The Christmas Whisperer
Finding seasonal charms at Larry Richardson’s Plants and Answers in Greensboro
By Cynthia Adams • Photographs by Amy Freeman
No matter how tired Larry Richardson is after weeks of bombing his way across the Triad with yards of garlands and gobs of glittery bits for clients of his two businesses, he dives down into the basement of Seven Oaks, his 1925 historic home in Greensboro’s Sunset Hills, to begin hauling out his collection of custom-made Santas, hand-blown glass balls.
Seasonal décor is his thing, Richardson says. He adores the celebration, the decoration and the creativity. “I love it,” he says, smiling widely. He will practically give a tutorial if you happen into his floral shop or nursery, Plants and Answers, or The Little Greenhouse. Inside The Little Greenhouse, Richardson has set up vignettes loaded with ideas, all gussied up for the holidays. He knows what is trending and how to achieve the look for less.
And he prides himself on knowing what his clients like, and what will work with their interiors. Call him the Christmas Whisperer.
“Clark Goodin, my partner, is really good with the floral end of the business,” Richardson says. “He does everything fresh and a lot of Christmas arrangements; cut tulips, et cetera. And lots of roses. For whatever reason, roses are big at Christmas.”
Mantels are one of his specialties. Personally, he decks his own halls with collectibles. At home, for example, Richardson decorates with Bactrian camels, a mainstay. But he can help anyone take their style up a notch or two. It is all, he says, about being resourceful, embracing Mother Nature’s freebies and piling on the beauty.
Mantels, stairways and tabletops should be unified, he says, for best effect.
“You start with the basic on the mantels, what texture or greens you want to use, whether magnolia, pine or spruce, depending upon your interior.” Next, he says to determine the color you want for an accent. With homes that have lots of color, go with neutral tones, like gold, or brushed gold. Or try using, Richardson suggests, “what some call French bronze. That is always good to use, it’s current and goes with anything.”
In homes that aren’t already bristling with color, he says, “if you want a pop of color, go with reds, or whatever works with your Christmas décor.”
Richardson says take a cue from what you already love and use in your personal space before you start to decorate. As he reminds, “Christmas comes in after the fact, after you’ve done your home décor.” So how does one proceed?
Be observant; train the eye. Notice patterns within your own home choices and play off those. “I take a look at colors in oriental carpets, that kind of thing, and try and bring the color in the floor into the décor, for inspiration,” he says. “I try not to introduce a lot of elements, but enough to tie it all together.”
For his own mantel-top creation, he inserted a Christmas quail inside an evergreen wreath that he hangs on a mirror. The quail, he says, is understated and less conspicuous than something more stark, such as that ubiquitous decorative item, the white dove. Sometimes he works a garland of pine cones through a green garland to add a layer of textures.
Then, he sprinkles in some magic effect with simple additions: “I try to add texture with berries, cones, and natural elements. Lots of berries are preserved for decorating.”
Richardson says you also can add drama and still spare the budget if you are resourceful and hit Mother Nature’s supply house. “I add those elements, then I like to mix in other leaves, like magnolia leaves that last for a while, to add more texture and add some grounding to it.” Heavier foliage, he says, helps ground the design. “I try not to be too much over the top, so it looks like it might naturally be there, lends itself to the interior.”
What is trending now? “To add pizzazz: a good thing is to use silver and gold together now.” Brushed gold and brushed silver are popular and “go well together with different shades of green. It lifts it up,” Richardson says. And, it’s a safe bet for those who are timid about experimenting with brighter hues.
A lot of people are afraid of color and rightly so: “If you get too carried away, it confuses the eye,” he says. “Always go with less-is-more when it comes to adding color: Think of the greenery as the base. Add texture with berries and cones.”
Then, keep the theme and carry the outdoors inside. “Whatever you do on the mantel, tie it in with your door and stairs,” he says. “Use similar textures and colors. You can carry that further to the dining room centerpiece: Do the door, mantel, and dining room centerpiece and follow that theme, and your house should be done.”
