“To connect our controlled, interior lives with that of the great outdoors. To remind us that spring will come after winter again and again and again. I think that is why I like flowers in the house so much. They are a gentle reminder that there are things much larger than my own finite life buzzing all around me, all the time.”—Annabelle Hickson, author of A Tree in the House
Welcoming flowers into our homes is a simple way to bring extraordinary luxury into our everyday lives, and self-taught florist Annabelle Hickson has followed her passion for Mother Nature to become an expert with flower arrangments of all scales and for all seasons.
I began following her on Instagram when I came across one of the many eye-catching images of flowers that looked seemingly loose and wild, but also thoughtful and considered without being forced or contrived.
With it being British Week, and Australia being part of the British Commonwealth, and with the Chelsea Flower Show kicking off tomorrow in London, I could not think of a better guest to welcome on the blog to not only talk about flowers, but to show us how to arrange them in ways we may not have imagined, and also to demonstrate how simple it can be.
Annabelle Hickson’s new book A Tree in the House: Flowers for Your Home, Special Occasions, and Every Day (March 2019) is a resource for anyone just beginning to welcome flowers into their home and arranging them on their own, or even the seasoned floral stylist who is looking for new and creative inspiration.
Below is our conversation inspired by my opportunity to read her book, which along with her expertise is paired with beautiful images, tutorials and glimpses of her everyday life at home, with her family and at special events at which she designed the floral arrangements.
TSLL: You share in your book that your family made the decision essentially to downsize from letting go of a dream house renovation to live in a small hillside cottage located on a pecan farm, and when you arrived you shared you had “hoped for a less stressful life in this little valley – financially and mentally – but I did not anticipate the overwhelming joy.” What was it that brought you joy and how did teaching yourself to be a florist play a role?
ANNABELLE HICKSON: I dreamt we would restore [the dream house] and live happily ever after. I honestly pictured myself wandering around in white linen surrounded by beauty and filled with happiness, with children with forever clean faces playing happily with wooden toys. But the reality was something else. It was a huge, costly project with blown-out budgets and mounting stress.
Throughout this renovating process, we would come over to the valley where we had started a small pecan plantation – a couple of hours east – to spend weekends in the tiny, simple cottage on the hill, before returning to our “dream” house. We never wanted to leave, but did because we thought we had to. But slowly the idea grew that we really could stay, we really could simplify our lives. And we did.
We put the big house on the market, packed up all our stuff into boxes, and took what can only be called a capsule collection of belongings to the charmless cottage with aluminum windows, in desperate need of a paint job. I finally I let go of what I thought would make me happy and swapped it for what was actually making me happy, in real life, already.
I had hoped for a less stressful life in this little valley – financially and mentally – but I did not anticipate the overwhelming joy I would experience. The sense of awe that would dump me like a wave on the beach even at the most ordinary of times, like hanging the washing on the line with the sky above, the cockatoos squawking in the distance and me just a tiny speck on the grass below. The yellow and purple weeds flowering in amongst the bleached out tall grass. The majestic gum trees.
For some reason, this place felt like home before it was. Even now, five years on from our official move here, I still feel lucky to live here. All that joy hasn’t been deadened by the daily. I felt then and feel now embraced by this landscape, physically.
When we moved to the pecan farm I had started bringing wild flowers and other bits and pieces growing on the side of the road into the little cottage in an attempt to spruce it up a bit. We had no money, so I couldn’t do anything major to the cottage. It had these horrid tobacco-yellow walls that were greatly improved by big jars filled with flowers. And then I got into gardening. It felt very empowering. With very little expense I could dig a hole, plant the seeds and lo and behold be surrounded by beauty.
I fell in love with bringing in branches and flowers into the house. The result is so immediate. With not much time, and not even much artistic skill, you can create something of real beauty. Flowers and foliage are already so beautiful – they’ve done the bulk of the work for you. It’s very pleasurable working with them.
But probably the greatest joy of playing and experimenting with flowers is that it opens your eyes to the flowers and foliage that are growing around you. The ones that are already there, doing their things, that you didn’t have to buy or water or prune.
And the more you think about flowers on the home front, the more you start to see the outside world through a kind of flower filter. You pay attention to what nature is doing around you and even to bits and pieces beyond the natural world: Old rusty buckets morph from being junk destined for the tip into the perfect vessel to hold the mass of jasmine hanging over Mr Smith’s fence that you will pinch in the dead of night.
There are writers that say one of the greatest, unexpected consequences of writing is that you become a better reader. Just as, I would say, playing and working with flowers can help you become a better observer of the natural world.
Anything that helps you focus on what is beautiful and interesting in your daily life, when so much can feel repetitive and mundane and ordinary, is worthy of celebration. Reverence even. And so I wrote a book about this, with the hope of spreading this joy and satisfaction outward.
