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ACCENTS : Letting Simple Ideas Blossom in Bouquets : Seek the best materials from your own back yard, and arrange them casually, advises floral designer.

July 23, 1994|SHARON COHOON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When you have great ingredients, there's no need to get fancy. That principle, true in cooking, also applies to flower arranging, says floral designer Tom Pritchard.

"Start with materials that are perfectly beautiful, perfectly natural and perfectly fresh, and flower arranging is a piece of cake," he says.

The first place to look for those "perfect" materials is your own yard or garden, he says.

"Flower arranging doesn't have to be anything difficult or complicated," says Pritchard, who has co-authored a book he hopes takes the fear out and puts the fun into amateur flower arranging.

"Four or five garden roses in a crystal vase by themselves is an arrangement. So is one flowering branch from a fruit tree. So are a bunch of sweet peas stuffed into an enamel pitcher. Or a single wildflower in an old-fashioned glass.

"All these hysterical floral arrangements you see are merely attempts to disguise mediocre materials. Just like heavy French sauces were originally devised to disguise the taste of poor meat."

Pritchard and partner Billy Jarecki are authors of "Madderlake's Trade Secrets" (Clarkson Potter, 1994. $40), which is based on their experience as co-owners of the Manhattan-based flower shop of the same name.

The biggest obstacle to coming up with great arrangements, says Pritchard, is florist flowers. Like supermarket produce, they are primarily bred to ship well and last a long time, he says.

"And their stems are always perfectly straight, and their colors perfectly uniform. That's why they're boring. Garden flowers have more character and personality and are always preferable."

Californians have no excuse for not using garden flowers in their arrangements either, concludes Pritchard, back in Manhattan after a recent book promotion stint in Los Angeles.

"You have beautiful plants around you year-around," he says. "But you take them for granted because growing them is so easy. You don't realize how much material you have for arrangements right in your own yards."

Madderlake does not use florist foam or frogs in most of its arrangements. "When you use an oasis (foam block), you can put any flower anywhere, " says Pritchard, "but the results aren't as interesting as when an arrangement occurs more naturally."

So the shop begins mixed floral arrangements by wedging a branch from a tree or shrub into a container and allowing the crotches of that branch to provide the support system for the remaining flowers. (Choose a piece slightly wider than the vase so that pressure against its sides will hold the branch in place, suggests Pritchard, and one with a structure complex enough that you have plenty of options for flower placement.)

"The restrictions imposed by the branch create a certain logic," he says. "You put in the first flower, spin the vase around a bit, see where you need something else, and you just keep going."

Start with the most dramatic flowers and work toward the more ephemeral ones, Pritchard advises. Select the flowers that you want to spill over the edge of the container early in the game, too.

"Finding flowers that will create a beautiful bottom edge is more difficult than finding flowers that will carry the top," he says.

One of California's workhouse landscaping plants, the common garden geranium, is one of Pritchard's favorites for beginning arrangements.

"The lipstick colors of the flowers--pink, vermilion, orange, coral--are incredible--and the foliage is often interesting, too. I don't understand why more florists don't use geraniums. We love them."

Mandevilla vine is another Southern California garden staple Pritchard likes. "Little bits of that amazing hot pink here and there in a mix really livens it up."

Other common Southern California flowers treasured by Madderlake but generally overlooked here as arrangement material are agapanthus, nasturtiums, bottlebrush and firethorn.

If his shop were here instead of New York City, Pritchard might even have trouble following his own advice: "Know when to stop."

"We don't use filler flowers, and we don't add extraneous foliage," says Pritchard. "Where other florists would add those things, we leave empty space. And the more dramatic shape the flower has, the more space we leave."

Start with interesting flowers, and you don't need much else, he says.

*

There is much to recommend the Madderlake approach, says Janelle Wiley, who teaches her own version of floral design at Sherman Gardens in Corona del Mar.

"I like the fact they're trying to get people to lighten up and take chances," says Wiley. "That's what I try to do in all my workshops, too.

"People are so uptight about expressing creativity. They're afraid they're going to do things wrong or won't be as good as their neighbors. So anything that encourages people to let go of those fears, I'm all for."

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