Floral and event designer Lewis Miller of Lewis Miller Design was recently in Birmingham, Alabama, for an event at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. While in town, Lewis treated us to a floral arrangement demonstration at the home of FLOWER editor-in-chief Margot Shaw. He foraged materials from her garden and included some locally-grown dahlias to create a vibrant fall arrangement.
Lewis gathered early blooming sasanqua camellias, Russian sage, abelia, beautyberry, and nandina berries. Margot picked up the dahlias from Kathy Whitfield, known locally as the Dahlia Lady.
- Start with an opaque container that has a nice sturdy weight to it. “Opaque tends to be my favorite style of vessel,” says Lewis. “You’re not seeing the water as it turns brown, and you don’t see the stems.”
- Fill the container with clean, room-temperature water.
- In lieu of tape or a flower frog, Lewis used camellia branch cuttings to create a foundation for this arrangement. Strip off any leaves that would be in the water and make sure the branches touch the bottom of the container. You can do this with almost any sturdy evergreen.
- Next, layer in some of the camellia blooms. Allow them to drape, working around the perimeter of the container. “I call this finishing off my edges,” Lewis says. Be sure the branches touch the bottom of the vessel as they will add to the network of stems that will support additional flowers.
- Add Russian sage for more texture and to fill in holes in the foundation and middle spaces before layering in the beauty with the dahlias. “I like the contrast of these fuzzy leaves with the shiny camellia. It gives it some interest,” says Lewis.
- Add the dahlias! Lewis started with some of the largest blossoms, layering them deep in the arrangement. Remember to get the stem base all the way to the bottom of the container so the flower can continue to get water as the water level drops. “On dahlias, you’ll often have barb-like leaf nodes after the leaves have been removed,” Lewis says. “Take your cutters and clean them, cutting very close and tight. This will allow you to pull the flower out of the arrangement and move it around without the barbs pulling everything else out with it.”
- Layer in more dahlias. “I want things to feel kind of loosely packed,” Lewis explains. “You don’t want your flowers to feel scrunched, but you want them to be close enough that you can enjoy the textures together and it feels like each flower can open up.” Continue to build levels with some dahlias tucked in deeper and some standing up higher. “I like the richness of these deep burgundy dahlias. They help to add a little more autumn quality to the arrangement.”
- Finish off with berries and more textures. Lewis added a cluster of nandina berries to cascade over the edge of the container. He then removed the leaves from branches of beautyberry (Calicarpa americana) so that the bright violet berries show, and he placed them in the arrangement.
- Fill any gaps and be sure to pay attention to the underside to ensure that the edge of the container is finished off with a soft draping of leaves. Keep the arrangement away from vents and direct sunlight and it should last up to six days. “Have fun!” says Lewis. “Take greenery from the garden and enjoy beautiful local flowers. It’s such a treat.”
5 Takeaways for Arranging
While showing how to make the dahlia arrangement, Lewis shared tips that apply to any floral composition.
“Don’t try to force anything. Work with the natural movement of the flower and what it is actually doing.”
“Take a step back from the arrangement as you work. I like to squint. By squinting, you can begin to see the outline, the shape of the arrangement’s silhouette.”
“Don’t overthink every single flower placement. That can be the death of a flower arrangement and turn something that’s quite enjoyable into an unpleasant chore.”
“I like to pretend that I have a central axis in a vessel and have all of the foliage and flowers radiate from that area. It keeps it more natural looking, more aesthetically pleasing from all sides.”
“Don’t be afraid to take things out and move them. You’re not working in wet concrete. Things can be moved and shifted. There’s no problem with taking the whole arrangement apart and trying it all over again if you need to.”
Video Production by Todd Urick Films