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Miniature flower arrangements prove that small can be beautiful

Delightful flower arrangements can come in very small sizes. New York interior designer Marion Johnson has been proving this for years with her diminutive arrangements set in equally scaled-down containers. In her hands, they are sometimes dramatic or sometimes whimsical, understated or filled with exuberance.

Miniature flower arrangements, she says, need the smallest amounts of fresh plant materials and so are among the least expensive ways of bringing flowers into your home.

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Mrs. Johnson gained her enthusiasm for such arrangements in New England, where she was inspired by Yankee thrift. After completing grander floral arrangements, she would take the side shoots, a modest bud or two, leftover leaves, and blossoms, and pop them into little containers to place on her writing desk or telephone table. ''They were my private delight,'' she recalls. ''I did them to please myself.''

After discovering that many other people enjoyed them as well, she decided to focus attention on them in an unusual little book, ''Small & Beautiful Flower Arrangements'' (Clarkson N. Potter Inc., New York, $10).

''I wanted to show people,'' she says, ''that small doesn't have to just mean 'cute,' and that small bouquets can be used effectively where huge arrangements would never fit. I love putting them on meal trays that are taken to bedsides. When I entertain children - and sometimes adults as well - I make individual small arrangements that each can take home. I decorate the table with them for family meals, too. I place them on bathroom shelves and in the kitchen. And I always make space for one on the top of my cluttered desk, so I can enjoy it as I work.''

Miniature arrangements, she explains, are best seen at close range. The key to their success lies in their proportion and innovation. She often groups them as part of an ensemble of surrounding objects. A small picture, screen, fan, or plate can serve as an enhancing backdrop. Stands and bases turn arrangements into pieces of sculpture, and a slab of burled wood provides an interesting undersurface.

Choose small containers with taste and care, Mrs. Johnson advises. She finds a variety of salt cellars, nut dishes, sweetmeat baskets, toothpick holders, egg cups, inkwells, and decorative shells in secondhand, thrift, and antique shops.

Stores that specialize in Oriental goods carry miniature vases, sauce and dipping dishes, small baskets, and rice bowls and cups, while housewares departments have tiny pans, measures, and tin molds that can also serve as basket liners. Craft fairs and craft and museum shops often provide an array of small, handmade containers.

Mrs. Johnson gathers her plant materials from country lanes and fields and from city florist shops, always looking for flowers no wider than dimes or nickels. Her favorite summer ''found flowers'' are white clematis and columbine, but she also collects such wildflowers as Queen Anne's lace, thistle, goldenrod, honeysuckle, and purple loostrife. She searches out twiggy branches, lively foliage, fall berries, and tiny delicate field flowers.

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She grows or buys miniature gladiola, roses and zinnias, tiny carnations and orchids, and button chrysanthemum. She also purchases lily of the valley, baby's breath, candytuft, and heather.

After a flower is cut from the plant, recut the stems at an angle under water and strip off lower leaves. Put in tepid water and let stand in a cool, dark place for several hours or overnight before placing in an arrangement.

To begin an arrangement, she fills a container half full of cool water and places first the stem that will be the tallest. From this single stem she determines proportions for the rest of the arrangement. Any design, she says, should have a focal point on which the eye can rest.

To keep colors of flowers from clashing or competing, use gray-green foliage around and among the flowers. For a sense of unity, plant materials must make sense together and be of compatible shape, size, and texture.

The art of arranging, Mrs. Johnson points out, is knowing when to stop, erring on the side of too little rather than too much. An arrangement should appear balanced, never top-heavy or lopsided.

A good, sharp knife or pair of snips is the arranger's most vital tool, she says. For years she has used a pair of bonsai shears, a jackknife with a rounded point, and a small hammer for bashing woody stems so they will absorb more water.

Keep arrangements out of drafts and direct light, and change or replenish water daily.

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