The Best Buck for the Bloom

Ordering flowers for Mom this week? Don't do a thing until you've read this.

HALF OF ALL PEOPLE bowing at the altar of motherhood this Sunday will express their gratitude with flowers, according to the National Retail Federation. All told, a whopping $1.14 billion will be spent on flowery thank-yous for mom.

But you needn't be Martha Stewart to know that, when it comes to bouquets, you don't always get what you pay for. Even flower novices recognize a small, shoddy or ugly arrangement when they see one.

To help you avoid frustrating flower foul-ups this season, we spoke with floral designers across the country. They let us in on the little secrets that will help you get the most bang for your buck. And for those of you who do know your way around the botanical garden, we'll teach you how to speak the language of florists, which is the only way to ensure that the arrangement you envision matches the one that's delivered.

Here are six tips on how to increase your flower power.

1. Go Local
The best way to avoid disappointment this Mother's Day is to contact a local florist in mom's town and tell him or her exactly what you want.

What about the popular strategy of ordering flowers online through a company that has a national network of local florists? The bloom could be off that rose. Sometimes the pictures posted on Web sites can be deceiving. Small bouquets could look deceptively large. Worse, some arrangements are what the industry calls "one sided," meaning all the higher-quality blooms are concentrated in the front, leaving the back a bit bare, says George Mitchell, who is accredited in floral design (AIFD). So when a local designer spreads out the flowers for a "round" arrangement, it won't look nearly as robust.

Moreover, you might not get exactly what you ordered. That's because the local flower shop that receives the order might not stock every flower pictured in the arrangement, which means it might use a substitute, says Mitchell, who owns Orland Park, Ill.-based floral shop Mitchell Flowers. Even if the shop has every flower, they may not be the freshest in stock.

Local florists also have an incentive to look for cost-cutting maneuvers when filling third-party orders. Mitchell estimates that only 70% of the cost you pay goes to his shop. So if you cut out the middleman, more of your money could go into a nicer bouquet.

2. Tell Me What You Want...
When talking with a florist, you need to speak the right language. Start by asking which flowers are "showing well" -- industry jargon for beautiful and robust -- says Carol Caggiano, AIFD, a floral consultant from Jeffersonton, Va. This will help ensure that you get the most beautiful blooms in the shop.

Next, discuss style. While it certainly would help for you to know the difference between a "tussie-mussie" and a "high-style arrangement," it isn't crucial. (For a floral library and style guide, visit the American Institute of Floral Designers' Web site.) Simply convey the size, shape, color and mood your mother prefers. Does she like tall arrangements that fan out? (Think FTD designs.) Or, does she prefer romantic pastel blossoms that are low and lush and spill over the sides of a container? For something more contemporary and trendy, ask for a compact monochromatic arrangement made up of just one type of flower, such as peonies or tulips.

3. ...But Don't Be Too Specific
That said, if you're too specific, you could end up with a bug-ugly bouquet. A customer who calls the day before Mother's Day and insists on yellow roses runs the risk of getting the last ones in the shop, says Leanne Kesler, AIFD, a floral designer with the Floral Design Institute based in Portland, Ore. A better approach, Kesler says, is to ask what color roses look the nicest. That way, you give your florist the freedom to choose the healthiest flowers based on what comes in that day. If you must have that specific flower, make sure to call in advance so the shop has time to order fresh ones.

4. Getting the Most Bang for Your Buck
Every expert we spoke to agreed that if you want to get the most for your money, you should repeat the following phrase to your florist: "I want the value to be in the flowers; any container will do." Most shops will have a wide selection of vases and can easily substitute a glass cylinder for a tasteful clear plastic one at half the cost. If mom doesn't like it, she can always swap it for something she already has at home.

When it comes to the flowers themselves, always ask the florist if there are any in-house specials. Such arrangements tend to be a bit nicer, since the designers incorporate flowers that are showing well and are in abundance in your area, says floral consultant Caggiano. Even if you have something more specific in mind, always try to ask what's in season. Peonies, for example, can run $18 a bloom in November, but go for just $2 or $3 each in May, says Floral Design Institute's Kesler. (Prices may vary by region.)

5. Ways to Save
We won't lie to you: An arrangement that looks like it could be used in a photo shoot for Architectural Digest won't come cheap. But there are a couple of ways to stretch your budget. First, you can easily save $8 to $10 by providing your florist with a vase, says Petal Harvill, an owner of Boca Raton, Fla.-based flower shop Petal Designs. You also could forgo the container altogether and send a beautiful hand-tied bouquet.

But the easiest way to save $10 to $20 might be to pick up the arrangement and deliver it yourself. (Clearly, the convenience of this depends on how close you live to mom.) Not only will you save the delivery fee, but you'll also score extra points by actually spending time with your mother on Mother's Day.

6. Order Now
A final word of advice: Order today. By ordering in advance, you ensure that her bouquet is at the front of the queue. By Friday afternoon, you'll be stuck with the second-rate leftovers. Wait until Saturday, and you might have to pick your own wildflowers.