Lessons from a cutting garden

At her home on four acres in Manchester-by-the-Sea, floral designer Pauline Runkle nurtures all the right ingredients for lovely, long-lasting arrangements.

By Carol Stocker
August 14, 2011

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It takes a lot of know-how to design a beautiful garden that can yield bushels of plants for flower arrangements without looking depleted. And not every garden flower makes a good cut flower, either. Poppies wilt. Monkshood shatters. But professional arranger Pauline Runkle, who has done flowers for the Boston Pops and the Dalai Lama, knows what works. She uses her personal garden for cutting and also for teaching floral design classes. “Just walking through this garden lets them see what they can grow to use in their own arrangements.” After 27 years experimenting on her four acres in Manchester-by-the-Sea, she’s also learned how to simplify her choices so she gets more beauty for less effort.

Runkle grows clematis vines, annual zinnias, and white cosmos and is mad for the giant blooms of “dinner plate” dahlias (Cafe au Lait is her current favorite). She uses kitchen herbs such as bicolored sages, marjoram, and apple mint in bouquets for their fragrances. Reliable perennials for cutting include lavender, astilbe, roses, lady’s mantle, white bleeding heart, hellebore, echinacea, veronicastrum, queen of the prairie, lily-of-the-valley, phlox, delphinium, and thalictrum. She also grows scads of peonies, but most of them are planted by the barn/workshop, because “they come and go so quickly.” More visible areas feature plants with interesting foliage, such as lamb’s ear, hosta, and variegated Solomon’s seal. “Foliage serves you through the season,” Runkle says. “It’s not just a flash in the pan.”

Now 66, Runkle has backed away from labor-intensive container gardening, except for potted herbs near the kitchen door (containers are heavy to move and require frequent watering in hot weather) and bulb planting, except for miniature bulbs. Instead, she’s planting more shrubs with good flower-arranging qualities. The 5-foot-wide ribbons of flowers that wend through her sunny lawn and shady woodland are backed by plantings of flowering shrubs such as azalea, viburnum, variegated weigelia, fragrant mock orange, butterfly bush, lilac, spirea, and many kinds of hydrangea (more on them at right). But not all of her choices are practical. The designer also grows a strain of beautifully colored hollyhocks – even though they require staking and are not very good for cutting – because they are descended from her grandmother’s seeds.

Because most garden flowers have weaker stems than the commercially grown varieties, selected to have thicker stems, Runkle likes to arrange her cuttings in small-necked vases that lend support, rather than sticking them in florist foam. Flowers also live longer in water than in foam, and she further increases their vase life by snipping off leaves that would otherwise be underwater and re-cutting the stem ends under warm water in a bucket. Otherwise, the stem tips would be too dried out to absorb water from a vase. She then adds floral preservative (following the directions?– too much can be deadly) and leaves the flowers in a bucket overnight in a cool, dark place to encourage hydration before finishing her arrangements.

Carol Stocker is the author of The Boston Globe Illustrated New England Gardening Almanac. Send comments to

  • August 14, 2011 cover
  • August 14, 2011 cover
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