Published in the Toronto Star – December 9, 2017
Christmas is a couple of weeks away and it is highly likely that you are decorating out of doors for the season. If you like the natural look, versus icicle lights or blown up Santa’s and reindeer, we have some advice for you that will look great and save you money.
There are many natural items in your garden that lend themselves to a seasonal ‘look’ that can be very attractive. Check this out:
1. Holly. ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ are not figments of some songwriter’s imagination, they actually exist. Winter hardy (to zone 4), Blue Holly has been around for a generation now and is a staple in many Canadian gardens. Don’t be afraid to cut stems this time of year as no harm will be done. Note that female holly is the one that bears the fruit, a universal rule for asexual plants.
Ivy needs to be evergreen to be useful and it is generally less hardy than Blue Holly. However, if you are lucky enough to have some, feel free to cut it down and use it around door frames and wind it up railings. We will just cut it down from our office window where it has blocked our view since July. We’ve been meaning to do that….
- Evergreen branches. This is big business. You can go to your local retailer and buy pine, fir, cedar and spruce branches at considerable expense or you can cut your own. Again, no harm done to your precious trees. There is no magic in this, just cut with a sharp pair of pruners and get creative with the use of the stems inside and out.
- Berries. Many plants produce berries or ‘berry-like’ fruit in late fall. For the most part, they remain on the plant until late winter when foraging birds clean them off come February and March. Crabapples, Mountain Ash, Bittersweet Vine [Celastrus scandens], euonymus and even roses can produce great looking fruit that is useful outdoors in containers and as decoration on the Christmas table.
- Dogwood. The red twig dogwood is a weed plant to many farmers as it grows almost anywhere that you find lingering moisture, especially in low land. When you cut native dogwood down by a metre or so, it grows back up aggressively in a year. The bright red bark of dogwood stands out in an outdoor arrangement, will not wither and stands up to any amount of frost. It is one versatile decorating accessory.
- Birch. This one is a bit tricky as we would not recommend that you cut down your birch tree just to decorate at your front door. Unless, of course, you were cutting it down anyway. Again, there is no magic in the birch branches that you find at retailers this time of year. They are cut from 2 to 3 year old trees, and then plants are dug up and replanted. Like a Christmas tree crop: sustainable and renewable.
- 6. Another weed. Pussy willow [Salix discolor] and Arctic willow [Salix arctica] both provide the raw material of a great display out of doors. They are unique in that they are very flexible. If you are clever, you can twist and weave them into wreaths, baskets or just braid them into a ‘rope’ that will look great on the fireplace mantle.
- Nuts and cones. What looks better on the Christmas table or fireplace mantle than a natural bowl of chestnut conkers, or pine cones? When we brought home a bag of acorns, from up north recently, they sprouted little white worms in a couple of days of indoor heat. We think that they were maggots but we hesitate to use the word.
Where do you get this stuff?
Neither of us are proponents of foraging for decorating materials in the wild. Conservation areas and public forests have enough problems with humans taking liberties with their assets. However, you may have a neighbour with some of these plants on their property that would be pleased if you did some free pruning of their mature landscape. Or you may know a farmer who would welcome your interest in controlling their dogwood ‘problem’.
Always with permission from the land owner.
There is a hedge of Rosa multiflora at our neighbourhood golf course, and they have given us permission to cut all the rose hips that we want.
Let’s reflect for a moment on the meaning of all of this. Berries, nuts, cones and rose hips are the fruit of plants that are attempting to reproduce. The message here is connected directly to that of ‘new beginnings’. Of hope.
The holly, ivy and evergreen boughs (not to mention live Christmas trees) are, well, evergreen. The message here? That the message of Christmas does not die. It will not go away. We celebrate the season year after year for personal reasons that come back to one thing. Peace.
Peace to you.