Indoor: Leafy ways to floral beauty

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The Independent Online
The key to successful flower-arranging is the foliage. This, and much more, Sally Staples learnt in

a west London library.

Judith Blacklock weaves her way through tables loaded with flowers and foliage, throwing a word here and a suggestion there. Though barely 5ft tall, she possesses the energy of a dynamo and enthusiasm to match.

"What's this called?" she asks, brandishing a bunch of berries or a sprig of foliage. The same questions will be repeated several times during her two-hour flower-arranging class, and beginners become familiar with all sorts of exotic-sounding greenery almost by osmosis.

The blackboard looks like a left-over Latin lesson. We read Vibernum tinus - which seems to crop up in lots of the arrangements - skimmia, choisya, hedera, fatshedera, hebe, euonymus, and many more.

What strikes you at first glance is that the emphasis here is not on angling flowers to look pretty in a vase. The students are learning that the basis of flower-arranging is choosing the foliage. They are being taught about textures, space, proportion and colour, about what is dominant and what is in danger of being overshadowed or obscured.

Many of the 12 women - there were no men in this class, taking place in a hall attached to a library in Barnes, west London - had begun the 13-week course knowing little about the mechanics of flower-arranging. Nearly all of them were so inspired by the two-hour class that they signed up for further sessions in the new year.

Carolyn Donahoe, a Canadian, says Judith's classes are inspiring because she offers suggestions and tips rather than rigid formats. "She teaches you to recognise the quality of flowers when you buy them, and how important it is to give them a long drink before they go into an arrangement. You learn to see what will give a harmonious finish, how to judge proportion and form. You learn to follow certain rules, but begin to understand which ones can be bent."

During the first hour the women labour away on their arrangements while Judith offers praise and encouragement. Sometimes she will hold up a half- finished piece of work and ask for suggestions from the class. Everyone is encouraged to look at and learn from other people's work.

Caroline Williams is thrilled with her mantelpiece decoration, which has two lily stems as the focus in a bed of greenery. "I have no real talent or flair but I really feel a great sense of achievement to have finished something like this," she says.

Caroline has spent pounds 5 on the lilies. Sometimes she buys carnations from a supermarket and brings foliage from the garden. All the students are required to provide flowers for each session and the lessons are adapted to suit people who spend only a little as well as those who splash out on pounds 20-pounds 30-worth of flowers.

The students are asked to bring secateurs and some have their own "oases" - water-absorbent bases for the arrangement - but these can be bought at the classes.

Sue Robertson says that she became so interested in the classes that she is now studying for a diploma, and finds making her arrangements very therapeutic. "It's great fun when the seasons change and you can explore different ways of presenting things," she says. She has made a ring with ivy, choisya, vibernum, hypericum berries, ilex berries and salmon-pink roses. The centrepiece is a large white candle set inside a hurricane lamp.

At the and of an hour Judith inspects each arrangement, commenting and offering tips: if you see carnations with white stamens showing, that indicates they are past their best; white and cream colours are most dominant, and purple the least dominant, so a purple-and-white arrangement placed in a dark room will not show up well; anything positioned above a lit fire will dry out quickly, and must be watered frequently.

The second half of each lesson is a demonstration given by Judith, during which the students take notes. What they are watching will be the foundation for the next week's work.

"It is essential to learn the basic structures," explains Judith. "But what I also try to do in my classes is to develop a modern style, exploring shapes and forms. The round shape is the dominant one, and the eye will always follow the round shape."

In what seems like a trice she cuts and places a mass of foliage into an S-shaped "oasis" and then inserts winter jasmine, blue anemones, yellow tulips and red roses. Each stem is expertly angled into the base, and like all gifted professionals she makes it look easy. "If you use a lot of foliage and textures, you have to be careful not to add too many colours," she explains.

Judith Blacklock's 13-week course costs pounds 49 (or pounds 37 for concessions); for details, call 0181-255 7440. She also runs courses at Richmond Adult and Community College in Twickenham (0181-891 5907) and gives private lessons to groups of up to five people (0181-255 7440). She has written several books, including `Teach Yourself Flower Arranging' (Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 6.99). Most adult education colleges offer courses in flower- arranging and information can be obtained from local education authorities.