Finding materials for holiday arrangements in the winter garden is like a scavenger hunt. Though the garden is shutting down for the year, you can still use it as a backyard larder for holiday decorating staples if you add ingenuity and imagination. Still, decorating with debris can involve trial and error (be prepared to vacuum the rugs). So just collect your foliage, berries, ornamental grasses, lichen-covered branches, and pine cones, and then add some inexpensive and long-lasting carnations or mums for color, and you have a centerpiece for almost nothing, with that homemade, home-grown holiday feeling.
For Thanksgiving, supplement your arrangements with attractive fruits and vegetables from the supermarket.The longest-lasting floral elements are potted flowering plants. Buy 4-inch pots of poinsettias, cyclamen, or narcissus. If you buy kalanchoe when it is just starting to show color, it will bloom the longest of anything. These can be clustered on a tray and heaped with natural materials to hide the pots. But Stephens takes the plants out of their pots (after watering) and tucks the root balls into little bags he makes from heavy-duty, black trash bags, then seals them with a wire garbage bag twist. This gives him more design versatility.
The New England Wild Flower Society in Framingham cautions against harvesting wild plants. Slow-growing princess pine clubmoss (Lycopodium obscurum), often used in garlands, is now listed as threatened. NEWFS also warns that using invasive species might spread them. One of the worst is Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), often collected by arrangers for its cheerful orange and yellow berries, each of which can start a new colony of tree-strangling vines. Purple barberry (Berberis thungergii) and the small, plentiful rosehips of wild Rosa multiflora are others to avoid.
When decorating for the long haul, avoid using produce outdoors or it will quickly rot. Pumpkins, winter squash, and corncobs are exceptions. Though cornstalks are a theme for both Thanksgiving and Kwanzaa (where one ear of corn is displayed for each child in the house), don't hang these on your front door unless you want to turn it into a bird feeder.
2. Decorating for Thanksgiving
For Halloween, it's the jack-o'-lantern. For Christmas, it's the Christmas tree. For Thanksgiving, it's the dining room table that's the focus of holiday spirit.
So how can you decorate a table that will be covered with serving dishes? Is there really going to be any room for even a centerpiece by the time you've laid out the mashed potatoes, Auntie Em's stuffing, and 10 other hot dishes?
Americans' great harvest festival is certainly a paean to plenty. After all, it began in Plymouth in 1621 as a feast to celebrate the survival of the Pilgrims (well, half of them) after a terrible first year of starvation and disease. Today, most of us are more familiar with unwanted weight gain than true hunger. Still, heaping the dining table with comfort foods until its legs buckle remains a cherished Thanksgiving tradition.
In most cases, ornamental arrangements that plan to stay for dinner had better be petite and discreet, or they'll get bumped off the table by the turkey and banished to the sideboard.
One alternative is to make an edible centerpiece. Arrange layers of delectibles on a multi-armed heirloom silver etagere from Shreve Crump & Low, or in a humble wooden bowl. Either way, food is the theme. Centerpieces heaped with fruits and nuts can be deconstructed slowly by reunited family members (or unstoppable conversationalists) who want to linger and commune after the rest of the table has been cleared.