I’m into table decorating. Always have been. If you give me a table and an hour, and put someone else in charge of stirring the balsamic reduction, I am in my happy place.
Somewhere between my twenties and now, table decorations have become ‘tablescapes’, and I can’t disagree with the term – creating a gorgeous table design is very similar to creating a landscape. Contrast. Texture. Color. Surprise. You just have a lot less time.
But, if you work with what you have, you also have a lot less financial outlay. And despite what you may think, this is very possible over the late fall and winter months. Recently, a quick family trip to California bolstered by an autumn seminar put my foraging to the test.
Even though I’ve got a stellar record for last minute creations, my mother was not optimistic.
“There’s nothing out there right now!” she yelled after me as I threw on a fleece, grabbed some pruners and a plastic lettuce tub off the washing machine, and headed outside to her November garden. A last-minute family gathering was demanding something for the table. But what?
The lilies and zinnia were gone; the lavender, so over; and even in a California climate, the late roses were very late indeed – in fact, fully expired. I was possessed of three identical thrift store vases, two enthusiastic nieces, and forty-five minutes ‘till dinner hit the table.
Theme: Shock and Awe. Materials: Whatever the hell I could find. Attitude: Confident.
There’s Always Something Out There
In fairness, I’d had help with my bad-ass attitude. Just before I’d left to visit family on the West Coast, I’d had my creative courage fortified by an afternoon’s entertaining seminar at Glenstone Gardens, a Virginia events estate nearby.
The creation of gorgeous tables exemplifying November gratitude and December joy was very much the point of the afternoon, but there was one major theme running through all – a foraged aesthetic.
It’s the aesthetic and attitude I adore, and one that I live by; but despite this, it’s secretly pleasing to get a bit of validation by designers who do it for a living.
As clear autumnal sunshine shimmered off an elegantly laid table of bone china and tag sale finds, top floral stylist Shawn Cossette of Beehive Events and Augusta Cole of Augusta Cole Events, empowered attendees with a foraged materials approach based on a central message of self-trust.
“Don’t think about each element too much, just have fun.” said Cossette, as a sophisticated distillation of the surrounding countryside came together under her hands.
“Amen.” I whispered under my breath.
Bronze ninebark. Privet berries. Frothy snakeroot and colorful begonia leaves. A single green apple. The theme felt fresh, rustic, and small ‘A’ authentic.
Of course, in December, the base textures of the palette will change. Ninebark becomes juniper, begonias give way to the clippings off your Leyland cypress, or the scavenged fir branches from Christmas tree lots – and berries, fruits, and seed heads begin to take center stage.
Allow Yourself To Play
A foraged aesthetic is a little terrifying for those who follow the rules of symmetry, perfection and luxury; but as most of us have a hard time competing in that space anyway (either creatively or financially), such rigid parameters are equally terrifying. We are likely to stare at the blank table before us like a 9th grade writing prompt, tempted to play it safe and fall back on a passable grade with traditional elements that say ‘formal’ but whisper ‘predictable.’
Instead, we must lean into the season’s bounty in all its imperfection. Whether it’s frost-mottled rose hips or pinecones missing a scale or two, “differences create engagement in a table” says Cole, who enjoys delighting her clients with the strategic placement of a few hero elements amongst the treasured and the familiar.
That could be brightly colored knife handles to pep up the family silver, the choice of beeswax candles over plain white, or a few purchased floral components to enhance a textured, playful vision straight from the garden.
Recreate the Outside, Inside
At the seminar, Cossette worked quickly from a large bucket of materials harvested from her garden and a friend’s earlier that morning. She showed attendees how to strip the bottom leaves of vivid blueberry stems and make fresh, slanted cuts on yellowing hydrangea foliage with a small paring knife to enable more water uptake.
She turned some leaves to face in, some to face out, and added plenty of spill, aided by a grid of floral tape placed over the opening of her green ceramic vessel.
“It’s tempting to use your favorite elements first. Don’t.” she advised. “Give them the best position at the end.”
Are you (like my mother), having trouble seeing the possibilities? Cossette recommends comfortable clothing, a glass of wine and favorite music might be all you need to start visualizing the fabulous in foraged.
I also find that, if I’m giving an evening dinner party, playing with the tablescape in the morning (when pressure is less and I have a cup of coffee in hand), makes it so much more enjoyable because I’m always in charge of dinner too, and by the time I’ve finished that, I have about six and a half minutes to shower and change out of my sweats.
When finished (or nearly so) I throw a large sheet over the entire thing to stop dust and pet hair from ruining everything. If I can pull myself together to do most of my tablescaping the night before, there’s definitely red wine and a Christmas movie marathon involved.
Love Actually anyone?
A Happy Ending, With Little Outlay
Determined to celebrate the often-overlooked in the scrub and wild spaces of my mother’s garden on that day in November, my nieces and I clipped toyon berries and smooth manzanita branches. We cut privet, sagebrush and rosemary, and gathered windfall apples. The youngest insisted on the foxtails that had once infested my socks as a child, and her sister grabbed the pruners to cut a few sprays of spiny scrub oak foliage and the last of the blanket flowers.
Twenty-five minutes of play later, the table looked miraculous. Trust yourself. Have fun and don’t aim for perfection. That’s sort of the point. – MW