Time Honored Traditions-Decorating the White House 2017

Volunteering at the White House for Christmas is a bucket list item for many people. It is a great honor to be accepted to decorate at the White House and I have written about previous years. This year was the third time that I participated and I always meet people at the White House who have applied after reading about my experiences and been accepted.

Great friendships are formed between the volunteers

 

Mandy Tucker Barkley and her sister Reisha Rust are both talented designers

Lots of people apply, so if you are enthusiastic about Christmas decorating, have experience with designing or decorating, and enjoy working as a team, you have a good chance of being accepted. Most of your day is spent standing or climbing ladders and scaffolding, and doing such tasks as rewiring Christmas ornaments for hours at a time. But as anyone will tell you, its lots of fun meeting like-minded people from all over the country and being part of a cohesive, passionate and caring team of people. I love it!!  The best part is the friendships that are formed that last a long time.

Cinda Baize with long-time decorator Bill Hixson who has participated in decorating for 37 years!
Touring the Willard Hotel in D.C. with my fellow decorators

Over 150 volunteers from 29 states were selected. Everyone works during Thanksgiving week for a partial week or the entire week. I elected to work the entire week and since I live within driving distance, I drove home for my holiday meal. But others who were flying in to work, found a local restaurant for Thanksgiving.

Getting ready to go the volunteer reception

Around 12,000 ornaments, 53 trees, and 71 wreaths, were used to transform the state floor and the lower level into a winter wonderland.  The theme “Time-Honored Traditions” was designed by First Lady Melania Trump to pay homage to 200 years of holiday traditions at the White House.

Taking selfies outside the White House

Monday morning before Thanksgiving at 6AM, we all gathered in the lobby of a D.C. hotel and started our first day of work. The first few days we worked at an offsite warehouse doing prep work, like wiring new ornaments and removing old wires from recycled ornaments. Many ornaments are recycled from previous years and are stored from year to year. Another team worked at the White House early, wiring up the many Christmas trees with lights.

Many ornaments are reused from previous years

I along with a helper, worked on four different boxwood topiaries. Two were double ball topiaries and the others were large ( 12-15″ diameter)single balls. Tedious and exacting work, inserting short lengths of fresh boxwood into the Styrofoam took us almost two days. Others were working on wiring ornaments, organizing room boxes, making Cricut paper cutouts for garlands and trees, wiring garlands together, and going through old ornaments.

One of the boxwood topiaries that I worked on
I worked with a team that made these beautiful tree skirts edged in gold ribbon
Marcie worked on these beautiful dark green bows and the mantels in the East room
The fresh garlands were extremely heavy and took 4-5 people to carry, picture from Theresa Cardell Houston
I worked in the Blue Room which included an 18.5′ tall tree and the mantel

Volunteers and staff at the White House were always cheerful and accommodating and each person had a story to tell about how they applied and got chosen. I met some old friends from previous years and caught up.

Deanna Berry helped me out with the topiaries and tree skirts
I worked with Theresa in 2015 in the Blue Room; here she is with her husband Don, photo from Theresa Cardell Houston

Blue Room

I was thrilled to work in the Blue Room again as it is the center of the State Floor with a breath-taking view of the South Lawn. Oval shaped, the Blue Room has been the traditional place for presidents to formally receive guests. After making and placing some “ribbon bursts” on the beautiful State tree, I moved on to decorate the mantel. I love doing mantels, more so than decorating trees, so I was excited. After the huge garlands were placed on the mantel we wired the garlands up with tiny white lights. Making sure that the wires were concealed by fresh greenery, I and my helper Cherry, labored on the garland for several hours, pushing the wire into the body of the garland. We ended up adding five strands of lights to completely cover it. The ends of the garland were left to “puddle” on either side for an elegant rich look.

Many garlands, like these in the East Room, puddled on the floor on either side
Blue Room mantel details

Adding large blue velvet bows with dove-tailed ends in the center and on either side started the process of decorating the garland. Antique gold oak leaves, state seal balls, and large gold balls were added to the garland which mirrored what was used on the towering tree in the center of the room. More blue velvet ribbon pieces were added weaving through the garland and I added large gold sprayed sugar cones on either side dangling from gold-wired ribbon. Being careful that the garland doesn’t touch the walls and possibly damage them, the whole process took about a day and a half to complete.

Completed Blue Room mantel

Each of the gold state seal balls were engraved with all 56 state and territory seals and I made sure to include a variety on the mantel.

Presidential Seal above the Blue Room door

Green Room

My next favorite room was the Green Room which is dedicated to crafts, paper, and classic design. Covered in a delicate green silk fabric chosen by Jacqueline Kennedy and striped cream, white, and coral drapes and furniture, it is located adjacent to the Blue Room. Because of its proximity, I checked on the decorating progress frequently and was awed by the silhouettes and Cricut cut pine cones and mistletoe. Cricut is the brand name of an electronic cutting machine that looks like a printer. Intricate botanical shapes were produced in the warehouse and then put together to form beautiful forms on the Green Room mantel and tree.

The White House calligrapher created the ‘Merry Christmas’ banner
Gold silhouettes were hand cut of president’s profile
Green Room tree
Detail of the Cricut paper tree box; this was on all four sides
Detail of the beautiful green striped ribbon with Cricut cut shapes
Framed vignette scenes were hung in both windows by the same beautiful ribbon; They depicted previous first families celebrating Christmas with their families
More framed silhouettes and cut paper trees were placed on tables throughout the room

Red Room

On the other side of the Blue Room is the Red Room with carmine red walls and drapes, an Aubusson carpet, and a gilded wood French chandelier.

Red Room tree

A peppermint candy theme was carried throughout the room with apothecary jars placed on the tree, mantel and sideboards. Exploding with lollipops, crushed candy, old-fashioned ribbon candies and red and white cookies (all real), the room was alive with color. The plaid red and white wired ribbon was gorgeous and paired perfectly with the white ribbon edged in red. The tree box similar to the Green Room was faced with Cricut paper pieces with an iced cookie from the White House kitchen topping everything off.

