Garden preparations

I have been so busy with work these past few months and I can see that my blog is suffering. This week end though, I was not working but I have another excuse… it’s sunny! London was hot hot hot! Sun shining, blue sky, and a really really messy garden!! So with that BBQ we have planned to host next week end, there was only one thing to do: GARDENING! Quick breakfast, garden clothes and crocs on, it is time to invest some time on these herbs, tomatoes, rhubarb, beans and much more that will eventually end up in my recipes!

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Verbena

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Strawberry tower- Wedding lunch dessert

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Picture from our wedding photographer

Who doesn’t like the strawberries dipped in chocolate from the Christmas market!

We wanted a light dessert for our wedding lunch as we knew a massive dinner was coming in the evening, but I still wanted some wow factor and fruits and chocolate! A chocolate fondue would not have been very practical for 20 guests, especially if I wanted to keep my dress sparkly white!

I googled my idea and found some nice examples of the strawberry tower I had in mind. I bought a cylindrical polystyrene pyramid, a silver piece of fabric to hide the polystyrene, a packet of toothpick, some big strawberries, and white and dark chocolate bars. Try to buy strawberries roughly the same size, and loads of it! I bought them the day before to make sure they were as fresh as possible. Wash and pat them dry, make sure they are completely dry before dipping them into the melted chocolate.

Tip: Practice at least once before on a few strawberries. The tempering of the chocolate is not that easy at home, the mounting of the fruits is also tricky, and decorating the bride and groom strawberry is also quite hard. Make sure you’re happy with all this so you don’t ruin your beautiful strawberries on the day.

Tempering chocolate can be done at home, you just need to be patient. I bought belgian dark chocolate and white chocolate and followed the middle ground method to temper them. I have a normal cooking thermometer and it worked fine. Once you’ve achieved tempering temperature for each chocolate, make sure the chocolate cools down before dipping the strawberries in. Better loosing some shininess than cooking your fruits.

Have baking sheets ready, along with your toothpicks. Hold the strawberry firmly by the leaves and dip it in the chocolate of your choice, shake the strawberry to remove the extra chocolate, insert the toothpick through the tip of the strawberry and lie the fruit on its leaves, upside down, for the chocolate to set. The set chocolate will seal the toothpick to the strawberry.

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For the bride and groom strawberries, choose the two best strawberries you have. Dip the fruits in the chocolate by first coasting one side, then the other one trying to create a triangular cleavage with the chocolate. These 2 strawberries should be perfect looking from all sides, so hold them down until most of the extra chocolate has dripped off and then add the toothpick. A spare piece of polystyrene could really help here to insert the toothpick while the chocolate sets. I didn’t have one so I just kept holding it until the chocolate was set. Wait for the chocolate to set completely to start drawing the pearls with a toothpick, the bow-tie and the buttons on the jacket. When the bow-tie is set, add the dot.

Secure the silver fabric around the pyramid while the chocolate sets. Create the pyramid starting by the bottom row and always try to pack the strawberries as much as you can. Add the bride and groom on top and store in a cool place, but I would not recommend to store it in the fridge otherwise the strawberries will shrink and the chocolate will break easily.

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Custom-made placemats from a recycled window blind

This window blind inspired me to make placemats and when we decided to renovate the spare bedroom, I just couldn’t trow it away. I have that problem for many many things and I accumulate lots of useful bits (my husband would call them by another name…), which sadly seem to fill up our storage cupboard too quickly. But isn’t it worthy!

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To make these placemats you’ll need:

    • a woody window blind like mine (see picture above)
    • a pair of scissors
    • a pair of secateurs
    • a lighter and a candle
    • Optional: a little cat helper (Vegas, our kitten, poses for the photo and helps, a bit)

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IMG_1233I cut away the top and bottom of the blind and removed any damaged area. Cut a rectangle MUCH TALLER than the one you’ll use for your place mats because you need to remove quite a few woody sticks to have the string long enough to tie a knot. See pictures on the left, I removed about 6 sticks to have a comfortable length of string to work with, but it obviously depends on the kind of blind you have. Then make a double knot using 1 string from the top and the one opposite to secure the last woody stick to the rest. To seal the knot and make sure your place mats doesn’t fall to pieces light a candle and place the knots on the flame to melt the knots together.

