Archive for the ‘Winter interest’ Category

This weekend, I finished up the last of my outdoor holiday decorating with a Christmas tree for the birds. I’d seen suggestions for these on a few birding and gardening web sites and thought it would make winter more exciting if we had some birds to watch outside of the front window.  After reading several articles on how to make a tree for the birds, I consulted with my friend, Penny, and the fellow she refers to as “the resident bird expert.”  Lucky I did, because the resident bird expert warned me off all suggestions of stringing cranberries and other fruit for birds. The birds that like fruit are long gone from here, he said, leaving only true northerners behind — birds who like fat, protein and carbs.

You can create all sorts of decorations for your tree, including the standard pine cone with peanut butter and seeds and balls of suet and seeds. The suggestion that caught my imagination, however, was one to use stale cake donuts as carriers of fat and protein for the birds. The instructions called for melting a cake of suet, then dipping the stale donuts in the suet and rolling it in seeds. I had already prepared a pot for the tree and planned to use the tree I’d bought earlier for other holiday decorations. I started work on the ornaments Sunday afternoon, melting my suet, rolling the donuts, and watching the seeds fall right off. (This just goes to show, never trust anything you read on the internet!) Frustrated at how this was going, I took a break with a cup of coffee and a stale donut.

It seemed the seeds needed more traction, so I added peanut butter to the melted suet. That didn’t work either, so I just gave up and spread peanut butter on the donuts and dipped them in seeds. Voila! I used the melted suet/peanut butter mixture as glue in a few pine cones, which I filled with seed, and when the mixture was cool, rolled what was left into little balls.

The donut thief

The bird expert says it may take two weeks or so for the birds to find my tree and start frequenting it. Fortunately, we live in a neighborhood with very few squirrels — an oddity relating to the newness of the area and the location of three ponds. Unfortunately, our dog, Lily, found the tree right away, and already snarfed one of the donuts. She’ll be on leash from now on, and we can hope the birds will get at least a few of the treats on the tree.

For more ideas on holiday decorating, check out the November/December issue of Northern Gardener. Julie Scouten has a great article on how to make decorations using garden supplies and greenery.


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It’s easy to spend a lot of money on holiday decorations for inside and outside of your home — but it can also be done on the cheap, and my goal this holiday season is to come up with a few nice decorations that don’t cost much money.

Here’s the ultimate cheap holiday pot: It cost nothing. A couple of weeks ago, I trimmed back some decidedly overgrown red-twig dogwood bushes. While many of the branches went to the county brush pile, I picked some of the longest, straightest, and brightest for use in outdoor holiday decorations. For this simple pot, I took a good-sized bunch of branches and set them in a strawberry pot that otherwise would spend the winter in the garage. Ta-da! A decorative holiday pot.

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img_1325.jpgI don’t know why, but I am always surprised when some new gardening endeavor actually turns out. About a month ago, I decided to try to force some red-twig dogwood branches. I followed the instructions for making a sugar water/bleach concoction to give the branches food and, presumably, protection from bacteria. The branches went into the cool, not too light basement. A couple of weeks ago, I went down there to add some more liquid and check things out. There were definite signs of leaf buds.

img_1330.jpgToday, I checked them again and, lo and behold, the branches had tiny leaves and some little knobby growths that look like they might be blossoms. Rock-and-Roll Gardener advised me that I would probably only get leaves, but we’ll see what happens. Per the instructions, I have moved the branches up to a sunnier locale in the kitchen. With any luck, we’ll have something blooming in time for our early Easter.

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img_1179.jpgBack in December, I blogged about how wonderful red-twig dogwoods are for providing winter color. In answer to my question about whether to coppice my dogwoods, a reader suggested taking out one-third of the branches each winter and putting the cut branches in water to encourage bloom.

It’s been so cold recently that I haven’t felt like roaming around the yard with a pruner, but Saturday was a pleasant day, so I went out and cut some branches from my rangiest dogwood. I followed the procedure for forcing branches that is outlined at the Purdue University web site. Forcing basically means bringing the branches inside and coaxing them into thinking it’s spring so they will bloom.

Purdue recommends putting the branches in a tall container and using a preservative liquid. The branches are essentially bathed in the liquid, which apparently keeps them healthy and makes them bloom more. I had one nice tall vase to use, but all my other vases have disappeared, so I had to put some of the shorter branches in a martini shaker. (The last time anyone had a martini around here, Reagan was president.) The preservative is a mixture of lemon-lime soda (pop to you Minnesotans), water and a touch of chlorine bleach. The branches will now sit in a slightly dark, cool corner of the basement for a few weeks. If it works, I should have flowers sometime between Easter and April Fool’s Day.

