I am not now nor have ever been a flower arranger. Last year, however, I took a lesson in wreath making from designer Louise Kappus. The result pleased me so much that I put up with a lot of teasing because I refused to remove it from our front door until June. It?s now composting in the berm.
It was a simple affair: spruce cuttings as a background with dried amaranth, pomegranates and a big bow to add dash. It looked pretty good. Encouraged by this modest success I?m feeling creative again. Here we are on the cusp of winter when everything in this last incredible flush has made it easy to see what can be whacked back and brought indoors for wreaths and vases.
The cheapest and easiest way to make a wreath is to start with one of those ready-made foam and metal forms. But, if you have the patience, a simple homemade form can be made by using a pail, or any object the size you need, to draw a circle on a board. Bang nails around the circle and wind pliable vines such as Virginia creeper and wild grape in a crazy-eights pattern around the nails. Weave loosely enough to lift away from the nail form and, voila, you have a good looking base. These things last for years and you can change the add-ons every season.
As I cast my eye around the garden, the most dramatic background I can think of are the silvery stems of artemisias such as ?Silver King?, ?Silver Queen? or ?Valerie Finnes?. They should be cut back now anyway especially if they are running wild in your garden. Leave enough, however, to hold the snow for winter patterns.
Another background plant is ivy. It moves steadily about the garden and I keep hacking it back to keep the new young growth apparent. I view it as a resource always available for decorating. A simple grape circle covered with ivy is enough to make a graceful welcome on the front door.
To give texture and make a design, nip about taking bits and pieces from shrubs and vines (don?t strip them they are essentially there for birds to eat). Bittersweet, an incredibly rampant vine I could strangle myself for planting in such a small garden, is now part of the glorious autumn bounty. The orange bead-like berries have split open and they look like jewels. Callicarpa or Beauty berry is probably one of the most decorative of all garden shrubs with its magnificent deep rosy-lilac berries can also be added. Cotoneaster with bright red berries is another good one. As is Ampelopsis, or porcelain vine, with its delicate turquoise berries for added charm.
If you were smart enough to save and dry the blooms of such lovely plants as yarrow, peonies, tansy and cardoon, these can be added to a wreath. Goldenrod along with Sedum ?Autumn Joy? look perfect together. They will go brown but then so does everything else. Pomegranates are coming on to the market and they dry to a tantalizing colour. Annuals such as celosia and spiky blue salvias also dry surprisingly well.
Ornamental grasses are at their supreme moment right now and look magnificent alone in a vase or with sedums added for a superb combination. To adorn a wreath, cut grasses into 30 cm lengths. Wire into a bundle and then attach halfway along the wreath so that stems hang down one side and the seedheads point upwards.
The newest wrinkle, to me, is a living wreath. In this case you start with the commercial foam base of sphagnum moss and soil and you add wonderful container plants such as echeverias, sempervivums (a.k.a. Hens-and-chicks), sedums and any the other succulents you can find in the garden or florist shops. But you must keep them watered. The effect is dazzling and it?s a great way to add to the number of plants you have.
Echeveria is a wonderful frost-tender annual and this is a great way to re-cycle them. Sedums are hardy and cutting off a bit and sticking it into soil re-establishes them very quickly. Try S. acre, S. spurium and S. spathulifolium which you?ll find lurking somewhere about the garden. Even that dusty old jade plant on the top shelf can be re-formed into a wreath.
All you need to do with any of these plants is to take a 5 to 7.5 cm cutting from the tip of a branch. With plants such as echeveria and sempervivums just take some of the little ?chicks? they throw off and use them in the design.
There are lots of books on the market on how to make wreaths and I was charmed by The Living Wreath by Teddy Colbert, Gibbs Smith, Publisher.
Originally published: October 24, 1998. Globe & Mail.