In the spring and summer, Barbara Svoboda's extensive gardens overflow with fragrant herbs and deliciously hued flowers. In the fall, those same flowers hang from the rafters and deck the drying racks in her basement workshop. By Christmas, most of those plants -- if they haven't been played to pieces by Dusty the kitten -- will have been incorporated into delicately earthy herbal wreaths.
These are not the wreaths many think of this month, made of evergreen or pine cones and decked with big red bows. Instead of greeting your holiday party guests at the front door, these wreaths make a gentle decorating statement, touching a room with country charm and just a hint of summer-garden fragrance.
Ms. Svoboda, a tiny woman who looks as delicate as her wreaths, teaches art in two Anne Arundel County elementary schools. She is also a "crafty" person with a talent for making things with her hands, and has an affinity for gardening, and both of these skills came into play when, several years ago, she turned her attention to wreath making.
"In taking various basket-making courses, I would run into someone who was an "herb person," she says with a smile. "I was really intrigued, because it sounded so mysterious!"
She began her study of herbs when she moved to the Catonsville house (with almost an acre of grounds) she shares with her husband McGregor and the mischievous Dusty.
"I read everything I could on the subject, and I took a little course at Willow Oak Herb Farm [in Severn]. It was through Anne Arundel Community College, but it was held at the herb farm every Monday. It was one of the most wonderful courses I've ever taken. Maria Price, who runs the farm, is an ex-teacher, so she knew how to teach well, and had lots of expertise in growing the herbs and using them. Every week we would have a different kind of herb tea, and we'd make potpourri and wreaths."
Ms. Svoboda added to her new-found knowledge with lots of research and experimentation, and visits to every herb grower she could find. And she began to plant her own herbs and "everlastings," flowers grown especially for drying.
"I started out with whatever I could find the most easily," she explains. "Somebody gave me a few kinds of mint, and oregano, and some yarrow. I just sort of plunked them in. As I got more expertise on what to grow I started expanding, and every year I add a new level to my herb garden."
Her wreath-making is a seasonal cycle that begins every year shortly after the Christmas season, when the seed catalogs start arriving.
"It's kind of fun, because in November and December you're so busy with the holidays that you wouldn't have time to look at them," she explains. "But when you have the after-holiday blues, your mailbox gets filled with wonderful catalogs telling you all about the wonderful things you can grow. I read them, pick out my seeds, and order right away."
Ms. Svoboda grows her annual and perennial seedlings -- including a new variety or two each year -- under grow-lights on a table in her workshop. In the spring, the seedlings are transferred to the garden to grow and bloom until the time comes to pick them for drying. The trickiest part, she says, is timing: some flowers at their peak may continue to open after they are picked.
The flowers and herbs are gathered into small bunches and suspended upside down to dry, either tied to the rafters or hung from a drying rack. (Out of the reach of Dusty's paws, of course.) The basement is not the optimum place for drying plants, because of its humidity, and Ms. Svoboda warns that if plants are tied in too-large bunches they can mold. But she has had few problems.
Although bases for wreaths are available in craft shops, Ms. Svoboda, who prides herself in supplying all her wreath-making materials herself, prefers to grow and make her own. Bases might be made of honeysuckle vine, which she pulls off her fence, or grapevine. If she doesn't have enough grapevine she will get it from grape-growing friends who are more than happy to let her cart away the excess vines. These vines are made into a base by shaping them into a circle and wrapping them with fine florist's wire. For a small wreath, she might wrap the vines around a cardboard oatmeal container to shape them.
choosing material for a wreath, she selects from among four categories: filler, and plants supplying accents of color, texture, and fragrance.
Fillers provide the wreath with both bulk and airiness. Excellent fillers for wreaths include baby's breath, silvery perennial artemisia, or the annual artemisia called sweet annie, which has a unique pungent-sweet odor.
Color might be provided by red celosia (which can be plumed or crested, the latter curved into brain-like folds), golden yarrow, lavender globe amaranth, or pink baby rosebuds. Ms. Svoboda admits to not growing the roses herself -- her grandmother grows them for her, in her garden in Elkridge.