It's taken me a long time to feel confident enough to use things like fully blown roses and things going to seed in our floristry, even though I've often used mature seed heads - they look much more on purpose, whereas I think I worry that if an exquistely lovely stem has some bits fresh and other bits seedy, the customer may think that I'm fobbing them off with something not at its best or - maybe worse - that I can't tell when a flowers is at the best stage for picking. It is such an art, to judge this. Of all the skills involved in running our business, we have realised that flower picking is the most tricky and demanding. First of all, you need to be interested, and you need to really love the flowers, otherwise you just won't be able to see them properly. Then it is necessary to visually learn the incremental opening process of each different flower variety. For instance, cosmos first makes hard little closed up button-like buds. These slowly soften, then push up a tiny ring of petals like teeth - still closed, before one day flipping them open to stand like a miniature stone circle. Next, the petals flip outwards, revealling a perfectly flat smooth yellow disk at the centre of the flower. As the petals grow bigger and open out more and more, tiny spots of fuzz appear in concentric circles from the outside edge of the central yellow disk, gradually progressing towards the centre until the whole of the disk is yellow fuzz. Now the flower is fully open, and from this point it will begin to fade.
Once the picker has this visual knowledge for every flower in the garden, she (or Barney) needs to understand our customers, and the specific customer for whom this flower is being picked. Is the customer a bride who is to be married the next day? In which case the cosmos flower can be picked when the first tiny signs of yellow fuzz are appearing, as the following day is when the flower will be at its most alluring. Is the customer a florist, who would like the flowers to be delivered three days before an event? In this case the cosmos should be picked at the stone circle phase - too early and the bloom will open very small, too late and the flower won't look fresh for the event. Now we need to pick at the right time, in the right way to maximise future flowering of the plant, to get the right stem length for the customer and to condition the stems properly...
I think about all this when I am selecting flowers to pick, although a lot of it comes instinctively by now. But sometimes there is something that is just so pretty at the wrong stage that all our rules go out of the window. Like the peachy toadflax in this picture. These shorter flowers are the second flush that comes after the first strong flowering in early summer. In the centre of each stem is the faded spike that carried flowers a week or two ago, and these are surrounded by the even smaller fresh growths with their tiny peach snapdragon-like flowers with long spurs, which are at the perfet stage for picking now. Instead of snipping out the old central spike I leave it, for its structural quality, for the airiness of it, for the non-prettiness of it, and for the gentle nod it gives to the changing season.