Award-winning garden designer Mark Grehan offers a few tips on making arrangements that will last the festive season
Seasonal arrangement by garden designer and florist Mark Grehan
Garden designer and florist Mark Grehan
Seasonal arrangement by garden designer and florist Mark Grehan. Photographs: Richard Johnston
As has long been the tradition in our household, next week we’ll go foraging in the garden and nearby woodlands for materials for Christmas decorations. Blood-red rosehips, glossy holly leaves, tangles of wild ivy, twiggy branches heavy with the last of the crab apples, branches of rosemary (for remembrance), bay leaves, resinous pine cones and skeletal seed-heads are some of the things I’ll be keeping a beady eye out for.
I dearly love this yearly ritual, not only because it represents a link with the past, but also because it’s a way of paying quiet homage to the beauty of the natural world, of celebrating the end of one gardening year and the beginning of another. That said, I’ve found that it’s all too easy to get stuck in a sort of rut when it comes to Christmas decorations, which is why I was pleased to come across the work of award-winning garden designer and florist Mark Grehan.
Galway-born Grehan grew up green fingered. His love of flower arranging developed in parallel, so that by the time he was a teenager, Grehan was already a member of the local floristry group and was making festive wreaths and garlands for sale in the nearby market. Showing remarkable prescience for a teenage boy, he also began planting a selection of shrubs – variegated hollies, silvery olearias, viburnums and pittosporums – to provide him with plenty of seasonal foliage in the years to come.
Later, he studied floristry at Kildalton College in Co Kilkenny as part of a general course in amenity horticulture before eventually striking out on his own. He now works both as an award-winning garden designer and as the proprietor of The Garden, the very charming garden and floristry shop at the entrance to Powerscourt Townhouse on South William Street.
Grehan’s arrangements are known for their sculptural yet organic, almost wild feel, as if the leaves, branches and flowers had been plucked from the hedgerow or garden that very day. In fact, they often have. Whenever he can, he uses materials gathered from the family plot or occasionally recycled from his small city centre allotment, whether it’s bundles of birch twigs fashioned into rustic wreaths, or the wispy, feather-light seedheads of the Pheasant grass Anemanthele lessoniana woven through an arrangement. “I like to use materials that are a bit different from what you’d see in a traditional florist’s shop,” he says.
For gardeners hoping to make their own decorations, he says: “I’ll always start off with a basic pencil sketch of what I’m trying to achieve, where I’ll decide on the shape and size of the arrangement. That way you’re less likely to make mistakes and you get a good sense of what will be needed as regards quantities. And make sure you’ve stocked up on some basic floristry equipment. A few reels of florist’s wire, tape, trays and a sharp secateurs will make the job a lot easier.”
Properly “conditioning” the plant material is also important. Grehan cuts this a day or so before using it – always at a sharp angle – before plunging stems and branches into vases of cold water to which he adds a small drop of bleach. If you’re using an oasis (the spongy phenolic foam used by florists to create arrangements) it’s also vital to soak this so it’s wet through to the centre. Don’t forget to keep it moist by topping it up throughout Christmas.
The container you choose will also have huge impact on the final design. Grehan regularly buys his second-hand, scouring charity shops, market stalls and even websites such as Ebay and DoneDeal. “This year, I’m using a lot of golden-coloured containers or antique glass bottles. But if you already have a lovely old vase that you’d like to use, but are afraid of getting it stained, simply line it with cellophane.”
For one seasonal arrangement, Grehan arranged a series of tiny medicinal bottles, of the sort that you might accidentally dig up in old gardens, against a window, filling them with sculptural twigs, faded fern fronds and the silvered, papery seedheads of honesty (Lunaria annua). For another, he used a rustic zinc jug filled with twisting birch twigs and several stems of ruby-red Amaryllis “Red Lion”, while in a third, an old earthenware jar was filled with pine branches, hyacinths and the purple-berried Callicarpa bodinieri “Profusion”.
A handful of bought flowers will also do a lot to pep up homemade arrangements. “I love the fact that keen gardeners who traditionally make their own Christmas arrangements will still come to my shop for a few select flowers to add to the mix,” says Grehan, pointing to vases filled with plump flowerheads of hydrangeas, delicate sprays of old-fashioned looking roses and starry astrantias. “They’ll add a fresh twist to traditional arrangements, but it’s still all about letting nature speak for itself.”
See thegardenpowerscourt.ie; for floristry equipment see woodiesdiy. com and Tip-Top (49 East Arran Street, Dublin 7, tel 01-873 1844). For ribbons, visit A Rubanesque in the Powerscourt Centre