To adjust the width of the placemats I use a pair of secateurs to give a nice edge to the woody sticks! And check out how good they look with our tropical meal! I can’t wait to use them this summer on the garden table for a BBQ night! I have some left overs that I might use to do some glass mats….

Wedding cake

Our wedding cake had to be made with ingredients we both loved! We picked our favorite cake at the time (it constantly changes…) and I tried to make a two-tier cake with both of our choices. Choosing the cake, baking it and building the whole thing was not the main worry for me. The issue was the final touches as we don’t really like sugar icing. I wanted chocolate and lots of it!

The plan was to make a Jaffa cake for the bottom cake: Orange infused sponge cake, with my own Seville Orange marmalade in the middle and covered with a glossy dark chocolate ganache. The top cake would be a polenta cake, with strawberry jam and covered with white chocolate ganache. Once built, the cakes was going to be surrounded by home-made white chocolate barks. I added some berries already used for my centrepiece to hide imperfections, 2 heart-shaped pieces of slate on the top and here is the result:

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I regret not to have taken more pictures, this one really doesn’t do it justice at all. And I also didn’t take pictures of the transitions during the making of the cake but this site really helped me and I will try to write as much detail as I can to help you.

RECIPES

Equipment needed:  one or two 23cm and 15cm cake tins, 2 round cake boards the same size as your tins, some wood rods and a palette knife.

I recommend to prepare the white chocolate barks in advance as it will take quite some time and you can store them for weeks in the fridge. I did my chocolate barks following these 3 steps:

WHITE CHOCOLATE BARKS

– Melt 500g of white chocolate in a bain-marie until it has reached 43C and then transferred it to a clean and dry bowl. Have 2 big baking trays covered with baking sheet prepared and set aside, and make sure they fit in your fridge! When the chocolate looks “cooler” and has thickened a bit, pour it onto the baking sheet and spread it with a palette knife to the desired thickness. I opted for thick barks because it was easier to control the hardening of the chocolate. Spread the chocolate to form a rectangle with a width much longer than the height of your cake, I went for 20cm. Place the tray in the fridge.

– Constantly check your chocolate. When it feels like a soft paste rather than a liquid, take it out of the fridge and cut your barks (mine took about 20minutes). The knife will go right through it and it won’t look like you’ve cut anything, but this is more of a “pre-cut” and it will make your life SO MUCH easier when the chocolate has set. With the knife draw a rectangle with curvy lines (so the cake doesn’t look too serious) and measure the width to make barks slightly taller than then cake (15cm for me). Now, if desired, add some little twirls on the barks if desired, or more advanced drawings, but be fast because the chocolate might soften again. Once done, cut the barks and place the tray in the fridge for at least overnight. I tried to draw it to help you with the pattern and the description. I managed to do 40 barks that way, which was enough to cover the whole cake.

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– The next day take your chocolate out of the fridge. The pre-cut marks should still be there and they will be used as a guide to cut your barks. I started with a knife retracing the marks but quickly realised that the barks were detaching themselves quite easily one from another by bending them gently. Once all your barks are detached, store in an airtight container in the fridge for weeks.

JAFFA CAKE with home-made marmalade and dark chocolate ganache

This cake’s recipe is adapted from a recipe in my BBC Good Food magazine (July 2013). They’ve used orange jelly instead of marmalade and milk chocolate instead of dark chocolate. I made two of these cakes and stacked them up on top of each other with a good layer of marmalade in the middle.

For a 23cm cake tin, well greased with butter.

Ingredients:

  • 250g unsalted butter softened
  • 300g caster sugar
  • 4 large eggs
  • 100g yogurt
  • 300g plain flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • zest of 4 large oranges
  • For mounting and topping: Seville Orange Marmalade, a pot of clotted cream, 300g good quality dark chocolate, 300ml double cream

I only have one 23cm cake tin, so I followed this recipe twice to create two identical cakes.

