Seasonal holiday centerpiece design

by Debra Prinzing on December 7, 2010

in Florists and Floral Designers,How We Did It,The Book Project

Beyond greenery . . .

Red twigs, Ilex berries, cones, pine boughs, glossy magnolia leaves and a rustic wooden box.

It’s easy and affordable to create holiday centerpieces using greenery from the garden, branches that storms have knocked from huge conifers and anything you’ve wild-gathered from the forest floor. This year, why not use even more of nature’s seasonal ingredients and gather a bouquet using uncommon fruit, branches and broad-leaf evergreens?  

That’s exactly how dozens of floral enthusiasts created their holiday centerpieces at two recent hands-on design classes I taught at Ravenna Gardens in the Seattle area. 

Made from weathered, reclaimed boards, the 6-by-9 inch boxes are just perfect for a tabletop creation.

Working with an exciting selection of wintry foliage, branches and berries, we designed lovely arrangements to grace tabletops, mantels and counters during December festivities. The added bonus: Each participant took home her one-of-a-kind design in a rustic wooden box, custom-made for us by craftsman John Akers.

For our Rustic Woodland Centerpiece, we used only cut ingredients. Here are the steps:

1. Select the foundation greenery you want to work with. Examples include draping branches and boughs of cedar, pine, juniper or hemlock. These pieces will create a soft collar around the opening of your box. They can be layered for an abundant affect.

2. Insert loosely-formed balls of poultry fencing (aka “chicken wire”) into your container to form a cage for holding stems. You can use one large piece or a few smaller pieces. I also like to mound the balled-up wire a bit higher than the container opening to give my design some dimension and height. The wire holds the stems and branches in place and is a sustainable alternative to florist foam. It isn’t toxic and it can be used again and again.

On a recent Saturday morning, floral students used artistry and personal style to design holiday centerpieces.

3. After inserting the greenery base material, add colorful, textural and decorative elements, layering to build up the design and make it full:           

  • Cut material can include: Rose hips, red and yellow-twig dogwood branches, curly willow branches, ilex/holly berries, variegated holly, variegated or golden boxwood, magnolia foliage, eucalyptus branches – and anything you glean from your own garden or walks around the neighborhood.
  • Fruit ingredients add a polish and unexpected accent to the design. Using wooden skewers or floral picks (available at craft stores), integrate pretty seasonal fruit such as Lady Apples or kumquats. Miniature artichokes, pomegranates and other firm fruits or vegetables can also be given this treatment.
  • Nature’s ingredients add a dreamy, storybook feeling to your holiday decorating theme: pine cones and other cones, lichen, moss, seed pods or dried grasses can all be added with the same technique of wire or wooden picks.
  • As for cut flowers, use them with restraint. If the flower is seasonal to the garden or locally-grown, it will look appropriate (I’m  thinking of hellebores or possibly early camellia blossoms). The trick is to prove to yourself that you don’t even need conventional cut flowers in your design.
  • You can also use moss sheeting to hide any bits of wire and give the design a finishing touch.     

Here is a sample of the elements we used. We tried to keep our selections as local and seasonal as possible. The “local” sources include greenery and some of the cut ingredients (the hypericum and eucalyptus) from Oregon; Lady apples and red twig dogwood from Washington; Kumquats and possibly the magnolia leaves from California. Recycled wood boxes from John Akers in Seattle. The Ilex probably traveled from the East Coast, but thankfully, everything we used is domestically sourced.

One student brought dried hydrangea flowers from her garden to incorporate with greenery and fruit.

Color tips:

            Monochromatic: Since the foundation of your design is probably going to be greenery,  stay sophisticated with this arrangement and use only green and white ingredients. Incorporate various shades of green, as well as variegated foliage and white decorative elements. 

            Traditional/Festive: Red-and-green is a classic combination. Use an array of red material (twigs, hips, berries, Lady Apples) to pair with the greenery. 

            Modern:Use a surprising color accent or combination, such as pairing bright orange kumquats with the magnolia leaves (which have a bronzy, velvet finish on the underside). The fruit can be attached to small picks and inserted as clusters or distributed an overall pattern. The leaves should be gathered in small bunches and wired at the stem before attaching to a pick and inserting. Get more impact by clustering the leaves together. 

            Tonal: Blue-on-blue is another uncommon holiday palette. Use juniper branches with bright blue berries (Viburnum tinus is another garden shrub that often produces pretty blue fruit). Then add blue-green eucalyptus branches – the flattened leaves and almost chalky texture are a great complement to the evergreen material. Decorate with whimsical accents (figures, accents or candles).

Add an ornament or small figure, such as this miniature bird.

Composition tips: Treat this design just as if you were creating a planted container or a bed/border in the garden. Balance fine textures with rough ones; smooth textures with feathery ones; small shapes with larger shapes. Make sure each element can be seen individually and appreciated for its unique beauty.

Care tips: 

1. Always use fresh, room-temperature or slightly cooler water in a clean vessel.

2. Cut flower, foliage and other stems with clean floral shears or a sharp knife. Cut at a 45-degree angle to increase the surface area that will “drink” vase water.

3. Remove foliage from the portion of the stem that will be under water.

4. The best way to extend the life of your arrangement is to display the vase in a cool area away from direct sunlight. Change the vase water every day or two. If you have time to re-cut the stems (only cut 1/4-1/2 inch from the bottom), you will also help the arrangement to last longer. Remove random spoiled stems to prevent them from spreading bacteria to the rest of the design.

A note about flower preservative. I don’t use it myself, because I’m trying to avoid chemically-based products. But you may wish to experiment with a small amount of water-soluble preservative.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Jennifer Bartley December 7, 2010 at 9:25 am

Really great! I used to make wreaths and arrangements as a child from the greens, dried grasses and berries in our yard…. still doing it. Thanks for the inspiration.

Nancy Finnerty December 9, 2010 at 12:24 pm

Great piece Deb! Inspiring! Another foliage favorite of mine – abundant in my garden is “dusty miller”


Taty de Mendoza December 21, 2010 at 7:01 am

thanks! there are so many things to learn…

commonweeder January 7, 2011 at 5:33 am

What a useful site this is. Thank you. Can’t wait for the book.

Natasha Madison May 17, 2012 at 12:19 am

As I’m committing to approaching my love of flowers and floral design from a sustainable perspective, I’m doing a staggering amount of research Every couple of days I’ll google something, like today my search was sustainable alternatives to floral foam, and your blog pops up! Thanks for helping to guide my path and keeping me encouraged on the journey. I love your work and appreciate your insight.

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