Archives for November 2011

Thanksgiving Day


I got an email today from a reader who lives in Williamsburg about their special way of decorating for and celebrating the holiday season.  She had no idea that pictures I saw 10 years ago of the wreaths, swags, garlands, and lighting at Williamsburg transformed my ideas about how to decorate for the holidays.  I do so love the Williamsburg holiday style; I find it a great source of inspiration. To follow is her letter.

 I happened upon your blog this morning while researching a bit for my holiday decorating.  I found your submission about Magnolias, and I agree they are beautiful and are a part of our holiday decorating every year.  I wanted you to know about the town where I live, because maybe one day I think you would truly appreciate a visit at the holidays, specifically at our Grand Illumination.  I live in Williamsburg, Virginia and the first weekend in December is always a big event as the Colonial part of town (restored area and living history site) decorates in colonial fashion for the holidays.  The fife and drum corps play and folks in costume walk around story telling, interacting, selling cider and ginger cakes etc.  Here is a link.  I hope you don’t find this too off the wall, but it is rare I find others who love to decorate naturally at the holidays, and therefore it is rare that I find folks who truly appreciate Williamsburg at Christmas.  Either way, I hope your Thanksgiving was wonderful and good luck with the holidays!   Julie E.   Williamsburg, Va

She sent me several pictures of her home in Williamsburg, decorated for the holidays.  Has she not done a beautiful job? I especially like the grass spikes that criss cross behind her wreath.  The geometric arrangement of fruit I associate with the Williamsburg holiday-this is a beautiful interpretation of that idea. 

Happy Thanksgiving to you too, Julie.  Many thanks for taking the time and effort to write.  Many more thanks to all of you who have taken the time to write-I truly appreciate it.

Holiday Decorating

 Yesterday was my first indoor holiday installation.  A client with an event coming up the first week of December wanted the bones of her holiday decor in place before Thanksgiving. This pair of topiaries began with moss mat glued over foam cones.  The spiral garlands of reindeer moss, accompanied by a delicate silver wire garland took some time and patience to glue up, but the result is festive and elegant.  The formal dining room sideboard fresh decor can be added just before the event.  Fresh materials at the holiday look and smell great, but I like adding them at the last minute.  Holiday ornament like this-tall, thin, and taking up little space-can be used in lots of different places.  Perhaps next year’s decor will call for them on a mantel.         

The breakfast room has an entirely different feeling than the formal dining room.  A garland studded with faux fruit is draped over the Welsh cupboard.    We filled her wood trough with lots of the same fruit.   This room is ready for the last minute addition of fresh greens, and candles. 

This pair of mossed cubes were topped with coulter pine cones, and variegated English boxwood.  Pinus coulteri is native to southern California and northern Mexico.  It produces the largest cones of any pine.  They can grow to a length of 16 inches, and weigh 10 pounds a piece.  I thought this pair of sculptures would look appropriate in the library.

The moss mat was applied over dry floral foam, making it easy to glue the heavy cones in an upright position, and insert the springs of boxwood.  They have a comfortably masculine look that is appropriate for the room.   

We paid lots of  holiday oriented attention to the foyer.  The moment a guest arrives, what they see first creates a lasting impression.  This is why I devote so much attention to the landscape of the driveway. The end of my drive is the foyer of my garden.  I come home every day, and I want what I see first when I get there to be beautiful and inviting. Decorating the foyer mirror and sconces means there is plenty of room on the table for family pictures, a holiday hostess gift, or a tray of champagne.  The oval magnolia wreath we made by gluing individual leaves over a foam form; the size and shape is friendly to the mirror.  A small suction cup provides a hook; the wreath weighs very little.  The sconces have glass ornament, silvery picks, silver fabric leaves, and magnolia wired to them.       

We dressed the staircase in a long needled faux pine garland.  We added glass holiday ornaments, glittered wire flower ornaments, and silvery pine picks for a soft and dressy look.  The result is beautiful and elegant.  The garland is affixed to the outside of the railing with black zip ties-this is friendly to the wood finish on the railing.  In between each length of garland-a pine pick of the same style.  This helps make a graceful transition from one garland swag to the next.  Most faux garlands are 6 feet long-which may or may not work with the length of your staircase.  The added picks helps to make the garland fit the space.

