Monthly Archives: August 2016

Tips To Make Your Own Holiday Decorations

Natural holiday decorations such as roping, swags, wreaths, and table arrangements are not hard to make. You will catch on to the simple principles quickly, and in a short time your results may surprise everyone, including yourself. You can be proud of the decorations you made, giving your home a truly festive spirit and even involving various family or friends too.

Most of the materials you need are inexpensive, or free for the asking, in many locales. But remember to get permission before cutting branches or fruits on someone else’s land! Your local florist also should have natural materials, both local and from warmer climates. Tree farms are a good source of greenery, or even undecorated products you can then decorate yourself. Check local newspapers for such farms, or check online (

For plant materials, evergreen twigs and boughs are the most important. You may be surprised at how much material goes into even small decorations. If you have a cool, moist spot free of drafts for storage, you can start gathering greens as early as Thanksgiving. For longest life, keep them away from heat, wind, and sun.

The most common evergreens include balsam fir (the most common), spruce (needles don’t last as long as fir and are pricky), white pine, and hemlock (needles will drop in dry air). Other less commonly used evergreens are white cedar or arborvitae (foliage fades to yellow in a few weeks), red cedar and other wild junipers (sharp needles, so use sparingly to add variety, color, texture, and form), and broad-leaved evergreens like rhododendrons. One caution about using yew (or taxus) is that all plant parts are poisonous, especially the attractive seeds. Look for a few branches of yellow-leaved evergreens for some color, such as certain variegated yews, gold-thread false cypress, old-gold juniper, or one of the gold arborvitae.

Other plant parts you can use for interest, and to give arrangements a New England “country” appearance include cones, grasses, pods, and berries. The latter can be found in many colors. For red or orange, try winterberry, sumac, crabapples, hawthorn, and mountain ash. For a touch of blue, use nannyberry, arrowwood, or junipers, and for yellow, crabapples. Florist shops may carry more exotic plant parts such as lotus pods (which can be sprayed colors), holly (both for berries and leaves), mistletoe, and various greens (such as boxwood or western cedar).

Some people like to add artificial decorations like bells, balls, and fake berries to their natural arrangements. Red ribbons also are popular, although hundreds of other styles and color combinations of ribbons are available. If using outdoors, make sure you select a ribbon rated for that use. Keep the width in proportion to the size of the arrangement.

In addition to plants and other decorative materials, you will need something for a base for most decorations if starting from scratch. Wreaths require a wire, foam, or straw wreath form or a coat hanger bent into a circle. Rope or thick, coarse twine makes a good base for garlands or roping. Florist foam, which comes in “bricks” that can be cut to fit any container, may be purchased at florist or craft shops.

Other essentials include a pair of clippers or utility scissors, florist picks (to hold greens to straw bases), and florist wire. The latter is a thin green wire, available in several widths, that is used to hold everything together, such as cones to wreaths, greens to frames or rope, and decorations to walls.

The range of decorations you can make reaches far beyond what you may think is possible. Arrangements for sale in florist shops may give you ideas, as can browsing through holiday magazines and online sites. So, don’t hesitate to try out new ideas. Just keep in mind that whatever you make should be in proportion to, and harmonize with, the surroundings.

To make wreaths or ropings, you will need individual branchlets or bundles of them. Simply cut small branch pieces four to six inches in length from main branches, and wire or pin them directly to the frames. Or you can wire several together into a bundle, then wire the bundle to the base.

Overlap one branchlet or bundle over the cut ends of the last to hide them and the wire or rope base. Proceed down the rope or around the frame in this manner. Finally, once the greens are secured, add a bow and a few ornaments of interest, such as cones, berries, or artificial decorations.

To make a table arrangement, start with a wet block of florist foam, either free standing or cut to fit a basket or other decorative container. Use a saucer under the wet foam, unless the container is water tight. Place sprigs of green in the foam, followed by natural ornaments such as berries and artificial ornaments. Berries can be wired to a florist pick, then stuck in the foam. Follow the same design principles as you would if arranging flowers.

A door swag is simple. Take several branches of a desired length, usually 2 feet or so, and tie together to hang upside down. Then tie a shorter branch or two on top, upright. Where these all tie together, place a bow, group or cones, or other ornamentation.

If you want to use candles, use decorative lanterns to keep candles away from the greens (which, when dry, can be quite flammable), then decorate around these with greenery and color. Get a mold for making a luminary of ice, and place greens and berries in the water before freezing. These, with a candle inside, make an elegant table decoration for a special dinner.

If you have a stairway and banister, hang a grouping or two of greens and berries from the upright supports. Create a winter or holiday scene in a terrarium, glass bowl, or empty fish tank. Make a fairy garden with a holiday theme. Fill a wooden bowl or basket with an assortment of cones and nuts, perhaps with some bright balls for color.