Turn the oven on at 140C fan.  Add all the ingredients to a large bowl and mix with an electric hand-whisk until smooth. Pour it all in the tin and bake for 1h until an inserted knife blade comes out clean. Let it cool down for 10minutes, then remove the cake from the tin and leave it to cool down completely on a wire rack. Once cooled, you can keep the cake in a airtight container for up to 3 days.

The cakes will be hidden by the chocolate barks so it didn’t matter if it wasn’t perfectly round and the top perfectly flat. If the cake has created a substantial dome during cooking, then cut the extra to have a relatively flat top and do the same for the second cake. When the cakes have cooled down, stack them up with marmalade in the middle. Make your own Seville Orange marmalade or use some shop-bought marmalade. Be generous as the cake is very sweet and a little freshness and tanginess will be welcome.

I used clotted cream to fill the gap around the cake created by the two cakes put together. Clotted cream has a neutral taste and I just love it! Leave the cake in the fridge to cool, it will help the ganache to adhere. Prepare your ganache by heating the double cream in a pan. When the cream starts to form little bubbles (Do not boil it), pour it onto the chopped dark chocolate. Leave the cream on the chocolate for a minute or so and mix well until all the chocolate has melted. Place in the fridge for 30minutes. The ganache should be spreadable, but not too liquid otherwise it will slide off the cake. If you leave it too long in the fridge it will solidify but this is easily reversible by heating it back slowly. Cover the cake with the ganache and if the ganache is too liquid place it all in the fridge for longer and try to spread the ganache again. If the ganache is sticky and stays on the cake, you have achieved the perfect consistency! Keep in the fridge until your top cake is also ready.

POLENTA CAKE with strawberry jam and white chocolate ganache

My paternal grandma was italian and I used to spend my summer holidays in her family’s house in the italian’s Alps near Bergamo. A beautiful region for hiking, climbing and all kind of mountain activities. I started to go to this house when I was probably around 7, and all I cared about at that age was the cows in the field in front of the house that we could milk in the morning. THAT was fun! Growing up though meant that I had to participate to prepare the meals and this is one of the reason why you will find lots of Northern italian recipes on my blog.

Polenta is widely used in the North of Italy, which also gives the name Polentina to the ladies of the North. I have learned many recipes during these summer holidays cooking with my grandma, but as we didn’t have an oven, the only cake we would eat was the polenta cake from the neighbour. I remember this cake being warm, sweet and crunchy with little grains of polenta. This is the cake I tried to reproduce here.

Ingredients for a 25cm cake tin, or 2 smaller 15cm tins:

  • 150g polenta
  • 100g self-raising flour
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 tsp of baking powder
  • 180g butter
  • 200g granulated sugar
  • 4 medium eggs
  • 1 tsp of vanilla extract
  • 200g yogurt
  • For mounting and topping: Strawberry jam, clotted cream, 150g white chocolate and 150g double cream.

Heat the oven at 180C and grease a 25cm cake tin.

Melt the butter and mix it to the sugar. Whisk in the eggs one by one and the vanilla. Add the dry ingredients and the yogurt and keep whisking to have a very aerated mixture. Fill the tin and cook for 35 minutes or until an inserted knife comes out clean. This cake is delicious slightly warm and also very good a little stale dipped in tea 😉

For the wedding though, I split this recipe in 2 and filled two 15cm cake tin. Like for the Jaffa cake I trimmed the top and stacked them on top of each other with strawberry jam in the middle. Some clotted cream to hide the holes, and cover with white chocolate ganache, done the same way as for the jaffa cake.

MOUNTING AND DECORATING

When both of your cakes are covered with their respective ganache, place them on their cake boards. Cut 4 pieces of wooden rod to the exact height of the bottom cake and insert them evenly spaced in the middle: they will provide support for the top cake. Place the top cake firmly on top and place the white chocolate barks around. If the ganache is too cold the barks won’t stick well so make sure the cakes are at room temperature. Starting with the smaller cake, overlap the barks to hide the ganache and finish by the bottom cake. If needed, use a ruban to hold the barks together while the ganache solidifies again in the fridge.

Keep the two-tier cake in the fridge and place it at room temperature a few hours before being served. I went for berries and 2 heart-shaped pieces of slate to decorate it simply. But go ahead and add sparkles, food paint and some proper bride and groom figurines on the top!

