Story: Deana Nall | Styling: Mandy Keener |
Chris Olsen’s favorite season is no mystery. At Little Rock’s Botanica Gardens, his home and garden design store, rich autumn colors go on display by mid-summer. In his own West Little Rock home, the landscape designer and entertaining expert concocts warm, hearty fall recipes in his kitchen. And his home décor becomes a harvest of reds, oranges and yellows that usher in crisp afternoons and cool evenings.
Olsen believes autumn is meant to be shared, and opening his home to friends marks the change of seasons. Garden parties, hosted in a freestanding dining pavilion he constructed using rustic materials, are one of the designer’s favorite ways to entertain. Olsen shares his tips for an autumn-inspired get-together.
The Season’s Bounty
With their varied sizes, colors and textures, pumpkins, gourds and Indian corn provide a naturally beautiful way to decorate for fall. Olsen offers guidelines for using these seasonal favorites:
Mix up colors and textures. Use smooth gourds with ones that have a textured appearance, and solid color gourds with ones that are striped.
“I keep the stems and leaves on my pumpkins and gourds, and I’ll even leave the dirt on them,” says Olsen. “I love a natural look.”
Grocery stores will have jack-o’-lanterns and some mini pumpkins. For wider variety, go to a locally owned garden center or a grower.
Remember that pumpkins and gourds can rot. They don’t always last until Thanksgiving, especially if they’re outside. For decorating inside, put them on a platter or base instead of placing them directly on a table. Buy extras and fill in as needed to replace ones that rot.
Look for pumpkins or gourds with the thickest skins, which tend to last longer. Avoid pumpkins and gourds with blemishes and cuts that will rot more quickly.
When buying Indian corn, make sure it has all the kernels and that the kernels are firm and not falling apart. Inspect for insects as well.
Olsen recommends exploring different pumpkin varieties and the decorating possibilities they hold. The Cinderella pumpkin, for example, is flat on the top and bottom, which allows for stacking. They come in a variety of colors and textures, and are concave on top, providing the perfect spot for a floral touch. “Leave the stem on and, using seasonal colors like pansies, mass a few plants together on top of the pumpkin. Cover the root balls with sheet moss, and it looks like a potted pumpkin.”
In addition to pansies, several other fall plants complement seasonal pumpkins and gourds.
For a colorful centerpiece, arrange Gerbera daisies with an assortment of pumpkins on top of a pumpkin-orange tablecloth.
Kalanchoes are another easy-to-find floral, available at most grocery stores. To display them, Olsen opts for a slightly aged terra cotta pot. “Takes an old pot and brush it with a white glaze, then use a moist paper towel to blot some of the glaze, and it gives the pot a limed look,” he says. “Fill the pot with a few kalanchoes, tuck in a small pumpkin and some moss, and you have a look that’s great Halloween through Thanksgiving.”
Mums also provide classic fall color, and Olsen prefers to group them with something unexpected—firewood. “I use firewood stacked as pedestals for pumpkins and gourds,” he says. “Then I add mums in terra cotta pots, and it’s a unique grouping of fall favorites, with mixed textures and colors.”
While mums provide color, their beauty can be short-lived. “Mums only last about three weeks,” Olsen says. “For a look that lasts from Halloween to Thanksgiving, you’ll need to replace mums mid-season.”
Remember that greenery can provide a lush backdrop for fall color. Boxwoods are inexpensive and add contrast with alternating white and orange mini-pumpkins around the base. And for the truly unexpected, mix in some tropical plants. A limelight dracaena features chartreuse shades of green that can beautifully complement a display of orange pumpkins.
“I love using potted Gerbera daisies,” Olsen says. “You can buy them at the grocery store, and they last longer than cut flowers.”
Incorporating unique elements is at the core of Olsen’s decorating philosophy. “Look at magazines to get ideas, but feel free to express your unique style. Mix in your own antiques or your grandmother’s china. Use elements that mean something to you.”
Olsen also advises fighting the urge to coordinate tableware. “Don’t go to the store and buy everything that matches,” he says. “You want to mix and match for a casually pretty look. Sometimes it’s trial and error to come up with a blend you like.”