If you have large containers that remain outside over winter, such as whisky barrel halves or even a raised bed near a walk or porch, decorate these too. If you can do so prior to the soil freezing solid, insert branches of greenery, red-twig dogwood branches, or glittery decorations available from craft and home supply stores. If the soil in these has frozen, you make need to get out a power drill to make the holes, as I’ve had to do some years!

Many other decorations are possible using wire or Styrofoam bases in the shapes of candy canes, cones, or balls, among others. You’ll find these online or at local craft stores. Simply follow the above procedures and your own creativity!

Spider Plants, Easy HousePlants II

gh2Spider plants (Chlorophytum comosum) are called this not because they attract and harbor spiders, but rather the little plantlets or offshoots at the ends of long wiry stems are “spidery”. You may see them called “airplane plants” for this reason, too.

This is one of the easiest houseplants to grow, generally being grown in a hanging container to allow the stems to cascade. They’ll form plants about two or more feet wide, and two to three feet long. A NASA study in the 1980’s found that spider plants were one of the top indoor plants for removing formaldehyde and other toxins such as carbon monoxide, common in homes and public spaces now from the off-gassing of synthetic materials.

Leaves come from the base of plants, are rather long (maybe up to a foot long), and rather narrow. It’s probably good that these are grown hanging from raised containers, as cats are fond of chewing on leaves. While the usual spider plants you see have white leaves with green stripes near the edge (the cultivar Vittatum), you can find ones with the opposite—green leaves with white edges (the cultivar Variegatum). This latter cultivar (cultivated variety) tends to have longer leaves than the former. Both will form small white flowers, usually in summer.

Once they form, the little offshoots are plants in miniature with small roots. They often form during the shorter days of fall. You can leave them on for a full plant, or remove some and pot to make new plants. If plants get quite potbound, you can divide them too. Over time, the thick fleshy roots can get so massive they’ll crack containers. Use a potting soil formulated specially for houseplants, not garden soil.

Plants grow best in bright, indirect light. An east window works well, even a south or west one that gets some shade during hot summer days.

Ideal temperatures for spider plants are between 65 and 75 degrees (F) during the day, and maybe 10 degrees cooler at night, but they are fairly tolerant of other temperatures. Just don’t let them get much below 50 degrees in winter, and keep away from drafts near doors and non-insulated windows.

Keep plants watered, but make sure that excess water drains from pots or containers. If a hanging basket, make sure that the draining water doesn’t overflow and ruin floors and furniture. For this reason, and to give plants more humidity that they prefer, water over a sink or bathtub. Too wet soil and roots will rot. Too dry soil and leaf tips turn brown. Check plants every few days for water and, if pot bound, they may need watering several times a week.

Leaf tips also will turn brown if plants get too much fertilizer, salts from such build up in the soil (look for a white crust around the inner rim of pots), or the humidity is too low. Especially during winter, and in dry homes with forced air heat, a humidifier near spider plants will help to prevent such problems. Feed plants when they are actively growing with the fertilizer of your choice, following label directions. If leaf tips still turn brown, and you’re using a public water supply, fluoride in the water may cause this problem. If you suspect this, try watering with bottled or distilled water.

Spider plants almost never get diseases, and few pests. The main insect pests to watch for are small, hard brown scale insects on leaves. Wipe them and white mealybugs off with cotton swabs dipped in rubbing alcohol. If a plant gets too infested, it may be easier to just discard it and to get a new one, or to propagate clean plants from the offsets.

Know More About Fall Color In Northern Landscapes

Whether or not you live in an area of colorful sugar maples, there are many landscape plants that can provide wonderful fall colors around your home and yard.

If choosing shrubs or small trees, try a grouping of several. If using large trees, one may be all that is needed or that you have room for. Keep in mind the mature size of woody plants when buying them in nurseries, and space appropriately when planting. Improper spacing (usually too close) and you’ll be pruning in a few years, plants will grow together so won’t realize their final shape and potential, and if near a building or walk may overtake these. An exception to planting close is if you want to establish a hedge.

If planting a group of low shrubs or trees, keep in mind that they may look good against a dark-colored wall or evergreen hedge. Make sure that you plant in soil suited for the species. Try not to plant where snow and ice, or winter road salt, may damage plants. All of the following are hardy to at least USDA zone 4 (-20 to -30 degrees F average minimum) in winter.

For vines, such as those climbing on fences, consider American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) for yellow fall leaves. This one can be vigorous and choke out other plants. Another vigorous vine, this one with red fall leaves, is Virginia creeper. As with many fall leaves, this one shows brighter colors in sun. Boston ivy turns dark red in fall with full sun, yellowish-red in shade. While bittersweet climbs by twining, and Virginia creeper by tendrils, Boston ivy has tendril discs that make an adhesive that holds to walls but which can rot wooden structures.