Glass apothecary jars were attached to the mantel
An explosion of candy in the Red Room

Cross Hall

The trees in the Cross Hall were carefully decorated with fake snow

 

Billowy snow was placed at the base of the trees; uplighting enhanced the fairy tale look

The Cross Hall runs East to West on the main floor of the White House connecting the East Room and the State Dining Room and includes the Grand Foyer.  A forest of trees decorated with crystal ornaments and glittery snow greeted visitors as they entered.

Towering trees of snow and crystal

The decorations celebrated the first themed White House Christmas, which was the ‘Nutcracker Suite’ in 1961, To create depth on the trees, we placed the ornaments close to the trunk as well as towards the outer tips of the branches. Light strands were treated the same way; The string of Christmas lights was twisted around the branch from trunk to branch tip and wrapped back to the trunk to start on another branch.

East Room

The East Room is the largest room in the White House and used as a reception room. The trees here were decorated with a gorgeous emerald-green velvet ribbon with a shiny gold reverse. I was part of the team that cut out the matching tree skirts and the ribbon was used to edge the hem for an elegant touch.

East Room tree skirts

Bursts of emerald-green ribbon were added to the trees with ornaments in varying hues of green for a lush elegant look. The mantels were treated similarly.

East Room mantel
Bow detail
A nativity scene is on display in the East Room

East Colonnade 

The long hallway in the East Wing is always a great decorating opportunity. In 2015, I loved the snowflake theme. But this year, the towering frosty branches that arched overhead were a sight to behold.

East Wing frosty branches

Up lighting the branches created a magical feeling at night.

Dining Room

The Dining Room mantel in gold and silver
Dangling ornaments on Dining Room mantel

Vermeil Room

The Vermeil Room contains portraits of First Ladies and houses the silver-gilt collection or “Gold-Ware” which is on display. I love the portraits that decorate this room and the decorations pick up the gold theme.

Portrait of Lady Bird Johnson over looks the room
Detail of mantel
Eleanor Roosevelt has an interesting portrait in the Vermeil Room
Detail of the beautiful beaded tree skirt in the Vermeil Room
Portrait of Mamie Eisenhower

Library

The library contained a Christmas tree made out of books- a novel approach to a Christmas tree! The books were artistically stacked on a tiered shelf with boxwood peeking out from the “trunk”.

Boxwood was behind the books

In a glass case next to the Library’s mantel is a copy of Charles Dickens’  “Christmas Carol” that belonged to Franklin Roosevelt who was said to read it to his family on Christmas Eve.

Diplomatic Reception

The Diplomatic Reception Room tree next to the historic wallpaper

One of three oval rooms in the White House, the Diplomatic Reception Room is papered in antique French scenic wallpaper. I loved seeing the details of the wall paper which was obtained by Jacqueline Kennedy.

One of the scenes on the wallpaper

One of the most interesting feature of the Diplomatic Reception Room is that a previously unused chimney was opened up in 1935, and a new mantel and fireplace installed for Franklin Roosevelt’s famous “fireside chats.”

The gold eagle was a flag pole topper!

Gold Star Tree

The Gold Star tree honors service members and their families, particularly those who have given their lives for our country. Decorated with gold stars and patriotic ribbon, the tree is interactive, allowing visitors to write holiday messages to service members.

Reception

First Lady Melania Trump thanks all the volunteers for their hard work, picture from Theresa Cardell Houston

To cap off our hard work decorating, we were treated to a volunteer reception where we could see the results of everyone’s hard work revealed. Lamb chops, tenderloin, smoked salmon, and lots of other goodies are laid out in a buffet. And the White House has the best mac and cheese and egg nog ever!

The volunteer reception in the Dining Room
Spread of food at volunteer reception
The gingerbread house was covered in pastillage, a sugar based dough that dries hard
Detail of the wreaths on the gingerbread White House; fresh green wreaths were placed in the same windows on the real White House
The White House kitchen produces thousands of iced sugar cookies for parties
First day at the White House

For previous posts on decorating at the White House, go to Decorating the White House-Past and Present, and White House 2015.

 

Outdoor Seasonal Containers

Simple Fall container with nandina berries and foliage, orange-tinged fothergillia, and hydrangea blossoms

What do you do with a container on your front porch once you have yanked out those sorry-looking frost-killed petunias?

Segue into the holiday season with beautiful fall/winter containers using “yard” material. As a landscape designer, my first consideration in planting any tree or shrub is – Can I use it in my seasonal containers? Yellow, red, orange twig dogwoods, evergreens with variegated foliage, magnolias, winterberry, red-berried viburnums, interesting evergreens like cedar and thujopsis, and ruby rose hips, are planted on my property with one motive in mind; Are they useful in arrangements inside and outside?

Make it Simple Directions

Keep the old soil in place and cut off at soil line old plants, and you have an instant palette to play with that can take you into the holidays and beyond. The trick is to complete your masterpiece before the ground freezes as you can’t stick anything into a frozen pot.

Start with a full pot of soil

 

Use an inexpensive wreath on top of the container to cover your edges

Using a preformed wreath will save you some steps in the process of creating an outdoor arrangement. In the above example, I used a 15″ diameter pot topped with a 18″ diameter wreath. You have instant soil coverage and a beautiful base to start with.

Insert your thriller sticks or uprights in the center of the wreath. Here I used yellow twig dogwood, one of my favorites.

Start inserting your largest leaves first. In this case, I use Brown’s Bracken Magnolia with a lovely brown felted reverse. Insert your branches directly through the base wreath.

Add other contrasting foliage, some feathery white pine and yellow tinged false cypress to pick up the yellow twigs. Chunky birch logs and orange winter berry sticks are added last for color. I placed an over-sized Christmas ball in the container but ultimately decided to not use it. Finish it off with a gold three-layered bow.

