The Washington Post
Interior designer James Farmer on refreshing your space for fall
James Farmer, interior designer and author of “Celebrating Home: A Time for Every Season,” joined staff writer Jura Koncius last week for our online Q&A. Here is an edited excerpt.
Q: Why is it important to mark the change of seasons in our home?
A: I mark time by the seasons, and fall is such a glorious time for us all. Here in the Deep South, September brings only the slightest reprieve from the summer heat. I’ve always said fall is a Southerner’s reward for surviving summer, and the cadence of the seasons breaks up our routine in the best way.
Q: What are some of your favorite fabrics, colors and scents for fall?
A: Fall is a layered season, so I take the same approach with fabrics and clothes. Fine corduroy and cashmere are perfect to layer out and about, but the table can have beautiful plaids and tartans as well. I have been known to use a pashmina as a table linen more than once. I’m not much for fallthemed scents; the ones I prefer are from the garden or the oven. Gingers are spicy, and tea olives (a flowering shrub mainly found in Southern gardens) are citrusy and bright. People always think about warm tones for colors, but I love the juxtaposition of a pastel dahlia or pale-pink mum.
Q: What do you do in September to get your home ready for fall? A: The first thing I do is fill a bowl with apples from the farmers market and decorate with faded branches and dried hydrangeas.
Q: What are some cute ways to decorate my porch and stoop for fall?
A: I love a pumpkin “snowman”: three pumpkins (small, medium and large) stacked. Terra-cotta pots filled with mums are always appropriate for fall. I have some old terra-cotta jacko’-lanterns that I always use, too.
Q: How do you swap indoor plants for fall?
A: I keep some myrtle topiaries and fluffy ruffle ferns yearround, but I add a pretty ribbon for fall and Thanksgiving. Rather than changing my indoor plants, I mix it up by decorating with seasonal fruit. I love a big bowl of green apples on the table. And I’m a sucker for deep-hued begonias or a peachy-orange orchid.
Q: Is there any popular fall decor item that you wish people would stop using?
A: Do we really need an “It’s fall, y’all” sign to tell us the season? I also don’t like overly themed scented candles. Who needs fake pumpkin cake in wax form when you can bake and enjoy a lovely spice cake?
Q: Is there anything special and specific to Southern fall decor compared with other regions?
A: Fall is an unexpected time for floral beauty in the South. Leaves often take top billing, but the salvias, old-fashioned chrysanthemums, dahlias, anemones and asters take us nearly to Christmas, while planters of pansies, parsley and cool-season herbs keep our kitchens alive. Don’t forget to plant your winter greens, such as collards, kale and mustard. Fall is a wonderful season for gardening in the South.
Q: What is your favorite way to display pumpkins and gourds? A: I like any version of a cornucopia, especially in silver and terra cotta. I have a fauxbois planter on my counter, and I always tuck them in there. Caroline Reehl Boykin ( carolineboykin.com) makes gorgeous pottery pumpkins.
Q: I live in California, where summer rolls into a mild fall before a rainy and colder winter. It doesn’t get that cold here, so many of the heavier fabrics and more cozy pieces don’t make sense for me. Do you have any ideas for how to adapt this coziness to a more mild climate? A: I have a garden mantra of, “Green and white is always right,” which is completely applicable here. Use shades of green, branches, white flowers, pears, dried hydrangeas, brown magnolia leaves or pine cones.
Q: What are your favorite ways to decorate for Halloween and Thanksgiving, and to create a general festive mood at home?
A: A farmers market or what you cook is the best place to start. My grandmother said we eat with our eyes first, so decorate with your menu. Fill bowls and baskets with produce and small vases with chrysanthemums. It’s not too on the nose of a seasonal holiday, but it’s certainly appropriate for the blending seasons from Halloween to Thanksgiving (and before or after).
Q: It’s getting colder soon, but we still want to have our friends’ gatherings outdoors. What are some fresh ideas for hosting dinners outdoors in the cooler weather?
A: Throw a blanket on the back of every chair. Also, you cannot beat a bonfire. There are so many lovely options for firepits these days. And who doesn’t love a s’more or two for dessert?
Q: I have a bunch of taper candles and would love to display them for fall. What are your tips for using them without them being too much?
A: Arrange taper candles down a dinner table. Light them as you serve drinks. When they’ve melted, you’ll know you had a great party. I love using a mix of crystal or glass and silver candle holders.
Q: Where do you fall on pumpkin- and apple-scented candles? Are there any fall scents that don’t smell too sweet (or like food) that you would recommend?
A: I’m not a fan of scented candles, but I do love signature scents that you use year-round. This way, it always smells like your home. I love diffusers with citrus notes and have been known to drop some oil from my diffusers into the air vents.
Try snipping some tea olive or ginger, and bake some of your favorite cookies or cakes. That’s the real way to make your home feel ready for fall.
Q: How do you dry hydrangeas, so they last into fall?
A: The good thing is that hydrangeas know what to do, and it takes very little work. Clip them, strip the leaves and arrange them in your home. I have every tip you could imagine on hydrangeas, including how to dry them, saved in my Instagram highlights (@jamestfarmer).
Q: Where can I get nice throw blankets?
A: Try Sferra ( sferra.com), Peacock Alley ( peacockalley.com), Matouk ( matouk.com) and Red Land Cotton ( redlandcotton.com).
Q: I’m a new mom who just went back to work, so time is extremely precious. If I could only do one or two things to observe the changing season, what would you recommend?
A: Fill the biggest bowl with mini-pumpkins, gourds or seasonal fruit. Or put two big mums in terra-cotta pots.
Q: What are your favorite fall container plants and flowers, and when do you swap them in for your spring and summer annuals?
A: Terra cotta is my go-to for any container. With evergreen compositions, I like to weave bittersweet vine as a collar, which can be easily traded out for ilex and holiday greenery. A giant mum in a mossy terracotta pot truly has no comparison for fall. Luckily for us in the Deep South, spring and summer annuals take me through the summer, so I usually plant my cooler-season plants with accents of mums in late September or early October. Sedums and succulents — especially Autumn Joy sedum — are fantastic for fall.
Q: What are some great candles for fall that we might not know about?
A: My favorite scent is Antica Farmacista’s lemon, verbena and cedar ( anticafarmacista.com). I use it year-round and prefer it as a reed diffuser. I also love the candle line Charles Farris ( charlesfarris.com).
Q: Are there any fall comfort foods, especially Southern dishes, that we should have around the house to ring in the season?
A: My Mimi’s apple cake. The recipe is in my book “A Time to Plant.” During my childhood, I would know that fall had arrived when my grandparents came home from the mountains with bushels of apples. There’s no better taste or smell.
Q: How can I keep pests away from my beautiful fresh porch display?
A: Terra-cotta jack-o’-lanterns don’t appeal to critters like real ones do.
Q: Settle a debate for us all: When is it appropriate to put the fall decor away and break out the holiday stuff ?
A: As soon as the Thanksgiving dishes are put in the dishwasher — and no sooner!
Also at washingtonpost.com Read the rest of this transcript and submit questions to the next chat, Thursday at 11 a.m., at