Buying your flowers at the New Covent Garden Flower Market

Buying your flowers at the New Covent Garden Flower Market

The best way to get a cheap and huge selection of flowers in London is to go to the New Covent Garden Flower market. It will be a mission to get it all done but I did it on my own  so I am sure anyone can do it. Make it easier on yourself and go with someone to help carry things around.

I am hoping this post will help you through your  journey at the flower Market. If you love decorating, creative and pretty things for the house or the garden, this place will become one of your favorite places in London.  They even have these giant martini glasses which one day I will fill with a beautiful Trifle.

FIRST VISIT

First things first, if you have never been to this market, I recommend you to go once to get your head around the place. You do not want to walk around the place looking like a tourist on the day you buy your flowers. It is a huge warehouse full of hidden jewels in tiny corners with shelves mounted to the ceiling full of treasures. On my first visit, my husband and I aimed to be there for 9am on a Saturday.  This is the latest you want to be there: The traders were packing and most of them were already gone. But you get the chance to walk around, explore, and even chat to some of the flower traders to have an idea of prices, how to get your flowers back home etc…without waking up at 5am.

Take this first visit as an educational one and look at the vast amount of flowers that are available. At this time like I said, some traders will have already gone, like the foliage trader usually located outside and some other flower traders, but you will still be amazed (and intimidated) by the choice in shapes, textures and colours still available. If you had no idea what kind of flowers you were going to use, you will find the inspiration and you can trust me on that. My main problem was to restrain my imagination, I just wanted to buy everything. Don’t be shy to ask the name of some flowers and take some notes so you look them up on internet later.

Some people already know about the colour theme of their wedding, which will make the flower choice easier,  or some even know what type of flowers they want. Be prepared to change your mind when you go to this market, anything can happen. The only thing you can be sure of, even though the price is dramatically cheaper there than at the florist, expensive flowers are still expensive: Peonies will still be expensive, and roses too, although make sure you buy the right flower size for your needs (see more about flower size below).

PREPARE YOURSELF TO BE FAST AND EFFICIENT

In the beat case scenario, you have planned the colours: to match the season, or the bridesmaids dresses, or the favours or just because it is your favourite colour. You know what type of flowers you want and all is left to decide is the size of the flowers, which you will easily figure out with  the price of the actual flower and your budget. Roses especially come in all kind of sizes for the same variety with  the price depending on the size of the flower and the length of the stem.

In the worst case scenario, you haven’t got a clue about what you want, you like everything and you are confused. That was my case, and it all went fine at the end, so hang on in there and trust your talent. You will need to first focus on the colours that you want. Check the Flower Marker report, it is a blog written by Rona Wheeldon that will give you a  taste of what is seasonal and available at the market each month. Check the October blog where you can find some of the flowers I chose.

BUY YOUR FLOWERS

I was at the market at 6.15am on the Wednesday before my Saturday wedding. I asked the traders how long I could keep the flowers at home, and they said 3/4 days should be fine, as long as the weather is not too hot and that I have a cool room to store the flowers.

The first thing you’ll notice is that the whole place is completely transformed. Trucks, vans and cars have surrounded the warehouse, every loading bay is busy with boxes, crates and empty palettes and people are buzzing everywhere. This was only outside, my heart started pounding at the thought of what could be happening inside! All space available was now displaying flowers and plants, with traders shouting prices and random instructions to invisible people. Huge trolleys are moving on their own until you realize there is a person pushing it hidden behind the bushes loaded on it. A pencil behind the ear seemed to be the general fashion trend and I regretted immediately not to bring one. At least we were all wearing a massive jacket, since the air con is constantly keeping the warehouse at 12 degree Celsius to keep the flowers in perfect conditions. I must admit, most traders are men, but there was many florist women walking around to do their weekly shopping, and everybody was nice to me. It was very easy to spot that I was a beginner and everybody, traders and customers, were helpful. People are very busy though, most of the trader are constantly on the phone taking orders, so do ask for help because nobody will come to you.

