“Wow, that centerpiece looks good enough to be in a magazine. I wish I could put together something half that beautiful. I usually just plop some hydrangeas in a vase – pretty, but totally unimaginative.” That's what I said to my friend and talented designer, Trace, last spring. It was late February, when buds are swollen on bare branches and hyacinth flowers are only a promise, and I loved how the centerpiece celebrated that feeling of anticipation. Trace replied, “Thanks. It’s not that hard; I could teach you.” Thus began my yearlong training, learning how to create impressive centerpieces and tablescapes for every season.
My first lesson began immediately as Trace discussed this spring-themed centerpiece. “I got the idea when I saw those spectacular lichen- and moss-encrusted logs on the side of the road. The different heights add a sense of movement and excitement to the centerpiece. Place the items casually, as you would see them outside, and continue the outdoor theme by using rustic place mats and simple napkins and dishes.” Most of the items came from outside his door. The hyacinth bulbs and the peat pots were the only purchased items for a total cost of just $10. The first version of this centerpiece included old bird nests collected from a fencerow, but when a bunch of baby spiders started crawling out, the nests were quickly replaced with twine balls.
Recreate your own: Start by arranging interesting logs cut to various lengths. Add young bulbs and peat pots full of spring blossoms. Trace used hyacinth bulbs and Bradford pear flowers, but daffodils and cherry would work equally well. Use what you have. Tuck small branches, pinecones and moss along the edges.
In mid-May, Trace fashioned this stunning centerpiece using flowers cut from my garden. He gave me some pointers while he worked. “Look at what you group together in the garden. If they complement each other there, they’ll look good in a vase. And play with the form of your vase; here I chose an antique cement urn to contrast with the relaxed arrangement of the flowers. I also like how it looks on this concrete table. You can’t go wrong when you match materials; wood on wood, glass on glass … it always works.”
Early summer arrangement
Recreate your own: Soak floral foam in water overnight and center it in the container. Casually arrange branches of native mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia). Cut the lavender blooms of false indigo (Baptisia spp.) slightly longer and add them to the bouquet.
This centerpiece was amazing, and the pictures do not do it justice. However, when I try this on my own, I’ll do it on a much smaller scale, because it was the most time-consuming project of the year. Trace wanted to mimic a country roadside in the fall when the wildflowers make you want to pull the car over and take a walk. We each spent several hours cutting long stems of goldenrod (Solidago spp.), Liatris and asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); then Trace spent another hour adjusting the lengths and arranging.
Fall wildflower centerpiece
Recreate your own: Laws and ordinances regarding picking roadside flowers vary from state to state, and we’re not suggesting illegal activity, but if you live in an area that allows it, cut what you see. Be a good gardener, however, and don’t weaken a plant by over-cutting. Use an informal container such as this dough bowl, which is lined with plastic wrap and aluminum foil to protect it from the floral foam. Cover the foam with the shortest plants, the asters and grasses, and then add the longer stems of liatris and goldenrod. The trick is to use the same color combinations and height variations, and ideally the same plants that you would see on a ride in the country.
By fall, I knew a lot more about centerpieces, and Trace thought it was time I learned how a centerpiece for a dinner party differs from other centerpieces. He charged tuition for this class – a big pot of chili. “It’s important to keep the arrangement low. There’s nothing worse than having to play peek-a-boo around a tall centerpiece when you want to talk to someone across the table. Keep it narrow so guests don’t feel crowded, and make sure the food is the only fragrant thing on the table. Don’t let anything compete with the centerpiece; it needs to look good with everything else on the table: the dishes, the napkins, the china, the linens … everything.” He used four different, yet similar, china patterns, and when he ran out of placemats, he fashioned his own using grapevine left over from the centerpiece. It was a relaxed gathering and the centerpiece matched the mood.