Layering ribbon makes a lush bow

More Options

Lots of Magnolia paired with gold lotus
The addition of fall tinged Oakleaf Hydrangea adds a lot to this arrrangement
I left a growing variegated ivy here which will last all year long
Red rose hips shine in the sunlight
Here I used some red dyed eucalyptus

Created and photographed by Amy Sparwasser

Mistletoe – A Sprig of Romance and Legend

Mistletoe clumps perch high in a tree

Have you ever been in the check out line at the grocery store and seen packaged Mistletoe with white plastic berries? A familiar sight around Christmas, I was always intrigued about this plant but never knew much about it.

A recent trip to the coast of North Carolina opened my eyes to the stomping grounds of this interesting parasitic plant. Driving along the highway in December from the coast of North Carolina to Asheville on a long drive, I had plenty of opportunity to notice the native vegetation and I noticed large green clumps held high up in deciduous trees. Once the leaves drop, you are able to see large birds nests and other debris caught up in the bare branches and these leafy green balls stood out to me. I realized immediately that they must be Mistletoe and soon saw many of the evergreen balls dotted throughout the forest.

Botanically, Mistletoe  is especially interesting because it is a partial parasite, a “hemiparasite”. Being a parasitic plant, it grows on the branches or trunk of a tree and actually sends out roots that penetrate into the tree and take up nutrients. But like any other plant, it can produce its own food by photosynthesis. There are two types of Mistletoe. The Mistletoe that is commonly used as a Christmas decoration (Phoradendron flavescens), is native to North America and grows as a parasite on trees in the west in central California, and the east coast. The other type of Mistletoe, Viscum album, is of European origin and very different from the North American, as it is a green shrub with small, yellow flowers and white, sticky berries which are poisonous like the American cousin.

Bunches of mistletoe for sale at $3 a bunch at a farmers market in North Carolina

One of the most magical, mysterious, and sacred plants of European folklore, Mistletoe was believed to bestow life and fertility,  a protection against poison, as well as an aphrodisiac. Sacred to the ancient Celtic Druids, it was used in symbolic ceremonies. Gathered at both mid-summer and winter solstices, the custom of using Mistletoe to decorate houses at Christmas is a survival of the Druid and other pre-Christian traditions and has become associated with many folklore customs. In the Middle Ages, branches of mistletoe were hung from ceilings to ward off evil spirits and over house and stable doors to prevent the entrance of witches. These customs were brought to the new world with the immigration of Europeans and native Mistletoe, though a different variety, was here in abundance.

A bunch of Mistletoe  in a tree

Mistletoe is found in a variety of deciduous trees throughout the U.S., in plant hardiness zone 6b through 11. I live in zone 6b in Maryland, so Mistletoe could be found here! And in fact, according to the Washington Post, in nearby Alexandria, Virginia, an 18″ diameter ball of Mistletoe lives in a tree only four-foot high off the ground! Hardy as far north as New Jersey, its preferred habitat is tidewater areas, thus my sightings on the North Carolina coast. Most of the Mistletoe sold on the East Coast during the holidays is collected from North Carolina. Botanists have noticed a march northwards as well as more abundant specimens which they attribute to climate change or global warming.

The glistening white berries each contain a seed

Bright green oval leaves approximately 1 inch long and one-half inch across line waxy bright green stems up to 20 inches long, make Mistletoe an attractive plant. Bright green male or female flowers bloom in fall, followed by white berries in winter. Containing oxalic acid, Mistletoe can be toxic to some animals, including humans. Birds consume the berries, excrete the seeds which fall onto other suitable host trees. Once germinated, root tendrils penetrate the bark and start forming the typical clump of evergreen foliage. These clumps can reach five feet in diameter and weigh up to 50 pounds. Since Mistletoe is a parasite, a large population of Mistletoe plants on a tree will weaken it and hasten its demise.

But the plants are important to wildlife and as well as to humans. Extracts from Mistletoe are used to combat colon cancer that are more effective than chemotherapy. Mistletoe-killed trees provide nesting sites for cavity dwelling mammals and birds. And the living clumps of Mistletoe provide shelter for many birds. Three kinds of U.S. butterflies depend on mistletoe for survival: the great purple hairstreak, the thicket hairstreak and the Johnson’s hairstreak. These butterflies lay eggs on Mistletoe, and their young eat the leaves. The adults of all three species feed on Mistletoe nectar, as do some species of native bees.

Johnson’s Hairstreak, photo from Wikipedia, Alan Schmierer

The kissing custom may date to at least the 1500s in Europe. It was practiced in the early United States and each time a couple kissed under a Mistletoe sprig, they removed one of the white berries. When the berries were all gone, so was the sprig’s kissing power.

Finding Mistletoe at a local North Carolina farmers market, I snatched several bunches to take home with me for decorations. I asked the farmer who was selling the bunches how he could harvest the clumps high in the tree and he told me that he shoots them down with a shotgun!  Thinking he was joking, I talked with others at the market and they confirmed this. Rarely is Mistletoe found at an accessible height and I had no idea shooting was an option.

Making a Kissable Mistletoe Ball

Start with a moss-covered ball of oasis

Snip your branches into smaller pieces that contain both foliage and berries
Using fern pins, U-shaped pins, insert pins into stems and attach to base
Fern pins are used to attached the sprigs of Mistletoe
Finish it off with a bow and hang with fishing line

For more Christmas decorating posts, try Williamsburg Christmas, Christmas Wreath-Ordinary to Extraordinary, Holly Love, Boxwood Christmas,  Mantel Magic,  Succulent Christmas. 

Berry Bird Buffet

I have added berries from my garden to this planter

When the leaves falls and the temperatures drop, I start unearthing my bird feeders and stocking up on suet, seed, and, and dried fruit for the birds.  Trying my best to satisfy the different varieties of birds with an array of delicacies that consistently feed birds the most nutritious and attractive foods, is my goal.

