Photos Rob Smith
Master Gardener, Carol Rutledge was selected to join a creative team in decorating the White House for Christmas in 2019. Thousands of applicants from across the country submitted essays in hopes to be selected for the job of decorating the White House; it’s hallways, elaborate Christmas trees, and the stately rooms of the East Wing. It was a tremendous privilege for Rome, Georgia, to be represented. Carol Rutledge, owner of Bluem, speaks about her amazing experience at our nation’s capital and the inspiration that makes her botanical garden shop the premier place to visit when looking for that special holiday gift.
Q: Tell me about your expectations during the application process for the White House Christmas decoration team, and were you prepared for what was to come?
Rutledge: It was so competitive. There were thousands of applicants. We had to write an essay and be vetted. When I received the email of my acceptance, I just couldn’t hardly believe it. I reread the email a couple of times because I was shocked: to be selected from Rome, Georgia. There were just over one hundred of us that were picked.
We came from all over the country and all walks of life, though most of us had experience with floral design and décor. We were assigned to individual designers who in-turn worked directly with the First Lady, Melania Trump. I was designated to the Blue Room, and I couldn’t believe it. Everyone wants to get assigned to the Blue Room, the tree is so grand. Our tree’s theme was of the of state flowers. We paired these beautifully hand cut gold paper state flowers to its banner. Being familiar with flowers really helped me with the assignment.
Q: What was it like working in the White House?
Rutledge: Surreal is the first word that comes to mind. Every morning secret service would walk us through a back entrance and escort us through security; all our purses and bags, including our phones, were kept in a secured closet. We walked through hallways and rooms that are not typically open to the public. I just kept thinking of all of the important dignitaries that have walked past these same walls and paintings over the last hundred years. It was all very humbling. At some point when we were working on our tree, I glanced out the window and saw Marine One land on the lawn right outside and the President of the United States walk out to board. I thought this is really neat, to be here watching this scene out the window while standing in this beautiful room. Working in the White House was a tall order. We were expected to work, and work we did. We perhaps had about twenty minutes to eat lunch- they fed us, and it was delicious- but by golly we were working. None of us minded because we had this common goal: “we were going to get this done, for our government.” We had almost a militant attitude (laughing).
Q: What was your favorite moment of the experience?
Rutledge: Probably the most incredible part of the experience was being an invited guest to attend a Christmas Party, hosted by the First Lady. After all the work was complete, we each received a formal invitation to celebrate Christmas and see all our hard work over the course of the week. For the first time, we entered the White House from the front steps. I found myself feeling rather emotional, as we climbed those stairs.
Off in the distance I could see the security fence that separates the grounds from the public, I could see those people’s faces, and realized how special this moment was. Dignitaries, ambassadors, world leaders and all the people who have walked these steps before me, and here I am. I felt very reverent for what this place represents. I am so grateful for our country and where we live. I thought of the military and the sacrifices made by so many families by so many generations, and I was humbled by the magnitude of the place.
That’s what the White House means to me. It doesn’t matter who is in it. All the people who were there were so happy and delightful, everyone was grateful to be working there, and no one had the countenance of “I can’t wait for this term to be over.” You know, that’s political and this was bigger than that. Everyone was so happy.
We were given a tour of all the rooms and hallways that the group decorated. It was all so beautiful and mind blowing to see all the work we were able to accomplish in a week. Everything was all so beautiful and powerful, being surrounded by the most incredible works of art and history. I was just so humbled.
Q: What does the Christmas season mean for your shop and how do you prepare for your customers’ holiday needs?
Rutledge: Susan Hortman and I went to the Atlanta Market. We had the intention of finding some things that were fun and unusual, all the while staying true to our garden concept, which you know can be rather difficult when you are trying to find gifts for people to purchase for Christmas. We can put a plant in just about anything; for example, last week we had a young woman bring in an enormous sterling silver punchbowl that she had been gifted by a family member.
She said, “Carol, what am I going to do with this? I’m never going to serve punch.” I agreed, no one really serves punch anymore. “Can I use it as a planter?” she asked. Absolutely! So, we put some orchids and ferns in it, and it was incredible. She was thrilled because she had a use for her sterling silver punch bowl.
People have laughed at what we can create a composition out of. So that is what has been so fun about going to the market and looking for Christmas ideas, knowing we can put a plant and an arrangement in just about anything. It’s allowed us to be creative, and unique in our gifts all the while staying true to our garden shop. Santa candy dishes, and red lanterns all turned to pots, the possibilities are endless.
Q: What trends do you see for this season?
Rutledge: This time of year, people gravitate toward rosemary, Norfolk pines, ivy topiaries, and pansies because they can withstand the colder weather, but nature isn’t trendy- it transcends. Plants are timeless. You may see trends in containers and colors, and we can create a composition that compliments any style.
Q: What are the reasons people should consider botanicals for their Christmas décor and gifts?
Rutledge: First of all, they clean the air; exchanging our carbon dioxide for oxygen. Giving us clean fresh air to breathe. More than that though they allow us to nurture. They love the light, and having plants encourages us to open the blinds and let the sunshine into our homes. Take into consideration those orchids over there. (Pointing at a large porcelain bowl filled with orchids and moss.) They are so majestic. An orchid, a klinko, or an anthurium; they are living and producing blooms. These thriving green plants make a wonderful gift because they inspire life and joy through living color and blooms.
Q: How has Bluem grown and adapted over the course of a year?
Rutledge: Well, we opened in the pandemic as you know, and that had its obvious challenges. I think that the secret to our success is that we have stayed in our lane. We opened as a boutique garden shop and that’s what we have stayed. That’s what we do best. Susan and I are both Master Gardeners, and we like to use our knowledge to help set people up for success when they come and buy a plant from us. We do this by first providing good plants. None of our plants are mass produced, we purchase from small growers who have hands-on traditions. When you leave, we want you to feel good about your purchase and for you to feel good about the experience.
The shop has grown in predictable ways, extending our inventory to include different varieties and more exotic succulents. We have expanded what we would normally offer, because people like different things. We have also grown in volume, because we’ve stayed in our lane. We are good at what we do. We are good with plants. We are good with composition. We’ve not been like a water spider bouncing around trying to figure out who we are; Bluem is a boutique garden shop and that’s what we are.
Visit Bluem at 217 N 5th Ave, Rome, GA 30165,