As farm stands fill with mums and pumpkins, flower designer Jo Oliver is imagining new ways to bring the changing of the seasons into her home.

“I always like to avoid the cliches of fall,” she says. “Why not elevate your pumpkin and change up your colors?”

Instead of the traditional oranges and burgundys, Oliver takes inspiration from the subtle changes of color and texture she sees in the rolling hills and the fading gardens around her 1820 farmhouse in West River, Maryland, 30 miles east of Washington, D.C.

“I love the colors of the moody blue skies this time of year, the way the plants look after the first frost, the golds of the cornfields after harvest and the purplish shadows at twilight,” Oliver says. This year, as Thanksgiving approaches, her front porch, wide entry hall and dining room are filled with pumpkins of all sizes painted in dusty shades of pale blue, mustard, gray and biscuit. Roses, hellebores and thistle are massed on her dining table and sideboard in delicate purple, navy and cream. And her blue and white china collection inspired her hand-drawn, transferware-style pumpkins and a wreath made of plates.

Jo Oliver’s collection of blue and white china inspired her blue and white pumpkins, which she painted and drew on with a navy blue Sharpie. Photographed Oct. 21, 2019, in West River, Md. (Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey).
Jo Oliver’s collection of blue and white china inspired her blue and white pumpkins, which she painted and drew on with a navy blue Sharpie. Photographed Oct. 21, 2019, in West River, Md. (Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey).

Last year Oliver, her husband, Robb Stout, and their 3-year-old daughter moved from their Washington, D.C., bungalow to a white clapboard house that was once a parsonage. She also relocated her flower studio, Flower Guild 1820, and now creates arrangements for individual clients, weddings and other special events in a Maine-style barn next to her home. She also offers classes.

Oliver says if you want to change up your Thanksgiving (or any holiday look), go to a garden center with a plan and a color palette in mind. “It’s hard to imagine a different approach when you are already in the store and the aisles are filled with orange and black things,” she says. “Check out your own yard first, and make a list of greens, leaves, branches, pine cones and pods that you can use.” Figure out what colors you’re drawn to and how you could supplement with fruits, vegetables, berries, rose hips or herbs, she says.

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“Think outside your normal field of colors,” she says. If you’re going to choosing some paint for your DIY projects, have an idea what you want before you get to the wall of chips, “otherwise you will be paralyzed by the options,” she says. “Think of the way colors relate to each other.” After deciding on her own palette for this year, inspired by the farms, water and sky around her town in autumn, she want to a Benjamin Moore store and selected Evening Dove, Gossamer Blue, Mustard Field and Creamy Custard. The grayish blue related to her great-grandmother’s Wedgwood Queensware plates, which are grayish lavender and used for special occasions.

Oliver experiments with new ideas for seasonal decorating and makes sure she has a changing display of flowers and other plants. “I enjoy changing it up. But of course, people also do expect it from me when they come over.”

Here’s a peek at some of Oliver’s projects, with plenty of ideas for getting out of your own autumn decorating rut.

The front porch of Jo Oliver’s home is dressed for the season. Over the years she has bought hanging metal baskets from Terrain to hold gourds and pumpkins. Photographed Oct. 21, 2019, in West River, Md. (Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey).
The front porch of Jo Oliver’s home is dressed for the season. Over the years she has bought hanging metal baskets from Terrain to hold gourds and pumpkins. Photographed Oct. 21, 2019, in West River, Md. (Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey).

Painted pumpkins

Oliver painted a few dozen tiny pumpkins in the four shades she selected. She bought sample-size Benjamin Moore cans (one pint) of each color. She suggests finishing off the pumpkins with a clear coat of enamel gloss spray paint if you plan to keep them in an unprotected outdoor area. For her blue transferware pumpkins, she first painted them chalky white using Glidden General Purpose Primer. Then she switched to a navy blue medium Sharpie to complete her vision. “My experience was that the bumpiness of the pumpkin makes it easier to do a design using a Sharpie instead of a brush,” she says. “I drew out my motif and then filled it in freehand.”

Ceiling medallion wreaths

The 19th-century ceiling medallion in Oliver’s dining room was the inspiration for her front-door wreath. She looked online for PVC copies of period medallions and found a 16-inch-diameter medallion on Amazon. She painted it with three of her Benjamin Moore colors, then sprayed several dozen dried natural wheat stalks with gold paint. She traced the medallion on a piece of cardboard, cut it out and then hot-glued the wheat all around it. The cardboard was glued to the back of the medallion. In the center, she placed a six-inch Oasis wreath ring with viburnum berries, carnations, ilse roses, seckel pears and greenery.

Special-occasion holiday flowers are lush but keep a low profile. The Wedgwood came from Jo Oliver’s great-grandmother. Photographed Oct. 21, 2019, in West River, Md. (Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey).
Special-occasion holiday flowers are lush but keep a low profile. The Wedgwood came from Jo Oliver’s great-grandmother. Photographed Oct. 21, 2019, in West River, Md. (Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey).

Centerpiece

For the rectangular table in her dining room, Oliver demonstrated a long, low-profile arrangement that she would display for fancier fall occasions. She bought two double-brick plastic floral trays and fitted them both with a pair of well-soaked Oasis bricks using waterproof tape. She layered in some greenery as a base, then used wooden skewers to attach roses in smoky shades: Lavender Latte, Coffee Break (terra-cotta), Marvel (cream) and Turtle (yellow). She added thistles, sunflowers, carnations, hellebores, clematis, viburnum berries and seckle pears. The result is a lush arrangement of many different shapes, colors and textures.

“I worked from left to right across the arrangement, being sure to turn the arrangement around as I worked, so both sides were balanced, she says. “As you’re working, it’s also important to step away from the arrangement and look at it from a distance. This helps you to see if there are any areas to add pieces. It’s sometimes good to squint your eyes a little to see if you need more ‘pops’ of lighter colored flowers anywhere in the arrangement.”

Using a wire wreath base, Jo Oliver created a display of her blue and white plate collection. Photographed Oct. 21, 2019, in West River, Md. (Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey).
Using a wire wreath base, Jo Oliver created a display of her blue and white plate collection. Photographed Oct. 21, 2019, in West River, Md. (Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey).

Plate wreath

Oliver wanted to create a focal point on the dining room wall, so she selected some blue and white vintage plates from her collection. She attached wire plate hangers on the back of each plate and wired them all onto a 24-inch wire wreath frame. She drilled holes in the painted mini pumpkins and popped a few in the arrangement. She plans to change those out seasonally, adding boxwood cuttings for December and then succulents for the new year.