Table top's newest crop Home: Fruits and vegetables straight from the garden can be jumbled in basket or bowl to grace buffet tables.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Eva Monheim makes table decorations for a party, she likes to use material straight from the garden: Swiss chard, green and red peppers, corn and great bunches of cherry tomatoes.

"We're leaving out half the garden when we don't design with fruits and vegetables," Monheim says.

Her arrangements are "like a pot of soup," she says. "Anything that's interesting will go in my soup, and the same for my arrangements."

Monheim, an artist and professional flower arranger, started making table decorations with fruit and vegetables to amuse herself.

"I was never happy working with boring, tight arrangements" of flowers, she says.

She demonstrates flower arranging for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and wanted a theme for her program for the organization's Harvest Show, held every September. Inspired by the season, she made a pillar of pumpkins, peppers and apples, decorated with twisted bittersweet vines loaded with bright orange berries. The crowd loved it.

"People said things like, 'Wow, we have fruits and vegetables at home. We could do that,' " she says.

Monheim was hooked, too, and continued to experiment. Cabbages, potatoes, onions, zucchini -- she works them all into her arrangements.

"If you need something for a table that can be done if the guests are coming in half an hour, whip out a zucchini and you have a table centerpiece," she says. "Just carve out a center strip and poke in black-eyed Susans, Queen Anne's lace -- anything. People really like that."

Monheim has been making arrangements professionally for years, but anyone can do it, she says. Just look for the design potential among the well-ordered rows of your vegetable garden or at a farmers' market. Monheim bundles leeks together with raffia, shreds the green tops so they begin to look like palm trees, and pokes fresh flowers down into the foliage. A hollowed-out cabbage, filled with a piece of florist's foam (the material florists use to hold flowers in place and keep them fresh), becomes the base for an arrangement that includes apples, pears, green onions and a flourish of Scotch broom at the top.

After the party, she makes soup with the leeks, cabbages and onions, or takes the disassembled arrangement to a community food kitchen.

Monheim can tick off the elements of design -- texture, shape, form, space, line and color -- but she's not a stickler for them.

"If they're all working, you supposedly have a perfect arrangement," she says, "but some people are line people and some people like texture. I like color, texture and shape."

Concentrate first on making your arrangement sturdy, so it will stand up properly; then let yourself go, she suggests. "That's the best part of the whole thing," Monheim says. "There's no right and wrong. It should be your personal expression."

For a garden party, place fruit-and-vegetable arrangements against the plain backdrop of a hedge or wall, Monheim says. On a porch or deck, let your table be the focal point; the arrangement then becomes the centerpiece of the whole room. Under a tent for a wedding, you'll probably want one spectacular design on the buffet table, and small arrangements on each table to carry the theme.

And you don't have to limit your decorations to the tabletops; make a garland of tomato vines around the garden gate, for example, just before the party begins. It will smell terrific as the guests walk in.

Monheim likes to use tomatoes with the stems attached, cucumbers with leaves and vines dangling off them, carrots with their green tops on, bananas in big bunches. She prefers cabbage heads with all their surrounding leaves, just the way they are brought in from the garden. She looks for bright colors and thinks about possible compositions while she shops. And she doesn't skimp.

"I like good quality, whether it's for arranging or eating," she says.

"The real purpose of working with fruits and vegetables is that people overlook the things they use on a daily basis and never look at them as art," Monheim says. "I always keep that in the back of my head: How can you make people notice the things they use every day?"

If you're not quite confident about using hollowed-out fruit and vegetables as containers, use a terra-cotta pot as a base, Monheim suggests, or a peach basket, a strawberry box or an orange crate. Keep the arrangement in proportion with the container, using your eye to judge.

For a buffet table, start with a half-bushel basket, and use substantial things like corn, melons, cucumbers and peppers to establish a foundation. Arrange sprays of basil, squash blossoms, nasturtiums and dill in moist florist's foam tucked down among the fruits and vegetables.

"You can't approach it in a timid manner," Monheim says. "You have to dive in and make a statement, and once you do, stick with it and go with it, and don't think you're wrong.

"Anyone can do it," she says. "Why not hook some zucchini together?"

Pub Date: 8/03/97

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