Fall formal centerpiece
Recreate your own: A crowd of pumpkins with unique textures and colors serves as the backbone of this centerpiece. Varieties such as ‘Rouge Vif d’Etampes’, ‘Galeuse d’Eysines’, the bluish gray ‘Jarrahdale’, or ‘Musquee de Provence’ are good candidates. Or use interesting squash such as ‘Fairy’, ‘Sweet Dumpling’, ‘Turban’ or ‘Potimarron’. Wind dried grapevines around the pumpkins; add red berries, groundsel tree flowers (Baccharis halimifolia) and Eleagnus foliage.
For this, the easiest of the centerpieces, Trace combined logs and branches into a minimalist piece of art, and then transitioned it for Christmas with a few simple additions. He says, “This is the most versatile of the arrangements we’ve done. An attention-grabber inside or out, I use arrangements like this by an entryway or as a fireplace accent.”
Arrangement for winter into holidays
Recreate your own: Hunt for interesting logs and branches then arrange them to suit the space. Absolutely anything, from a large glass vase to an old galvanized bucket, works as a container. Alternatively, you can skip the container completely and just tie the bundle with a natural twine or a strip of burlap.
At Christmas, the everything-must-work-together rule was expanded from just the tabletop to all the decorations. Repeated elements tie things together, but too much repetition is boring. Trace knows how to walk the fine line between the two. He started with a large Noble fir tree where glass ornaments mingle with more natural elements. I recognized the large twine balls from February’s centerpiece. They looked great on the tree, as did the grapevine from the fall centerpiece.
Magnolia leaves and Noble fir branches cut from the bottom of the tree are components of most of Trace’s decorations, but to varying degrees. The three outdoor centerpieces used Noble fir, Loropetalum and cedar, but they were mostly magnolia.
On the dining room table, it was just the opposite, mainly Noble fir with a bit of magnolia mixed in. And whereas outside, the foliage took center stage, naturally shed antlers were the unique focal point in the dining room centerpiece. My favorite Christmas decoration was the little fir tree topped with dried blooms of Hydrangea paniculata. Did you notice those peat pots tucked in the branches? They’re left over from the February centerpiece.
We asked our editor for an extension under the pretense that a New Year’s Eve centerpiece would be a great way to end the article. Actually, we just wanted an excuse for another party. It was a small gathering of good friends, and Trace’s centerpiece was bright and shiny to celebrate the New Year, and yet relaxed and simple to match the mood. I thought the lesson here might be that sometimes it’s OK to break the rules and use an even number of objects, but when I asked Trace about it, he replied, “Well, actually I spray painted five bottles. The last one was drying on the porch when I jumped in the shower. Then I got busy and totally forgot about it.” So the real lessons are start early and don’t worry if things aren’t perfect.
New Year's Eve centerpiece
Recreate your own: Look outside for interesting twigs, branches, roots or other items, and spray paint them metallic silver. If you don’t have mercury glass votives and vases, do what Trace did and make your own. Work outside if possible; you don’t want that smell lingering when guests arrive. Collect glass items and spray the interiors with mirror paint. While they are still wet, squirt with water and either dry upside down or lightly wipe. Use the same technique for the outside of the wine bottles. Arrange small bouquets of white roses and tulips in your hand, re-cut the stems and add the twigs. Create a dense arrangement by grouping things tightly.
I’m sad that my year of training with the master is over. Researching an article has never been so much fun. Hmmm … maybe next year Trace can teach me something else.
• Repeating elements from your centerpiece, create small, coordinating arrangements in bathrooms or tucked into bookshelves.
• Let fallen petals lie.
• Don’t skimp when you are cutting. It usually takes more than you think.
• Press beautiful leaves and use a paint pen to make unique place cards.
• Tie fresh rosemary around napkins to serve as a natural napkin ring.
• Just as you should always plant in odd numbers – 3, 5, 7 – always use odd numbers of elements.
A version of this article appeared in a March 2014 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography by Peggy Hill and Monica Hill.