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  • Writer's pictureMarni Jameson

Top 7 Tree Decorating Mistakes and Their Fixes

Let’s be honest. If the last time your holiday tree got a makeover was around the time you were watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” on video cassette, darling, it’s time for some tough-tree love.

I know, I know. You like the tradition of using the same decorations year after year. But using tradition to excuse your complacency is like calling yourself a saint when you’re really a doormat.

I’m talking to you.

Here to bust us both out of our holiday tree rut is floral designer Laura Dowling. I interviewed Dowling a few weeks ago for a column featuring her new book “Wreaths.” I then learned that Dowling, the former chief floral designer for the White House and author of “A White House Christmas,” was coming to my town to kick off the Orlando Museum of Art’s 32nd annual Festival of Trees.

The festival, which ends Sunday, Nov.18, showcases nearly four dozen trees designed to make you feel creatively impaired, but motivated. You will leave feeling both dazzled and dull.

I wangled a pre-opening tour and a visit with Dowling, who outfitted one of the trees, and who assured me, “You don’t have to give up your favorite, most sentimental ornaments when creating a new look for your tree, and you don’t have to spend a bundle.” (Phew!) The trick is to display your favorite ornaments by surrounding them with a new assortment of less expensive elements you can pick up at the craft store with a coupon.

Dowling then shared ways to refresh our firs, along with tips to avoid the seven most common tree decorating mistakes:

1. The Haphazard Tree. We’ve all seen the tree that features a lifelong, unedited collection of every bobble and bow with no thought to theme or color. (Maybe that tree is in your home?) That’s not going to be your best look, said Dowling. You need a concept. The inspiration can come from a place – the woods, the beach, Paris – or a passion – music, travel, sports, angels. The theme of Dowling’s festival tree, Virginia Hunt Country Christmas, reflects her home state, and features foxes, hounds and red cardinals (the Virginia state bird) amid lots of shiny ornaments and ribbon sprigs.

2. The Color Gone Rogue Tree. The most successful trees have a narrow color palette, she said. Stick with two to three colors, like red, gold and green; or lime, turquoise and silver. Always include a metallic. If your home has mostly cool colors, go with silver or champagne, if your home has warm colors, work in copper, bronze or gold. For her Virginia Hunt Country tree, Dowling used a palette of bright red, Kelly green, gold, and tartan plaid.

3. The Underlit Tree. However many lights you think you need, double it. The nine-foot artificial tree the museum provided Dowling to decorate came pre-lit with 900 white lights. She added another 750. Her insider lighting tip: Don’t wrap lights around a tree. Instead, start at the bottom and weave lights into the branches toward the trunk, then out again, and up, working in vertical sections.

4. The Superficial Tree. Putting all the decorations only on the outer edges of the tree is another common mistake. Don’t “frost” the tree. Instead, dive deep and hang larger, less expensive shiny ornaments deep inside near the trunk. Having lights there will illuminate the glass balls and create dimension.

5. The Runaway Ribbon Tree. Using ribbon is a terrific way to add color, movement and texture. But avoid cascading ribbons and too-trite bows, said Dowling. “Tree bows have a way of looking fussy, and you want to avoid those ribbons at the tree’s top that come trailing down.” (Is she talking to me?) Also avoid wrapping ribbon or garland around the tree in a spiral, or barber-pole style. Instead Dowling likes to cut 10-to-12-inch lengths of wire ribbon using angled cuts. She then pinches the middle, and attaches ribbons by their centers to tree branches at varied angles, bending the wings of the ribbon into soft waves.

6. The Lone Ranger Tree. Another fail is the tree that has nothing to do with the rest of the house. A tree should tie into a home’s décor, said Dowling. A modern metallic tree doesn’t work in a traditional home. To integrate the tree, decorate it with colors already in the house, and extend the tree’s motif into mantel arrangements, centerpieces and wreaths.

7. The Forgotten Top Tree. This tree either has no topper or a perfunctory angel or unimaginative star sits where the tree’s crowning statement should be. “The top of the tree should be a show stopper,” said Dowling. “Go all out.” Her favorite topper trick is to use a sturdy wire tomato cage, available at any garden center, and place the cone wide end down over the top of the tree. This provides a secure base to an often wobbly area. Affix strands of berries, ivy, flowers, ribbons, and a spectacular decoration at the top. Shoot for something handmade and personal that carries out the theme, said Dowling, who topped her Virginia Hunt tree with a paper mâché deer head covered in pinecone scales and adorned with gilded antlers.

“My hope is to inspire people to go beyond what they’ve always done,” said Dowling.


Make it relate – This tree, on display at the 32nd annual Tree Festival at the Orlando Art Museum through Sunday, Nov. 18, illustrates how a well-designed tree ties in with its surroundings. To get fired up for your fir this year, visit a Christmas tree festival near you. Photo courtesy of Marni Jameson.

Show-Stopper Topper -- A paper mâché deer head coated with pinecone scales and adorned with gilded antlers tops Laura Dowling’s Virginia Hunt Country Christmas tree, on display at the Festival of Trees in Orlando. Photo courtesy of Laura Dowling.

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