From do-it-yourself table decorations to preparing a pantry, Kelli Hanley Potts encourages a thoughtful approach to the home.
The birds no longer grace the morning with their songs, and the cicadas’ buzzing has long disappeared. Instead, the rustle of squirrels and chipmunks scurrying through leaves periodically breaks the silence of a crisp fall walk.
Kelli Hanley Potts’ leather boots join the organic chorus, crunching leaves and twigs as she veers off the trail, seemingly at random, to forage for dead branches or a lone weed.
“Green is kind of my canvas color,” she explains, referring to some evergreens she picked up earlier. “I’m also thinking winter, so I’m looking for white or red.”
Next, she grabs some dark brown branches from the forest floor, noting they’ll provide texture.
“Some people don’t think of texture necessarily,” she says. “But that’s what adds interest. It makes things more contrasting and interesting to look at.”
She’s collecting materials for a homemade garland that will grace a dining room table. This do-it-yourself approach is indicative of what her upstart northeast Ohio business, The Agrarian Collective, is all about. The Newbury resident describes it as a “modern domestic-lifestyle school that is rooted in the kitchen.”
But The Agrarian Collective doesn’t merely offer cooking classes. At times, Hanley Potts’ students forage for chanterelle mushrooms or pick apples so they can learn how to preserve the fruit for future use. Other times, they’re tucked into a cozy café, learning the finer points of a perfect pot of coffee.
“The school is about getting their hands dirty,” she explains. “You’re not going to sit and watch somebody do something. I’m not a big fan of demos so much. I really want people to actually ‘do.’ ” Her approach addresses what Hanley Potts calls “the lineage of the table” — a holistic view of the dinner table that encompasses gardening (or purchasing from a farmers market), stocking the pantry, readying the dining room table and then preparing the meal.
“It’s important that people understand that there is a really strong relationship between what you are growing or what you’re buying from your farmer [and] what you can put up into your pantry,” Hanley Potts says, “and then taking your pantry items [and] cooking with them.”
Her ultimate aim is to get her students mindful of creating what she calls a “table culture” with a focus on homegrown or locally purchased food and returning the evening meal to a shared social event that connects people.
“I think of ‘table culture’ as taking the time to have something homemade rather than a microwave dinner, turning the television off and actually talking to each other,” she explains. “Maybe it’s a standard family, where it’s your children, or maybe it’s just you and your roommates.”
When Hanley Potts lived in New Mexico, she and her friends often met on Sundays for a sit-down meal at her home, and she frequently invited people over to eat dinner. “I went on a road trip and just didn’t come back,” she says of her decade out West. “I was 21 and was like ‘this is pretty cool.’ ”
In between working in restaurants and selling advertising, she learned about the slow food movement and sustainability. When Hanley Potts moved back to Ohio, she also brought home her new philosophy toward food and the home.
Her love for the kitchen led her to continually try new cooking methods, such as smoking meat and salt curing. When she realized her friends and family didn’t know basic food techniques, Hanley Potts saw a business opportunity. She applied for funding from a local organization that helps women entrepreneurs find investors and launched her business with a $5,000 low-interest loan last spring.
Although Hanley Potts concedes many people are intimidated by gardening, homemade foods and a sit-down-for-meals lifestyle, she says those who embrace her approach quickly find that even tight schedules and lack of training aren’t the obstacles they initially appear to be.
“You start to have a better understanding of the kitchen and how your home works,” Hanley Potts says. “Then, you realize the kitchen is the heart of the home.”
HOW TO ... Make a Foraged Garland for Your Table
While many people most closely associate garlands with Christmas trees or doorway decorations, Kelli Hanley Potts, founder of The Agrarian Collective, says they also make excellent table adornments, and she likes to collect materials for them during winter walks in the woods. Hanley Potts goes on foraging trips to find tree branches (both pine and deciduous), holly branches, winterberry, milkweed pods, cattails, pine cones and any other natural materials that look interesting. “I prefer wild, natural arrangements, so that philosophy guides my style,” she says. “Whatever your style, allow it to guide you.”
• green floral wire
• green/brown floral tape
• pruning clippers
• wire cutters
• foraged elements — separated into piles — such as various pine (using more than one type will offer different textures), holly, rhododendron, red twig dogwood, pine cones, winterberry, milkweed pods, mushrooms, ivy, dried flowers
1. Measure your table to decide the length you would like your garland to be. Depending on the size of your dining room table, you may want the garland to be either wide or narrow. (Decide this prior to searching for your materials, as it will help determine the size and shape of the branches and foraged items.)
2. Take a few branches from each pile of items you gather and twist a piece of wire around the end of the bundle where it is the thickest. Wrap tightly to be sure the branches are secure.
3. Repeat step two until you have the desired length and begin attaching all the pieces together by wiring each bundle to the previous section until all sections are attached.
4. Lay garland flat and check for any bald spots so you can wire in additional branches to give a clean, full look.
5. At this point, you can begin to wire in (or tape depending on your foraged materials) additional pops of color, texture or larger focal points, such as dried/fresh flowers or other embellishments.
6. Lay garland across table, set table and enjoy.