Candles add warmth and color, and Olsen suggests battery-operated versions for easy outdoor use. “The candles are real wax but use battery-powered lights instead of wicks,” he adds. “They even have timers, so you can set them to turn on every evening for a few hours.” The candles are available at Botanica Gardens, as well as other specialty shops.
Because no flame is present, you can wrap these candles in leaves with no risk of fire. “I use real leaves and a couple drops of hot glue,” Olsen says. “That way, when you remove the leaves, you can peel off the glue.”
Chris Olsen’s tips for a Harvest Feast
- Greet your guests and set the stage for the bounty to follow with the scent of something delicious simmering on the stovetop, such as this hearty sausage stew, a versatile recipe featuring warm spices, artichokes, potatoes and any sausage you choose. “This stew has a little bite to it,” Olsen says. “You can use it as an appetizer or as a meal, depending on what you pair with it.”
- Because fall decorating and cooking calls for pumpkins, don’t forget to save the seeds. “I love pumpkin seeds,” Olsen says. “Just warm and spice them up—I use paprika and bake them.”
- Fruit can be overlooked when planning fall menus. But the autumn table has a place for refreshing fruit, especially in a festive and vibrant dish such as Zesty Cranberry Autumn Salad. “The color is wonderful,” Olsen says. “It has the hues of fall: red, orange and various shades of green.”
- For dessert in the South, you can’t go wrong with pecans. Olsen opts for petite pecan tarts using simple ingredients and nestles them into a bed of candy corn. “I love using candy,” Olsen says. “I scatter candy corn on the table. It looks good, and while you’re talking, you can nibble on it.”
- Drinks can be matched to the autumn spirit too. Dress up bottles of cream soda with dried cornhusks, available at specialty grocery stores. Olsen attaches the husks to the bottles with hot glue and secures with pieces of green raffia. Guests can pour the soda into glasses of ice or drink from the bottle.
Hearty Sausage Stew
2 packages sausage; Olsen prefers a mix of Cajun and turkey
1 red onion, chopped
4 redskin potatoes, chopped
3 14-ounce cans stewed tomatoes; Olsen prefers Italian style with basil and oregano
2 14-ounce cans artichoke hearts, drained and chopped
10 fresh mushrooms, chopped
3 cups water
1 ½ tablespoons Italian seasoning
½ teaspoon oregano
½ teaspoon basil
A pinch of garlic powder
Brown the sausage, add the onion and brown as well, cooking for a few minutes until the onion is softened. Add the remaining ingredients and simmer on the stovetop until the potatoes are cooked. Olsen suggests simmering for several hours for full flavor, and adding water if the mixture becomes too thick.
Garnish with any flavor of cheese and fresh basil and serve.
Zesty Cranberry Autumn Salad
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
1 cup pistachios (shelled)
3 cups fresh cranberries
2 small cans mandarin oranges
1 cup feta cheese
2 sprigs fresh rosemary, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh basil
Mix all the ingredients together gently until fully blended. Serve on a bed of lettuce. Makes 6-8 servings.
Baked Pumpkin Slices
Thin slices of white ghost pumpkin
½ cup fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh thyme
Salt (to taste)
Pepper (to taste)
Preheat oven to 385 degrees. Cover baking pan with aluminum foil. Coat both sides of pumpkin slices with white wine and then coat with the remaining ingredients and place in baking pan. Cover with foil and bake 10 to15 minutes. Let cool and serve topped with roasted winter squash seeds.
Roasted Winter Squash Seeds
1 cup winter squash seeds, from acorn or butter nut squash or pumpkin
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
2 sprigs fresh rosemary, chopped
½ teaspoon thyme
A squeeze of fresh lemon to taste
Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil. After removing the seeds from the squash or pumpkin, rinse with water and remove any strings or bits of squash. Pat dry and place in a small bowl. Add the remaining ingredients and toss until evenly coated. Spread out in an even layer on the prepared baking sheet. Bake for 15 minutes, or until seeds start to pop. Remove from oven and cool on the baking sheet before serving.
Chris’s Tasty Sweet Pecan Tarts
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon vanilla
Pinch of salt
1 cup chopped pecans
8 tart shells
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Combine the first six ingredients in a mixing bowl. Mix well. Stir in chopped pecans. Spoon mixture into tart shells. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes. Garnish with whipped cream and pecan halves.