Q&A: ‘The Plant Recipe Book’ Author Baylor Chapman on Her Surprising Centerpieces

Photography by Paige Green

There are hardcover, lusciously photographed books that make us want to lounge and daydream. Then there are hardcover, lusciously photographed books that make us want to kick over the coffee table and make something. At our house, The Plant Recipe Book is the latter kind of book.

Written by Baylor Chapman and photographed by Paige Green, the new Plant Recipe Book (Artisan) features 100 “living arrangements” of flora that are planted, soil and all, together inside often winsome containers. With its step-by-step photos and care tips culminating in breathtaking final products, this book strikes an inspired balance between the instructive and the artistic. Hence the “recipe” part of the title — but more on that below…

All images excerpted from The Plant Recipe Book by Baylor Chapman (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2014. Photographs by Paige Green:

Jacket. The Plant Recipe Book. Photograph by Paige Green

Our new literary crush: The Plant Recipe Book by Baylor Chapman (Artisan). Photo credit: Paige Green.

Author photo_BAYLOR CHAPMAN

Author Baylor Chapman. Photo credit: Paige Green.

Each arrangement brings a new surprise: from a collected burst of tillandsia, elephant ear and begonia inside a lidded wood box, to a lacy cloud of asparagus fern “on its own” in a hand-thrown pot, to an African violet/moss/shamrock/pitcher plant party housed in a curvaceous terrarium.

Baylor, founder and principal designer of San Francisco-based Lila B. Design, is well known for turning the unexpected — for example, salvaged shutters — into sensuous containers for plant life. Below, we chat with her by email: about the book (released just last month), where she finds her “great vessels” (gift idea alert!), and advice for anyone who wants to break into the biz…

Masdevallia orchids from The Plant Recipe Book by Baylor Chapman. Photo credit: Paige Green.

Reader favorites include this “on its own” arrangement, a display of six- and four-inch Masdevallia orchids singing colorfully solo. Photo credit: Paige Green.

What arrangements in the book have really knocked people’s socks off? 

It’s interesting to hear the different designs that stand out in-person in our shop versus from the photos in the book. Our customers always love the long date palm arrangement with Sempervivum (pp. 220-1) — it is a real stunner that always makes people stop and stare. In the book, I think some of the more unusual and colorful arrangements really pop out, like the Masdevallia orchid (pp. 168-9) or the freeform branches of the lichen display (pp. 153-3). I always love the carnivorous pitcher plant arrangements (pp. 190-3) for their exotic appeal, but maybe that’s just because it’s fruit fly season here!

What inspired you to write The Plant Recipe Book

Lia Ronnen, my editor at Artisan, had the wonderful idea to create a series of books that would teach floral arranging with easy-to-follow, illustrated instructions. After The Flower Recipe Book, she saw the blossoming interest in terrariums and container gardens, and approached me about continuing the series with a book on living plant arrangements. It’s been a joy to develop this idea with Artisan into the book it has become.

In the intro you say that when you first opened Lila B. Design, you were surprised by how many people “simply craved greenery.” Where does this yearning come from?

I’ve read all of these studies about how plants have a calming effect on people. I think that it does something to our psyche; apparently, even fake plants can instill this feeling. For me, plants are just grounding. They offer a breath of fresh air (literally, even!), especially when you live in the city.

60_Asparagus Fern Recipe 3_FINAL

Inside a weathered copper cooking pot, asparagus fern joins pineapple lily, Japanese sedge, bougainvillea, elephant ear and blue angel’s trumpet.

105_Ficus Recipe 2_FINAL

Inside a ’70s-leaning straw basket, some houseplant favorites (like sansevierias and Christmas cactus) create an endearing arrangement. Photo credit: Paige Green.

Why is this a “recipe” book? 

There are many how-to books out there on floral arranging and container gardening, but none before now have followed the cookbook formula of ingredients, instructions, and photo illustrations. Cookbooks are successful for a reason: they give you all the info you need, when you need it, making them super easy to follow.

And just like a home cook will riff on the printed recipe, adapting it to fit their kitchen and the ingredients at hand, so too can Plant Recipe Book readers take inspiration from my arrangements to create their own designs. Say you can’t find Masdevallia orchids, you can always swap in a classic moth orchid (Phalaenopsis) for a great result. That’s why we included the “Ingredient Chart” (pp. 20-1), which illustrates the different roles of each plant in an arrangement. Is it a focal point or a background plant? Is it wispy or drapey? It’s a useful tool for experimenting with your own designs.

265_Xerographica Recipe 3_FINAL

Furniture webbing secured with a staple gun helps to create a habitat for flora like jumbo Tillandsia xerographica air plants, kalanchoes and rosary vine. Photo credit: Paige Green.

How did you start designing with such, um, out-of-the-box containers? And where do you find them?

I think it came from a desire to recycle — it’s amazing what people will throw away! It breaks my heart to see traditional glass vases used once and trashed. Why not look around the home and repurpose something you already have?

I comb scrap yards for interesting metal shapes and I love to hunt through flea markets. You can find great vessels in kitchen shops and gift stores, especially if you get out of the garden department.

Almost anywhere you go, even to a big grocery store, you’re bound to find something like a salad bowl. And it can do double-duty as a gift: give someone an arrangement in a great container, and they can reuse it later for another purpose.

How did you get into plant design? Any advice for someone who wants to do the same?

I began as a hobby and took evening classes in my spare time. When I wanted to really dive in and try it out as a new profession, I began by volunteering at the local university’s botanical garden. I also talked to loads of gardening folks. Just start small and be adventurous.

37_African Violet Recipe 3

A recipe from the African violet chapter, this arrangement also incorporates shamrocks, creeping Jenny, pitcher plants, sundews, moss, wood violet and fiber-optic grass. Photo credit: Paige Green.

What’s an underrated plant in your opinion, and why? 

Moss! It takes the backseat so often, but it can be nice (and easy) when used front-and-center in an arrangement.

Was there an “aha” moment you experienced during the making of The Plant Recipe Book

Realizing that no arrangement has to last forever in the same way. That’s a big difference from how we often think about plants — a houseplant grows larger, but stays roughly the same, while bouquets eventually wilt. With a living arrangement, you can continually refresh certain elements or take the whole thing apart and plant the components in your garden. It’s really liberating to realize that you can just enjoy a centerpiece for a night or perhaps a week, then take it apart and replant elsewhere.

What might surprise people about The Plant Recipe Book?

That they can create these arrangements at home! They might not have the exact same plants or pottery, but all they have to do is just mix in some soil, add a few plants, and voilà: a living centerpiece takes shape.

—TH

  • Baylor Chapman

    Thank you for the interview Horticult. Big fan of yours- and honored to be included….and so glad you’ve kicked over the coffee table and made something! Baylor