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Transform your tabletop this holiday season

Learn how to make a festive centerpiece from garden designer P. Allen Smith. Check out the step-by-step directions.

Decorate your table with more than just food this Thanksgiving! P. Allen Smith, garden designer and host of the public television program “P. Allen Smith's Garden Home,” visited “Today” to share a simple centerpiece idea for the holidays.

I love everything about Thanksgiving. It’s such a no-pressure holiday enjoyed with friends and family, good food and simple decorations. Thanksgiving offers so many creative opportunities for seasonal decorations, with Mother Nature providing most of the materials. You can transform a table or the whole dining room into a holiday scene by bringing in a few boughs covered with brightly colored leaves, then adding a pumpkin or two, a few gourds and candles. Decorations for any season should never feel forced, and the colors and shapes of fall make it so easy for Thanksgiving. The beauty of this arrangement is that with a few quick changes you can convert it from a Thanksgiving centerpiece to a Christmas arrangement.

Clippers20 x 14 inch tray3 (3 x 7 inch) pillar candles3 clear glass hurricane lampsFlorist foamFlorist clayFloral vials (from crafts stores or florists)Seasonal materials such as pumpkins and other gourds, apples, bittersweet, colorful leaves, evergreen clippings, pinecones, winterberry, paperwhite narcissus Cinnamon oil

This seasonal display is based on my “make it simple” rule of holiday decorating. This idea is meant to be a springboard for your own creative imagination. Depending on where you live, you may find similar materials to those I used. The theme is adaptable and can be expressed with the items that you find in your area.

When I’m in the idea stage of making an arrangement, I like to brew a nice, hot cup of coffee, slip on a jacket and enjoy a walk around my garden to see what’s available. What I’m looking for are items with interesting shapes and textures. The fun is to let the plan evolve depending on what I find. Once you have surveyed your surroundings and gathered the items you’d like to use, you’re ready to put the arrangement together.

Start with a low, flat serving piece. I found a 20” X 14” galvanized tray as I was rummaging through my kitchen cabinets. The gray color blends easily with a fall and winter palette and the nonporous surface helps protect tabletops.

Arrange three pillar candles (I used cream colored 3” X 7” wax candles) on the tray and slip clear glass hurricane lamps over them. Rather than lining them up, bring the middle candle slightly forward.

Since I already had some colorful gourds and miniature pumpkins left over from Halloween, I decided to use them in this arrangement. If you don’t have any on hand, you can find them at a grocery or craft store. They are available in a variety of colors, shapes and sizes. 

Pile the pumpkins around the base of the lamps and fit the gourds around the edges to fill in.  Then add a second layer of gourds to build interest and dimension.

The leaves on my neighbor’s Bradford pear tree had just turned a gorgeous shade of ruby red, and she was willing to share, so I gathered a handful to add to the display. Since most leaves are short-lived once they are picked, I slipped them into small water-filled floral vials to extend their freshness. The vials are easily camouflaged by tucking them among the pumpkins and gourds. If vials aren’t available you can simply replace any faded leaves with new ones as needed. The leaves offer a layer of texture and brilliance to the arrangement, providing a soft and ephemeral contrast to the smooth, hard surfaces of the pumpkins and gourds.

As a finishing touch, add stems of dried bittersweet or other berried branches you may find. The vines add another layer of interest to the arrangement, flowing in elegant lines above the static objects in the tray.

Make final adjustments and then place the tray on a side table or use it as the centerpiece at your next gathering. In these days of diminished light, I find it soothing to see the warm glow of candlelight play off the colorful collection of objects in this autumnal display.

As Christmas approaches, the harvest-themed arrangement can be easily converted into a winter holiday composition. Simply remove all the items from the tray except the candles and hurricane lamps. Cut small blocks of floral foam to fit between the candles and the edge of the tray along one side. Soak the foam for an hour or so until it is fully saturated, and then anchor the blocks in the tray with sticky florist clay.

As before, let your own garden take the lead for the materials to use. I found several stems of bright red berries from my deciduous holly and inserted them into the floral foam to make a beautiful screen of color behind the hurricane lamps. Experience has taught me that berries on woody stems stay fresh if I place them in lukewarm water to condition them before arranging. Another tip is to re-cut the stems in an arrangement after about 5 days and make sure the floral foam stays moist.

For the next element, I pruned some branches from a blue juniper to create a soft bed of evergreens surrounding the lamps in the tray. The flat needles of the juniper made it easy to layer the greenery and conceal the floral foam. Small, red apples added a punch of color, and their rounded form offered contrast to the junipers. Give the apples a nice shiny surface by rubbing them with a light coating of vegetable oil. 

Finish the arrangement by sprinkling in a handful of small pinecones and tucking in a few more stems of a broadleaf evergreen, such as holly, for added interest. For fun, use a Q-tip to add drops of scented cinnamon oil to the pinecones, or if you prefer use scented candles. 

The arrangement takes just minutes to assemble but will last for weeks during the busy holiday season.