You can make your own suet

But it takes time, money, and dedication to provide the food necessary to keep birds healthy and happy. And why do we do this? Is it just the satisfaction of tracking the variety of birds to our yards so we can keep “yard lists”?  For me, I love watching the behaviors, songs, colors, and enjoy the show they put on right in front of me. And with so much wild land being developed, birds need to have alternate sources of sustenance.

Observing birds nest is one benefit of having birds visit your yard

And as a photographer, I want to bring the birds up close so I can photograph them. For that reason, I am ready to fill my feeders with the most nutritious foods and am always looking for ways to vary the offerings to attract some more unusual varieties.

Since I love to create containers, I decided to put together a ‘bird buffet’ container using a recently emptied container killed by frost.

Line an old metal plant stand with landscape cloth and add soil if starting from scratch
Same container dripping with begonias early in the summer

After cleaning out my container, but leaving the soil, I browsed my yard to pick up all kinds of berries and seed heads. Collecting echinacea seed heads, winterberry, purple and white Callicarpa, scarlet Viburnum,  and Blackberry Lily berries, was easy to do in mid-November before the birds have cleaned me out.

Edge the container with draping evergreens, sticking them into the soil; Here I use Arborvitae;  There is some creeping Jenny left over from the old container
In the back, I placed the Echinacea seed heads and added lots of berries in the front and middle
The black berries are Blackberry Lily, a perennial, and the red is Erie Viburnum
I set a bird house on top of a block of wood so you can see it better
I tried some deer antlers but decided not to use them
Sprays of millet completed the buffet;  Find these at pet stores

Make sure you water the container so it is moist, not soggy. Once the freezing weather arrives, the soil freezes keeping everything in place.

Next up is my recipe for home made suet and a DIY of a seed covered bird house.

 

 

 

Easy Thanksgiving Centerpieces

 

Having Thanksgiving at your house?  Whipping up a table centerpiece now will save you a lot of time on Thanksgiving Day.

Living on a pretty large property (2 acres), is a lot of work with weeding, pruning, mulching, etc. The chores are endless. But it is all worth it when I look out my window and see the makings of a Thanksgiving centerpiece, there for the taking. Evergreens, berries, peppers ripening, pine cones, and pods, were at my fingertips. Fresh cut sunflowers, oasis, and picking up a few colorful veggies,  were the only things that I had to purchase to come up with a dynamite centerpiece. Keeping for weeks with regular application of water and misting, you can segue this same centerpiece into a Christmas themed one with different flowers and accessories.

Surprisingly easy if you have access to greens, you can always poach on your friends and neighbors properties if you come up short. Ask first though! Usually people are happy for you to prune or thin their evergreens.

Start with a hurricane globe filled with fruit and a candle; place the oasis on a charger

Starting out with a 10″ oasis ring on an inexpensive charger plate, I had an old glass hurricane shade that I pull out for each Christmas to act as the focal point. If you can’t find an oasis wreath, then just cut your wet oasis into chunks and piece together a wreath shape.  Inserting a cranberry colored candle in the hurricane shade, I dropped some shriveled mini pumpkins (See pumpkin on a stick) and some mini hardy oranges into the space around the candle. Other options are fresh cranberries, dried corn and beans, or nuts.

Start inserting short pieces of greens

Insert your greens first, trying to cover as much of the oasis as you can. But leave room for your other berries, veggies, and flowers. This should only take about 15 minutes. For my centerpiece greens, I used Thujopsis, Nandina, Golden Arborvitae, Leucothoe, and Aucuba.

After greening the oasis, add your berries and fruit; the Nandina berries exactly match the color of the mini pumpkins
Stick picks into colorful peppers
I bunched the radishes together with wire and picked them also
Completed centerpiece without flowers

Once Thanksgiving is over, set the wreath in a cool place, not freezing, and bring it back in at Christmas and add seasonal naturals such as roses, pomegranates, and red carnations. Even a small birds nest or snowmen would add a nice touch.

Sunflowers will last about a week

Materials

Here is a list of suggested materials. Just explore your yard or the woods and you can find many others to make it more interesting.

Evergreens

  • Aucuba
  • Rhododendron
  • Cherry Laurel
  • False Cypress
  • Juniper
  • Nandina-foliage and greenery
  • Andromeda
  • Boxwood
  • Pachysandra
  • Hellebore
  • Pine
  • Oakleaf Hydrangea

Vegetables

  • Brussel Sprouts
  • Lady Apples
  • Cabbage
  • Lemons
  • Limes
  • Artichokes
  • Broccoli
  • Small Pumpkins
  • Gourds
  • Grapes
  • Radishes
  • Turnips
  • Mini Peppers

 Berries and Flowers

  • Gerber Daisy
  • Mums
  • Winterberry
  • Beauty Berry
  • Sunflower
  • Wax Flower
  • Lilies
  • Grapevine tendrils
  • Roses
  • Hydrangea
  • Bittersweet
  • Lotus Pods
  • Pine Cones
  • Pepper Berries
  •  Hydrangea
  • Rose Hips
The radishes will last a few weeks and then shrivel up
Step By Step

  1. Place oasis ring in warm water and soak for 30 minutes until heavy. Or piece together a ring with chunks of oasis
  2. Place ring on charger and set your hurricane glass in the center
  3. Fill the glass with a candle surrounded by your choice of beans or fruit
  4. Insert cut pieces (3-5″ long) of greens into oasis ring so that the oasis is covered
  5. Insert your chosen veggies after first inserting picks. If you don’t have picks, use short twigs
  6. Add berries, pods, or nuts
  7. Sunflowers go in last. Other suggestions for flowers are carnations, dahlias, roses, lilies, and mums
Veggies and Berries
Placing picks in Veggies, Pods, and Berries
For another pumpkin centerpiece idea, go to my post Thanksgiving Centerpiece .  
For a totally different look, try making the one below with candles and gourds, ready to go in 30 minutes.

