Holiday flower design with Laura Dowling - Home Front

Laura Dowling
Dec 07, 2017

Laura Dowling served as Chief Floral Designer at the White House for 6 years, where she planned floral décor, including the White House Christmas and State Dinners. She is now an event designer and consultant and holds flower workshops. She is the author of “Floral Diplomacy at the White House” and “A White House Christmas,” both published in 2017.

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. She and weekly guests, whether Martha Stewart, the Property Brothers or Nate Berkus, answer your decorating and design questions. Jura is always happy to whip out her paint chips, track down a hard-to-find piece of furniture or offer her seasoned advice on practical living and decluttering. For more than 10 years, Home Front has been an online conversation about the best way to make your home comfortable, stylish and fun. We invite you to submit questions and share you own great tips, ideas and gripes. No problem is too big or too small, send them over.

Laura Dowling is joining us today to talk holiday flowers and decorations and about her experience as the chief floral designer at the White House for six years. Laura, who lives in Alexandria, is known for her creative wreaths and her inventive flower combinations. The author of two books "Floral Diplomacy at the White House" and "White House Christmas", Laura is currently traveling throughout the country doing flower workshops, lecturing and designing events. Let's chat.

Thank you for your article on getting rid of Christmas decorations. My father recently passed away (my mother has been gone for 10 years), so now I have whole house full of things I need to make decisions about. But one thought I had was to take their Christmas ornament collection and send them to family members and friends so that they'll have something of my parents' on their tree each year. What do you think?

What a lovely idea! I think sending their relatives and friends a bit of their holiday colleciton is a charming idea. It's a very personal part of their history.

Hi, I am looking for local shops that sell temporary wallpaper. I am thinking of doing an accent wall in my bedroom. I live in Logan Circle.

Does anyone know how to help with this? I have never bought temporary wallpaper.

I love the idea of splitting ornaments like that! My grandmother did that several years before she died, she downsized her tree and wanted to get rid of a bunch so gave us all a bag. So every year when I decorate my tree, I see the ornaments given to and purchased by me, but I also see "new" ones as I delve into the bag from Grandma. It's (literally) a mixed bag, but it's always fun.

Yes. There is still room for sentiment and nostalgia in our Marie Kondo-minimized world.

Sorry - Laura is having some technical difficulties with her computer in Chicago - we hope to have her on very soon!

I'd like to incorporate more flowers and natural elements into my Christmas decorating but am allergic to pine and many of the fragrant holiday flowers (eg., paperwhites). I'd appreciate suggestions on flowers/plants, aside from the usual poinsettia and amaryllis, that are low maintenance and widely available in the Northeast (writing from Boston). Thank you.

There are several good options for you!  Christmas cactus and cyclamen are lovely this time of year and succulents mixed with moss and ferns would be a subtle, yet trendy choice. 

My brilliant wife -- seeing the shortages of, and high prices for, Christmas trees down here in the tropics -- built a "tree" using branches we lost in the hurricane, draped with Spanish moss for fullness. She added a couple of strands of white lights and a few selected ornaments, and it's awesome!

This is brilliant!!!

What's a good holiday potted plant to send besides a poinsettia?

I love amaryllis plants, presented in elegant stone containers or natural wood boxes -- with accents of moss and winter branches.  

I've got two *very, very old* "pictures" (don't know how to otherwise put it), which are watercolor on silk of flowers in an Asian motif, that I inherited from my parents. One fell off the wall some years ago and the companion piece is still hanging. The frames are old and I'm not sure there's much value in them, but the pictures themselves are priceless. I'd like to get them reframed, but I want to be very careful about where I go to have it done. I'm in Bethesda, but I'm willing to travel in the DMV for a good place. Do you have any suggestions?

I know you want to be careful with your heirloom. Sending this out to the crowd for suggestions.

I recently received an old table that was in the family for decades. Very ornate design, I was told it was made of teak. What furniture polish is good for old teak wood?

Buy a special " teak oil" that is recommended for indoor teak furniture on the label. 

Hi Laura: I want to send nice flowers to someone who lives in a small town. What's the best online flower service do you think?

one approach is to google a florist in the small town and call them directly -- also, bbrooks is a service I've used to deliver flowers in rural areas.  

How do you find nice dried flowers? Would you share your sources?

