Spruce up your home for the holidays

Local florists offer advice, merchandise and tricks of the trade

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By LINDA DOWNING MILLER

Making a home look festive for the holidays is a tradition for many families, but the proposition can be daunting from a time, money, and planning perspective. With Martha Stewart behind bars, where can a creativity-challenged home-owner turn?

Local florists offer a range of solutions to fit different styles and budgets, from full-service decorating to "to go" bags of fresh greens.

Marge Ericksen, who owns Oak Park's Mixed Company with partner Jean Wilson, encourages people to come in to the shop and browse. Mixed Company moved from Marion Street to Chicago Avenue last summer, to accommodate more displays.

"Our display is a big part of our business," she said. "I want you to come in and say, 'That would be beautiful for my mantel.' We have an 11-foot-long table set up in the store. Yesterday it was all red and green. Today it's silver."

Ericksen explained that fresh arrangements are custom and not "sitting around," but much can be done with artificial garlands, berry wreaths, ornaments, candles, dish ware, and other items in evidence in the shop. She recommends a mix.

"I think there is nothing like fresh flowers. If it's an occasion, if you are inviting your friends over for dinner, everybody feels special when you have flowers," she said.

For the holidays, Ericksen cited tulips, amaryllis, roses, and hydrangeas as attractive choices. She suggested that customers looking for a custom arrangement come into the shop with a general idea in mind and relevant dimensions.

"I need something dramatic for my mantel" is all it takes to get started.

Ericksen noted that the quality of artificial greens has improved significantly from "what your grandmother had on the table."

"I see no reason why you have to have a fresh green wreath above your fireplace," Ericksen said. "We have some wreaths that will blow you away, and they're artificial."

Michael Thorpe, manager of the Carriage Flower Shop on the Marion Street mall, echoed this sentiment. He mentioned one 9-foot artificial garland the shop sells for $100.

"Most people are using artificial greens now, because they last a lot longer and they are much better than they used to be," he said. "We have people that store them and reuse them again. We have a lot of pretty, wired ribbons. Sometimes they'll change the ribbons each year."

For an hourly rate of $50 per staff person, Carriage Flower Shop will come to a client's home, provide decorating advice, and do the installation.

"We'll kind of get a sense of their style," he said. "Do they want traditional red and green or do they want something more unusual, something more tailored to their tastes?"

Thorpe recalled a client with a three-story staircase who wanted the entire railing decorated with garland and lights. The shop has tackled projects ranging from $100 to several thousand.

Schereck Designs, a few storefronts away from Carriage Flower Shop, also decorates customers' homes.

"We'll do their dining room tables. We'll do their entranceways, staircases, kitchensâ€"any room that they are basically entertaining in," said manager Mary Jo Clark. "A lot of times they want to use their own things. We'll incorporate our things with theirs."

Three of the homes on the Infant Welfare Society's Holiday Housewalk last weekend featured creations from Mixed Company. Ericksen estimated those budgets ranged from $800 to $2,000, though for the fundraiser her shop typically offers a price break and donates one itemâ€"a mantel display or table centerpiece.

Ericksen tries to complement a home's architectural style and decor. For one of the housewalk homes, a Frank Lloyd Wright mansion, she used a lot of whites and ivories as opposed to reds and greens. The goal was to "try to make it look festive but to fit in with the time of the house."

Ericksen valued one dining table display, featuring square, low dishes, greens, and a profusion of ranunculus flowers ($3 each), at $500.

Decorating on the cheap
Budget-conscious consumers should not lose heart, however.

For $20, Mixed Company offers "Christmas in a bag," a selection of fresh greens from a supplier in Wisconsin that Ericksen swears by. She noted that the supplier cuts the greens one day, then drives them the five hours to her home in Elmhurst in the middle of the night, to avoid traffic.

"We hear his cattle truck," she said.

Carriage Flower Shop sells fresh swags for $20 to $25 that include a large bow and ornaments, as well as small live trees (dwarf Alberta spruce) from $35 on up. Bunches of mixed evergreens are available for $7 or $8.

"If you put that in a really pretty vase, just that by itself is very pretty and fragrant," Thorpe said.

Homeowners can make fresh greens in a vase last for several weeks, if they keep them away from heat and change the water every few days. Thorpe recommended mixing in red roses for an easy holiday arrangement. A coffee table can be enhanced with a simple bowl of interesting ornaments. An attractive mirror can be topped with beaded garland, sold at Carriage Flower Shop in reds, greens, or clear crystal.

For fresh arrangements, the shop uses a lot of white and pink lilies, amaryllis, and magnolia foliage. At Schereck, Clark mentioned amaryllis, red cyclamens, and traditional poinsettias.

Ericksen advises customers to focus on a few key areas. She emphasized that most arrangements on display at Mixed Company can easily be recreated at home.

"I think people get carried away sometimes with holiday decor. They think every corner has to have a Santa Claus, so to speak. I think that you can have two or three phenomenal pieces. I think it's more about drama.

"Always put something on your entrance door," she added. "That makes a statement to the people driving by and the people coming up your walk."

"A lot of people have cement pottery or urns in front of their homes," Thorpe observed. "We do a lot of decorating with winterberry, seeded eucalyptus, [things] that they can keep all through January."

Inside, "stand back and look at your house," Ericksen suggested. "Are you doing a lot of entertaining? Maybe you want to concentrate on the table."

Ericksen compared holiday decorating to the process of furnishing a home.

"It's an evolution. You don't have to do it all in one year," she said.

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