Move over, Martha!

Topiaries-62photographs by Leslie Baker


Joyce Fitzpatrick adds final touches to a topiary

When Joyce Fitzpatrick and Gail Perry had young daughters, the two hard-working Raleigh friends decided to show their girls that they, too, could excel in the domestic realm.
“Move over, Martha!” jokes public relations dynamo Fitzpatrick, recalling the motivation to invite friends and daughters to make Christmas topiaries together one December Saturday.
That was 1990, and they’ve been doing it on the first Saturday in December ever since. The first year, mutual friend Susan Gravely, who founded the fine Italian pottery importer Vietri, brought containers. “Vietri pots!” says Perry, remembering. “I think I brought the plaster of Paris.”
Neither Vietri pots nor plaster of Paris plays a role in the topiary-making today – one’s too precious, the other too complicated – but the tradition endures.
It’s a stylish one that reflects the taste of each participant. Some are simple, others ornate. With florist’s foam, hot glue guns, pinecones, and clippings from their yards – magnolia, ivy, boxwood, hydrangea – plus healthy lashings of Perry’s homemade eggnog, the group makes topiaries, wreaths, and other décor. To see the results is to realize that they might not be kidding about showing Martha Stewart the door.
Not that they’ll admit it. “It’s just fun, and a relief to get the darn stuff done,” says Perry, a nonprofit fundraising consultant. She is particularly proud of her eggnog, which she makes with 2 percent milk “so you can actually drink it,” and delighted to have perfected the art of “proper” bow-making. It’s a skill she learned from her own mother, Marian Perry, and has been able to pass on to her girls. “Loop and twist, loop and twist; being able to make it really grand.”  Doesn’t that sound just a little like someone whose name starts with M?
No, no, Perry insists: “It’s just an old-timey thing, like quilting. The fun is in visiting with each other at the same time.”
And in creating a tradition for the next generation. Now in their mid- to late-20s, Perry and Fitzpatrick’s daughters may have once rolled their eyes at their mothers’ annual tradition, but now they love it.
“Now that I have my own house, my mom’s friends help me come up with ideas of what to do,” says Perry’s daughter, Cassie Rice, 28, who, like her mother, sticks to wreaths.
The annual topiary-making party is not the only tradition Perry and Fitzpatrick have created for (and with) their daughters. When the oldest two were around 13, the friends took their girls to Greece for a “coming of age” ceremony they invented (again, tween eyes rolled). Now, Perry and Fitzpatrick say they’ve been vindicated: Their girls are dying to re-create the trip, to do it all together again. It’s a good indicator, they say: This homegrown topiary tradition might have legs after all.