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Two Holidays, One Centerpiece

Use these steps to make a centerpiece that'll take you from Thanksgiving to Christmas.

Can you create a dramatic living centerpiece for the Thanksgiving table and, with minor adjustments, use the same arrangement for the Christmas holidays? This question was posed to Cathy Barnhardt, floral displays manager at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C., and to our delight, she produced two beautiful arrangements that successfully span the seasons. The best part: The transition from one to the other requires swapping out only four plants. To make things even easier, each plant is in a separate container.

'Baton Rouge' pot mum and orange kalanchoe provide the fall colors for an arrangement that will do double duty.

The "bones" of the arrangement are a collection of primarily foliage plants such as ivy, dracaena and peace lily. Those elements stay the same from season to season. In the Thanksgiving version, the splash of color comes from orange kalanchoe, a colorful mum and gold English ivy. For additional interest, branches bearing fall leaves are stuck into the sides of the arrangement. When it's time to decorate for Christmas, the kalanchoe, mum and gold English ivy are exchanged for red and white cyclamen and red kalanchoe. A few small Christmas ornaments are hung from the bare branches (the leaves will probably have fallen; if not, pluck them off).

The arrangement is natural and unstylized, contained in sturdy wicker. The so-called Olmsted basket — named for the landscape architect who designed the Biltmore grounds — has the softness and naturalness that were trademarks of Frederick Law Olmsted's designs. "We use these baskets in so many places [at Biltmore]: as sideboard decorations in the dining room, on bedside tables, in floor baskets," Cathy says. "It just depends on the size of container you use. There are lots of wonderful planted arrangements, but with these you don't bother to plant them, you just sink the plants and hide the containers."

A completed Christmas arrangement

1. Choose a basket or other container and line with foil. Often the containers best suited for autumn arrangements have a "substantial" look. Earthenware crocks or jugs, sturdy baskets, terra-cotta pots, wooden bowls and copper pots are good choices.

2. Cut floral foam into blocks to provide lift for the pots.

3. Select 4" (container size) plants; using plants that are in the same-size container makes watering easier. If you can't find the recommended plants, use substitutes if desired, but choose plants that have similar light and water needs.

4. Provide an underliner for each container to prevent leakage. Barnhardt uses half-pint clear plastic containers, the type normally used for deli food.

5. Arrange the plants in a design that pleases you. Let your arrangement capture both the look and the sentimental feeling of the season. Arrange the elements naturally, suggesting how they might appear in the garden — nothing stiff or contrived. Cluster materials. Don't be afraid to add a bare branch; it has a stark beauty all its own.

6. Add small blocks of floral foam between pots to ensure stability, absorb excess water and raise areas for mossing.

7. Wet sphagnum moss and squeeze out excess water. Place moss in and around pots to hide the mechanics of the arrangement.

8. Provide plenty of light for the arrangement when it's not "on duty." Keep it near a bright window (eastern is best, so the plants don't get too much direct sun), then move it to the dining room or buffet table for festive dinners and special occasions.

For the Christmas season, a simple change of individual potted plants brings in red and white cyclamen and red kalanchoe.

Plant list:

Plants that are common to both arrangements:
2 ivies, 1 peace lily, 1 dracaena, 1 false aralia (or a baby Norfolk pine), 1 pink tree fern (or other table fern)

Thanksgiving arrangement:
2 orange kalanchoe, 1 colorful florist mum, 1 gold-variegated English ivy

Christmas arrangement:
2 red kalanchoe, 1 red cyclamen, 1 white cyclamen

More on Olmsted:
Biltmore, built by George Vanderbilt in the late 1800s and landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted, is renowned for its extensive and beautiful grounds as well as the remarkable house. Also in Olmsted's resume: Central Park, the U.S. Capitol grounds, Riverside Park, Prospect Park, the Emerald Necklace.

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