The Year in Review-Top 10 Garden Posts for 2017

Plant These For Bees is one of my all-time top posts

Looking at my stats for the past year, I am always struck by the posts which gather the most views from around the world. Some posts are from as long as six years ago and are still going strong with lots of views, like Swarming of the Bees, Luscious Honey Scented Body Butter, Plant These For Bees, or From the Ground Up-Choosing the Right Ground Cover For Shade. The top four countries that view my blog are the U.S., Canada, the UK and Australia, with dozens of other countries on the list, some I have never heard of.

Pollinator poster available at Etsy

My top post of all time which was originally published in 2012, is Containers With Pizzazz.

Artfully arranged containers using texture, contrasting colors, and different and unusual plants is my mantra and designing outside of the box. A container for every season is the way I garden in pots. Everyone can have their own personal creative planter on their deck, patio, or even inside. Having over 100,000 views over the years, I find the pictures of my containers all over Pinterest.

Indoor spring container
Summer shade container
Fall container
Winter container

My most surprising top post is Luscious Honey Scented Body Butter. Consistently garnering views from all over the world, there must be thousands of people with this body butter in their bathroom. Lots of comments on this post mean that many people have used the recipe and enjoyed it.

Shade gardening is always popular. From the Ground Up-Choosing the Right Ground Cover For Shade has helped many people choose the perfect ground cover for difficult situations. The cliff notes on this post is to plant a lot of Lenten Roses, or Hellebores. A no-brainer, deer proof, evergreen, and beautiful plant, this under-used is probably my top plant in my garden.

Lenten Roses

Swarming bees in Swarming of the Bees, always fascinates people and I have seen many of these phenomenas over the years as a beekeeper. No matter how many times I have seen it, the process of swarming is awesome.

Bee swarms are fascinating to everyone

Decorating the White House for Christmas has been my job for 3 seasons and many people are interested in seeing behind the scenes on how the process is done. My last visit to the White House was documented in Decorating the White House in 2017. I hope to do it again!

Decorating the White House
Glad to be decorating at the White House

After posting about Pesticide-Free Nurseries and Seed Companies, I was overwhelmed with the response. Many people are trying to do the right thing and not use pesticides, I was really happy to find. This post really struck a chord for many readers. 

 

An array of seed companies that are pesticide free

A Succulent Christmas post was fun to do because I started working on my succulent tree during the summer and it was interesting to see it grow all summer into the Christmas season to make a beautiful and unusual Christmas tree. Unusual and different!

It took 6 months for this tree to look full

Another top post was Miniature Gardens-Whimsical Creations. Miniature gardening is still popular, especially for people who don’t have access to a garden or don’t have the time or money to spend in a garden. Everyone has room on a kitchen counter or windowsill for a mini garden.

A Christmas themed miniature garden
Broken Pot Garden-Home for a Gnome

So, here are my top ten for views:

Containers With Pizzazz

Plant These For the Bees

Deck the Halls-A Succulent Christmas

Miniature Gardens-Whimsical Creations

Swarming of the Bees

Luscious Honey-Scented Body Butter

Pesticide Free Nurseries and Seed Companies

From the Ground Up-Choosing a Shade Ground Cover

Decorating the White House 2017

Broken Pot Garden

 

 

Here are my favorite posts:

Garden Trip to Chelsea, Wales, and Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds

 

A Cut Above- Creating Sculptures from Wood

Illuminating the Season-  A Williamsburg Christmas

Surviving Extreme Weather- Top 3 Ways to Help Birds

Butterflying

Tussie Mussie: The Victorian Art of Expressing Yourself 

Magical Sunflowers-the Fibonacci Spiral

 

Delaware Botanic Gardens-From the Ground Up

Dahlias-Divas of the Garden

 

Floating Beauties

Hellebores-Deer Resistant, Low Maintenance, Deer-Proof Perennial

Surviving Extreme Weather – Top 3 Ways to Help Birds

 

Deep freeze covers the East Coast with single digits during the day for me in Maryland, and that gets me thinking about wild bird survival. Birds need every help they can get as the temperatures plummet.

Yellow shafted flickers come to my feeders frequently
Cardinals cluster on a snowy day

Birds have many strategies to survive without our help but as a concerned birder, I like to think that my feeding them nutritious food tips the balance in their favor during extreme weather.  Mortality during extremely cold weather is much greater for birds and it has been proven that bird survival improves with ready access to backyard feeders.

