Diane Walden is a staff horticulturist at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens and the resident staff expert on making holiday garlands. She even teaches classes in how to deck your halls sustainably, using local vegetation, although right now the Boothbay institution is a little too busy with some crazy light show (you may have heard something about Gardens Aglow) to hold any classes. We called her up to see how she landed at the gardens and while we were at it, asked for a few tips on wreath-making, sustainably.

PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT: Walden has been making garlands and wreaths “for at least 30 years.” She started her career as an artist, which meant side gigs waitressing and gardening. That inspired her to go back to horticulture school, at Temple University’s campus in Ambler, outside Philadelphia. “Then I got hired in the industry and have been working in it ever since.”

NORTHWARD GAZE: She spent much of her career at an independent nursery in Pennsylvania, J. Franklin Styer. But in 2006, when she and her husband decided to move to Maine, with an eye toward eventual retirement, she was ready to make a shift. “I had spent 20 years on the wholesale-retail end of things, but I wanted to give back in the public sphere,” she said. “I wanted to be somewhere that was open to the public and educate and share all the wonders of the gardening world with the public.”

HOUSE & BOAT: They had very tangential connections to Maine. She dated someone at Bowdoin once, way back when she was a freshman in college. Her husband figured out he’d gone to Camp Kiev. “We had no family here, and we hadn’t been up to the state for decades.” But he had boats on the brain. “He started Googling boats and I started Googling houses.” The Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens had not yet opened, but “there was already a bubble of talk about this brand new botanical garden opening on the coast of Maine.”

Walden with boughs at her home. She encourages people to gather what they can, except invasive bittersweet, from around their homes to make sustainable wreaths and garlands.

COASTAL TOUR: The couple drove up and down the coast in late October, eyeing homes in Belfast, Stonington, Brooklin and Port Clyde, among others, before picking a house in Thomaston. “It had a beautiful view. And goutweed.” Along, she says, with “every single invasive known to Maine.” In Pennsylvania she’d had extensive flower beds, two that were 16 feet wide by 45 feet long, and from them, she opted to bring just three plants with her: two prized peonies and one hellebore. “I never met a peony that I didn’t like. Except the white tree ones that look like dirty handkerchiefs.” Was it hard to leave those gardens behind? Not as hard as you’d think. “The gardens had started to take over our lives. We would get home from work and we would garden for hours. It was sort of a relief to leave it.” Plus, she quickly found some new gardens, not her own, volunteering at the botanical gardens. “It took me several years to get on staff, but I have been working for the horticulture department for 10 years.”

WHIP IT GOOD: Walden quickly became a wreath- and garland-making champ at the gardens, creating festive arrangements for special events (for instance, the openings of the visitor center and the children’s garden). “Any big opening.” While she was describing wreath- and garland-making to us, we noticed that she kept using the verb whip. As in, “whip in some dried flowers or pinecones.” Is this a technical term in horticulture? Walden said she’s heard others use it, but to clarify: “When you whip in, you do your structure and then you add things, these wonderful little add-ons. Like the way a hairdresser might use bobby pins.” Now we get it.

THINK AHEAD: Walden likes to make her wreaths with found objects as much as possible, so she forages around her own property and elsewhere. She encourages planning for holiday wreaths earlier than you might imagine, snagging plants out of the garden before you break it down for the year. For instance, she likes whipping in dried hydrangea heads or the remains of a peony flower after the petals have blown away. Take “anything you think might look good as a wreath and hang it upside down in a cool, dark place” until you’re ready to make holiday decorations.

STORM LEFTOVERS: She’s also a big fan of using blown-down material, rather than cutting, and as Mainers know, there are a lot of blown-down branches left from the Oct. 30 windstorm. At Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, “we lost a number of big trees,” including a big balsam that had to be topped. Walden clipped from the top on the ground and made stacks for everyone’s use. She encourages anyone wanting to make a sustainable wreath or garland to take a look around their own property first. “Storms can be our friend.” At least when it comes to procuring white pine boughs.

SLOW FLOWERS: You will not catch Walden picking up a bouquet of bright green carnations from the supermarket. “Most of the arrangements I make here at the gardens are made only from Maine-grown or harvested materials.” When she gives classes at the gardens, she encourages her students to shop local for flowers. “I very much want to lead them down the slow flower path,” she says, “versus buying these flowers that come from Africa or Ecuador, Colombia, from all over the globe.” Particularly distasteful to her are the flowers that have been dyed. “These neons that don’t exist in the real world. It’s cheapened to something that is almost not really a flower.” She urges people to shop for local flowers at farmers markets. Sourcing can obviously be challenging during the winter months, which is why thinking ahead and drying flowers is helpful.

BIODEGRADABLE BEAUTY: Walden tends to skip mechanical devices, like the garland makers that crank out wire as you wrap a wreath. “I usually hand-build all of my garlands.” She favors waxed marine or hemp twine to wrap the greens onto a wreath ring, or to build a garland, because that “will naturally melt away.” The green, plastic-covered wire works undeniably well though, and she justifies that by re-using it as many times as she can.

DRAWING THE LINE: One thing Walden will never put in a wreath or garland? Bittersweet. The farther the bittersweet travels, the more potential for a bird to eat the berries, defecate the seeds and spread the pernicious vine. Bittersweet does look pretty in late fall, but Walden doesn’t succumb to the temptation, on principle. “I would hate to promote an invasive like that.”

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

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Twitter: MaryPols

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