It’s a long-standing American tradition for homes to beckon trick-or-treaters with a candle-lit pumpkin on Halloween. But on the North Shore, the fall front stoop has evolved from the resting place of a hand-carved Jack o’ Lantern sporting a snaggletooth grin to complex displays of flowers, foliage and gourds of every color and shape. Homeowners are spending hundreds of dollars, and sometimes more, on stand-out, professionally designed planters and step displays.
Winnetka resident Amy Swartchild, a professional chef and floral designer specializing in outdoor arrangements and indoor table-scaping, uses materials she sources from pumpkin patches, farms and local stores, as well as found objects, such as branches, from her yard.
“I’m always inspired by the idea of the harvest,” said Swartchild. “The colors and textures are so different from the summer, and it’s fun to bring in hardy plants, gourds, pumpkins, kales and berries.”
Although some summer planters are still going strong due to the lingering heat, Swartchild’s clients typically change their urns and planters three to four times a year, and most are ready for a full switch of materials at this stage.
“Many customers will request arrangements that are symmetrical, like a fairytale of cascading pumpkins and gourds,” said Swartchild.
Landscape designer Ann McAveeney finds her inspiration from New England’s fall foliage, particularly the mountain ranges of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.
“I want my containers to resemble those unforgettable colors and textures of the East Coast,” said McAveeney, whose clients span the North Shore from Glenview to Deerfield to Lake Forest. “It’s the perfect time to fill containers with interesting leafy textures like colorful cabbages, grasses and fuzzy lambs ear. I purchase most of my material directly from the growers, but sometimes I source accent materials from local farmers markets to add that special touch.”
Bringing fall home is a theme that comes up when homeowners are asked what they love about their fall stoop decorations.
“When I open my front door and see Annie’s gorgeous arrangements it reminds me of how lucky we are in the Chicago suburbs to experience each wonderful season, especially fall,” said Margie Alpert of Deerfield, one of McAveeney’s clients. “I feel so happy and the front porch definitely comes to life with these beautiful planters. So many people have complimented my front stoop. The arrangements makes my home feel inviting and festive for the upcoming season.”
At Chalet Nursery in Wilmette, head horticulturist Tony Fulmer designs his fall planters as a last burst of color before the long Chicago winter sets in.
“Once the summer annuals look tired, it’s really hard to beat featuring mums and hardy asters for the main color punch, then tucking frost-hardy annuals, like pansies, to soften the edges of the container,” said Fulmer.
Fulmer said kales and cabbages, which endure frost and continue well past the life of a mum or aster, are increasingly popular with customers. When assembling their own, pre-made containers for sale in their Lake Avenue nursery, Fulmer said, Chalet designers often include deciduous shrubs for fall color and form, but also add an evergreen, which clients can keep for their holiday planters.
“Tucking specialty pumpkins, gourds, vines, and stems topped with seasonal seed heads is a great way to create a personalized look that won’t be seen up and down your street,” said Fulmer.
Although floral designers can charge between $500- $1,000 to fill a pair of ornamental front-door planters, not everyone chooses to outsource the work to professionals.
Sally Veenstra, a Winnetka resident and avid gardener, enjoys assembling her own doorstep urns each season, drawing inspiration from the beautiful planters she sees gracing the entrances of high-end hotels and office buildings in Chicago.
“Gardening is a creative outlet from my corporate life,” said Veenstra. “I try to build a non-standard look by planting things off center and at angles, while adding unconventional colors and natural décor, like dried pods and reeds.”
She added: “I’ve learned from professionals through the years to vary textures, heights, ensure movement, and then grab what appeals as you shop.”
Inspiration may come from a variety of different sources, but there’s one ingredient to maintaining any fall arrangement once it’s been purchased or assembled and planted: water.
“When cooler weather approaches, we often forget to water all those plants,” said Amy Swartchild. “So don’t forget to water!”