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Designing with Roses


Rose Arranging is Fine Art

by Brenda Landers-Smith


“Fine art is that in which the hand, the head,

and the heart of man go together.”

John Ruskin, Victorian Artist, Poet and Author

(1819 –1900)


The greatest compliment to the rose is fully expressed in a rose arrangement.  A space where mood, style, design and nature merge.  Rose arranging is a gratifying art form for personal enjoyment in the home, gifts for friends and family or for competition.  This microcosmic slice of your garden for home or show is attainable to everyone.


Inspiration is found everywhere and is unlimited.  As in all art forms, rose arrangements begin with an idea, an intuitive spark.   Guided by a defined genre and style, the rose and other elements come together as true “Art”. 


Catch a Fire


My interest in learning about rose arranging began two years ago while as a horticulture rose exhibitor, admiring from afar what appeared to be an obscure and complicated art form at American Rose Society rose shows.


In January 2006, I attended one class.  One class that altered my perception of rose arranging forever, taught by two very talented and artistic gentlemen, Kreg Hill and Bill Christensen sponsored by the San Diego Rose Society. 


During the class, I watched in awe as these creative magicians arranged roses with vines, sprigs from trees and plants, sticks, pieces of various dried and fresh plant materials transforming them before our eyes into beautiful, artistic, living works of art, cutting the Gordian knot I imagined arrangements to be. 


Each student was then encouraged to create two arrangements.  After completing our creations, the student arrangements were anonymously critiqued by Bill and Kreg.  The wealth of information from this exercise was priceless.  The feedback on my own two little amateur arrangements filled me with hope.  I walked out of the class saying, “I can do this!”  


And if I can do it, so can you. 


I practiced at home, absorbed material on the subject on the Internet and in books and decided that at the first rose show of the spring season, I would dive in and try my hand at exhibiting rose arrangements. 


I entered arrangements for the first time at the 2006 ARS Pacific Southwest District Convention in Scottsdale, Arizona where my husband Joe and I would be judging horticulture.  I stayed in our hotel room putting together my arrangements the night before thinking, “If nothing else, this will be a good laugh.” The choice to enter my first arrangements at a District show and competing with crème de la crème arrangement exhibitors was a bit insane, but something told me to “keep going, use this as a learning experience, with no expectations.  Step out of your box.  Go for it.”


I nearly fainted when I heard the following day after the judging that I had won 4 trophies including the John & Dorothy Van Barneveld Arrangement Trophy, a District Trophy for a hanging design and the ARS Artist Award.  I will never forget later that day Kreg Hill as he approached me with a big smile, putting his arm around me saying “Beautiful entries, well done!” His inspiration, willingness to share and his kindness have meant the world to me as rose arranging and design has introduced an exciting artistic element to my passion for roses and art.  Since that day, Kreg has been a wonderful friend, always supportive and delightful to talk to about roses and design.


In my first year, 2006, I exhibited in 9 shows, winning 1 – District Award, 28 ARS Arrangement Awards and 17 ARS Medal Certificates (6-Gold, 5-Silver, 6-Bronze).  In addition, my daughter Chelsea, 15 years old, began exhibiting arrangements and won her first Novice trophy that Spring at the California Coastal Rose Society Rose Show.


I share my personal experience not to boast about winning, that is not what it is about for me. Competing at rose shows is great fun and a source of encouragement but it is in the “Joy and Spirit of Creating” that I hope to inspire you, eliminate any reservations and encourage you to take a look at rose arranging as a way to express yourself and your lovely roses from your own rose garden. 


The Rose Expressed


For the beginning rose arranger, a hands-on class is a great way to learn the basics.  Just as you have a certain style with regard to your choice of clothing and the way you decorate your home, you will discover the style you are drawn to with regard to rose arrangements.  The concinnity of a thoughtful rose arrangement is truly the rose expressed at its best.


Regardless of style however, you need the proper tools to assemble your creations. The “tool kit”, a collection of supplies that rose arranger’s use is essential to creating mechanically exact and stunning arrangements.  Many seasoned designers are more than happy to share with you the tools they use to create arrangements.  Some of the basics include:


Basic Supplies


  • Sharp knife: for trimming stems and cutting floral foam.
  • Floral wire:  to support flowers with weak stems or coax plant materials and flowers together within a display.  Floral wire can be cut into short lengths and bent to form ‘hairpins’ to anchor moss or leaves on floral foam.
  • Wire cutters: to cut floral wire.
  • Floral clay:  A floral adhesive material used to adhere needleholders and various items in place.  Comes in block or strip form on a wax paper roll. Adhere to a clean dry surface.  Once secure, it will hold if submerged in water.  Also serves to seal leaks in containers.
  • Green floral tape: Useful for making rose corsages and boutonnières and securing OasisÒ if it extends above the top of your container.

·         Clear floral tape: Useful for making a crisscross grid pattern over the opening of a container.  Insert roses and filler plant material between the spaces for an easy, quick arrangement.