Best tips I got on the day:

-Shop around. I got talking with a trader who was lovely and had a wide range of flowers and roses. He was so helpful and I was so scared to explore this jungle that I thought I would buy it all from him. He was obviously flattered but strongly advised me against it. He gave me one of these giant trolley saying I could keep it next to his stand and send me outside saying I should start by the foliage trader since he didn’t have any foliage himself. I ended up buying lots of things at other traders and he really didn’t seem to mind at all. He actually looked quite proud. Do shop around, mix and match, everybody has something to offer that might suit you.

-Touch the flowers. Florists will constantly squeeze (gently) flowers to check if they are firm and therefore fresh. It is apparently OK to do so, so go ahead and squeeze them. I was always super self conscious if the trader was looking in my direction but no one told me off.

-Long stem+big flower=higher price. Logical, I know. But think about what you want to do with these flowers. You do not need long stem for centre pieces, your bouquet, or boutonniere. And you do need long stem ONLY if you are planning to have bunches of flowers in big vases or decorative buckets. Buying long stem at 80p per stem instead of 50p for shorter stem, and then having to cut it all down to integrate it into a centre piece is a real waste of money.

I went there in September and I was in an autumnal mood. One variety of roses caught my eye when I was wondering around the different traders. When I saw these coffee break roses with their beautiful burgundy colour as big as my fist, I had to have them. After that, all I had to do was to find a clear and bright colour that would match, and I went for light beige wild roses and ivory colour big roses. Lots of foliage to brighten it all up, with Eucalyptus, red Oak leaves, Beargrass (long green grass) and even blackberry branches! I got a little Ruscus to do my husband’s boutonniere, and some hypericum Coco Grando

My roses

Ivory colour roses                         Coffee break roses                           Wild roses

BRING YOUR FLOWERS BACK HOME

If you have a car, use it, this will be the simplest and safest way for your flowers.

On the Market website, you’ll find various delivery option including one that can deliver your flowers in London. Do not count on it, it apparently went bust. So when traders say that they can arrange delivery for you, they will call you a cab: which is fine if it is within your budget, and if it is not morning rush hour.

I found a discarded giant cardboard box and squeezed all my flowers inside it. I then decided to push the box to the bus station and get 2 buses home, which took me 1h20 and was quite painful. The faster you get these flowers home and back in water the better. Traders say they can stay 1h dry before they will start suffering from the lack of water. I took the risk and it ended up fine. Do that on a warm day and you might ruin your flowers.

Another way is to choose the flowers you want, make a list, and instead of piling them up on the trolley, go to your favorite trader and order them from him. He will arrange delivery at your home at extra cost of course but it means you won’t have to stress about the state of your flowers since their truck usually transports them in water. It means you only have to buy your foliage and tuck them in an IKEA bag to bring them home and wait for the rest to turn up.

Once at home, find the coolest room of the house and make sure you have plenty of large buckets filled with a little water. Keep your flowers tied up together if that’s how you bought them. The only thing you should do is to trim off about 4/5cm off the stem and place them in the buckets. You do not want the water to cover half of the length of the stem otherwise it will start rotting. Stay calm and change the water everyday for your flowers to keep fresh 🙂

More on arranging flowers on my next post.

Arranging your flowers in a bouquet, centrepiece, boutonniere or in a bunch

Picture from our wedding photographer

EQUIPMENT

You do not need a huge amount of accessories for the flower arrangements. I already had  good garden secateurs, so all I needed was some flower oasis, fancy parafilm and ribbon. I bought all this online  and since I was planning to only do a bouquet, boutonniere, centrepieces and bunches, it cost no more than £20.

When you buy the oasis, make sure you get one that comes with a tray. Soak the oasis in water by gently placing it in the water and do not push down, let it soak the water up which will only take a few minutes. Secure the oasis to the tray with either parafilm or any kind of string and your oasis is ready for your creation. The ribbon and pin heads will be used to cover the parafilm used on the bouquet.

As for buying the flowers, have a look at my previous post on the New Covent Garden Flower market.

TIMING

I bought the flowers on the Wednesday morning and did the arrangement on the Friday for a Saturday wedding. It all looked fresh because I followed the instructions I gave earlier. I then kept it all at room temperature, in water (never in the fridge!!!!!).

