The older I get, the more I like to plan ahead. Say I’m hosting a dinner party, setting a long table for ten. I might set the table a day or two before—to be prepared—but also because I’ve learned I like expectation, indulging in imaginings about how an evening might unfold. It’s stage design really, the creation of a tableau. Stemware to the right, forks to the left. Thick dinner napkins, pressed, folded, shaken, and pulled through old sterling napkin rings. Two battered brass candlesticks and the space between them a question begging an answer.
At Thanksgiving, the theme is set: we give thanks for the land’s gifts. But with the garden on the wane it can be tricky to find the right blend of foliage, fruit, and flower for the table. Here are some ways to address that question.
A table centrepiece should be low enough for your guests to chat over. To achieve this, use a bowl or an old piece of silver, copper or brass. If you don’t have a pin frog (a weighty spiky thing used for floral design), you can use chicken wire stuffed into the vessel (tape it down with waterproof floral tape). Because you must work horizontally more than vertically with tabletop pieces, having a stable base or structure to infill really helps— most of your stems will be angling in diagonally. Plus, if you want to use heavy fruits you need enough weight to prevent toppling. (Dropping a lead fishing weight into your vessel can help with this too.)
What to use for plants? Start with foliage. Some garden trees are beginning to take on colour and if you’re lucky enough to have peony leaves, use them. They last well and are now a gorgeous rosy red. Many Japanese maples have begun to glow. Lady ferns—even those looking a bit tattered and brown—can be incredibly elegant. Your goal with foliage should be to harmonize with your vessel and create a shape for your design before you place any flowers or fruit.
Next, think about these words: filler, focal, and air. A fruit is focal, as is a dahlia. Fillers usually offer colour without much focus—at this time of year statice, Persicarias, rose hips, or seedheads might apply. Air is embodied in vines like hops, Akebia or even Clematis foliage. Light seedheads such as those of the European invasive Clematis vitalba growing in Oak Bay’s alleys and road allowances offer levity with the just the right amount of blur. Eryngiums and Umbellifers are now fading to beige and while not totally ‘airy’ they do offer textural variation—an important part of any design.
As for fruits: What can you stick on a stick? Quince are ideal—warm yellow and fuzzy, and not too big. Pears and small apples work well too. Skewer them on bamboo kebab sticks or try ornamental crabapples, or grape clusters wired onto sticks and tucked in. Fruit in a table arrangement embodies that ‘still life’ bounty we have come to associate with Thanksgiving.
I understand this all sounds like a bit of hassle—floral tape, skewers etc, etc—a Martha project for the suburban-hostess-country-wannabe. Well, so be it. Frankly there can be worse aspirations than creating a beautiful table for those you love.
And to all: a truly happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. May the bounty of the season fill your cups.
PS: For the record, it is possible to squeeze a walnut open and insert a placecard. Fold and tear heavy watercolour paper; it’s thick and creamy and looks natural with the wrinkles of the nut. The walnuts—upside down—work wonderfully standing up.