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The magic of wreathmaking circles

Abby Evans with her completed horse head wreath at the Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton, Md., on Dec. 4, 2017.
Abby Evans with her completed horse head wreath at the Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton, Md., on Dec. 4, 2017. The Washington Post

There are two ways to make a Christmas wreath, and I don’t mean with either boxwood or fir.

You can assemble one as a solitary exercise. I did this last year and it was fun, but I worried about getting it right. The other way is to make it in a group of like-minded souls. This is more fun.

Getting it right is important too in this setting, but somehow not quite the defining aspect. Rather, it’s about the shared experience of attaching sprigs of greenery to frames, exchanging banter or woes, and making a memory or two.

Feeling the need to get into the spirit of the season, I recently sat in on a couple of holiday decorating sessions. They were 70 miles apart and unrelated, but they shared similarities.

Most of the wreathmakers were women, most of them at or approaching retirement age, and all were eager to help one another in a convivial setting.

Both events seemed like a quaint throwback to a time when people performed small but important social rituals. Well, they still do. It’s just that in an age when experiences seem defined and validated by screens, the gatherings are all the more precious, authentic and tangible.

The first was at Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton, Maryland, about 70 miles northeast. There, 35 volunteers spent a few hours producing table arrangements with such elements as slender candles, glittered pine cones, and boxwood-heavy compositions graced with such things as seeded eucalyptus, cedar and pine.

It is easy to get into the holiday spirit at Ladew. Its fun-loving creator, Harvey Ladew, has been gone these past 41 years, but he is still referred to as Mr. Ladew by the folks at the estate, and his spirit still haunts this cozy historic house and its famous gardens. In one room, his formal hunt ball tie and tails stand ready for action.

The greenery workshops were held in a separate barn housing the master’s painting studio and an adjoining cavernous space he used as his gallery.

On the day I showed up, the volunteers were on Day 5 of six days of making an array of decorations whose range and quantity were impressive and included boxwood and magnolia leaf wreaths, candled table arrangements, boxwood “trees,” kissing balls, swags and more. The house, which dates to 1747, was decorated separately.

The decorations went on sale during Ladew’s popular Christmas Open House held last weekend. Beforehand, the stockpile of finished decorations in the unheated gallery seemed a cross between Santa’s workshop and Aladdin’s cave.

In the studio, Julie Soutar was considering an arrangement rising from an oblong block of green florist’s foam. She began by putting in some dried pomegranates and an allium bloom sprayed gold, then added boxwood, cedar and seeded eucalyptus. Next to her, Gail Spalding was composing something with red twigs festooned with sequins -- they looked like cartoon deer antlers -- and dried apple slices.

“Gail and I know each other because our children, now in their mid-30s, were in the same class,” Soutar said. They both live in Forest Hill, Maryland.

As she spoke, the room was full of soft chatter from the crafters mixed with classic Christmas songs. The wooden floor was peppered with the detritus of discarded plant bits. Everyone seemed festively garbed: Spalding wore a white quilted vest over a holiday sweater. Soutar had a soft-pink sweater and a white silky scarf.

The third volunteer at the table was Cathy Harger, a retired grade-school teacher and onetime colleague of Spalding. This is Harger’s fourth year in the volunteer pool. She took stock of the moment: “The decorations, the music and the homemade soup -- it’s all very welcoming.”

“It does get you in the mood for the holidays,” Soutar said. Another benefit of arriving at the property: “My blood pressure drops.”

Spalding said the workshop will inspire her to make her own wreaths at home. “I’ll send pictures of whatever I make to my two boys. They will be so impressed.” After a pause, she added with a laugh: “That was a joke.”

At another table, two members of Ladew’s gardening staff -- Abby Evans and Amanda Armstrong -- were making boxwood wreaths in the shape of a horse’s head. The wreaths are popular in equine-mad Harford County but laborious to make. Dozens of boxwood sprigs must be wired to the armature. After a couple of hours, Evans was ready to add the finishing touches: a pine cone for an eye, pine needles as the mane, and a halter of ribbon.

The horse wreath is a fairly recent invention. But this assembly of crafters “is all very traditional,” she said, surveying the room. “It’s like how Christmas should be.”

My second sojourn was to suburban Prince George’s County, Maryland, where some 40 members of the Tanta-Cove Garden Club had gathered in the large, bright church hall at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Fort Washington.

For some longtime members, the annual wreathmaking day marks a tradition going back decades. Caroline Carbaugh, who joined in 1977, presented her finished boxwood wreath for inspection. She had inserted the freshly cut sprigs into a frame holding moist sphagnum peat moss wrapped in green tape, and the fine textured foliage ran in a neat clockwise direction, intertwined with juniper sprays. “When I was taught to make them, the woman said, ‘Make them flow around in a circle,’ “ she said.

The wreath, thus, becomes a metaphor for the club itself, perpetually in renewal. “Most members are people who have retired from their jobs, schoolteachers, federal workers,” said Connie Taylor. “If we hear someone is retiring, we target them.”

One such recruit was Zsara Hamlin, who joined in January and was producing her first wreath, extravagantly full of English boxwood. Her garden club apron was bright pink, so it took a while to see that she was also wearing a particularly festive ensemble. It included a Mrs. Santa Claus sweater, Santa boots with fur-cuffed socks and a necklace of miniature Christmas tree lights. “I love learning new crafts,” she said. “This is a fine group of ladies.”


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