The living room fireplace mantel is short, with little depth. We attached overlapping bunches of preserved and whitewashed eucalyptus to a bamboo pole, cut to a length just shy of the width of this mantle.  We dressed that eucalyptus with silver fir greens, sparkly picks, and just a pair of bleached cones. Those cones address in a subtle way the color of the brass fireplace fender.  

The result is mindful of the elaborate carving on the mantel, and formal presentation of the fireplace.  Not every mantel asks for holiday garland that goes to the floor.  We will add a fresh and decorated wreath to the space above the fireplace, just before the event.  That wreath will be concolor and noble fir; both of these greens keep indoors over the course of the holiday. 

The fresh fir garland over the front door will stay fresh, given that the air temperature is cold.  The glass ornaments have had their caps glued on, to keep moisture out.  Not seen in this picture, a massive second story overhang supported by columns that will protect the glass from too much exposure to the weather.  The pots at the front door-this we will do next week.  This holiday project is well underway.

The Glamorous Bits

I had a comment some days ago from a reader named Carol.  She wondered if I could talk about some ideas for adding some glamorous bits to winter containers.  Ilex verticillata, or Michigan holly, is my first choice for a glamorous addition to a winter container or garland.  That said, I find the berries on the holly will wither and fall like crazy, unless they are treated with Vaporguard.  Vaporguard is an antidessicant, much stronger and more effective than Wiltpruf.  I have some first hand experience with this.  Holly we sprayed with vaporguard was effective on those berries through February of last year.   

Without an antidessicant spray, holly berries will drop, and drop early.  These orange holly berries are new to me; we sprayed them upon delivery.  Paired with red bud pussy willow, there is a lot going on here visually.  The color is beautiful.  If you live in Michigan, you know that our winter color palette is about grey, more grey, and a dry brown.  This color is juicy, and saturated.  Glamorous.  Crabapples can fruit heavily, but even the “fruit persistent” varieites will drop, or be raided by birds early in the winter.  I would recommend seeking a little glam from other sources.  


Rob collects materials, and takes them outside to look at them.  He may revise his choices 5 times, before he commits to anything.  The big idea here-hold all of your materials in your arms, and decide if you are crazy about what you see.  If a combination seems to fall flat, keep looking. 

Rob finally decided on the following-the orange berries and bleached leaves contrast dramatically. Breathtaking, this.  The tall bleached sticks strongly contrast in form with the grey branched hackberry stems.  The combination of colors and forms here is truly beautiful.  


 This combination of materials lit from within by a string of garland lights-garden evening wear.  Garland lights?  We stock strands of lights that have 300 bulbs set in a 17 foot length.  This makes for lots of fire power, and not so much cord.  This is my light string of choice for winter containers.   For the holiday or winter season, turn up the heat.  Make a plan to light up the night.  It may be your most glamorous gesture comes at night.  I encourage all of my clients to light their winter pots, and keep the lights on all winter.  Why not?  That light is cheery, hopeful- dramatic.      

I am having a milkweed seed pod year-that grey and honey brown coloration is beautiful; the shapes of the pods on the stems-even more beautiful.  Were I to glam up these dry stems, I might choose platinum branches.  These are birch branches, sprayed a subtle silvery grey.  These branches can add a little sparkle to a milkweed winter arrangement. 

Faux red berries-every gardener hates them.  Until they take them outdoors.  Nested into a centerpiece of branches, they are jewel-like.  No bird will make off with them.  No winter storm will destroy them.  Make no mistake-faux berry stems look their age at the end of the winter season.  They age, as the winter goes on.  This aging is a good look.  They look so much more natural, in that dulled-down state.  But over the holidays to come, they sparkle.  Bright red at the holiday-everyone notices.  

These faux white berries are spaced sparsely on the branches-they have a natural look.  From a distance, they are entirely believable.  Each stem is individually wired.  Move them around.  To insert a branched faux stem into an arrangement without putting your hand to arranging each arm is what makes them look fake, and out of place.  Arrange those faux stems.  

These white berry stems make no effort to copy any real berry stems-but I still like them.  They look great in contemporary arrangements.  They add scale to a more sparse berry stem.  Working several stems together that are the same color can be very effective.  Effective?  Any expression that brings a smile to your face, or warms your heart-effective.  Winter sustenance-decide how you plan to represent this. 

Faux berry stems with sparkling crystal bits can add considerable glamour to you winter arrangements.  The degree to which you want to dress up-this is up to you.  If what the garden leaves behind is enough, there are materials.  If materials suitable for a cocktail party is enough-there are other materials. If a floor length sequinned gown is your idea of celebrating the holiday and winter, there are materials out there.  The materials are out there, for you to choose.  Choose.

