Charlotte Kidd, M. Ed. is a writer, professional gardener, garden designer and garden coach in Southeastern Pennsylvania. She does horticultural programs for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and the Philadelphia International Flower Show. She’s a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Garden Writers Association. Contact her at

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Floral Arranging American Style
by Charlotte Kidd       #Crafts   #Decorating   #Flowers

White House Chief Floral Designer Laura Dowling arranges a holiday bouquet in the Vermeil Room of the White House last December.
(Official White House photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Is it a bit cheeky to think I can create bouquets like White House Chief of Floral Design Laura Dowling after hearing her speak once? Foolish, perhaps. Fun, certainly.

In early October, Dowling was delightfully inspiring as she talked about her New American Garden Style of Floral Arrangement at The American Horticulture Society’s headquarters at River Farm, Alexandria, Virginia. I’ve since been trying my hand at flower arranging—following Ms. Dowling’s approach—to make us feel as if we’re “in the garden” in a style that’s “soft, approachable…casual elegance using flowers from gardens, forests.”

For Christmas cheer, this centerpiece is of gathered materials—Camellias, Osmanthus sp., holly with red berries, pine needles, pine cones, bare branches and a decorative wrought iron piece.

With that in mind and pruners in hand, I visited friends’ gardens for plant material—holly, Osmanthus spp., pine boughs, pine cones, bare branches, camellias, roses, ornamental grass, seed pods and vines from around Philadelphia and suburbs. I also purchased my first glue gun and found a store clerk who shared tips for using it safely.

Let’s take a minute and compare notes. Dowling is an artist and floral designer extraordinaire. She was appointed White House Chief of Floral Design in early November 2009 at after a most friendly meeting with First Lady, Michele Obama.

I, on the other hand, was closest to the White House in the early 1970s, marching against the Vietnam War.

Dowling is French-inspired, having studied l’art du bouquet at L’Ecole des Fleurs, the French flower school in Paris. She shares “Secrets of the French Style” on her website, Laura Dowling’s L’Art du Bouquet includes a blog, clever ideas such as “Spuds and Buds” for St. Patrick’s Day, wedding style, and a portfolio of gorgeous, sophisticated bouquets—classic yet contemporary chic with a touch of whimsy. Her shop, Interieurs et Fleurs, is in the D.C. area.

Moi? I spent four days in Paris—rather slept there after exciting, exhausting day trips to Versaille, Giverney, Chinon and Villandry. I have no shop. My not-so-up-to-date website features gardens I’ve designed and gardening tips. In short, no experience in flower arranging, though eager for opportunity and knowledge.

Dowling is an early riser—up at 6 a.m. She’s in her office between 8 and 9a.m. to check and water the White House flowers. Though she has staff, she still makes 50 to 100 designs each week. She leaves 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue at 9 p.m. and works more at home. To that I can attest. She graciously emailed me at 8:49 p.m. on Thanksgiving eve.

“Flowers are essential to our sense of happiness and well-being,” she says. Her designs focus on concept and emotion through balance and composition. She draws on history and culture—Mayan blue and red for a Mexican State Dinner, lemon leaves forming a miniature recreation of historic architectural for a European dinner.

“Flowers set the mood of a place,” Ms. Dowling adds. As First Florist, she reflects the First Lady’s desire for a warm, welcoming, hospitable ambiance. She creates “quintessentially American” floral arrangements—thoughtful, modern, dynamic, surprising. One example is a “loosened, more relaxed version” of the White House bouquet.

Mums in Kabocha Squash. My Thanksgiving centerpiece featured a yellow spider mum surrounded by rosy dianthus with yellow and burgundy mums in a squat, green Kabocha squash.


The New American Gardening Floral Arrangement Design Elements

Dowling chooses a theme, a concept, “a starting point of view” with “a premium on creativity.” Romance. Holiday. Seasonal. Historical. Cultural. Event such as Earth Day.

My “starting point of view” is a Christmas centerpiece, a New Year’s bouquet.

She begins with a tight structure, usually round, created from wire works or natural materials. Her designs emerge “from the garden” through organic elements that anchor—clusters of berries, braided grasses, folded leaves, wild vines rolled into a shape.

To achieve the “natural feel as if the flowers are growing out of the vase,” she favors “organic containers” of dried fruits, woven grasses, folded leaves, tiny cabbages, flower buds, even cherry tomatoes, buckets covered with coffee beans, clusters of flower stems and more.

Dowling’s defining technique is “swirling greenery for underlying movement, crossing stems, layering of materials as in a field of stems, crossed and blowing.” This is her “new, more natural look, the feeling of being in the garden.”

Laura Dowling’s
Tips for Holiday Decorating

• Holiday arrangements should be festive and expansive. Create volume and impact by establishing a framework of long-lasting seasonal greens such as cedar, pine, juniper and such. Add color and drama by mixing in small pots of winter flowers such as cyclamen, paperwhites or Christmas cactus. Live plants mixed with fresh flowers and winter greens create charming and long-lasting holiday displays.

• Create organic containers with leaves and berries. Magnolia leaves, salal (lemon leaf), cranberries, crabapples and such can be applied with hot glue to simple vases to create unique containers for flowers. These natural containers set off the flowers and create an overall integrated look.

My budget is tight, so I look to recycling supplies on hand. Deadline’s looming. I’ve three evenings to pull this together.

Following Dowling’s lead, I glue clusters of pine needles on red holiday paper covering a medium-sized terra-cotta pot. The look is more loose and floppy than tight. A colorful ribbon circling the pot’s rim becomes an anchor, a focal point. For the New Year’s bouquet, I tack long, wavy locust pods painted gold onto a tall, silver-colored metal flower vase.

She likes a “mix of unusual components—fruits, vegetables, flowers. The bouquet should contain wild elements to create emotional and poetic connection.” Hers have orange halves or cherry tomatoes or artichoke leaves or small cabbages. Her potato and onion wreath with flower buds celebrates St. Patrick’s Day as well as early autumn.

Flowers I can find—pink camellias and cherry red Knock Out™ roses for the Christmas bouquet; red Anthurium sp. from the florist for New Year’s bouquet. Vegetables and fruits? Not so much. Holiday cheeses in the fridge and wine in the pantry don’t count.

For the color element and combinations, Dowling draws inspiration from the book “A Scientific Approach to Color Design.” “Monochromatic is a good starting point,” she advises. Or “two complementary colors.” Or “what goes together in the garden.”

The “Couture,” the finishing touch, ties the bouquet together. “Dancing branches and twining vines”—Virginia creeper, variegated ivy, curly willow, olive branches—also bring flow, lithe, abandon.

I’m leaving momentarily to find Virginia creeper and buy three white tapers—a bit of fire to brighten and heat up the New Year.

Happy Holidays!


Delphinium in Eggplant. My whimsy—Delphinium, broccoli rabe and stems of Miscanthus sp. for height and novelty fill a hollowed-out eggplant for a tall Thanksgiving bouquet.

Ring in the New Year with glitter and mirrors, gold-painted locust pods, red Anthurium sp., silver streamers and ribbon.




Posted: 12/19/11   RSS | Print


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