  • Floral foam: for FRESH flowers.  Floral foam comes in two forms, for dried and fresh flowers.  Use fresh for your garden roses.  OasisÒ brand is highly recommended.  To saturate floral foam:  Fill a container with fresh water. Place the floral foam brick (or any portion of it) onto the top of the fresh water and allow the foam to float freely down into the water. DO NOT FORCE THE FOAM down into the water - this will create air pockets, prohibiting the transfer of water from the foam to the stem. OASIS® Deluxe and Premium floral foams are a dense cell structure, in order to hold heavy-stemmed flowers, and will take longer to saturate. Medium-density foams, such as Standard or Ideal, will saturate in less than 50 seconds. OASIS® Instant floral foams are punched with holes, making saturation even faster.  Water must be added daily to replenish supply.  Cut foam snug to fit your container to avoid movement.  Use floral tape to secure foam that extends above the top of the container.
  • Other mechanics: (defined as devices used to control plant material) include needleholders also known as pinholders or kenzans, chicken wire and cupholders. 
  • Supply Box: A fishing tackle or toolbox for organizing and storing mechanics, arrangement supplies and tools.
  • Vases and Containers:  Containers form the starting point for your creation.  Avoid a container that will overwhelm the flowers or competes with the arrangement.  The idea is to showcase the roses.  Use your imagination!  Look for watertight vessels. 
  • Line/Filler Material:  Foliage, branches, sticks.  Fresh or dried. Also rocks, feathers, moss, seed pods, seashells, colored gravel, glass stones and crystals bring interest to your designs. 
  • Floral Preservative: Commercially available or make a homemade floral preservative of one-gallon warm water, one-tablespoon sugar, one-tablespoon bottled lemon juice and one-teaspoon chlorine bleach.   


Prepare Your Roses


The quality of the rose is the most important factor in your arrangement. To ensure you maintain the integrity of your roses when cutting use the following guidelines:


·        Cut the stems as long as possible, you will adjust height later depending on your design. 

  • Cut the blooms tighter than you will want your final design to appear.  You can open them up but you can’t make them tighter later.

·        Cut rose stems at a diagonal underwater (in a sink or bowl) this creates a larger drinking surface and will assure that they begin drinking right away and avoid any wilting problems due to air bubbles in the stem.

  • If you need to refrigerate them for later use, cover the bloom heads with a zip lock baggie.  Zip the baggie up to the stem with the bloom head thoroughly covered by the plastic.  I buy the freezer variety because they are thicker and offer more protection. Put stems in a tall glass with plenty of water in a refrigerator with the least cold temperature setting possible.  Be careful not to tear leaves with thorns from other stems.


Groom Your Roses – Mini grooming lesson


Grooming your roses is an essential step in achieving the best possible form and appearance of your roses.


  • Spray a mixture of water and vinegar on the foliage and gently wipe clean with a clean paper towel.
  • Open and shape your roses.  Use a clean, dry paintbrush to gently coax open the petals to the desired shape.  Cotton balls and Q-tips wedged gently in between petals act as curler does for hair and will encourage petals to mold into position.
  • Trim any brown edges on the petals and leaves.
  • Remove any unsightly foliage.


Choose Line and Filler Material – “Other” Plants for your design


Other plants from your garden become artful resources of line, form, pattern and texture.  Plant material, fresh or dried provides the structural framework for your design.


Here are some of the favorites we grow in our garden along with 330+ roses:


  • Acer palatum - Japanese Maple
  • Amaranthus
  • Aspidistra
  • Bamboo
  • Bear Grass
  • Cyperus Papyrus
  • Dwarf Papyrus
  • Fern
  • Fuchsia
  • Juncus effusus 'Spiralis' – Corkscrew Rushes
  • Kangaroo Paw
  • Lavandula – Lavender
  • Northern Sea Oat
  • Orchid
  • Protea
  • Snake Grass aka Horse Tail


Tree branches, dried cuttings from plants with interesting shapes are kept in a designated basket of dried materials in our garage.  My husband is amused by my excitement over strangely shaped sticks and branches.  I see art - he sees a stick! 


Containers – Bought, Found and Homemade Inspiration


Anyone who has been bitten by the rose design/arrangement bug can tell you that collecting containers and vases becomes a hobby that takes on a life of its own.


As your creativity expands, so will your collection of containers.  Keeping your eyes open to possibilities either bought, found or hand created.  Here is a brief description of potential sources: 


·        Garage and estate sales are an option if you are on a budget and/or want to find old vintage items. 

·        On line auctions are another source. I am drawn to Modern and Oriental designs and find Eames era, Ikebana and vintage pieces across the world on the Internet.

·        Found objects can be transformed into containers.  I use empty and clean tuna, cat/dog food cans and spray paint them to use as vessels.  Adhere them with floral clay on top of candleholders or inserted into items that cannot get wet or hold water.  The possibilities are endless.

·        Decorative wood, rocks, joined tree branches offer an organic element.   

·        Hand created items are very fun to design.  I enjoy molding wire and creating weightless abstract or theme designs.  I then add coat of paint and a vessel for the roses and plant material.  This results in an inexpensive, one of a kind creation.

·        The hardware store is now one of my favorite haunts to look for items that can be transformed into an arrangement design.  I tried a dryer ducting design last year, yet to be perfected but was fun to try.

·        Challenge your creativity!




As in all art forms, the elements and principles of design apply to rose

arrangements.   The synergy of nature and human interaction translates into art in an unconscious, natural way.  An intuitive designer does not need to know all the elements as a textbook lesson, it just “happens”.  It is helpful to understand that the awareness of that process breaks down as follows:


Elements of Design – Components that make up the design:


Space – Line – Form – Size – Texture – Pattern - Color



Principles – Ways in which the Elements are combined:


Balance – Dominance – Contrast – Rhythm – Proportion – Scale


The study of design is a very interesting and stimulating subject as it applies to rose arrangements.  To cover the subject completely could fill this entire annual issue and then some.  But for the novice who wants to begin expressing their creativity through their beautiful garden grown roses, the most important design element is that YOU enjoy them and express yourself.  What is pleasing to your eye, may not be pleasing to someone else.  As in all art, it is subjective.


With patience and practice, the right tools and your innate creative vision, you will be giving your roses the artful tribute they deserve.


Your “head, hand and heart together” will create fine art.



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