‘Pesto Party’ Basil-Nutritious Flavor Powerhouse

 

‘Pesto Party’ Basil from Burpee
Whipping up pesto

A highly fragrant plant, Basil’s leaves are used as a seasoning herb for all different types of foods and is a major component of my favorite flavor – pesto. Pesto, a mixture of basil, pine nuts, garlic, and Parmesan cheese, is a versatile mixture that can enhance breads, pastas, and even meats. Try my recipe for African Blue Basil. 

Whipping up a batch of pesto, I always like to have some growing Basil plants on hand, but it can be hard to keep alive indoors. And outdoors my Basil gets disfigured with Basil Mildew which makes it inedible. I had almost given up growing it and instead was buying the hydroponic plants at the grocery store.

Basil is an excellent source of vitamin K and manganese, copper, vitamin A (in the form of carotenoids such as beta-carotene), and vitamin C; and a good source of calcium, iron, folate, magnesium and omega-3 fatty acids. I had no idea!

Basil mildew will disfigure the entire plant quickly

I was delighted to find ‘Pesto Party’ from Burpee which is very resistant to the dreaded mildew.  Where has this Basil been all my life? ‘Party Pesto’ grew nicely into a mounded plant for me and is extremely slow to flower. As an experienced Basil grower knows, you don’t want the herb to flower as it changes the taste (bitter)and it will slowly decline. The inevitable mildew finally appeared in October on ‘Pesto Party’, when most of my plants were slowing down. I had gotten an entire season of harvest from my plant and my moneys worth.

I love Pesto! And with the new ‘Pesto Party’ Basil from Burpee I can make unlimited pesto all summer long. Burpee describes it this way;

Pesto Party’ is the latest-flowering basil from seed, letting you enjoy a preponderance of aromatic fresh-picked leaves deep into the season. Basking prettily in your favorite patio container, well-branching plants produce a continuing flourish of fragrant leaves infused with sweet Italian basil flavor. Late-to-bolt plants are paragons of tolerance to downy mildew—no other basil comes close.

I have to agree with that description- no other basil comes close. And growing it in containers right outside my kitchen door was a perfect solution for this mounding compact plant. Available by seeds or plants from Burpee, I received three plants in the spring and ate off of those plants all summer.

Purple Basil and Cinnamon and Anise flavored Basils aren’t as susceptible to Mildew
The mildew starts with yellowing of the foliage, progressing to blotching of the leaves

Downy mildew of basil is a relatively new, destructive disease that appears to be here to stay. First appearing in the U.S. in 2007, it appeared earlier in Europe. Basil is the leading culinary herb in the U.S. and it is decimating basil crops here. The pathogen can readily spread easily via wind-dispersed spores that it produces abundantly. This is likely the primary way it has spread throughout the eastern USA every summer since 2008.

Requiring a full sun location and well draining soil, easily grown in a container on a back deck or patio, ‘Pesto Party’ is on my short list for next year.

An added benefit of ‘Pesto Party’ is the slowness of bolting into flower

Plant Oddity – Pumpkin On A Stick

Use pumpkin on a stick in fall displays

Halloween is around the corner and people are starting to decorate with the many types of pumpkins available at the farmer’s market. The past 10 years have seen an explosion of all kinds of colors, sizes, and shapes of pumpkins, but I am in love with a diminutive one, which actually isn’t a real pumpkin, but an eggplant. For different types of pumpkins, go to my Pumpkin Eye Candy post.

Pumpkin on a Stick seed packet at Botanical Interests

Ornamental or Food?

Falling in the eggplant family, the little pumpkins, Solanum integrifolium, are not really pumpkins, but an ornamental used in stir-fried Asian dishes. I grow this cute ornamental jack-o-lantern for jazzing up my Thanksgiving table and fall flower arrangements as it dries nicely and lasts a long time.

Native to Southeast Asia, it grows 3 to 4 feet tall with very large fuzzy leaves that grow from a purple thorny stem. It towers over other eggplants in my garden and the plant looks remarkably like Bed of Nails or Solanum quitoense, profiled in Plant Geek Alert.

Bed of Nails

Culture

Around for over 125 years which makes it an official heirloom vegetable, it has also been called Pumpkin Tree and Pumpkin Bush. Planted directly in full sun in your garden, the plant needs steady moisture and benefits from regular fertilizing as it grows large fast. Pretty soon, the insignificant blooms appear, followed by pale green nubby fruit that turn into their final pumpkin ribbed shape a few weeks later. Insects like to gnaw on the leaves as you can see but deer and rabbits leave it alone because of the wicked thorns.

Harvesting

In late summer, the fruit changes to a scarlet color and when frosts start to hit, the eggplants turn their final rich orange color. You can harvest up to a dozen pumpkins on one plant. When you pick a stem of pumpkins for fresh use, cut the stems and use as is. If you want to dry the pumpkins, hang the entire stalk upside down in a cool dry location. This treatment prevents the fruits from sagging. Fruits will shrivel and the orange color will intensify. For eating, pick the fruits when orange and use in stir-fries.

Pumpkin on a stick at the wholesale florist

Christmas Gift a HERShovel or HERSpadingfork

As a professional gardener, I am very particular about picking out the best tools for the job. Two tools that are always with me on a job site are the HERShovel and HERSpadingfork. If you have any women in your life who love to garden, these would make perfect gifts for the holidays. For a post with more gardener gift ideas, go to Tools of the Trade.

The HerSpading Fork

Designed by Green Heron Tools , a woman owned and operated business, the HerShovel is my go-to tool for any type of digging. The company is owned by avid gardeners Ann Adams and Liz Brensinger, and they designed and tested the first shovel themselves, and call it the HERShovel. Started in 2008 in nearby Pennsylvania, Green Heron Tools, has been featured in Organic Gardening Magazine. The shovel/spade is engineered to maximize the power and the lower center of gravity of a women’s body and has a great hand feel. Tools aren’t unisex as any woman can attest trying to use a large and heavy shovel.

