Foraging: an opportunity to go wild on Martha’s Vineyard

Mariko Kawaguchi of Donaroma's adds finishing touches to a foraged fall display. "A few flowers go a long way," she says. — Photo by Gwyn McAllister

Shopping Mother Nature for holiday decorations can help you turn a pleasurable fall or winter walk in the woods into a productive treasure hunt.

Whether you look to the deep rich hues of fall to decorate with grasses, seed pods, and colorful leaves or take advantage of the Island’s abundance of evergreens, pine cones, and winter berries to add Christmas cheer to your home, there are plenty of ways to create inexpensive, yet impressive centerpieces with just a bit of footwork and a good amount of imagination.

Head out on a gathering expedition and take the advice of some experts on how to turn your bounty into attractive — and economical — arrangements.

Mariko Kawaguchi of Donaroma’s Nursery in Edgartown recommends keeping an open mind when searching for natural decorative elements. “Foraging is going in search of something that you might know, or might not know you’re looking for,” she said recently. “It’s a visual adventure — a treasure hunt for an unknown treasure.” Ms. Kawaguchi went out recently and gathered up a basketful of dried materials including grasses, hydrangeas, colored leaves, berries, and stems with interesting seed matter. By artfully arranging her finds and adding a few fall-hued chrysanthemums, she created a striking arrangement suitable for a Thanksgiving centerpiece.

“Sometimes when you think things are dead, it’s not true, they’re just changing color,” she said, pointing out some hydrangea flowers in cranberry shades, and the red-tinged leaves of hydrangeas and highbush blueberries. “There are so many tonal values of brown. It’s just an indication that they’re going into a different state.

“Not only can the gathering of material be botanic poetry unto itself,what you can do with it is limitless. The more eclectic the better.”

You’re not constructing a conventional arrangement with every stem holding a flawless blossom. “Things don’t have to match,” Ms. Kawaguchi said. “It doesn’t have to be symmetrical. I think foraging is an opportunity to go wild.”

Using some sort of artificial stabilizing element is crucial to any arrangement, she believes, especially when you’re working with limited resources. “When I teach floral design, newcomers just want to pack everything in. What you need to do is give different dimensions just like things grow in nature. You want to have texture and some substance in a three-dimensional field.”

Successful arrangements need structure. “It’s not only the art but the engineering,” said Ms. Kawaguchi, who recommends floral foam — either a dry variety for dried arrangements or a type that can be kept moistened for flowers and living leaves.

Attractive grasses, pods, and stems with dried seeds make striking single stem works of art. It’s important when foraging to imagine the individual items removed from their environment. “A weed is sometimes misunderstood,” Ms. Kawaguchi said.

“This is something you don’t want in your million dollar yard,” she said, pointing to an attractive stem with seeds. “But you have this gorgeous textural ‘flower.'” To keep small seeds from dropping off a dead stem, Ms. Kawaguchi recommends sealing dried items with hairspray.

Multiple containers with a single item each make for a great contemporary look. Vintage bottles and glassware, ideal for this purpose, have proven a big seller at Donaroma’s. Ms. Kawaguchi notes that you can also use things like Mason jars and small thrift shop finds.

The key is having some sort of anchor. For simple arrangements using just a few stems, she demonstrates with a clear round vase in which she has placed copper floral wire manipulated into an attractive structural ball with a few beads added. This piece of “sculpture” adds interest to the container as well as separating her foraged finds and keeping them upright.

You can expand on the natural theme by including elements like driftwood, shells, dried seaweed, and feathers. Ms. Kawaguchi also likes to provide additional interest by gilding some of her finds with a little touch of metallic spray paint. She suggests adding a hint of gold to oak leaves to create a tablescape with pumpkins and gourds.

Gilding also helps give a fall look a winter makeover. Ms. Kawaguchi spray painted some hydrangeas to demonstrate how they could transition from a Thanksgiving arrangement to an evergreen-based Christmas decoration.

Ellen O’Brien, owner of M.V. Florist and Gifts in Edgartown, likes to enhance a natural based arrangement or wreath with some of the very realistic looking artificial items that she sells. She creates lovely, wild-looking arrangements by combining grasses, fir, and pine cones with more durable elements. She points out that bittersweet, though beautiful, tends to shed very quickly, dropping berries that can stain carpet or fabrics, creating a mess.

Ms. O’Brien carries a wide variety of artificial berries and gourds, silk fall leaves, and feathery fake grasses. Raffia and burlap sold at MV Florist complement natural arrangements well.

She also stocks a full selection of tools for gathering and arranging, including clippers, glue guns, wreath bases, and wired spikes for attaching items with less than substantial stems into foam bases.

Whatever you use, shop the Vineyard’s bounty first. “We’re really lucky because we have different areas to go foraging,” Ms. Kawaguchi said. “Seashore, wasteland meadows, fields all have a whole different set of things.”

And a botanic treasure hunt provides a great recreational experience as well as encouraging closer observation of our environmental beauty.

Looking at her finished fall arrangement, Ms. Kawaguchi noted, “People in the city have to buy this. We’re lucky that we can just take a walk.”