A couple of groundcovers, both with reddish leaves, are the bearberry (Arctostaphylos) and lowbush blueberry. For small shrubs under four feet high, consider some Spirea cultivars (cultivated varieties) generally with yellow fall leaves except for reddish Japanese sprireas . As with many plants, it may be best to buy them in fall so that you can see for yourself what actual colors they produce. Yellowroot (Xanthorrhiza) has brilliant red and gold fall color.

There are several larger shrubs, generally with reddish fall color. An exception is summersweet (Clethra) with generally yellow leaves. For purplish red leaves in fall, consider the chokeberry (Aronia) with the cultivar ‘Brilliantissima’ turning scarlet. Also purplish-red in fall are red-osier dogwood and some viburnums such as the native nannyberry, blackhaw, and American cranberrybush. Korean spice viburnum turns burgundy. Vanhoutte spirea, and in particular the cultivar ‘Renaissance’, turns an orange-red.

Many of these shrubs have multi-season interest. In particular, deciduous (losing their leaves in winter) rhododendrons such as the Northern lights series from Minnesota have red fall colors in addition to their colorful early season flowers. Redosier dogwood has reddish-purple fall leaves followed by bright red twigs in winter.

There are many trees to consider for fall color, other than maples. For small trees under about 25 to 35 feet tall, red fall leaves are seen on shadbush, hawthorns, and the native shining sumac. Other sumacs, as well as mountainash, turn various colors of red, orange, and yellow. The native American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) turns red in sun and yellow in shade.

Many of the colorful large trees turn variations of yellow including yellowwood, American beech (a yellowish bronze), ash (a reddish yellow), ginkgo, honeylocust, larch (looks like a conifer but loses its leaves in winter), quaking aspen, golden weeping willow, and elms. For dark red colors in large trees consider some of the oaks such as the white, swamp white, scarlet, shingle, pin, and red oak. Some of the other oaks’ leaves aren’t particularly showy in fall. One of the few hardy flowering cherries for the north, the Sargent cherry, turns yellow to red.

Grape Ivy, Easy Houseplants

gh1Grape ivy (Cissus rhombifolia) is called this not because they produce grapes, but rather their leaves resemble those of grapes—just much smaller. In fact, they are in the same Vitus or “Vitaceae” family as grapes. They’re not true ivy plants, but get this name from their growth habit. They are among the easiest houseplants to grow, generally being grown in a hanging or raised container to allow the stems to cascade.

Although grape ivy prefers medium to bright light, it will tolerate fairly low light levels indoors. You may see it listed as Venezuelan treebine in reference to where it grows native in tropical and subtropical habitats with filtered light on forest floors. If it gets “leggy” from too little light, just pinch it back to shape. Too much light, such as direct sun, may sunburn leaves, giving them a bleached appearance before turning brown.

Being tropical, grape ivy really prefers warm temperatures above 50 degrees (F), but will tolerate down to 35 degrees. Ideal is a fairly consistent temperature, between 65 and 80 degrees.

Allow grape ivy plants to dry slightly between watering, and don’t let plants stay waterlogged (such as pots with saucers or no drainage). If pots are in saucers to protect furniture and indoor furnishings, make sure to dump out any water an hour or so after watering. Leaves dropping excessively and prematurely often indicates the soil staying too wet.

When plants are putting on new growth (often spring and summer), fertilize them with a product of your choice, according to package directions. Fertilize them more often if you want them to grow faster.

The palm-shaped leaves of the grape ivy are divided into thirds (“3-palmate”), each of these leaflets in a diamond or rhomboid shape (hence the species name). Leaflets are larger, with deeper lobe indentations, in the cultivar ‘Ellen Danica’ which you more often see called merely “oak leaf ivy”.

Leaves can be six inches long, have coarse “teeth” along the leaflet margins, and rust-red hairs on the undersides. Leaves are along vining stems which, if given support such as a trellis, will climb to several feet. Flowers are seldom produced or seen indoors, rather it is grown for its lush, tropical foliage. Studies by Dr. Bill Wolverton, originally with NASA, showed that grape ivy did remove some pollutants from the air, but wasn’t as effective as some other popular houseplant choices.

Grape Ivy is non-toxic to cats and dogs according to the ASPCA plant listing. That’s a good thing, as my cat likes to climb on cabinets to nibble on the ends of the vines from a hanging basket. It is non-toxic to humans, although the sap may cause a slight skin rash in some people.

While grape ivy is commonly found, you may also see a relative—the Kangaroo vine (Cissus antarctica). The main difference is that its leaves are not divided, but rather broadly “ovate” or egg-shaped. It grows similar to grape ivy, with similar culture.

A much more colorful relative is the Rex begonia vine (Cissus discolor). This one, too, has leaves that aren’t divided and are roughly ovate, but with heart-shaped leaf bases and lance-shaped tips. Leaves are deep green, with silver, grey or pink zones similar to a Rex begonia. Yet this is a vine like its relatives, with similar environmental needs and culture. A bit less colorful is Amazon vine (Cissus amazonica) with arrow-shaped leaves, flushed with purple, and silvery veins.