Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
December, 2011
Regional Report

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White House Chief Floral Designer Laura Dowling arranges a holiday bouquet in the Vermeil Room of the White House last December. (Official White House photo by Chuck Kennedy)

The New American Gardening Style of Flower Arrangement

A quick browse of Thanksgiving eve's Italian Market produce narrowed the choices. Eggplant, red cabbage, pumpkin, squash. Which would make the best holiday bouquet container?

My last-minute idea is to experiment with Laura Dowling's New American Gardening style of flower arrangement. Dowling is the lovely, clever White House Chief of Floral Design. Since her presentation at October's America In Bloom awards ceremony, I've been inspired to see flower arranging as fun, kinetic, and an extension of the gardening I so enjoy.

"Flowers are essential to our sense of happiness and well-being," Dowling said. For me, the positives start with simply gathering the materials. Walking up and down 9th Street looking for arrangement possibilities certainly counts as heart- and muscle-strengthening (albeit low-key) exercise.

Eyeing the options, I wondered how and what to buy to add to the flowers already bought - blue delphinium, yellow,orange, pink and lime green mums, baby's breath, purple and pink alstroemerias.

Dowling's first design element is to choose an overall concept, a theme. Mine was "seasonal" -- a Thanksgiving dinner centerpiece, plus something "artistic" for the hostess's mantel.

Creating with organic containers, such as "dried fruits, woven grasses, folded leaves," is another element in her New American Gardening style of flower arranging. "A natural feel as if flowers are growing out of the vase," as the First Florist described it. Might an eggplant hold the tall delphiniums for an art piece? More likely, the mums and alstroemeria would combine well in a hollowed-out winter squash decorating the table.

Dowling encouraged "a mix of unusual components -- fruits, vegetables, flowers. The bouquet should contain wild elements to create emotional and poetic connection," she explained.

Market pickings were meager though. Parsnips, turnips, beets, carrots, lettuce --nothing with a "wild" element. Much as I like carrots, there's no emotional connection. With the produce stalls closing, I felt the pressure of making the right container choice. I bought the largest eggplant in the market and a squat, green-streaked Naguri (Kabocha) squash. The vendor discounted a cluster of broccoli rabe, whose knobby flower heads became an "unusual component." Materials were gathered. Assembly, well, that's another story.

In early November 2009, Dowling was appointed White House Chief of Floral Design. She's French-inspired, having studied the art of floral design in Paris. Her shop, Interieurs et Fleurs, is in the D.C. area. Arrangements shown on her website L'Art du Bouquet ( portfolio are fascinating and gorgeous, with whimsy and sophisticated creativity.

Dowling describes her New American Garden Style of floral arrangement as "soft, approachable...casual elegance using flowers from gardens, forests." She wants us to feel as if we're "in the garden." Her designs focus on concept and emotion. They take form through organic elements -- folded leaves or structures of natural materials such as wood. She plays with balance and composition, using dancing branches, twining vines.

Her dynamic style marries the classical with contemporary chic. Wild vines break out of structured, round shapes. For example, blue hydrangeas paired with freesia and sprays of curly willow.

In the White House, First Lady Michelle Obama sets the tone as warm and hospitable. So Dowling evokes that emotional connection through floral arrangements which are "quintessentially American." The White House bouquet is loose and relaxed. The First Lady likes modern, thoughtful, vibrant creations with cultural reflection. And surprise!

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