Ashley Cole walked into the Flower Stems floral shop with a bulging portfolio containing her life as she knows it for the next nine months.

She’s getting married Oct. 25 to Lee Stork, and that folder holds everything she’s deemed ideal for her wedding, right down to wedding favors and pew markers.

The book was a welcome sight to Vince Gray, owner of Flower Stems in Birmingham, Ala., who says brides should give the floral designer pictures of what they like. Images from magazines and the Internet should include floral concepts, the wedding gown, bridesmaids’ dresses and color schemes.

“My whole idea is to make the bride’s day perfect,” he said. “And to do that, you have to understand your bride.”

In a 1½-hour initial consultation, Cole and Gray examined everything from her wedding bouquet to making sure the reception tablecloths don’t clash with the centerpieces.

Cole left the meeting satisfied, impressed and on target with her budget. She’s putting about 12 percent of her wedding budget toward flowers. (The national estimate is 8 percent to 10 percent, but experts suggest brides really should pad the flower budget with another 10 percent for extra costs.)

Tips from the pros

Flowers enliven a wedding. To help make the trip to the altar a memory that’s always in bloom, consider these tips gleaned from professional florists:

• Call to make an appointment.

It’s hard to get an idea of what a floral designer can do for you if you just walk in and expect an on-the-spot meeting. Contact a florist at least six months before your wedding. Ask if the first consultation is free. Also find out if the designer is available for your wedding date and the cost to secure it.

Florists may prefer to meet on days other than Friday or Saturday, which is when they are preparing for other weddings.

• Know your flower budget.

A floral budget for today’s weddings can range from $5,000 to $10,000, or 10 percent and up of the wedding budget. If your budget is tight, ask how to cut costs.

• Know the number of people in your wedding party.

This number will affect your price. Remember that flowers are needed for the bridesmaids, groomsmen, ushers, flower girls, the ring bearer, mothers, fathers, grandparents, the bride’s main bouquet and tossing bouquet, the groom and maybe even hostesses. Make a list of everyone early, including that special aunt. Avoid placing her order at the last minute.

• Pick your wedding colors, bridesmaids’ dresses and wedding dress early.

Bring in a color or swatch of the dresses. Photos help, too. Once florists get the color, they’ll know what flower varieties are available to match.

• Know where you want to invest the most.

The bridal trend nowadays is to keep church floral decorations at a minimum, and shift more attention to the reception.

• Beware of flowers that can be challenging.

The stamens in lilies can stain; Gerbera daisies don’t hold up very well in bouquets; and lilies of the valley are very expensive. If you just love lilies, ask the florist to remove the stamens. Florists warn brides about gardenias: You can buy five and find two you can use. They also are fragile, expensive, have no stem and anytime you touch a petal, it turns brown. Unless it’s for sentimental reasons, they suggest brides use something else.

• Leave the designing to the experts.

While friends or family may volunteer to decorate the reception hall with their own flowers to help cut costs, they may not follow through on everything, show up late or not at all. It’s often better to let a professional do all the work to eliminate any stress or extra expense.

• Be open to a florist’s suggestions.

A florist might like to look at the design or the style of the bride’s dress because it helps him decide which bouquet is a good fit for her.

Also, don’t panic if the reception venue’s green and red carpet doesn’t match your color scheme. The focus goes to the table and how you present the tables, chairs and centerpieces, not the carpet.

Many florists have worked with various venues and know how to “tweak” the room to make it pretty.

• Have questions ready.

Find out if your floral designer provides only flowers. Inquire if he or she rents or can locate vases, urns, candelabra and other items. Some florists offer packages for linens, chair rentals, dance floors and custom lighting, and will work with a bride to make sure all elements are color-coordinated.

Also, if you plan to take a bridal portrait in a studio before the wedding, ask if the florist will charge to make a mock bouquet or if it’s already incorporated into the overall flower bill.

• Find out about any limitations.

If florists are unfamiliar with the ceremony location or reception venue, ask whether they’ll go to the venue to get a vision for the area. Ask if they will charge for such a trip.

Also, find out how many other weddings your floral designer will be handling that day or weekend; review what your contract requires him to do; find out if bridal party members or even your florist is allergic to any flowers; ask if you can check out the designer’s handiwork at an upcoming wedding or reception; and find out if the person you met with will personally handle your order on your wedding day.

Next steps

After meeting with the floral designer, there are 10 more things brides should keep in mind, according to and Vince Gray, owner of Flower Stems in Birmingham:

• Consider hardy flowers that won’t wilt in the summer such as sunflowers, zinnias, dahlias and hydrangeas. Avoid gardenias, lilies of the valley and wildflowers.

• Make sure your bouquet is not too heavy or too hard to carry.

• Consider whether a strong floral fragrance will bother you and others. Some of the most fragrant flowers include freesia, lilies, lilacs, tuberoses, gardenias and lilies of the valley.

• Check out your wedding surroundings. If you’re marrying around Christmas or Easter, the church may already be beautifully decorated with poinsettias or Easter lilies.

• Get full use out of your bridesmaids’ bouquets by using them to dress up the cake or gift table, or accent the restrooms or bar at the reception.

• Avoid trying to “reuse” large floral arrangements from the church at your reception. Your guests will beat the flowers to the reception venue, which will look unfinished if there’s an empty spot for flowers. Instead, consider having additional flowers already set up at the reception.

More than likely the church arrangements will be too big to move. Ask the church if you can donate them for the Sunday service, or check and see if your florist will dismantle them, put the flowers in smaller arrangements and arrange to donate them to a hospital, nursing home or hospice organization.

• Coordinate delivery time of your bouquets, corsages and boutonnieres with your photographer’s arrival so you can use them in pre-wedding photos. Make sure the flowers arrive well before the photographer.

• Seasonal staples such as orange blossoms, lavender or tulips can be used as a base for bouquets, boutonnieres and arrangements.

• Higher floral prices come with weddings on or near Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day. A floral designer’s time and availability may also be an issue.

• Remember that trends do change. What’s hot this year may not be next year. If trends do change, contact your floral designer immediately if you need to make an adjustment.

Books bloom with ideas

Brides can read up on the finer points of flower design in Karen Bussen’s book “Simple Stunning Wedding Flowers: Practical Ideas and Inspiration for Your Bouquet, Ceremony and Centerpieces” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $22.50).

In “Nell Hill’s Stylish Weddings” (Andrews McMeel Publishing, $24.95.), entrepreneur and design guru Mary Carol Garrity takes readers on a step-by-step journey in the planning of her own daughter’s summer wedding at her Kansas home. She also offers tips from weddings she’s attended and helped plan. The book’s title includes the name of her flagship store, Nell Hill, in Atchison, Kan.

Brides looking to narrow down the possibilities on theme colors, the right gown, bouquet and more may find help in “What’s Your Bridal Style?” (Citadel Press, $12.95). Authors Sharon Naylor and Casey Cooper say that until a bride has defined her own style, she won’t be able to communicate with experts just what she wants in the wedding of her dreams.

Brides will walk away with million-dollar visions after reading wedding and event planner to the stars Colin Cowie’s “Extraordinary Weddings: From a Glimmer of an Idea to a Legendary Event” (Clarkson Potter/Publishers, $75). The book showcases 16 of his most spectacular weddings.

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