It’s Thanksgiving morning.  What have you forgotten?

You’ve thrown the turkey in the oven, the stuffing is made and on its way to being glorious, and your sister is bringing the rolls and jello. In a few minutes the game and/or parade will start blaring from the living room and you can start to relax.

Or not.

The table.  You forgot to decorate the table! And that little grocery store bouquet you bought on Tuesday night looks woefully inadequate – even if you threw a couple candles around it.

Remain calm.  You’ve got this.


From berries to seed heads to the foliage of plants still vibrant – this colorful arrangement is a wealth of texture and color and was put together within ten minutes of collecting the materials – who knows what it could be with twenty?


Some of my very best tablescapes are made up of the things I have in my garden, my refrigerator, my pantry and my home  – and no table is better suited to this kind of decorating than the Thanksgiving table.  Thanksgiving marks both the end of the growing season and the holiday season to come, bringing our family and friends around that table to celebrate it.  Outside our windows the world is dying back and preparing for winter, and it’s doing so in a muddle of browns, greens, ochres, oranges and reds.


thanksgiving table arrangement, natural materials, decorating, thanksgiving

This arrangement is a celebration of not only my mother’s old turkey roaster, but the incredible diversity of the landscape around their home in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains.


If you try to think of the table as an illustration of those things – the exquisite beauty of Nature in all her shapes, textures and colors intertwined in a careless, joyful messiness – it’s hard to go wrong.


thanksgiving table decorations, natural materials, tablescapes

Fresh rosemary, pears, hydrangea, bittersweet and apples nestle together on a bed of miscanthus plumes in an old soap mold. (photo credit: Allison Walser)


You have to think outside the cornucopia.  A deconstructed landscape awaits reconstruction on your Thanksgiving table. Your mission: bring the best of the outdoors in.


Natural materials you’ll need to decorate your Thanksgiving table:

The materials we use depend upon the land around us – but they can also come from surprising sources such as our refrigerator (apples), our pantries (whole spices), or our cupboards (those lotus seed heads you’ve been holding onto).

When you go outside, pruners in hand, don’t look for the obvious florist-fodder that most likely won’t be there – you’ll only end up disappointed.  In fact, I rarely use any flowers in my arrangements. Instead, I look for shapes, for colors, and for textures.  Chances are that if it catches my eye outdoors – it will thrill me inside too.

Some suggestions to get the wheels turning:

decorating thanksgiving table, mushroom log, turkey tail on wood, natural decorating materials

If you’re lucky enough to come across a small log filled with turkey-tail fungi, grab it and work out how to use it later.

Ornamental berries
Pyracantha, holly (it’s not just for Christmas), beautyberry, viburnum, bittersweet, toyon.

Interesting branches, sticks & bark
Red osier dogwood, yellow twig dogwood, Florida dogwood, grapevine, bittersweet, willow, hazel, various hardwoods, manzanita

Mosses & lichens
Often you can find stones covered with them, or if you’re very lucky, long slender branches.

Fruits & vegetables
Osage oranges, rose hips, mini-pumpkins and other gourds, green apples and pears from the fridge,  papery-skinned onions and tight green Brussels sprouts from the pantry.

Acorns, hickory, walnuts, horse chestnuts and buckeyes.

Magnolia, thuja, juniper, camellia, chamaecyparis, pyracantha, privet, honeysuckle tendrils, ivy, tawny grasses, euonymus, aucuba, mahonia, evergreen herbs like rosemary and thyme.

Dried hydrangea flowers
From florist macrophyllas to sun-loving paniculatas.

Dried colorful leaves
They’ll last for a day in your arrangement, but if you think about it ahead of time, you can preserve your favorites with glycerin.

Seed heads
Foxtails, other grass plumes and panicles, teasel, coneflower, sea holly, sunflower, opium poppy, blackberry lily, ligularia.

Fern fronds
The brown, fertile fronds of ostrich and sensitive ferns. You’ll find these sticking up where your ferns used to be.



Thanksgiving table arrangements, thanksgiving, decorating, tablescapes

Don’t forget to have fun! These old jello molds reflect Thanksgivings past and create an informal look for a smaller table.


Things to think about when decorating your Thanksgiving table with natural materials

floral arrangement, tablescape, osage orange, hosta arrangement

Large arrangements can be very striking, but tend to impede conversation.

  • We want to be able to talk to each other over the table (at least I hope we do), and so I always try to keep tablescapes below eye-level. If I do have time to create a shock-and-awe floral arrangement in the center, it is removed when we sit down and replaced with something a little smaller.
  • If you use the entire center run of the table in your decorating – moving out lengthwise from a center point designated by a small arrangement – you can utilize long lines of interesting branches and enjoy placing objects in small groups along the run. This stops intense focus on a single arrangement often stuck awkwardly in the middle of the table.
  • The same is true of round tables – radiate out from a central point and consider bringing the arrangement to smaller points between place settings.
  • Use a piece of burlap, fabric or a table cloth folded lengthwise with ends tucked under to frame your arrangement. Mess with it a little – rumples and crannies are good.
  • Decide where you want candles (oh come on, this is the day for it!), and set them in place first. If you don’t have taper candles or don’t want them, tea lights in glass are almost better for a long tablescape.  Want to impress your son’s new hipster girlfriend?  Use small jam jars or other mason jars to hold the votives.  Tell her you were just using them to ferment something or other.
  • Blend the concept of ‘between the seasons’ as you tuck in branches and add a bit of greenery. Use earthy tones and textures to set the tone, but bring life to your ‘dormant’ tablescape with evergreen vibrancy – skipping the Christmassy spruces and firs for sprays of thuja and juniper.
  • If you’ve been given a Thanksgiving-themed bouquet – or bought one – pull it apart, grouping blossoms in threes to add a bit of floral magic in bud vases along your tablescape.
  • Group objects together into little scenarios – don’t space nuts every four inches down the table. Be as random as you can within the space.
  • If you have time – or can enlist a helper – add to the tablescape by tying a small piece of something you have gathered onto each napkin with raffia or twine, or leave it simply on its own. A bit of ivy, a foxtail…a tiny bit of lichen covered branch – you get the picture.
ivy on table, ivy, decorating tips, tablescape

The smallest natural accent on a napkin can make an entire table.


Above all, be brave.  Half of any decorating undertaking is believing in it. This is why I just saw three heads of cauliflower sitting starkly on a wooden table in the pages of a high-end magazine.  If they can do that and get away with it, we can mess around with a few branches and a bit of fruit.

Happy decorating – and Happy Thanksgiving!



A version of this article originally appeared in The Frederick News Post and is reprinted here with kind permission.