No one ever called me a nimble-fingered crafts maker. My prospects dimmed as a ten-year-old Cub Scout when our Den mother taught us how to make ashtrays. My parents, appreciative smokers, kept my folded metal art piece for years. My mother pretended it was museum worthy. No one dared soil it with cigarette butts, but the truth was apparent. My art piece gave minimalism a bad name.

A propitious time arrived to try my hand at crafts again.

Jamie Dockery invited a few friends to his small farm near Salvisa in central Kentucky in early December to make Christmas wreaths and centerpieces. Jamie is the Horticultural Extension Agent for Fayette County, in nearby Lexington, and an extraordinary gardener and artist.

As much I wish I could have been in Great Dixter’s Great Hall in East Sussex for a wreath workshop this month, there was no place I would rather have been than on Jamie Dockery’s farm on a sunny and crisp December afternoon. Nowhere else could you go crafty—stuffing decorative stems in floral blocks—adjacent to an aviary, surrounded by little cows, little goats, little pigs, little donkeys, and a blue-bottle tree—near the palisades of the Kentucky River.

God Bless The Wreath Book

Until Rob Pulleyn’s publication of The Wreath Book in 1988, wreathing had often been humdrum—pines, spruce, fir or boxwood finished off with a few pinecones and a red bow. Pulleyn told me last week that his Sterling/Lark Press was nearly broke, when, in desperation, he brainstormed with colleagues and came up with a Hail Mary book idea, with chapters devoted to over 100 wreaths including Harvest Wreaths, Herbal Wreaths, Scented Wreaths, Culinary Wreaths, even Wearable Wreaths. The book was written and photographed within weeks. The Wreath Book sold over ten million copies and was translated into six languages. There are numerous copycats, but Pulleyn’s book broke the mold. He confessed his tombstone will one day read: “God Bless The Wreath Book.”

Jamie Dockery has been dabbling in wreaths and centerpieces for decades

His early inspiration came in childhood, foraging with family friends each year in South Central Kentucky for ingredients to make a four-foot wreath. “Deck the halls with boughs of holly” took on new meaning when Jamie bought his Salvisa farm 15 years ago. His supply chain for wreaths and centerpieces was now at hand. Jamie started adding a spiked buck skull, turkey feathers, wild mushrooms, and whatever he could find walking in his fields, woods, and garden.

The S Curve

Okra seed pods

Jamie Dockery and Diesel

There was nothing too peculiar or controversial for Jamie’s students on this December day. Piles of stems, dried seed heads, pinecones, and hand clippers were positioned. His offering included branches of junipers, golden Chamaecyparis, Taxus, evergreen hollies, red-twigged dogwood, dried hydrangeas, plus red berried stems of deciduous hollies.

I brought a few candidates—dark green mottled arrow-shaped Arum leaves and colorful leaves from the clumping bamboo, Sasa veitchii, that dried quickly from bright green to olive-colored with sepia-colored edges.

Jamie mildly scolded me for bringing dried stems of native Chasmanthium latifolium, northern sea oats. “For chrissakes,” he said, “this has seeded half of Fayette County.”

Northern sea oats are prolific seeders.

“Well, the cows will eat the sea oats,” he shrugged.

We went to work

We went to work. I was apprehensive and waited for a critique. Jamie said this was not life or death competition. I wasn’t sure. It had been a six-decades-long layoff since I made an ashtray. How many more chances would I have to prove myself crafts proficient? Jamie offered little advice besides telling us to arrange the pieces the way you imagine they might grow. The maestro kept reminding us: “Cover the pants.”  We covered the bases of our centerpieces.

Someone shouted, “No caroling!” Someone else added: “No singing Chipmunks.”

We stayed focused on the outdoor assembly line—sort of. Jamie, genius OCD and all, told me later that it was useless to go drill sergeant with this group. He let us run amok. “It was anarchy and chaos,” he said.

My mother would have been proud.

We spent little more than an hour playing creative before sitting down to break bread. Matt, a chef by trade, brought a delicious vegetarian chili—sweet on the front end with a subtle afterburn on the backend.

We poked our heads into the aviary and wandered around the garden and farm.

The sun was setting; the moon was rising.

Everyone said goodbye; we offered thanks.

Days later I realized Jamie had set us up. I hadn’t anticipated the beautiful afternoon, his stagecraft, or the magical rural realm he had envisioned.

Jamie Dockery knows what he is doing.