Hawks prey on birds at feeders

Predation of birds will occur at your feeders and is the way nature happens. Hawks and other prey birds have to kill and eat one to three other birds or rodents a day to survive. Your best strategy is to provide cover such as hedges or shrubs near your feeders so that feeding birds have somewhere to shelter if a hawk comes hunting.

Sometimes you just see a streak plunging through the sky when a hawk appears and all the songbirds scatter for cover. Flocks of crows will also descend on my feeders and empty them out. If I see them I let my dogs out to chase them away. The same for squirrels…. I don’t mind squirrels raiding the feeders once in a while and my dogs make sure they keep their visits to a minimum.

Cardinals are regular visitors

Top Three

Shelter

Evergreen trees provide the best place for a roosting bird to hide from predators. An alternative to planting coniferous trees is building a brush pile of repurposed branches and debris from your yard.  Gather branches, moss, and other yard debris pile them up in a sheltered corner. Birds like to hide and settle in these brushy havens.  I have a meadow with towering spent goldenrod and other wildflowers that over the course of the winter tends to flop over and create hidden pockets for animals to find sanctuary in.

Thickets of goldenrod in my meadow create pockets for birds to take shelter 

Re-purpose your old Christmas tree as an instant shelter. Put up old plywood sheets as a windbreak. Keep up old birdhouses/nesting boxes over the winter which allows birds a safe haven from weather also. Empty the old nesting materials and place old cotton, scraps of fabric and yarn into the cavity.

Placing your feeders close to shelter, evergreen and deciduous, allows birds to perch and zoom in on the feeder when it is safe.

A fluffed up Bluebird is perching in a nearby tree close to my feeders

Fresh Water

Birds more than any other time of year need fresh water in the winter. It is a precious commodity and if you can provide, birds will flock to it. The cheapest way is to buy a heated dog bowl. Simple but effective.

My pond is frozen but the waterfall is still running and I find birds hopping in the running water.

The birds can still access water in my waterfall

I also have a pond de-icer to keep a ring of water free around the unit. An alternative is to buy a bird bath heater to keep the ice away in your bird bath. Even if you put out a bowl of water, in this weather, the water freezes very quickly, and a heater is a must have.

Place a rock in your bird bath for birds to perch on

Set the Table with High Fat Food

If done right, feeding birds can be very beneficial, both for the bird and bird watching friends. Make sure your seed is high and dry. A hopper or tube feeder keeps the food dry and free flowing. Peanut feeders, suet feeders, and platform feeders are all options to increase your odds of attracting the largest variety. Think fatty things! After cutting fat off of a chuck steak, I placed the chunks on a platform feeder and it was gone in a few days. Meat scraps, meal worms, peanuts, suet, and peanut butter are all healthy options for a high fat diet.

Homemade suet- see my recipe below

Also, don’t forget to have clean, bleached (one part bleach to nine parts water) bird feeders ready to go when your old ones get all soggy from precipitation. Scatter seed at the edge of woods, under hedges, and in brambles to encourage shy birds to eat.  Some birds won’t venture to feeders and compete with others.

High fat smorgasbord- meal worms, sunflower seeds, beef fat, and sunflower seeds
A starling on a suet cage
Woodpeckers use their long pointed beaks to dig out suet

Suet Recipe

Print

Peanut Butter Bird Suet

This makes a simple high fat suet cake that you cut up to make any size or shape. I use lard or beef suet for the fat. Lard is easier to find. I also throw in many additions like raisins, sunflower seeds, nuts, etc.   

Ingredients

  • 2 C Crunchy Peanut Butter
  • 2 C Lard or Beef Fat
  • 4 C Oatmeal
  • 4 C Corn Meal
  • 2 C Flour, white of whole wheat
  • 2/3 C Sugar, brown or white

Instructions

  1. Melt lard and peanut butter in a dutch oven. 

  2. Stir in the remaining ingredients. The mixture will be very stiff. 
  3. Spoon into a 9 x13 glass casserole or disposable aluminum pan and spread flat. When hard, cut into squares and you can store any excess in the freezer.
Suet supplies
Melt suet and peanut butter in a large saucepan
Stir in dry ingredients
Spread mixture in pan to harden completely
Put in refrigerator to harden completely and cut into chunks; I added raisins to this batch

These strategies don’t cost you much but on those nights when the wind blows icy cold and the snow swirls around, our feathered friends will be puffed up and cozy in the shelters that we provided, well-nourished and hydrated. To read more about Bird Buffets go to my post Berry Bird Buffet.