START WITH YOUR BOUQUET

It will be super rewarding to start with the bouquet as you will realize how easy it can be, and also so you can pick the best looking flowers.

I have chosen roses as the main flower of my arrangements so I also used roses for the bouquets. For my bouquet, I did two, using 2 different styles of rose both ivory/cream, one with large roses and one with the wild roses. To make it greener, I scattered thin beargrass in between the big roses. I had no idea how they would look so I experimented and in the end preferred the wild rose bouquet. For my bridesmaid’s bouquet, I used the coffee break roses and thicker beargrass.

Tip: Tighten your flowers as hard as you can. They will keep fresh longer and the bouquet won’t move.

For the big roses, I only used 6 roses. You might use more if the flower heads are smaller than the ones I used. Do not be scared to pack them tightly. Hold the middle one first and position the 5 other roses tightly around it, and slightly lower. You want to create a ball of flowers. Once you are happy with the look of the bouquet, tie an elastic band around the stem and insert the beargrass in between the roses. I liked the beargrass in there, it highlighted the colour and the size of the roses. Hide the elastic with the parafilm, this will give extra strength to the bouquet and allow to have a smooth finish to the stem. You see on the picture below where the green parafilm is on the big white rose bouquet. It should be quite high so it is easier to squeeze the flower heads together. Cover the parafilm with the ribbon of your choice and pin it by inserting the pin at an angle all the way through the stem to hold the ribbon tight. For now keep the stem long so you can keep them into water for the night. Chop them to the edge of the ribbon on the big day.

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                                      Bride and Bridesmaid’s bouquets

Bear in mind that I had a tiny dress, very short and without laces, veil or accessories, so I wanted a small bouquet that would not hide the dress and clash in style. You can easily make a larger bouquet by adding extra rows of roses, and by starting with 3 roses at the top instead of one.

BOUTONNIERE

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Using parafim will really make your life easy. I use the ruskus as a foliage only because that’s what I usually see on groom’s boutonniere. All there is to it is a pretty little branch of ruskus behind a short stem of wild roses, making sure you pick a stem with very pretty flowers and buds on it.  You can have a boutonniere with a single rose, and add some ruskus behind it in the exact same way. The secret is the same as for the bouquet: use the parafilm to tighten the rose and ruskus together and keep it in water until you pin it on the groom’s suit. You can see on the picture below how well matched we were 🙂

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Make sure you have all the flowers you need set up around a big table. Once your oasis has been soaked through and tightly secured to the tray, start with the foliage. You want the foliage to act as a green background to enhance the colour of your flowers and as a covering for the ugly oasis tray. Always insert the stem on the foliage on the side of the oasis (if square or rectangular) and pointing downwards: this will help creating this green background and also provide extra support for the centrepiece when completed. Keep as much space as you can for the stem of your flowers so try using thick and fluffy foliage to use as little branches as possible. If you have too many stems going into your oasis, it will start crumbling away. Once you have done your foliage, start with the bigger flowers. Arrange them the way you want and do not worry about the oasis still visible, these are the final touches to your arrangement. When all your flowers are inserted in the oasis, start hiding the area of the support and oasis still visible with little branches left behind. I used Eucalyptus which did an amazing job at providing fluffy branches to hide the oasis at the beginning and lots of little branches to fill in the holes at the end.

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The way you arrange your flowers is up to you, I made some centrepieces with more burgundy colours and others with more creamed colours. I decided to wait until I finished them all to pick the best for my table. You can of course choose one style and make them all the same, but I knew I would run out of some flowers so I decided to mix and match. I made 2 actual centrepieces to go on tables. But I also made a “radiator” arrangement to hide my ugly radiator and another one for our open plan kitchen so all the rooms were filled with beautiful flowers! Water them everyday and you should able to keep them fresh for a few days, some of my flowers stayed fresh up to a week after the wedding.

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BUNCHES

That was the easy part. Put together all the flowers and foliage you have left and arrange them together in a big pretty bucket. This is when you want to use these long stem roses that costed more, they will look beautiful in a big vase too. Tuck the bear grass back into your bunch to have these flying grass effect. (see also the photo at the start of the post)

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