Sunday Opinion: Not One Minute To Spare

A landscape company in another state rang me up last week. They do a lot of commercial landscape design and installation.  They have a big maintenance division.  They do holiday decorating for commercial clients on a big scale.  They just purchased a 16,000 square foot building which will better enable them to handle this holiday business-that’s how big their business is.  This particular design principal was interested in developing a retail landscape division.  At this point, I still had no idea why he was calling me. 

He got around to that part.  He was interested in whether I would consult with his company.  More specifically, he was interested in the seasonal containers we do for clients.  He liked them.  Could he arrange for his designers to travel to Michigan, so I could make a presentation?  Could he arrange for me to conduct this consultation in each of the four seasons?  My internal reaction was immediate-could I teach about what I do every day?  Could I adequately teach about what I do during a time when I am so busy?  How could I make time for this?  What would I have to say that would matter?  Who are these people?  Would I have time in the course of a day to meet them, understand something about them, and make a contribution?  All the time these questions are swirling around in my head, I am looking at my calender for a date that might work.

There is nothing surprising about this.  I am a designer, but more importantly, I am a person who tries to facilitate the design process. No design goes on, in my opinion,  unless there is a relationship between a design professional, and a client. I routinely see the results of landscape design lacking that relationship.  Those installations may be impossible to maintain.  They may be incoherent.  They may put lots of effort towards an end the client has no interest in.  They may miss the mark.  When I see landscapes that miss the mark, I look to the designer.  Perhaps they have not taken the time to explain a plan thoroughly.  They may not take the time to disagree with a client.  They may not have taken the time to rethink their design, given the comments of a client.  My idea is to take more responsibility than a client-as well I should.  They come to me for help-do they not?  Relationships-this matters much to me.  This person and company from  another state-could I help him?  This colleague-I had the immediate and initial idea to accomodate him. 

Accomodating a client or colleague-why wouldn’t I?  Their issues are my issues.  A client or colleague- should they have notions that I think warrant intervention, a different point of view,  I will voice that.  My point of view, melded with their point of view-this endows any design project with potential. Residential landscape design, well done, respects the individual, the family, the land, the circumstances-so many things influence design.  As for consulting with another firm, would I have anything to offer? 

A few days ago, a woman came into the shop at 3 minutes to close, who had never been here.  She lives in the immediate neighborhood.  For fifteen years, she has driven by the shop, and never stopped.  Who knows what she thought we were!  The holiday lighting outside encouraged her to park, and come through the doors.  I could tell she was having a perfect moment.  We turned up the music-Handel.  We left her alone.  For 40 minutes, she looked, and studied.  I knew from the look on her face that she was experiencing a perfect moment.  We did not disturb her.  She thanked us for keeping the shop open.

Why am I telling this story?  I knew watching this person see the shop for the first time, that I cannot in good faith consult with other companies.  I have no rules, or recipes to offer. This visit from a new client was not anything I can really explain, or quantify, but her visit meant everything about how and why I do what I do.  From my side, my business is about the people who conduct it-their point of view, their creativity, their passion for the garden, their work.  This cannot be transferred to another time, place, or person.  How Rob shops for the store makes the fifteen years he has spent doing so obvious.  Everything he has seen and done for 15 years informs his choices and opinions.  His eye cannot be transferred elsewhere.  There is no one else like him.  Our clients understand and value this in him.  He treasures their interest, and spends the time it takes to respond in kind.  Any client, old or new- we both like the idea of engagement.      

The upshot of the previous discussion-I realize I really do not have one minute to spare, nor the inclination to consult with another company.  I doubt I could help them, beyond suggesting that they focus on representing their own point of view in the best possible way they can.  There is plenty of room for lots of good design.  Good design needs to come from what is within.  I have people and projects that need my attention.  This what I want to do-pay attention to, and interact with, the people who approach me.  What Rob and I do is very personal.  It is about our place.  It revolves around our singular point of view.  We have clients who like this.  This makes for a life.  The group of us, interacting, describes our day. 

 Rob and I have been here every day, for fifteen years.  We have made it a life’s work to make that experience exceptional.  We cannot imagine what it would be like, to walk into the shop for the first time.  Or the fiftieth time.  But we have pinned all of our hopes and dreams on creating that special experience, for anyone who walks through our doors.   This is our story.