How to Design a Winter Centrepiece
The floral designer Leah Gibson shares how she draws inspiration from nature for her arrangements. Step one: look closely at the world around you.
Text—Marie Charles Pelletier
Leah Gibson answers her phone after two rings. Her voice sounds soothing and refreshed — qualities, it seems to me, of someone who spends a lot of time outdoors.
This autumn, the floral designer packed her life into cardboard boxes and moved into a log home on an eight-acre patch of countryside in Perth, Ontario, where she and her partner plan to develop a large garden. For now, with its small ponds and big trees, the property is a prime sanctuary for the neighbourhood deer community.
“I saw eight of them this morning,” Gibson tells me with a laugh. “We’re really going to have to put up fences so that our plants don’t become a buffet.”
The new digs are a long way from the small studio apartment in Ottawa where she launched her business, Homebody Floral, in 2016, and which doubled as a nursery and flower shop between May and October every year.
Gibson’s approach to floral design draws from a profound connection to the natural world, which reaches back to her childhood growing up in a small town outside of Toronto. She spent her summers and weekends camping with her family, and her parents and grandfather kept gardens that she helped maintain.
“I spent a lot of time outside interacting with nature: catching salamanders, picking flowers (that I probably shouldn’t have), sitting in moss, swimming,” she recalls.
This sense of deep familiarity was clearly evident during a visit to BESIDE Habitat, where she was able to spend a few hours preparing a centrepiece with materials foraged from the Lanaudière forest: all her gestures evinced the sort of confidence that’s gained through long experience and keen affection for plants.
Want to explore a vast, protected forest in Lanaudière, Québec? Book your stay at BESIDE Habitat.Reserve
In university, Gibson studied philosophy, which has translated into an intuitive and contemplative approach to floral arrangements. Her schooling focused on art and aesthetics, exploring what humans are attracted to and the feelings we attach to beauty.
”Following university, I was feeling the void,” she admits. Unsure of her next steps, she took a job serving coffee at a local flower shop and gravitated toward the floral side of the space. At first she was simply cutting and cleaning stems and then putting them in water, but eventually that grew into designing bouquets.
“I’ll never forget the first day I got to touch the flowers in the shop,” she says. Her task was to process bunches of lavender, and she remembers calling her mom on the way home from work to tell her.
“I fell asleep that night with my palms smelling of lavender. I felt immediately this is what I was meant to be doing.”
Gibson has since evolved her own style of floral arranging, one that’s rooted in nature. “I want my designs to feel easy, calming, and nostalgic, not stagnant and forced,” she says. While it’s possible to make nice designs with flowers removed from nature (in a shop, imported from overseas), for her, it wasn’t until she really delved into growing and foraging flowers that she felt she truly understood her craft.
“Harvesting and using the flowers in ways that they’d appear in the field or garden made my designs come together more naturally,” she explains. “I felt that I knew the flower itself better and respected it in a new way — from seed to planting to bloom to compost.”
Five principles of nature-inspired floral designs
Want to start experimenting with your own arrangements that draw from the natural world? Here are a few things to keep in mind.
When she’s creating an arrangement, Gibson always tries to reflect the impermanence of nature: how it moves and changes and breathes. “I aim to mirror woods, meadows, and gardens, and not have anything feel too tight or inorganic,” she says.
“Nature has shown me that I can’t control everything,” says Gibson. In this spirit of unpredictability, don’t try to make your arrangements too neat and tidy. Let yourself — and your creations — literally go wild.
Making a commitment to seasonality means tuning in to all the seasons, not just high summer. Enjoy the flower when it’s in full bloom, but also before it opens, as it ages, and when it turns to seed. A flower is always beautiful — even as a sparse twig in late autumn — not just when it’s putting on a show.
Pay attention to the contrasts in how things grow, such as in clusters of different sizes or at varying heights. Plants progress through the stages of life at different tempos. Sometimes, a single plant can simultaneously display buds, blooms, and seeds. In fall and winter, keep an eye out for berries to bring bright colours to your designs.
Whether you make it with flowers or branches, an arrangement can be a way of holding a soft, safe space for people in a fast-paced, overstimulating world: “I want to create a moment of beauty that feels lighter than the rest of their day, even if just briefly.”
How to design a fall or winter centrepiece in five steps
Ready to begin? Here’s some advice from Leah to get you started creating your own arrangement, even if the warm summer days are behind you.
Go for a walk in nature, move slowly, and observe your surroundings. Learn the names of native species. Don’t pick anything until you can confidently identify it and make sure it isn’t toxic or endangered.
With a clean pair of snips or secateurs, cut a few stems or sprigs that catch your eye. Look for texture in seed heads and colour in the changing foliage, a cutting of fir or cedar, or maybe a branch with some lichen or a late-blooming aster to brighten up the palette. Give yourself enough length on your cut to provide options when arranging. But don’t forget the golden rule of foraging: always leave more than you take!
When you get home with your findings, you’ll want to remove the lower portion of leaves from any cuttings with foliage. This provides a clean slate to arrange with, ensures there aren’t any sharp thorns that could snag you while putting your arrangement together, and also keeps the water clear of bacteria that will shorten the lifespan of your creation.
Asymmetry is visually pleasing, so try arranging in odd numbers. It’s also a good idea to cluster different plant varieties together to mimic how they’d grow in the wild. Make sure to have different stems at different heights so that the result doesn’t feel too tight or unnatural. Relax into the process — tense hands reflect in your creation, and you want it to feel free and loose. Plus, arranging plants offers an opportunity to create a therapeutic and meditative moment. Now place it in a vase (with water if you’ve included any fresh flowers) and enjoy!
If your plants are in water, enjoy them for a few days to a couple of weeks by frequently refilling and refreshing the water supply. Pull out spent blooms as they go to enjoy it as long as possible.
When you’re ready to dry it, make sure you inspect and dry off the bottom of the stems to prevent mold from growing. You can hang your arrangement in a dark and well-ventilated corner of the home for a couple of weeks or until fully dried. If your bouquet was created of predominantly dried components to begin with, simply allow it to rest in its original vase and dust once in a while!