By Paige Patterson
It’s definitely winter out there. The skin on the sides of my fingers has cracked painfully and the house is filled with the incense of hardwood fires. We’ve been digging deep in the basement freezer to get Art and Stacy Ludlow’s veal stew meat up and simmering and although there’s still leeks in the veggie garden, the rest of the outside world doesn’t seem that inviting.
Nonsense! There’s great stuff out there, you just have to know how to think about it. First, rip out those pathetic remains from your flower pots. I know, I know, I have geraniums with a few pathetic blooms still staggering along too. Either put them out of their misery or bring them inside, we have plans for those containers. You can either go trolling around nurseries for unusual plants to stick in there for the winter (which will have to be planted out in the garden in the spring — a good way to get dwarf evergreens into your life) or you have to bundle up and grab your trusty clippers.
Outside we’re on the hunt for three things. Shape. Texture. Color. It’s out there, you just have to change the way you see your surroundings to recognize it. I go for branches first. Like those of my “out of control and way too close to the house” Southern Magnolia. Four of those clipped at three-foot lengths would be a perfect start for each of my planters. I’d make sure I got a few with seed pods still attached and if I was feeling really brave I’d cut 10-foot tall ones for either side of the fireplace in the living room in two amazing tall glass vases I’ve had forever.
Sticking with twiggy things, look for those that either have a) an interesting shape i.e. grape vines, contorted hazel or willow b) those with leaves attached still i.e. beeches or magnolia and c) those that have color i.e. birch and red twig dogwood. These are all great verticals you’ll need either in your planters or in your arrangements inside. Next come the branches of greenery.
You are going to use these everywhere. To stuff into the bottom of your flower pots to hide the soil and to give a base to the branches that you’ve installed, to give more dimension to your store bought wreath, to fill vases in the living room, to stick into oasis and make candle rings with and anyplace else you feel needs a little enlivening. I love the way pieris (andromeda) tips with the buds look in my arrangements but I know that by cutting these now I will have no flowers in the spring so I use them sparingly. On a dresser or around a candlestick or at the top of a stocking. Cryptomeria is also a great cutting plant. As are all the cypresses. And the lowly juniper is great staged like two crossed arms above a doorway.
Skewered with wild rose hips it’s a thing of beauty. So don’t limit yourself to the white pine and firs and spruces that are the traditional greenery you see everywhere. Think euonymus not just holly. Think boxwood (if you can bear to cut them) think yew … think anything that’s still green. Hellebore leaves. Nandina. I set the table the other night with a centerpiece of fresh cut parsley around a few left over green roses from a gift bouquet and it looked and smelled perfect.
Next we’re thinking color. If you have a red twig dogwood you are way ahead of the game. If you have one that is a fiery orange I am extremely jealous — these are even better than my magnolia branches. If you have any not to worry, we have hollies to steal from and bittersweet to unfurl from trees and berries to look for. I covet my neighbors Ilex verticillata but the deer demo’d mine so instead I check out the viburnum, and if you have ash trees you are in luck as those berries last forever. Pyracantha. If you don’t have it you must get some, it’s brilliant and loaded with berries in tight little clusters like chocolate chips in good cookies. Even some of the smaller fruiting crab apples have their fruits still attached and would look startling all by themselves in a tall elegant vase. And sometime a lack of color adds the punch you are looking for. White snowberries (symphoricarpos) with variegated boxwood and Bosc apples make a excellent still life arrangement in a dark green container. It’s all just about experimentation so go out there and try out some combinations. You don’t even have to use a vase. Just lay everything out on a runner that bisects the table and have fun.
And finally, there’s our favorite secret weapon. Spray paint.
I know it sounds insane to be pushing spray paint in a gardening column but gold paint on dried beech leaves still clinging to their branches makes a centerpiece of cut greens amazing. Or try silver or white. Use it on acorns or pinecones and pile them in long trays on the center of the table. Seed pods also are transformed by spray paint. And since I’m a glitter girl, I’d also say there’s nothing wrong with a dusting of green glitter along the edges of a bunch of nigella seed heads or pinecones rolled in glue. It’s very Martha.
That said one of my favorite mantlepieces I ever saw was created with bayberry branches stripped to leave just the silvery bruised berries woven among layers of small driftwood pieces all illuminated by three white candles in three excessively tall and tiny candlesticks. It was fantastic.
Be creative. It’s the season for it. Go to the beach and pick up 300 pure white rocks and use them as a centerpiece. Take those brussels sprouts from the cook and wire them into an arrangement with azalea leaves that have turned maroon with the cold. Cut kale and use it as a place card by writing on it with a paint pen. Be crazy. Bring your rosemary tree inside and hang ornaments on it for a change.
The other day a hunter showed me wild turkey tail feathers which would look amazing tucked into an arrangement of gold painted pine cones and gathered seed heads surrounded by a swirl of bittersweet. I have big plans for those feathers.
Paige Patterson loves the way the cornstalks dry in the field but has never figured out a way to cut and display them without it looking ridiculous.