The trick to creating interesting holiday flower arrangements is to walk around your garden and see what you've got, UC Master Gardener Roberta Barnes advised during a recent stroll through the Palo Alto Demonstration Garden, adjacent to Eleanor Pardee Park.
"Don't be so eager to clean up your garden. There might be something you can use here," she said.
Barnes will offer a free workshop on "Holiday Flower Arrangements" next Friday at Avenidas and will bring samples to show just how one can "think beyond the box" and choose more than holly and pine.
While not much is at the peak of blooming season in November and December, many plants offer intriguing textures and shapes, as well as a whole gamut of greens.
"The last of the lavender would look good in a fall arrangement," she said, as would many of the Australian plants shown in the waterwise garden. Grevillea lanigera boasts dark pink blooms, and leucadendron salignum offers beautiful foliage, she said.
"Rosemary looks good as a holiday green," she added, pointing to a low-growing 'Mozart' plant with lilac blossoms in early November.
One of her favorite table centerpieces begins with a medium-sized uncut pumpkin. She then chooses a variety of succulents and uses a hot-glue gun to attach them to the top.
One could also add succulents with blooms, dried flowers or dried chili peppers, she said.
"These will last quite a long time" without any water, she added.
"Last year, for the Western Horticultural Society, we used white pumpkins. These lasted for months," she said, noting that eventually they used pieces of the centerpieces to start new plants. And the pumpkins could be cooked and eaten.
If they had cut a hole in the pumpkin they wouldn't have lasted more than a week, she said.
For the Avenidas class, Barnes said she'll focus on creating low and wide centerpieces. "We want people to be able to look over it," she said, and it needs to be attractive all the way around.
As an example, she began with a low basket, added a plastic liner (these are available at nurseries, but one could use any plastic container that fits the basket, she said) and then dropped in Oasis floral foam. The foam is moistened and helps to both support and hydrate the plants that will be inserted.
A base of greens "covers the mechanics," then flowers and dried materials from the yard are tucked into the foam.
Attractive greens to tuck in could include Pennisetum 'rubrum,' a red grass; breadseed poppies, which she called "big, unique, really beautiful"; cone flowers, with the dried petals picked off; crocosmia blooms that have gone to seed; pepper berries; eucalyptus foliage and seed pods; and even rose hips.
Barnes, who started out as a home gardener who was hired by neighbors to tidy up their gardens, went on to become a "fine gardener" specializing in light pruning, a "little design" and maintenance. She took some courses at Foothill College, but mostly, she said, she learned by doing research and being hands-on.
Twelve years ago she completed training through the University of California Master Gardener Program, which is committed to passing on home-horticulture and pest-management information to the public. The Avenidas class is part of Barnes' volunteer duties that encourage sustainable, organic gardening practices.
The Los Altos resident has been very involved in Palo Alto's waterwise garden and proudly pointed to the plants that were thriving, despite current drought conditions.
"This may not be a great year for leaf color, because it's been so dry," she remarked.
"The point of the talk isn't to teach how to be florists, but how to use what's in the garden," she said.
And if there just isn't enough color in the garden to create a centerpiece, one can slip out to Trader Joe's or a nursery and pick up a few contrasting blooms.
What: Holiday Flower Arrangements
When: Friday, Nov. 14, 1 to 2:30 p.m.
Where: Avenidas, 450 Bryant St., Palo Alto
Info: Master Gardeners or 408-282-3105, between 9:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., Monday through Friday