Ann Adams and Liz Brensinger showing off their HERShovel at MANTS
Ann Adams and Chris Adams showing off HERShovel at Mid Atlantic Nurseryman’s Show

Designed as a shovel/spade hybrid, The shovel is light weight and has a large convenient digging handle and comes in 3 shaft sizes.  I am 5’3″ tall and the middle size was perfect for me. The price is $67, which I thought was reasonable for a well made tool. Most of the professional shovels that I have used tend to be very heavy, and the light weight of this shovel was an eye opener.  Green Heron sells other products from different companies made for women, but the shovel is one that they designed themselves. Their mission is to make ergonomic tools available to women to make heavy jobs easier on the body. As I get older, I appreciate this goal.

The orange handled digging knife is also one of my essential tools

I have used the shovel for years. And now they have come out with the Spading Fork or the HERSpadingfork  and I love using this for digging/dividing up perennial roots and dahlia tubers. See my video below on digging up dahlia tubers using the HERSpadingfork .

The large non-slip step provides stability and the over-sized handle allows you to grip it with two hands to add more leverage to your digging. There are three shaft sizes to match your height so you end up with a custom designed tool for your size. A little more expensive at $85, probably because of the diamond-backed tines which slice quickly through my heavy soil, I would love seeing this under my Christmas tree!

You can see the non-slip plate on top of the  tines

For more information, go to Lehigh Valley Style ,  Garden Design, or Foodtank.

 

Adams & Brensinger’s tips to using tools smartly and safely:

  • Make sure a tool fits your body. Out-of-proportion tools can cause injury
  • Look for tools that are comfortable to hold and easy to use. A tool shouldn’t be so heavy that using it will cause fatigue or strain.
  • Look for textured hand grips to minimize clenching and keep hands from slipping and remain in a neutral position
  • Look for large treads on tools such as shovels and digging forks to keep your foot from sliding off

Move Over Butternut- Try Boston Marrow Squash

I love Butternut squash! It is a sweet nutty squash that is very nutritious – full of vitamins A and C and fiber. Versatile in many types of dishes – soups, roasted, steamed, risotto, pies, pasta, gratins – the recipes are endless. But I just picked up a Boston Marrow winter squash and it will give Butternut a “run for the money”.

Chop your Boston Marrow into manageable chunks for peeling

Winter squash are different from summer squash (like zucchini and yellow crookneck)—the skin is hard and inedible, while the inside is firm and flavorful.  Leaving winter squash on the vine like a pumpkin, you can store them for long periods of time because of their tough outer shell. A seasonal squash that can be cooked in a variety of ways– baked or roasted, in a puree, in soups or stews, and as a sweet addition to other hearty winter dishes. For a great Butternut Squash soup recipe, go to Winter Squash Round Up.

Kaboucha is a winter squash good for soups

Another winter squash that you might like to try is the Boston Marrow. Hard to find, except at farmer’s markets, I was delighted to find this heirloom squash at a local farmstand/orchard and was able to savor it for the first time.

A pile of Boston marrow Squash, photo from Burpee

According to Burpee who is now carrying this hard to find squash, they describe it as; “Once you taste the melt-in-your-mouth “pumpkin” pie that this squash yields, you’ll be making it as often as possible. Sweet, carrot-orange flesh, cooks to a creamy, custardy texture for perfect pies, puddings and breads. Delicious alone. A fine choice for areas with a short growing season”.

 

 

This blue ribbon winning basket features a Boston marrow squash

An heirloom squash with more than 200 years of documented history, and even thought to be much older, like ancient, Boston Marrow originated in the upstate New York area. Legend has it that Native Americans gifted this squash to colonists and seeds were later passed on to Salem, Massachusetts in 1831. Marrow soon became one of the most important commercial squashes for over 150 years. But in modern times, nearly every seed company had dropped this unique treasure. In recent years, with the interest in heirloom veggies increasing, it is being picked up again by seed companies.

Used primarily as a pie squash, its skin is also thin and easy to peel. Due to its success in cooler conditions with a shorter growing season, the squash has spread throughout the US. If kept in a cool dry place, the squash can last to the following spring, another trait prized by early growers.

Growing between 5 to 52 pounds each, these squash can be made into quite a few pies. And what a fabulous pie!  Flesh of the Boston Marrow squash is less sweet and dense than that of Butternut squash, which gives it a wonderful custardy flavor.

One piece of the squash being peeled
A piece of Boston Marrow with the seeds removed

Resulting in a much better tasting pumpkin pie, it is lighter in texture and flavor. Starting with a basic recipe from AllRecipes for a butternut squash pie, I have revised the spices to my liking and substituted Boston Marrow. The resulting pie was a big hit with my family for its creaminess and wonderful flavor. Everyone was coming back for one more piece, until it was gone.

From a 6.5 pound squash, I was able to make 3 pies!

Print

Boston Marrow Squash Pie

A wonderful fall pie recipe; if you can't find Boston Marrow, substitute Butternut Squash

Servings 8 people

Ingredients

  • 3 C Chunks of winter squash, peeled
  • 1 C Brown sugar, packed
  • 1 T Cornstarch
  • 1 Egg
  • 1 12 oz can Evaporated milk
  • 1 1/2 t Cinnamon
  • 1/4 t Freshly ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 t Ground cloves
  • 1/4 t Ground allspice
  • 1/2 t Ground ginger
  • 1 Unbaked pie shell

Instructions

  1. Steam the squash chunks in a saucepan for 20 minutes, or until tender. Drain.


  2. Place all the ingredients in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth.


  3. Pour into pie shell and sprinkle with pumpkin pie spice. Place in preheated 350 degree oven for 50 minutes, until the center is set.


