San Francisco florist Rebekah Northway of the Petaler (www.thepetalersf.com) creates arrangements that are joyfully of the garden, if that garden were vibrant and lively like an Eden should be. Getting her start in 2006 with big restaurant accounts like Range, Nopa, Zuni Cafe and Bar Tartine, the New Mexico native took cues from her clients’ similar culinary ethos.
“They valued really fresh, local produce, and that really influenced my arrangements, which weren’t necessarily about design but rather about showcasing the beautiful material in a natural way,” Northway says. She likens her work to a wild garden or “rebellious ikebana,” a seemingly untamed modern-day spin on the ancient and ceremonial Japanese art of flower arranging. Professional influences notwithstanding, the root, so to speak, of her calling can be traced back to her family’s robust garden of flowers and edible plants in the high desert, where she first witnessed the power of a bloom.
“I love the way people are so drawn to flowers,” Northway says. “They are the purest subjects of our admiration.” Here, the Duboce Triangle resident (her floral studio is also in the neighborhood; you might see her gray flower truck, an old postal vehicle, parked outside) offers insight into her creative process when putting together a breezy bouquet using materials readily found in Bay Area gardens and sidewalks, along anonymous fence lines and around undiscovered bends.
Five steps to the perfect arrangement
Guidance and musings fromRebekah Northway of the Petaler.
Showcase a specimen: When creating a home arrangement, the aim is pure: Bring nature indoors. “The simplicity of a single found flower, cloaked by a sprig of greenery, is enough to celebrate the beauty of outdoors and bring it inside,” says Northway. “Slipped into nothing more than a glass pitcher or bud vase, that becomes perfection.”
Think gin and tonic: Beyond that simple intention, Northway offers the cocktail theory of flower design. Think of an arrangement as a gin and tonic: The base of the composition (gin) is greenery that’s leafy, strong and sometimes flowering — in the Bay Area, rhododendron, azalea or Philadelphus (mock orange) would naturally fit the bill. The next element (tonic), softens the greenery and lends more shape to the arrangement — honeysuckle, rose and flowering herbs like lavender or thyme work well to achieve a sculptural quality. The garnish (lime) at the end would be any delicate blooms like Iceland poppy, with its wide, paper-thin petals and sunny, open face; or snowdrops, with their dainty, dangling white flowers.
Color theory: Don’t make the mistake so many grocery store arrangements make and include blooms in too many varied colors. “That look always strikes me as clown-like,” says Northway. In her work, she prefers a monochromatic palette for its simplicity and harmony, plus its inherent focus on texture — velvety lavender garden roses with shaggy honeysuckle and ripening blackberries on a prickly vine, for instance. On the other hand, Northway also admires a dramatic, high-contrast pairing like plum ranunculus and peach rose.
Leave breathing room: When composing an arrangement, less is better, at least to start. That way, you can see strong lines and nice negative space, adding more as needed to complete the composition. Most beginners tend toward a vase dense with flowers and foliage — view that not as the finished product, but rather a starting point. “Don’t be afraid to manicure the arrangement just by clipping into it,” says Northway, who likes to cut off side shoots on branches as well as excess leaves, giving the composition some lightness and the plants some breathing room, revealing a stronger shape.
Avoid direct sun: One thing to keep in mind when caring for your arrangement: the flowers have already been cleaved from their life source, so they are literally hanging on by a slant-cut stem in cool, clean water (by the way, never mind plant food — just change the water more often). Don’t inflict more trauma by placing your vase in direct sunlight. “That said, there are flowers that will reach toward the sunlight, which is always lovely to see,” says Northway of tulip, ranunculus and foxglove. “They’re not growing, but they’re dancing a little bit, influenced by sunlight and gravity at the same time.