I remember the first Christmas tree that my husband and I put up together. We had barely enough money to buy the tree, and so had to be very creative with the decorations.
Luckily, we had flour and water and sugar around, and so had a great time baking cookies in the shapes of stars and bells and cats and decorating them with colored sugar icing. We added strings of popcorn and cranberries. Unfortunately for any pretension to beauty that tree might have had, the popcorn turned out to be a real hit with the cats. As you can imagine, two determined kittens in pursuit of popcorn didn't do much for the décor. And yet, in some ways that is still my favorite of all of the trees we've decorated together.
It would have been even better had we been into gardening back then. But ours was only a rental house, and although we planted vegetables, and the landlady had outlines the house with a uniform line of hostas, this didn't give us much to work with. In our present house, it's an entirely different story, and we have been able to create some really beautiful holiday decorations.
When autumn comes and that first frost date looms near I start to collect some of my materials. I grow several types of artemisia, and the silvery foliage is great for wreath making. So I gather great bunches of several types, some with feathery foliage and others with more substance.
I also gather quantities of lavender, both for its color and for its tingly fragrance. Earlier I sheared off the flowers, and they have been hanging to dry since midsummer.
I also cut quantities of lambs' ears - Stachys byzantina, which somehow manages to stay somewhat pettable even when dried.
It would be possible to make very sophisticated looking wreaths using just these plants - silvery gray with accents of pale pink or perhaps simple gold glass balls. Silver wreaths with sprays of the lavender flowers tucked in are nice for decorating our downstairs powder room, where the fragrance comes in handy at times. But these plants also look great tucked into great swags that drape our front staircase and the living room fireplace.
In a couple of years my winter blooming heaths will be big enough that I will be able to use those in the wreaths as well. The flowers are tiny and delicate, but on something as small as a wreath they assume a certain importance. And often the foliage has an interesting color as well - anything from gold and silver to crimson, bronze, orange or a flame-color with red to orange to gold.
I was going to talk about greens next - but most of my evergreens are anything but green. I have plum colored Andorrah juniper, as well as Moonbeam juniper in a powdery blue. I have chaemacyparis in golds, and green tipped with white as though brushed by snow. And tons of blackish green yews - many more than I want to have.
The different evergreens have different textures, too, from round branches bristling like elongated porcupines to flat, fern-like sprays. In fact, there is such an infinite variety here that I start sorting things into piles. Blues and plums together - or maybe added to the gray and silver. Deep green with the lighter bluish green of my 'Emerald Spire' juniper. And then there is my favorite - a long needled Limber pine with gorgeous variegation - green, blue and silver all on the same branch, like a carefully frosted hair. Those branches become a mediator that ties most other colors together. I find three different textures of blue that, mixed together seem to glow. All kinds of wonderful possibilities for wreaths that use traditional materials - but with a twist.
If I want color, I can use branches from the three holly bushes by the gazebo. And since I grow so many old garden roses and am pretty lax about deadheading, I have a choice of rose hips in several sizes, from the tiny red bead-like hips of my groundcover rose, 'Grouse' to the huge, bright red hips of the rugosa roses and burgundy colored ones from Rosa glauca. The burgundy looks good in a silvery wreath with bright and pale pinks, while the bright reds are perfect for more traditional displays.
Since I have so much yew foliage, this is the mainstay of the ropes and swags that I will be creating. I simply get a spool of fine wire and start wrapping it around the cut branches, binding them all together into a nice, thick rope. One of these gets hung in swags from the top of the staircase to the landing below.
Since the foyer is a deep rose color, I use silvery pink ribbon and lace threading through it, terminating in long streamers that hang down the newel post. The peak of each arch also gets the bow and streamer treatment. I add some rose hips in small bunches, along with stands of tiny white lights. My finishing touch here is a bit of a cheat - I get fresh flowers either from the florists or the grocery store and stick their stems into little glass tubes of water and tuck these little nosegays into each satin bow - a Victorian fantasy of a swag.
Since our greenhouse wasn't finished when frost struck, I had to bring in the brugmansias again. We haven't got good light for these poorplants, so theytend to drop their leaves almost immediately. But that won't stop me from making them part of the decor. At the least they are outlineds in strings of white lights. Some years I also hang ornaments that look like small red apples all over them - or small mirrors and crystals.
The fireplace swag also gets the lights and ribbon treatment, but there I stay with plain yew as the greenery, as it almost matches the dark green accents in the living room. No fresh flowers here, since the heat of the fire is too strong for them. Instead I use gold wired ribbon and small gold glass balls, along with green holly with its bright red berries.
The living areas of the house are also dotted about with bowls full of blooming amaryllis - many of which are even considerate enough to come into bloom at the proper time. The one you see here is a new, small double white amaryllis called "Blossom Peacock" - and it's fragrant!
To add to the atmosphere there are also several brass and cut glass dishes full of potpourri featuring the damask roses and lavender of last summer, and topped with tiny whole rosebuds that I dried in silica sand.
The kitchen area has a homier feel - the wreath here is made of twisted curly willow - something like a grapevine wreath having a bad hair day. These are decorated with tiny pine cones , gilded acorns and poppy pods, holly leaves and bright red berries along with sprays of red rose hips. I would love to be able to add small fruits to it but have never caught on to wiring them on securely. The ribbons here are red and green plaid with tiny gilded edges. A basket on the table also holds pine cones - but these aren't for decoration.
Instead, they are waiting for me to dip them in melted suet and then roll them in birdseed for our bird tree. We feed the birds year-round, but in winter I am always so grateful for the color and life they bring to an essentially colorless landscape that I want to show my gratitude. So they get their own tree, hung with little cup-cake shaped suet cakes in net bags, and the bird-seed coated pine cones.
For color I halve oranges and scoop out some of the pulp, then adding a mix of birdseeds lightly bound with peanut butter. Others are simply given a wire hanger and filled with different types of seed. And, taking a cue from the cats, we festoon the bird tree with strings of popcorn and cranberry.
Since there are lots of evergreens as well as tall trees that the birds can take refuge in if needs be, they tend to visit often and snack greedily - which is why I collect so many pine cones in the autumn. They are also attracted by the berries on the holly and some of the dogwoods and barberries around the yard, as well as the flowers with seedpods that I left for them in the main garden.
It's a long way from that first Christmas with cookie and popcorn tree to our current holiday decor. Both are essentially home made, but now we have possibilities that simply didn't exist during our first Christmas together. Not because we are spending money on glass balls and pearly chains and tinsel, but because we now have the means to grow much of our décor.
And while nostalgia still makes me love that first, innocent tree the most, I am proud of the fact that we can create beauty for the holidays by raiding the things that we have grown and simply adding a few frills (lights and ribbons) that need to be purchased.
I realize that this article may come late for many of us, but I'll bet that if we surveyed the public a huge number of us are just getting started with the decorating and other holiday madness. If you're done already, I hope this inspries you for next year. And if you're a procrastinator like me, believe it or not you can still cut those yews and start creating a gardener's Christmas.
About the AuthorCarol is a garden writer and college professor in northeast Pennsylvania. She manages theGardening section of Suite 101.com, where she also writes the column Virtually Gardening.