  4. Serve with whipped cream or ice cream.
Blending in food processor was the easiest way to mix everything

Bulbs in Pots-Portable Containers for Spring

 

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If you don’t have a yard or outdoor space to plant outdoor bulbs like Tulips, Daffs, Iris, or Hyacinths, don’t despair….Plant them in pots. Easy peasey. So much better to plop your bulbs in nice loose potting medium rather than slaving with a heavy shovel to get your bulbs down to the proper depth in a heavy clay soil.  Frustrating? You bet! But in containers, think of the advantages:

  • You can enjoy your bulbs up close and personal
  • Change the look and appearance of your garden instantly
  • Grow bulbs that require specialized TLC
  • Pop them into containers with other spring flowers
  • Experiment with new varieties. Plus, you can have beautiful pots of spring flowers welcoming friends to your front door or brightening your patio for weeks in the spring when you become starved for color and fragrance
  • You can have tulips without the deer eating them! Place your pots close to the house, like on your porch where the deer won’t venture
Amaryllis are one of the easiest of indoor bulbs to bloom; here they are blooming in the nursery display boxes

Outdoors For Spring Bloom Vs Forcing
Fall-planted bulbs in containers have different needs than bulbs planted directly in the ground. I am not talking about “forcing” bulbs which means to accelerate your bloom period. In that scenario, your bulbs bloom in late winter, earlier than scheduled for their normal bloom period. That method requires pre-chilling to get the required days of cold that each bulb needs. I didn’t want to fool with forcing this year. So, I decided to enjoy my bulbs in containers by my back door without fiddling with burying the pots and/or chilling bulbs that forcing requires. Go to Bringing Spring In-Forcing Bulbs for more information on pre-chilling and forcing if you want winter color indoors.

For how-to on forcing Hyacinths for indoor bloom, go to
For how-to on forcing Hyacinths for indoor bloom, go to Longfield Gardens blog 

 

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Grape Hyacinth ‘Valerie Finnis’ is one of the prettiest minor bulbs
Miniature Iris in a pot
Miniature Iris in a pot is also a favorite; this blue variety is a stunner-‘Katharine Hodgkin’

Another use for your bulbs in containers is to use them in mixed spring containers for an instant pop of color.

Blooming Tulips, Daffs, and Grape Hyacinths add great color to a spring container
Blooming Tulips, Daffs, and Grape Hyacinths add great color to a spring container-by Leigh Barnes

Creating an enclosed environment for your tiny packages of blooms is easy if you remember a few cardinal rules.

  • Potting Medium-Use a high quality potting medium with lots of perlite or vermiculite for porous well draining soil (not garden soil)
  • Pots-Use flexible plastic pots that give with the changes of temperature (terra-cotta can break); You can slip these into decorative pots when they bloom
  • Spacing-Plant bulbs so they’re close but not touching, with their tips just below the soil surface. Here is your chance to stuff them in for a huge color show
  • Depth-Pot bulbs are typically planted a little less shallowly than ground bulbs. But try to stick closely to recommended planting depths for best results. The goal is to leave as much room as possible under them for root growth
  • Layers-For a more abundant lavish look, you can layer your bulbs or stack them on top of each other but it is simpler to stick with one variety per pot for beginners
  • Temperature-In winter, bulbs in above-ground containers will get MUCH colder than those planted in the ground where the surrounding soil insulates. This means you’ll need to store your potted bulbs through the winter in a place that stays colder than 48° F most of the time but that doesn’t get as severely cold as the outside
  • Water-Check your soil all winter to make sure soil is moist but not soggy. Water infrequently when just started, but later when roots have filled in and top growth has started, ramp it up
  • Presentation-Place grit, gravel, or Spanish moss on top to finish it off or plant something shallow rooted on top, like moss
Miniature Iris are my favorite for pots
Miniature Iris are my favorite for pots
There is nothing more fragrant than a pot of Hyacinths by the back door, from Longfield Gardens
There is nothing more fragrant than a pot of Hyacinths by the back door, from Longfield Gardens
Tulips are also easy in pots
Tulips are also easy in pots

Storing
I keep my planted pots outside until the weather consistently gets below freezing. For me in the mid-Atlantic region, that could be as late as mid December, depending on the weather. Keeping my pots on my patio where I can easily throw some water on them, is the simplest way to monitor them. Once freezing temps are here to stay, I start bringing the pots in to a more sheltered position.

Since temperature is critical for success, it is important to choose an area that  is buffered from the killing freeze/thaw cycle, but still able to get the needed chilling for successful flowering. Keeping the pots in a cool shaded spot, like an unheated garage, until early spring growth appears is essential. For me it is an unheated mud room attached to my house once winter weather arrives.

I wrap my containers in bubble wrap and place them in an unheated mud room next to my house
I wrap my containers in bubble wrap and place them in an unheated mud room next to my house

Wrapping my pots in insulating bubble wrap and placing them next to the wall of the house in the mud room for any ambient warmth is my solution for minimal protection. A cold frame would work also. I have heard of gardeners even storing the pots in old-fashioned galvanized trash cans with some burlap or other filler stuffed around them. Storing them in cans will avoid the great destructor of bulbs-squirrels, mice, voles and other assorted varmints.

Use masking tape to hold the layers of bubble wrap around the pot

Check on your pot while it is being stored. Water when the soil feels dry to the touch. This will only happen every couple of weeks. Towards February, the tips of the bulbs will be pushing through the plants that you have planted on top.

Squirrels are very destructive with bulbs
Squirrels are very destructive with bulbs

If storing in a garage, be careful of ethylene gas emitted from exhaust fumes from warming-up cars. Ethylene gas can cause flower buds to abort and you end up with wonderful pots of foliage only. If you store in an old refrigerator, be aware of ripening nearby fruit for this reason as the ethylene gas of fruit can cause the same problem. Store the pots in impermeable plastic bags to avoid contamination.

This pot was planted in the fall and stored all winter.  I brought it out on the patio when the weather started to warm up; you can see the bulb foliage peeking through

Once top growth starts in the spring – pointy tips pushing through the soil-  gradually move the pots out into the partial sun acclimating them to brighter sunlight necessary for good flower development. Enjoy! I include a step by step guide on how to plant bulbs in containers at the end of this post.