TSLL: The book is a work of art as well as a tutorial for anyone wanting to know how to welcome and arrange beautiful, simple and grand floral bouquets. One important detail that can also add to the beauty of the arrangement is the vessel. Your images throughout the book share idea after idea of how varied the vessel can be. Can you speak a bit about how to choose or find a vessel as well as vessels and proportions when it comes to the flowers we choose to put in them?
ANNABELLE HICKSON: I think the traditional vase – long and narrow – is actually one of the hardest vessels to work with. Those narrow, tall necks make it difficult to do much more than stand a few long stems upright, which makes for a pretty boring arrangement. I much prefer to work with vessels that are wider and shorter – mixing bowls, soup bowls, compotes, jars, squat jugs … that sort of thing. Their width allows the flowers to come out at great angles, almost horizontal (something you cannot do with a tall narrow vase), but you will need to create a structure to secure them in the vessel, which thanks to chicken wire, is very easy. By balling up a section of chicken wire, stuffing it into the vessel and then securing it in place by taping a grid of floral tape over the lip of the vessel, these wider shapes become a breeze to work with. You have a structure into which the stems can rest and hold their angles, without immediately flopping out onto the table, and you have the width and room to create glorious movement, height and depth in your arrangements.
This also means that anything that can potentially hold water can be a vessel. One of my favourite things to use is a hollowed out log, which I line with some thick black plastic from the hardware shop to make it water tight.
Another thing to keep in mind when arranging is the proportion of vase to flowers. I always aim to have at least one third vase to two thirds flowers, and I like to exaggerate those proportions to one quarter vase, three quarters flowers, or even one eighth vase to seven eights flowers if I am working with something lovely and light and tall like Queen Anne’s Lace. It can be tempting to go for half half, or even two thirds vase, one third flowers because that way the vase hold the flowers up, but to me you almost always end up with a stunted looking arrangement lacking movement.
TSLL: With each tip you also are very careful to remind how to be kind to Mother Nature in the process as well as courtesy to neighbors and owners of the property as while you may see a branch or flower that catches your eye while driving or taking a walk, it is important to ask for permission as well as not take too many branches from one tree or shrub. Where are some of the unexpected or memorable places you have found flowers or branches that you have used in arrangements?
ANNABELLE HICKSON: There is the most magnificent magnolia tree outside the hospital in my local town and I desperately wanted to use the flowering branches in a big arrangement I was doing for a funeral. It seemed to me to be important to reflect what nature was doing at that exact point in time in the arrangements in the church. Every year when the mourners see the magnolias they can link that to the memory of their loved one. Much more meaningful that hot house grown roses that you can get shipped in all year round. So I contacted the hospital director and asked his permission to take some branches. He was very happy for me to do that and we had a lovely chat. A week later I very unexpectedly ended up in that hospital myself, walking past the same magnolia tree into the ward. I had been petrified, but when I saw that tree, I felt great comfort thinking about my conversation with the man who ran the hospital the week before. He had been so generous and kind and I felt like I was in good hands.
Nothing is more important that human connection, and requesting permission to cut other people’s flowers is a great way to connect with someone you otherwise may not have.
TSLL: After reading your book I was inspired to step out of my comfort zone and attempted to two of the pieces of advice you shared that I think readers will find simple for them to do as well: (1) stick to a palette; and (2) see two-thirds plant material and one-third vase. I combined two different peony-tulips bunches, one pink and the other a magenta-ish shade. I also kept them far longer than I usually do and let them look less uniform. And I was delighted with what transpired. My question to you is where do you begin? What is it that sparks inspiration and what can listeners welcome into their arrangement practice that they may be overlooking to inspiring arrangements that bring even more delight to their everydays?
ANNABELLE HICKSON: I think we all, as humans, respond in an elemental way to feeling connected with nature, with the seasons, with the wide open skies and fresh clean air. Yet many of us buffer ourselves from this connection. We’re all so hell bent on avoiding inconvenience. Our houses are climatically controlled at 21C year round. If we want to eat avocado on toast in the dead of winter, we can and we do. And although I am not saying we should make air conditioners illegal, I do think keeping ourselves attuned to the changes of the seasons and going without some things during the year allows room to more fully focus on and appreciate the other things whose natural turn in the sun it is.
There’s a lot of comfort to be had in admiring what grows in nature and when it does, mainly because it has, for the very most part, happened without any doing from you. You are not in control. You could stay in bed all autumn long watching Netflix and the leaves would still turn and fall of their branches. The buds would still burst in spring. There are forces greater than our own little lives at play here and I at least feel relieved, if not comforted, by this.
This is a rather convoluted way of encouraging you to take a few seconds to think about what time of year it is. Look at what is growing around you. Why not reflect a little wonder of the natural world around you in a little jug on your kitchen table? That is always where I look to first for inspiration.
I think that is why I also love asymmetrical arrangements, where the flowers sit at different heights and depths, where the flower heads are not all facing forward like children in a school photo. You never see things look like that in nature. They tumble up and down and in and out and that is how I want my arrangements to look inside.