It’s too easy to break the budget when holiday swag appears in media and shops and entertaining kicks into high gear. There’s also a paucity of time for working folk who may have to entertain the boss, their book club and host an open house.
Richardson has a simple tip: Simply add or subtract a few items. “If you entertain the same people for another function, do a change for the mantel and it will be completely fresh. Use the same base of greenery; replace the color in the balls and berries. Those are the only things you’ve changed — and do the same for your tabletop. In five minutes, it will look completely new.”
He says he personally learned to be resourceful from his mother, who was a wizard of improvisation and thrift. “In our yards and landscape, all around us, we have things that can be brought in and used. You can use a permanent type base of greenery and add natural elements from your yard.” It doesn’t have to be bought, he insists. There’s a lot you can do to create color. You can take English walnuts and add those to your base of greenery and consider using spray paint: When he was younger and on a budget, he says he discovered spray painting magnolia leaves as a thrifty way to add sparkle to his home. “At the time, there weren’t a lot of commercial things available. It was an invention of necessity to do something different.” He recalls his mother making him a Christmas tree out of wood, putting it in a clay pot and adding a red bow.
Richardson observed how his mother would transform their home with imagination and resourcefulness. “My mother was creative. She would know how to reinvent the wheel if she had to . . . always doing things from a creative standpoint, from arranging flowers to making things at Christmas.”
She inspired his own cheerful self-reliance.
“It’s like the old saying, you get lemons, you make lemonade. In her case, she made something beautiful. That’s what really counts. How it makes you feel. When you are doing something that makes you happy!”
Yet, he also laughs at a few misfires. Richardson remembers when his father had a real holiday flop. “I’ll never forget when my daddy tried to make a wreath with running cedar; he made a coat hanger round. Then, he wrapped and wrapped it . . . it was like a Charlie Brown Christmas! But, I hung it in my room.”
Don’t be discouraged by occasional missteps. And don’t let a price tag drag you down either, the holiday lover says. For example, Richardson says magnolias, high in drama and bronze beauty on the leaves’ reverse sides, are quintessentially Southern. But while magnolia garlands and wreaths are pricey elsewhere in the nation, magnolia trees are abundant in the Triad. All you have to buy is the pine roping. Before you know it you’ve got a garland that goes over your mantel.” Fresh greenery, though, does have a limited shelf life: ”Sometimes, when using fresh magnolia you’re better off not doing it more than 10 days out.
For the budget conscious, Richardson encourages creativity as the best of all approaches. “One of the prettiest things that people can do, is natural.” He says he adores simple table tableaus made by a combination of greens and amaryllis. “I love amaryllis. When I was a child I gave my grandmother an amaryllis. She had never seen one, and she could watch it grow. Amaryllis is one of those special things that come back to me.” Subtle contrast, subtle pops of color sing, Richardson says.
As for Christmas trees, he has a weakness for them. So what’s new? “The trend that I’m seeing with trees is the mixture of gold and silver. That’s the big thing. It used to be choosing either gold or silver.” The combination is new, he says. “It works. And it’s very pretty.”
In his own home, he places multiple trees, festooned with antique, hand-blown glass balls, oodles of baubles and yards of garlands. If one tree is good, surely multiples are better — some rooms feature several, both tabletop and full-sized. Each tree is different — some are fresh. Some are bottlebrush trees. Some are metallic.
Richardson has amassed antique Christmas collectibles for years, and so the devoted collector and designer spills them across fireplace mantels, hearths, stair rails, doorways and glass beauties twinkle from tabletops and buffets.
It’s kind of magical,” he reflects.
Sure, he loves gold–and red and green and pink. He follows trends but at home, he cannot resist the tug of things he has gathered and discovered.
One of his favorite Christmas trees of all time? He scored it for $5 at a yard sale. And he places it in his third floor study where he and Goodin can relax, after the last Christmas Day’s guest departs, and watch the color wheels turn.
Plants and Answers, 700 W. Market St., Greensboro. Open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. (336) 274-8909 or plantsandanswersflorist.net. Larry Richardson loves it when customers share photos of their holiday decorations.