Muscari or Grape Hyacinths are easy in containers
Muscari or Grape Hyacinths are easy in containers, from Longfield Gardens
My bulb delivery in the fall from Colorblends

After Care-3 Ways

Compost the bulbs, leave in the pot/plant in the ground in the fall, or replant in the garden right after flowering and still green are the three ways to handle the spent bulbs. If you replant, be sure to fertilize them with a bulb fertilizer as the bulbs have used all those nutrients up at their first burst of flowering. Most times, the flowers aren’t as spectacular as the first bloom using up all their energy, so I tend to compost them.

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Don’t hesitate to compost your used bulbs-There is no shame in that!

Step By Step for ‘Lasagna’ Pots

All of these bulbs fit into one layered pot

‘Lasagna’ pots just means layering your bulbs so that you have a 6-7 week display from one pot of different types of bulbs.

My Garden Club had a workshop making ‘lasagna’ plantings of bulbs
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First layer covered with potting medium
  • Fill your deep container  (16″ deep)with a high-quality potting mix about 3-4 inches deep
  • Plant your bulbs almost as deeply as you would in the ground; for instance, 6 or 7 inches deep for tulips and daffodils, and 3 or 4 inches deep for little bulbs such as Crocus and Miniature Iris
  • Press the bulbs firmly into the soil, growing tips up. If layering, make sure that you cover one layer completely before placing more bulbs
  • For my layers, I planted the following from deepest to the most shallowly planted;  1st layer- 10 Daffodils, 2nd layer- 10 Hyacinths, 3rd layer-16 Tulips, 4th and last layer- 50 assorted small bulbs (I used 20 Grape Hyacinth, 20 Crocus, and 10 Mini Iris)

 

The first layer of Daffodil bulbs is planted the deepest
  •  Water your bulbs well after planting
  • Plant either pansies, moss,  or fall cabbages to the top for more insulating helpLayer your bulbs according to the suggested planting depth
  • Layer your bulbs according to the suggested planting depth; Here I used a container 18″ in diameter and 16″ deep for a good root run
Place all your bulbs closed together
Place all your bulbs close together; This is the top layer using minor bulbs like Crocus, Mini Iris, and Grape Hyacinth
Plant pansies or fall cabbages on top for extra insulation
Plant pansies or fall cabbages on top for extra insulation
This pot I finished off with Irish Moss, and creeping Sedum
The ‘lasagna’ pot in bloom
Tulip bulbs planted very close together
Tulip bulbs planted very close together
Tulips popping up in the spring

The sources of bulbs for this post were ColorBlends, Longfield Gardens, Brent and Becky’s, and Old House Gardens. 

 

 

Tussie Mussie : The Victorian Art of Expressing Yourself

Gourd tussie mussies

 

First of all – the name! I love to say Tussie Mussie and it sounds like something Beatrix Potter would have come up with.

But Wikipedia explains it best:

“Tussie Mussie, a nosegay or posie are small flower bouquets that were popularized in Victorian times. The term tussie-mussie comes from the reign of Queen Victoria (1837–1901), when the small bouquets became a popular fashion accessory. Typically, tussie-mussies include floral symbolism from the language of flowers, and therefore may be used to send a message to the recipient”. 

Summertime tussie mussie in a silver holder; use what you have from the garden or houseplants

Herbal Sentiments

Or in my words; Tussie-Mussie is an archaic and quaint term for small, round bouquets of herbs and flowers with ­symbolic meanings. Most people have heard of the language of flowers, Floriography, but are unsure of what exactly it means. It simply means that you can convey feelings and communicate using particular types of plants. Victorians popularized this concept and created “talking bouquets” that could be worn as fashion accessories. Gifts of blooms, plants, and specific floral arrangements were used to send a coded message to the recipient, allowing the sender to express feelings which could not be spoken aloud in strict Victorian society.

An antiquated custom, I like to revive this tradition once in a while and make small arrangements with what is on hand in the garden. And since it is fall, my bouquet holder is a readily available gourd.

Gourds come in all sizes; this is a bird house gourd
Cleaned and painted gourds ready for a bird visit

I first encountered Tussie Mussies at a Renaissance Faire many years ago and have created my own for years for gifts, and to decorate the house.  Useful as a small arrangement for the bathroom or to welcome a guest, they are small and portable and are usually gathered into a posie holder which can be as ornate as silver or simple as a doily. But for the fall season, I decided to make them in small gourds in keeping with Halloween. Fragrance was the key here; I wanted to really smell the scent of the herb and flowers so chose a lot of very fragrant pieces like lavender, thyme, rosemary, bay, and scented geranium.

Mint, lavender, salvia, firebush, lemon verbena, amaranth

Each one is personal and unique; every sprig and blossom in each little nosegay conveys a “meaning” in the old-time language of flowers. The silent language of flowers allows you to express poignant and touching sentiments without having to come right out and say them in words. The flowers say them for us.

I love making them since you don’t need many flowers and each flower is a star of the arrangement as it is so compact. After cutting a piece of oasis to fit into the gourd and making sure that my cuts were well hydrated, I started to create my gourd tussie mussies.

Cut the top off of a gourd that sits level on a table and dig out the innards
Stuff a piece of hydrated oasis into the cavity
Lavender, fire bush, rose, amaranth, and aster

These would make great hostess gifts instead of the obligatory wine bottle.  Popular at weddings also, they can be given as bridesmaid gifts, or the bride could carry one for a simple elegant touch. Anyone can create one with a little practice. Follow the tutorial to make your own in a small vase.

Choose your materials carefully, contrasting the colors and textures to create a beautiful combination. For larger flowers, such as hydrangeas, you can pare the flower down to a smaller more usable size. The hydrangea flower represents devotion which makes it a very appropriate flower for weddings.

Deconstruct larger flowers like this 'Centennial Spirit' Hydrangea
Deconstruct larger flowers like this ‘Centennial Spirit’ Hydrangea

For lots of picture of tussie mussies, and more information I have used these books:

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Tussie-Mussies: The Victorian Art of Expressing Yourself in the Language of Flowers

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Tussie-Mussies: The Language of Flowers