The Center of Attention

Giving thanks amidst beautiful arrangements

Robert Clark

As the leaves begin to turn and the cool weather tiptoes in, hearts and minds shift toward Thanksgiving. It is that calm before the Christmas storm, when the focus is less on buying gifts and more on spending time with loved ones. As families come together from near and far, menus are planned as ideas for creating a beautiful tablescape unfold. From lovely flower arrangements to traditional cornucopias, fall’s bountiful elements can be used to create the most attention-grabbing centerpieces.

Before deciding on an arrangement, consider a few important factors. “The first thing we talk about with our clients is the setting for their gathering,” says Cricket Newman of Cricket Newman Designs. “Are they going to have 40 people in a casual setting at the hunt club, or will it be a more intimate dinner with 15 people at home? It’s all about having an atmosphere that is comfortable, welcoming, and happy.” 

The details do matter, including the number of tables, the color palette, and the containers. All of these elements play an important role when creating a fitting Thanksgiving centerpiece.

Fortunately in South Carolina, particularly in the Midlands, the outdoors provides an abundance of natural elements to include in an arrangement. Fall leaves, berries, acorns, pine cones, feathers, and even sticks and twigs are natural, beautiful components of a Thanksgiving showpiece. Succulent fruits, such as apples, figs, and pomegranates — even vegetables like asparagus and artichokes — make a statement when paired with elegant fall flowers of orchids, roses, and mums. 

“Adding layers and textures of different elements creates a classic fall centerpiece,” says Sarah Swinson Shell of Fern Studio. “We are very intentional with the placement of every flower and look at it from the perspective of each person sitting at the table. We will strategically place the elements to ensure they are viewed in their most beautiful setting.”

Without question, taking the person’s viewpoint into consideration is a critical element of designing a centerpiece. Having an arrangement that is too tall and impedes guests’ views of one another does not make for an enjoyable dinner experience. “I would rather have no flowers than have a centerpiece that doesn’t allow you to see your guests,” adds Cricket. 

Having a plan in place is always helpful leading up to the dinner or event. People often think they should buy flowers the day before or day of the event when in reality they should be purchased a few days in advance to allow the flowers to open up and be at their most exquisite stage when guests arrive. “Iron the linens the week before, set the table on Monday, and get the flowers two to three days before,” says Cricket. “Preparation is half of the fun!”

When it comes to the flowers, high quality is paramount to creating an arrangement that will last. Purchasing flowers from a trusted vendor or cutting them from your own yard are two ways to ensure flowers will have longer staying power. Give flowers a fresh cut, put them in a very clean bucket with clean water, and add a flower food. (That packet that comes with purchased flower arrangements is included for a reason!) But most of all, watering the flowers every day is essential to their longer life. 

“Changing the water daily is key,” says Sarah. “One trick, so that you don’t have to dismantle the arrangement, is to place the vase under the faucet and run the water in until all of the old brown water has run out and is replaced with new, fresh water. Some people are intimidated by changing the water, but it’s very easy and makes the arrangement last longer and the flowers stay fresher.” Even after all of the guests have gone, the arrangement can remain, continuing to provide memories of the wonderful time spent with family and friends.

The following instructions will guide you in creating a traditional cornucopia and a long, low centerpiece for the dining room table, both memorable Thanksgiving Day arrangements.

Creating a Cornucopia

1. Determine which vase or container to use. 

2. Gather all of the ingredients: flowers, greenery, fruit. Always gather more than expected, as the leftovers can be put into a mint julep cup and placed in the powder room or added to a great jug for the foyer. There is no such thing as too much “stuff”!

3. Prepare the container so that the mechanics are good and strong. “People make cornucopias so much harder than they should be,” says Cricket. Include a water source inside the container. Put floral foam inside so that the items placed in the container stay. Include wires and skewers to secure the fruit in place.

4. Add greenery to the base. 

5. Put in the heavier elements, such as fall gourds, apples, fruits, or vegetables. A lovely touch would be brussels sprouts on the stalk, artichokes, or asparagus.

6. Add the pine cones. While they visually add weight, pine cones should be added later because they are lighter.

7. Add flowers, starting with the heartiest, such as zinnias and mums, and ending with the most fragile, such as roses and especially orchids, which are the most delicate.

8. Add interest to the holes or spaces by filling them with lightweight feathers and sticks. 

9. Water and enjoy!

“As an aside and for other great ideas, we love potted arrangements in a big foot bath. And with that, we would need items to raise the pots in the bath so that they are not all of equal height. We would also add moss for interest and to conceal the various pots,” says Cricket. “Also, for creating a design in a compote vessel, you may grab your grandmother’s silver punch bowl, but you’ll need to find a great liner or plastic bowl to protect the item. Or grab a fabulous Charleston basket for the table. Again, you’ll need to line it with something for protection. The ideas are fun and endless!”

Designing a Low Centerpiece for the Dining Room Table 

1. Gather a footed bowl or compote. “These are my favorite containers for dining rooms because they elevate the floral a bit and feel more elegant and refined,” says Sarah.

2. Add chicken wire as the base and framework to hold the arrangement together in the container and secure it with floral tape, which is available at any craft store.

3. Start with the foliage and greenery, as it helps the arrangement take shape. If the table is long, include trailing vines on either end to fill the space and give the arrangement a larger appearance.

4. Use focal/face flowers (the ones with the largest faces, such as garden roses, dahlias, and peonies). Put those flowers in first and arrange them in threes. Hold three together and cut them at different lengths to create varying planes. This helps to give the arrangement shape and creates an airiness to the piece so that it doesn’t look dense and stiff. This depth and texture helps to create a garden-inspired look. “For this look, I don’t use Oasis in the container because that makes the flowers look a little stiff,” adds Sarah. “I like the flowers to fall as they would in nature.”

5. Move down the tiers, adding the next size of flowers, and build those in. Keep in mind the use of color to ensure the flowers complement each other nicely.

6. Add wispy, delicate flowers to provide some lightness and airiness and to build on the garden feel.

7. Add water and take in the beauty!

“I like to use a painterly style when designing an arrangement,” says Sarah. “In that case, I may have a yellow flower and a red flower, so I will look for foliage or foraged leaves or branches in the backyard that have a combination of those two colors. It makes for a vibrant arrangement that easily flows together instead of giving a more polka-dotted look. It’s amazing the colorful foliage we can find right outside our doors!”