TSLL: One example you share for anyone to consider regardless of where we live is the simplicity of bringing rosemary sprigs in from the garden and place in little glass bottles, and it is such a simple idea, and oh my, so fragrant – but of course, what a great idea! Anyone can do that! What if someone, like many of us, don’t live on a farm or in the country? What are some ideas for welcoming Mother Nature into our lives that we may have overlooked?
ANNABELLE HICKSON: I would suggest, even if you live in a city, there are still things growing out of the cracks in the pavement, on the land next to the railway track, in empty lots. Nature is irrepresable, even though we are doing our best to contain it. So what I would advise anyone wanting to welcome Mother Nature into their lives, even in an urban environment, is to put your phone away in your pocket, and go for a walk looking up and down and around. Weeds can be beautiful, so can sprawling lengths of ivy, and errant buddleias growing alongside the railway line. Also big bunches of fragrant herbs from the markets make wonderful arrangements.
TSLL: A significant reason as to why I wanted to welcome you on to TSLL is that you embody the premise we talk about often regarding living simply luxuriously – it’s about elevating the everydays – and that is what your welcoming of flowers, the seasonal beauty that Mother Nature offers, into our homes does – it elevates the everyday. Along with showing readers oodles of stunning arrangements, you teach readers how to do it, and it need not be complicated. As you shared in one of the sections of the book you can choose to make either one single arrangement in a single vessel or a visual tableau using several vessels in the form of one arrangement. Can you talk us through briefly how to be prepared to create a visual tableau because that is something that looks stunning, but appears initially overwhelming to the newbie? What would be a great way to arrange my first visual tableau if I have never done it before?
ANNABELLE HICKSON: It’s hard to beat a single, fragrant rose in a well-proportioned vase. Or a bunch of tulips gently piled into a glass vase so that they gracefully flop over one side. Why over-complicate matters by doing anything else? But just as there are times when I feel compelled to prepare a huge Sunday evening feast complete with pudding as opposed to an egg on toast, there are times when I do want to create something a little more complicated than a bloom in a bud vase. One is not better than the other. They are simply different approaches.
A visual tableau sounds tricky, but it is not. Instead of using one vase for your arrangement, you use several vases.
You can really play with scale when using several vases to create one floral scene. The rivers of colour you can build are obviously much larger than when working with only one vase.
My main piece of advice for mulit-vase arrangements is to work with blocks of plant materials. You don’t want to have, for example, five single-vase arrangements, each with several elements of flowers and foliage, scattered across a kitchen bench, as the details would be lost in this large format. Instead, think of the entire multi-vase arrangement as the one arrangement, and each vase is a section of that arrangement. So instead of scattering gumnuts through the different vases, have one vase filled with just gumnuts.
You can use enormous vessels and create large-scale tableaux covering an entire wall. You can also create tiny multi-vase arrangements using single stems and small bud vases of different heights.
To start experimenting, I would suggest digging out a selection of glass jars of different sizes and snake them down the centre of the table. Then gather a couple of bunches of roses and dahlias if it is summer, or if it is spring, just roses, cut them at different heights and then, working in blocks, create a river of different heights and depths over the different vases.
TSLL: One of the questions I always enjoy asking individuals like yourselves who work with flowers is what is your favorite flower, and you’ve answered this in your book for readers and broken it down by season. But since we are in the spring season here in the states, could you suggest a spring bloom that people may either not know about or forget about that we might want to keep a look out for?
ANNABELLE HICKSON: Dogwood, mock orange, pear blossoms, wisteria racemes, magnolias, lilac, sweet peas, foxgloves, tulips …. How could I possibly choose! Spring is so glorious. My very favourite spring flower is one that it native to Australia – the flannel flower – it is so lovely with its white daisy like flowers and velvety grey green leaves. I am sure you could grow it in some parts of the US. But I also have a soft spot for spring flowering clematis. They would have to be the most beautiful climbers, so delicate and pretty. And they are wonderful to use in arrangements because of their trailing nature.
TSLL: Could you share with us a simple pleasure you enjoy as part of your everyday routine?
ANNABELLE HICKSON: My favourite part of the day is when dinner is in the oven or bubbling away on the stove, the children are running around somewhere outside and I am walking around the garden in bare feet with a glass of wine, occasionally pulling out a few weeds, but mostly admiring the lovely way the late afternoon light filters through the massive gum trees and lights up the tall, swaying miscanthus grasses growing in my garden. It gets me every time.
The beauty is in the simplicity – whether it be a single varietal, sticking to one color palette or looking to the seasons to determine the flower of or foliage of choice. Thank you Annabelle for sharing your expertise and your passion with us today. It was true to treat to have you on the show.
TSLL BRITISH WEEK 2019 Posts:
Sunday May 19th
- A Giveaway for Anglophiles: A Year’s Subscription to The English Home magazine and more!
- TSLL’s First Annual British Week Begins!
Monday May 20th
- Podcast episode #252: The Characteristics of Being a Late Bloomer, and How Embracing This Gift Could Change the World for Everyone
- The Gown: A Novel of History, Strength and Friendship
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