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Sonnier finishes the arrangement with locally grown zinnias, but he says you can add whatever is blooming in the garden as well — hydrangea, azaleas, gardenias or camellias also would make beautiful additions.

AN ARRANGEMENT OF FLOWERS MAKES AN ELEGANT CENTERPIECE for a dinner party, but unless you’ve got a florist in the house, it can be hard to transform a store-bought bouquet into a real showstopper.

The flowers in most pre-cut bouquets are trimmed to the same length before being packaged for sale; they’re designed to look good from an aerial view. But a flower arrangement sitting in a vase has to look good from all angles, and to do that, it needs some shaping.

If you’re starting with a pre-cut bouquet, say, from the grocery store, Stephen Sonnier, co-owner of Dunn and Sonnier Antiques, Florals, Gifts (3433 Magazine St., 504-524-3235; www.dunnandsonnier.com) says the first thing you should do is separate the different plants in the bouquet. Pull out your greenery first — this will form the base of your bouquet. Next, find the filler flowers (baby’s breath, solidago, wax flower, etc.) and set those aside. You should be left with the premier blooms — roses, hydrangea, lilies and so on.

But your blooms need not stop at what comes in the bouquet.

“Don’t be afraid to just add stuff to it,” Sonnier says. “I think most people are afraid they’re going to mess it up. You can’t mess it up.”

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Stephen Sonnier cuts trimmings from hedges in the storefront garden at Dunn & Sonnier Antiques, Florals, Gifts.

To prove his point, Sonnier heads to the garden in front of the store and gathers a sampling of greenery with his garden knife, including laurel and other evergreen hedging, jasmine vine and draping rosemary, which will give the arrangement a beautiful fragrance. He comes across an oak sapling and grabs that as well — the long, wispy trunk will give the arrangement “that wild look,” he says.

Pick out your vessel, whether it’s a vase or “grandmother’s teacup,” Sonnier says. “I always tell (clients) … to use whatever you have.” Fill it with fresh, clean water, and (if included with the bouquet) add the plant food. It will prolong the life of the flowers, and it contains an antiseptic which suppresses bacteria production. However, you should change the water in the arrangement daily, so the plant food’s effects may be short-lived. Whatever you use to display your arrangement, keep in mind its overall height, especially if its destination is the dinner table.

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If using long, wispy greenery as your base, wind it around itself to create a nest and submerge it in the vase.

Step one: the greenery

Give each floral element a fresh cut, preferably underwater. Fill the sink, submerge the stems and cut them at a 45-degree angle with a sharp pair of scissors or garden knife. Be sure to remove any leaves from the stems that would end up underwater (those submerged leaves will breed bacteria).

Start with the greenery, which forms the “structure that you’re then going to rest the premier flowers on,” he says. Place them in the vase so that the stems crisscross each other, forming a lattice.

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Add in greenery, crisscrossing the stems to create a lattice on which to rest the remaining flowers.

If using something long and spindly as your base (such as jasmine vine or the sneaky oak sapling Sonnier found in his garden), wind it around itself to create a sort of nest and submerge it in the vase. Make sure the cut ends are in the water; you can let the budding ends stick out.

Step two: the fillers

As you start to add flowers and decorative stems, Sonnier advises using “the trinity of design — always work in groups of three,” he says. Tuck in your solidago or curly willow stems (a favorite of Sonnier’s), or head back to the garden for more inspiration. Sonnier cut a few crepe myrtle blooms to fill out this arrangement, but other seasonal flowers also would work, such as azaleas in winter. Sonnier also used sunflowers as fillers, to add more color to the base.

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Sonnier adds sunflowers to the filler flowers, to give the base some color.

“Sunflowers are going to follow the sun, like they do in the field, so I like them hanging over the vase and going in all different directions,” he says.

Aim for different heights for the different types of stems — this will add dynamism to the arrangement.

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Solidago and crepe myrtle blossoms make excellent filler flowers for this natural-looking arrangement.

Step three: the premier blooms

Situate the main blossoms (Sonnier used locally grown zinnias) in places of prominence in the arrangement. There doesn’t have to be just one focal bloom — if there are day lilies, hydrangea or camellias in the garden, add those in, too. Just remember the rule of three.

Sonnier explains that the roses in some pre-cut bouquets may not be the sturdiest (you can tell by examining the width and the strength of the stems at the base of the bloom). If they could use extra TLC, he recommends giving the roses a fresh cut at the stem, soaking them in hot (not boiling) water from the tap for at least an hour, and giving them another fresh cut before adding them to the arrangement, just before setting it out on the table.

“Because the necks are not so strong, I would cut them shorter and tuck them in tighter,” he says.

Beaucoup bouquet hacks

(OK, five)

Sonnier offers a few tips to prolong the life of your arrangement.

• Most flowers get a boost from a little sugar or citrus-flavored soda in the water. The sugar provides food and the acidic nature of the beverage helps the plant absorb the water more easily than regular water.

A few drops of vodka have the same effect, Sonnier says.

• If your arrangement includes tulips, “a penny in the water will make them last a little longer,” he says. “And vodka makes them stand straight up — unlike what it does to men.”

• If you don’t have any plant food, but are worried about bacteria growing in the vase, add a few drops of bleach to the water to keep it clean. “This will stop bacteria, but it will not help the plants in any way,” he says.

• A few drops of bleach also will reduce the strength of the fragrance of super-pungent flowers, such as lilies.

Email Gambit special sections editor Katherine M. Johnson at katherinej@gambitweekly.com.