Just like with fresh flowers, there are many options for dried materials -- craft stores, online sources, etc.  if you start doing a little online research, you'll be amazed at what you can find! 

greetings everyone from chilly Chicago!  After a little internet snafu, I'm here and excited to talk about holiday flowers and decorating!  

I love cut amaryllis but it must be very expensive to buy a bunch of them. Meanwhile, if I splurge, how long will they last as cut flowers?

Amaryllises as cut flowers are a great choice for your holiday displays!  If you buy them when they are just budding and opening up, they will last up to two weeks. 

For those of us with a tight holiday budget, can you recommended three flowers/fillers found at a typical supermarket that would work together to make a nice arrangement? Thanks!

Supermarkets have some really nice options this time of year:  tulips are fabulous -- also roses and hydrangea.  you can mix in clippings from the garden to give a natural look. good luck! 

We recently inherited a couple of cool 60's Danish modern teak tables, and I went to the boat store for teak oil. It was $25 for a small can (about a quart, maybe?). Before I had a chance to do the job, I saw the same can at Wally World for $10. Two coats and the tables look great...and it's probably the first oil they had seen in 40 years, since they were under those tablecloths that reach to the floor.

Wow. Thanks for sharing this.

Hi Laura! Looking forward to reading Floral Diplomacy at the White House :) Do you have any recommendations on some middle ground for purchasing flowers between the $10 arrangements in the grocery store and the $100 it can cost with delivery fees, service charges, and taxes for an arrangement that isn't puny? I love sending flowers to friends and family, as they are such a beautiful indulgence that can be gorgeously customized to each recipient, but the cost is a deterrent for more frequency. Thank you! ~DC Flower Maven

thank you so much! You can pick up great flowers and seasonal greens at the farmers' markets this time of year -- and many of the grocery stores are carrying much more sophisticated options.  But if you're looking for a fun delivery service in the DC area, Urban Stems is great:  flowers on demand at a very good price. 

I watch enough Antiques Roadshow (both US and UK) to know that original frames are an important part of a painting....often worth as much as the picture--but at a minimum, often the way the artist wanted to present their work. I don't know a frame repairer. I need one to repair a gilded gesso frame.

Got it. Any recommendations out there?

Got any tips on taking care of myrtle topiaries? It's hard to keep them alive. Should you mist the tops?

I love topiaries, too!  A lot of indoor herbal plants require very specific care so be sure to follow care instructions.  Too much heat and overwatering can be bad for them -- so, yes, a light misting works well! 

I like to make a Advent wreath using twigs of holly from the bush in front of our house, but I find I have to remake it several times because the leaves turn brown and stiff. Is there a way to keep them green?

Yes, holly wreaths are so lovely and perfect this time of year. But they are not especially long-lasting.  One tip I've used is to spray a little clear floor wax on greens like this to extend the longevity. . . but you may want to have a back up plan of a more long-lasting evergreen design. 

I love having potted flowers indoors in the winter but my cat chews on everything. She particularly likes the spiky leaves of emerging bulbs and will eat them to nothing long before they bloom. Any suggestions for things that are not poisonous for cats and are generally available well enough grown that she can't kill them in the cradle? I would love poinsettias and so forth but I'm afraid she'll poison herself.

How about getting your kitty a special catnip plant or toy just for her?  Sometimes distractions work well :) 

HF5190

Do tulips seen non-holiday for a Christmas table centerpiece? I always think of them as spring flowers.

When you mix tulips with twigs and greenery (pine and cedar), they actually work well as a Christmas centerpiece -- especially bright red tulips or white ones with wintry branches. 

Buchanan & Kiguel are excellent. Old Town Alexandria.

Thanks!

What's an easy way to decorate a plain green wreath? I don't like bows and I don't have a lot of time or money to spend. Thank you for any ideas.

Well, that's a question with lots of potential!  I love to add fruits and vegetables to plain wreaths to create a modern version of a Colonial Williamsburg-style design. check out my Instagram for options at lauradowlingtheflorist.  even potatoes make great wreaths! 

Can you tell us about how you planned the White House Christmas decorations? Were you given a theme in advance?

The planning and implementation of the WH Christmas was a year-long process, starting early in the New Year with brainstorming sessions about concepts and themes and then moving quickly to project planning and design.  The installation took place over a 5 day period. It was an amazing experience! 