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img_0668.jpgSaturday, I began putting together my holiday-themed container. Since it was very cold outside, I put some newspapers on the floor in our mudroom and worked there. Before starting, I brought in all the things I thought I’d put in the container. Potting soil, two bunches of spruce branches bought for $1 each at Lansing Hardware, a $20 bunch of curly willow from Squire House Gardens (my splurge on this pot), and some pine branches, red-twig dogwood sticks, and sumac fruit from my back yard.

img_0674.jpgAs instructed by Kathy Oss of Squire House Gardens, I filled the bottom of the container with a mixture of potting soil and compost. I started working around the edges with the spruce boughs, cutting each branch at an angle and jamming it into the dirt. I packed them in tightly, and then inserted the pine boughs among the spruce for textural contrast. With the greenery set, I added the curly willow and my red-twig in the center, again trimming the branches before putting them in.

img_0678.jpgAt this point, my husband looked into the room and commented that, “it looks like something out of The Hobbit.” It did have that mystical forest look–not exactly what I was aiming for. I inserted the sumac, which gave it more of a holiday feel, but still didn’t pull it together.

When in doubt, take a break. So, I put the pot outside to freeze and cleaned up the mudroom.

img_0698.jpgSunday afternoon, I considered the options. I did not want to spend any more money on the project. We have some left over lights, but that seemed like too much bother. We also have a fairly large collection of ornaments, so I started looking for something there. My mother recently gave me a bag of her old ornaments and that’s where I found this Santa figure. Shades of Bilbo Baggins! My mom had four of the ornaments, which have that 70s retro thing going for them. The bag also contained two strands of wooden beads that matched the Santas. I hung the Santas on the curly willow and dogwood and strung the beads through the greenery.

img_0710.jpgSince the pot is on our porch, I hope the weather won’t be too hard on it. It’s, as Minnesotans say, “interesting,” and I think it will make a great addition to our holiday decorations.

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I’ve been planning to put a holiday-themed container on our front porch for awhile, and decided I’d better get to the job before New Year’s arrives. The first step was to make a pot with a holiday look.

I’m not particularly artistic, which is why I love decoupage. For a couple of years now, I’ve been making plain plastic pots look more interesting by surrounding them in colorful papers. The process is messy but fun and requires almost no artistic talent.

img_0490.jpgYou start with a pot. In this case, it’s one I picked up free on the side of the road. (I will not dumpster dive, but I’ll stop to look at free stuff anytime.) You also need a decorative paper. Since Northfield’s Art Store was going out of business, I stopped there and picked up several sheets of decorative paper. For the Christmas pot, I used a red paper that had a texture like alligator skin and a sparkling gold paper on top. You also need the amateur artist’s best friend: Mod-Podge, a thin glue that leaves a shiny finish.

To begin, use a large pan (I used the utility sink in my basement) and fill it with a small amount of water and some Mod-Podge to make a thin sludge. Also paint full-strength Mod-Podge on the pot. Then, cut the paper into pieces that will wrap easily around the pot, dip them in the sludge water, and stick them on the pot. Your hands will get wet and messy, but there is something very satisfying about this process. Make sure there are no air bubbles under the paper. Once the paper is on the pot, let it sit for about 15 minutes to set up, then paint a layer of Mod-Podge over it. Wait another 15 minutes, and continue this process until you have about 5 layers of Mod-Podge.

img_0667.jpgWhen you are done, let it dry thoroughly, probably overnight, before you fill the pot with greenery or plants. What surprises me about these pots, is how well they hold up. I’ve had a couple of pots done this way for two years, and though they look a trifle dirty on the bottom, the paper is still attached and they are reasonably attractive.

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img_0553.jpgYesterday I visited Squire House Gardens in Afton, a wonderful garden and gift shop. The shop is dressed for the holidays, with container plantings, lots of greenery, and an arbor decked with ornaments–well worth a visit on a sunny, winter day. During the gardening season, Squire House, which is owned by Martin Stern and Richard Meacock, has a large garden where customers can see the plants they might want to grow used in a real garden. Martin studied in England and his garden style might be described as “semi-formal.” Snow covers the garden now, although you can still see its basic architecture.

img_0583.jpgWhile I was there, Kathy Oss, a Squire House employee, put together a holiday-themed container planting, which will eventually be displayed in front of a house on Summit Avenue in St. Paul. I’ve got a similar project on the to-do list at home and was thrilled to get some advice from a pro.

img_0587.jpgThe urn Kathy used is cast cement, so she inserted a large plastic pot to hold the greenery and protect the urn. She fills the bottom of the insert pot with natural, fast-draining material, such as bark, sand, or gravel, then adds compost. Kathy used a variety of greens for the basic structure of the container: red pine, cedar, and spruce. The contrasting colors and shapes of the greenery provide interest and a substantial backdrop for the contrasting elements to come. Once she’s satisfied with the scale, size, and texture of the base, img_0640.jpgKathy adds the exciting elements. In this case, several red-twig dogwood branches for height and color contrast, gorgeous red silk flowers, a red ribbon wound through the greenery, and large pinecones. In other pots, Kathy and Martin will use elements such as willow branches, large woven or metal/glass ornaments, or berries. The only limits are your taste, your budget, and your creativity.

Once she had the pot completed, Kathy watered it thoroughly and set it outside to freeze. This keeps the elements in the pot healthy and prevents them from blowing away. A container planting like this one can still look vibrant and attractive in March, depending on its location and the weather.

If you are interested in more information on planting containers, check out the Squire House web site for a video of Martin designing a container.

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