to try this species, but it's on my wish list.

Most grasses and branches lend themselves to making big arrangements. I decided to try working with some to make something shorter as tall arrangements on the dining room table block my vision of a diner across from me. I cut stems of fountain grass (Miscanthus sinensis) which is well over six feet tall in my garden, but I just used the top 18 to 24 inches of each stem. They are in blossom right now, meaning that they display fluffy plumes above the foliage.

I also cut the bare red stems of red-twigged dogwood, which is also known as red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea). This is a plant that I cut to the ground each spring. New growth has bright red bark that seems to get brighter in the winter. In the wild it lives in wet places, and I grow it in moist soils, but it will grow in ordinary garden soil. I cut it back to keep the size in check, but mostly to get bright red color. Other varieties of the species produce yellow stems.

So I had bright red in the vase, and tawny beige grasses. I needed some greenery. I have lots of Canadian hemlock, but have found that the needles do not hold on well. White pine would work, but I wanted a different look. I cut a few stems of a hellebore, a perennial flower with evergreen leaves. The stems rise up a foot or so, then send out horizontal clusters of shiny green leaves, which seemed perfect. The leaves did well for a couple of days, then got droopy.

Other plants that often have good looking leaves at this time of year include European wild ginger (Asarum europaeum), dead nettle (Lamium spp.), myrtle or periwinkle (Vinca minor) and pachysandra (Pachysandra spp.). And although a vase full of just leaves may not be interesting in summer, a little greenery in a low bowl with a few stones is not bad now.

Of the leaves mentioned above, pachysandra is the best: it will last all winter in a vase, rooting and looking perky. Pick some now for use all winter.

In my vegetable garden I still have a number of plants that might also look good in a vase. Kale comes in a variety of colors and leaf types. All do well in a vase, and purple kale can be very striking. Mint also holds up for several days in a vase – and you can nibble on the leaves.

If you grew last winter's amaryllis outdoors in a pot all summer, (hoping it might re-bloom for you this year), now is the time to give some tough love. You need to stop watering it, and let the leaves yellow and die. Cut off the leaves and keep it in a cool dark place for six weeks. It needs that dormant time if it is to re-bloom.

I usually take my amaryllis out of its pot, shake off any soil, and put it in a brown paper bag. Then I store it in my basement, which is between 45 and 55 degrees at this time of year, which is perfect. After six weeks I re-pot it and bring it up into the warmth of the house, but keep it out of direct sunshine for a while. Date the bag so you will know when to bring it into the light.

If you want to be sure of having a blooming amaryllis for the holiday season, go buy one now. They generally come with all you need: pot, potting soil, instructions. Don't overwater it as the bulbs can rot. And this advice: bigger, more expensive bulbs are worth the money. The cheap ones you can get in a Big Box store will bloom, but you will probably just get one bloom stem, not two, and the blossoms will generally not be nearly as dramatic, nor be as numerous. I've learned the hard way.

Winter is breathing down our necks. I'm using the wood stove almost every day. And although I get a few things from my garden to put in a vase, I like to visit my local florist and buy some real flowers, too. If you're on a limited budget, ask your florist for flowers that will last well in a vase. We gardeners all need flowers- even winter!

Henry is a garden consultant, coach, and a UNH Master Gardener. His website is


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