We have done a Christmas fan with apples, lemons, and pineapple (magnolia leaves too) over our entrance to our house off and on for many years. It always looks nice, but with weather changes we find the fruits don't last long. In the past we have brushed liquid floor wax on which does help. Any other suggestions, or should I just expect to either swap out or get as much out of them as possible. We do love the look on our colonial-style house.

What a lovely tradition! And yes, you can plan to have a replacement option -- another suggestion is to work with unusual (maybe surprising) long-lasting elements: potatoes, cabbages, brussels sprouts, etc. You can gild these and use them with evergreens to create a striking effect. 

Please include a post about poinsettias, which are mildly poisonous for cats & dogs, as well as small children. If ingested, look for mild signs of vomiting, drooling, or rarely, diarrhea may be seen.

Yes, such a good reminder this time of year!  While natural decorations are beautiful, they can be dangerous when ingested, so it's important to take care and keep poisonous plants out of reach of children and pets. 

Is there any way to make a wreath last longer?

My best advice is to make the wreath in layers:  starting with a base of ribbon or greenery and then building on your main design of evergreens, fruit, etc.  Sometimes, I even start with a faux evergreen wreath underneath the natural layers to add additional volume and depth.  That way, when the greenery fades and dries out, you still retain the overall look. :) 

Can you give us your best tips for watering the Christmas tree to make it stay alive longer?

It's so important to keep trees watered throughout the holiday season! First, make sure that your tree stand has a deep vessel for water.  Fill it up with water (adding a little bleach to keep bacteria at bay) and then check it every day.  

What is the best kind of greenery for roping indoors? I hate it when it starts drying out so fast.

For indoor garlands, I love using cedar for its lemony fragrance and longevity.  Also, garlands made of lemon leaves (salal) are a great choice.  The leaves are still beautiful even when they dry. 

Frame Mart in Cleveland Park is very old school - doesn't take cards, etc., but I'd trust them to take care of your artwork.

Thanks.

What were Michele Obama's favorite flowers?

I always incorporated seasonal blooms from the garden in our White House displays -- roses, hydrangea, tulips, sweet peas, etc. -- an ever-changing variety of Mrs. Obama's favorite flowers in lots of colorful combinations.  Such a joy! 

Have you seen beautiful doors dressed up for the holiday season? Post them on Instagram with the hashtag #wpdoors and see if they show up in @washingtonpost . My editor @kendra_l_nichols is running this fun feature. Meanwhile, you can also follow me on Instagram and see what I'm doing design-wise and what I'm seeing that's beautiful and inspiring. I'm at @jurakoncius .

You had so many years you were surrounded by all the holiday trimmings at the White House that you helped to create and execute. What were some of your favorite features of the White House holidays that you will always remember?

It's definitely hard to pick one moment or project, but there are several memories that stand out:  I loved the 2010 theme of "Simple Gifts" for its inspirational sentiments of celebrating Christmas with friends and family, with cherished traditions, the beauty of nature, etc.  The theme translated into especially beautiful decor. . . of course, I also loved creating the replicas of the First Family dogs Bo and Sunny, culminating with the robotic versions a few years ago. Perhaps my favorite volunteer project was the massive illusion cube column covers made from tens of thousands of berries, folded leaves and pine cone scales, all painstakingly glued onto frames in a geometric motif. 

Is using tinsel on your tree dangerous for pets?

Anything that pets can reach and digest is something to use with care. . . that said, I love the retro look of tinsel on a festive tree!  If you like the look, maybe you could start with a purchased silver tinsel tree as a safer option for pets. . . 

What kind of wreath did you make for your own house this year?

Well, over the last couple of years, I've gotten in the habit of creating a wreath "collection." I use my own front door as a laboratory for experimenting with different colors and combinations . . . so I create several wreaths over the holiday season.  My initial wreath is a gilded potato wreath with pepper berries, ruscus and rose hips.  Next up, I'll try something with lemons and peppers. . . so much fun! 

Thanks to Laura Dowling for being with us today. Next week I'm hosting Taniya Nayak of ABCs The Great Christmas Light Fight on the chat so more great holiday stories and tips to come. Happy weekend everyone.

What a pleasure it's been to chat with you today!  I love how holiday decorating is a time to re-connect with cherished traditions or to try some new craft ideas -- and to share the Christmas spirit with friends and family.  Wishing everyone a lovely holiday season and a Merry Christmas!  

In This Chat
Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering, organizing and DC retail.

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Laura Dowling
Laura Dowling, former White House chief floral designer
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