With our social calendars blank and our party duds in the closet, you would think we might be drawn to boisterous blooms and bows for holiday decor. But lavish looks feel ill-matched to this time of subdued celebration, a bit like Ethel Merman belting out Broadway hits in a cloister.
With reality laid bare, the stark appeal of twigs seems the better choice for decorating this extra-austere season. Twigs aren’t without beauty; at farmers markets, garden centers and floral shops, buckets of branches bristle with color, texture and form. Willow stems can be curly and flame orange. Dogwood is burnished red and yellow. Grapevines do a defiant twist.
Each, when properly arranged, can stick the landing beside entryways or in view of the kitchen window, enlivening barren yards between now and the first spring blooms. And the twigs can do it with an appeal that’s less Mario Buatta chintz and more Scandinavian farmhouse; more pencil line than lavish brushstroke.
“I grew up in Georgia,” says Phil Mueller of Star Valley Flowers, a grower of fruiting, flowering and decorative branches – mainly woody perennials – in Wisconsin. “The ability to see beauty in winter starkness is less developed there.” Now, living in the north, he says he has come to appreciate twigs as a natural botanical element that lasts all winter.
“With twigs, you get instant height,” he says. “The winter season container can be as impactful as for summer.
“I love fantail willow,” he adds. “It’s so weirdly cool. The shape. No stem is the same as another.”
Mueller says it’s important to mass twigs to see the color. And he suggests placing container twig arrangements where they will catch the snow for added interest.
“The birds will land,” he says. “You can watch it interact with the environment.”
In nearby Michigan, Deborah Silver, owner of Detroit Garden Works, is the dean of organic outdoor installations. Her retail shop sells farmed twigs in store and online. They are less blemished and more uniform than scavenged branches.
“I do think this winter, perhaps more than the usual, people will want to have something in place,” Silver says. “It’s very human nature to respond to the darkness that comes with winter.”
She advises placing winter containers where they can give you the most pleasure from the inside of the house, “so when it’s cold, you have something to look at.”
In her blog, deborahsilver.com, she writes of the need for “twinkle” to help “stave off the gray.” She suggests mounding lights on the surface of the container soil (for a bottom-lit glow), which should be about two or three inches below the rim of the pot to help conceal cords.
She and her crew are adamant about the mechanics of firmly securing the contents of pots they create for clients. Pound a bamboo stake into the middle of the pot’s soil to provide stability. Then tie the vertical elements to the stake, she says.
Another option is to hand-stick every element into the dirt, four inches into the soil for small twigs, deeper for larger pieces. Pots can also be fully lighted. Encircle the vertical pieces with cut evergreen boughs to hide the cords and supports. Consider adding other plant materials, such as dried hydrangeas, to encircle the base. And she says quality faux berry twigs are just fine and last several seasons.
This winter, as we find ways to socialize outdoors, a row of twig-filled containers can help create the feel of a sheltered space for sitting (at a safe distance) with a heater or fire pit and maybe two friends. The containers, Silver says, don’t need to match in size, but they do need to be frost-proof. Wood, stone, metal, rattan, concrete and stoneware are fine. Terra cotta is not.
In addition to using twig displays to give outdoor spaces a sense of enclosure, she suggests buying a small Christmas tree at a tree farm or tree lot to use as a focal point.
“Don’t have them trim the stump,” she says. “Leave it long. Bury the stem in a pot. Get four pieces of steel rebar from Home Depot and wire it to the trunk. Even if you leave it with no decoration, it’s pretty.”
You can even “take a giant, dead branch from a field and put it in a pot and hang things on it,” she says. Arrangements also benefit from sparkle such as glittery twigs or lighted metal structures (for example, hoops or spheres).
For people without the time or inclination to build and arrange, Silver suggests pre-lit twigs in a container, which she sells through her suburban Detroit shop, for using indoors or out.
Many of us with a slowed-down life are paying more attention to the forest and the forest floor with its dried seedpods, lichen, roots and bark.
That includes David Beahm, a New York events designer and founder of David Beahm Experiences, whose professional calendar isn’t as full these days given the drop in large social affairs.
In these quieter times, he has been drawn to smaller details and the changing colors of the meadow around his Thistle Dew Farm in Bucks County, Pa.
“I like celebrating the muted color nature gives you,” he says. Part of the appeal of working with twigs, he says, is that they dictate the form.
“It may sound weird,” Beahm says, “but get some wire and twigs, and start making a sculpture. It takes time, and since we have all time in the world, why not?”
“Even macramé can incorporate twigs and other spent plant material,” he adds.
Although Beahm has renewed appreciation for nature’s subdued palette, others might still crave a bit of color in the designs. “If you want, hang some colored glass into a woven twig sculpture or weave twigs with colored yarn,” he says.
Lee Uhlianuk, a farmer who runs Uhlianuk Specialties from the Farm in (appropriately) North Branch, Mich., makes English-style woven-willow fencing, twig furniture and other woodland accents. He says embracing bare organics makes us feel good.
“Just get some birch branches and put them in a pot in the corner,” he says. “It brings nature inside. It’s peaceful.”