On Manatee River, a natural holiday



When Barbara Hoey decided it was time to decorate for the holiday season, this professional garden consultant and owner of The Decorated Garden didn't make a trip to a plant nursery or to a florist; she just took a walk outside with a basket and harvested indigenous plant material on the one-acre property that her husband Jan has owned since the early 1980s.

Jan, a mathematics teacher, and Barbara married in 1991 in her hometown of Vicksburg, Miss., and the two nature lovers enjoyed a hiking-canoeing honeymoon in Arkansas. Then she joined him at the Bradenton property in planting trees, raising orchids and succulents, along with other Florida-friendly flowers, shrubs and vines. A banyan tree that Jan planted is the sculptural centerpiece of the property.

What Barbara brought inside for holiday decor and combined with candles, her own terrariums, smooth stones brought back from far away vacations and containers of metal and glass comprised her Christmas decorations for this holiday season. She has small vignettes placed throughout the home and on the hearth in the family room, but the two important creations are in the couple's dining room which is glass on three sides plus a mirrored back wall. That particular room welcomes the outdoors inside and Barbara repays the hospitality with Florida natural holiday decorations that honor the couple's site on the banks of the Manatee River in Bradenton.

"The first thing I noticed in the yard was an old metal topiary form about five feet high," she said. "It had some passion vine on it and it gave me the idea that it could be my Christmas tree this year. It even had a decoration at the top."

Barbara gathered broken palm fronds, twigs, moss, Brazilian pepper berries, cedar branches and some red-berry dried seed pods from a vine she can't identify. Spanish moss became the tree skirt.

"I used one strand of tiny white LED battery-powered lights and that was it. I have a Christmas tree with decorations from nature," she said. "Some people might microwave the moss or spray it to kill critters, but I generally don't. I just give everything a good shake before I bring it indoors. I also used the red berries from the Brazilian pepper tree, a highly invasive tree. We've taken out many on the property but Floridians know it's a constant battle and we'll probably never be able to get rid of them entirely, so once a year I use the berries."

The Christmas tree stands in the corner of the dining room which is furnished with a combination of an antique painted table and mid-century modern red chairs. Since one wall is mirrored, the tree is reflected and can be viewed from all sides.

For her holiday table centerpiece, Barbara started with a table runner of moss. Working symmetrically, she built the design up from the bottom using branches, twigs, paperwhite bulbs, ixora, natal plum, bark from the banyan tree, driftwood from the Manatee River, lots of succulents, berries and pods. Anchoring the tablescape is a red-begonia closed terrarium that the homeowner made flanked by two green pillar candles in hurricane glass.

In the table design Barbara also incorporated stones that she and Jan collected on trips to Nepal, Argentina, England and other lands.

ahhoey21_016"For the containers I used some old brass pieces that Jan got in Nepal," said Barbara, "and some old silver pieces I found at a local thrift shop. I intentionally did not polish anything because I wanted that natural aged look. When doing a natural design like this, the key is to just play with it. Try different objects and clumps of natural material until it looks right to your eye. An important thing is to bring in lots of different shades of green going from lime or chartreuse to deep almost black, like the dark fern I put in the terrarium. Another trick with containers or objects is to turn them upside down. Suddenly, they have a new look and function."

Barbara's holiday candlesticks on the hearth are actually old bronze oil lamps from Nepal. When she turned them upside down, she realized they would hold candles and could be decorated with green plant material. Throughout the house (a Florida bungalow built in the 1950s) Barbara has filled shallow bowls or plates with stones, twigs and tilansia as well both open and closed terrariums. The gardener conducts workshops in making terrariums, which are container gardens in glass that need minimal upkeep. She also teaches classes in living wreaths, tabletop and container gardens for both inside and outside. She does custom floral arrangements, too. (Learn more at www.thedecoratedgarden.com).

The designer says that finding natural holiday decorating material outside is pretty easy. "Just let yourself be distracted by nature," she advised. "You can train your eye in no time to spot the odd, beautiful and unusual that would work in your home for both simple and elaborate decorations. Honestly, just take a walk and try it. The more you play around with twigs, plants and pods, the better you get. By next Christmas you could be doing an all-natural holiday, too, and it will be uniquely your own."


Marsha Fottler

Marsha Fottler has been a newspaper and magazine lifestyle, food and design writer since 1968 first in Boston and in Florida since 1970. She contributes to regional and national publications and she is co-publisher and editor of a monthly online magazine that celebrates the pleasures of the table called Flavors & More. (941) 371-8593.
Last modified: December 20, 2012
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