Dueling birds

Tryon Palace Christmas

 

Tryon Palace

Located in New Bern, North Carolina, near the intercoastal waterway, you can experience North Carolina’s colonial past in a beautiful historic building that dates back to 1770. John Hawks, a London architect,  was brought here by Royal Governor William Tryon to build an impressive brick Georgian style structure to house his family and to become the first permanent state capitol of North Carolina.

Doing a demo on outdoor Christmas arrangements at North Carolina History Center at Tryon Palace

An invitation to speak at Tryon Palace in North Carolina, gave me an opportunity to see how this colonial palace decorated for the Yuletide season. Similar to Williamsburg style with “della robbia” type of decorations – lots of fruits, pods, and other natural decorations are used. See my post on a Illuminating Christmas in Colonial Williamsburg for more colonial style decorations. Tryon Palace has never been on my radar before but now I can’t believe that I have never heard of it!

Beautiful entry into the Palace; I love the Palm leaf fans that are spray painted

The use of fabric really was stunning and unusual- a treatment that I would love to duplicate. Beautiful fabric swags are  gathered in at the top of the ceiling in the Council Chamber (top photo); The room is used for dancing on Candlelight evenings. The first sessions of the assembly for the State of North Carolina were held here after the revolution and housed the state governors until 1784. After fire destroyed the building in 1789, the building and grounds were rebuilt and restored to its present glory.

Double iron -work gates are decorated with matching wreaths

Classic Williamsburg fruit motifs are used above doorways
Fresh green garlands were used as well as faux and a mix of the two

“Seasons of Giving: A Candlelight Christmas Celebration” was the theme this year with the Candlelight tradition at Tryon Palace in its 37th year. Decorations were inspired by the 12 Days of Christmas, historic characters in period clothing were present, and holiday vignettes spanning across three centuries were shown. For a schedule, go to Tryon Palace’s website. Too late for most things this year, I am going to try to make it next year.

Definitely Tryon Palace warrants a visit just to see the fabulous gardens, that look good even in December.

Encompassing more than 16 acres of gardens and landscapes, the Palace gardens were designed by noted landscape architect Morley Jeffers Williams in the 1950s and represent the formal garden style of 18th-century Britain.

For Christmas decorating, 29 volunteers, among the other staff of Tryon Palace, help out. Moving objects, creating faux food displays, coordinating holiday tours, and assisting with adhering to “period correctness” are all part and parcel of the many details of creating a special Christmas experience. Hadley Cheris, Gardens and Greenhouse Manager, is the point person for all this activity, and is energetic and knowledgeable about the creation of the historic decorations.

Volunteers at work at Tryon Palace

For more posts on decorating period houses, go to Hampton Mansion.  The importance of using age appropriate materials – like fruits, pods, and fresh greens – that were available during the historic period is important to keep the antique context of the house.

Dried pods and flowers appropriate for period decorating
Dried flowers for sale in Williamsburg

The 29 volunteers contributed over 250 hours of work over a week and a half period. Decorating begins November 13 and is completed on November 22  at Tryon Palace. Included in the decorating are three historic homes, the exteriors of 13 buildings, and seven large entryways/gates.

Fruit fan with pineapples
Entry steps to Tryon Palace
Closeup of the rosettes on swag
Closeup of an arrangement
I love the fabric draping of the staircase

Candlelight tours are popular as well as circus acts, history vignettes, Jonkonnu troupe (African-American holiday celebration), music performances, and candlelit grounds are all part of the Tryon Palace experience. For more information, go to Tryon Palace.

Biltmore-The Ultimate Yuletide Destination

All lit up for Christmas, photo from The Biltmore Company
A festive stone lion at the front door, photo from The Biltmore Company

America’s largest home, Biltmore, was the vision of George W Vanderbilt who built the 250-room French Renaissance Chateau, exhibiting the Vanderbilt family’s original collection of furnishings, art and antiques. The estate encompasses over 8,000 acres which includes gardens designed by famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead.

A towering 55 foot spruce in front of the house is hung with large stars; It is lit for Candlelight Christmas Evenings
Hundreds of these stars were on the spruce tree

A tradition that goes back 120 years, Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina, transforms into a Yuletide extravaganza from November 3, 2017 to January 7, 2018. I had the opportunity to travel to that area of the country  a few weeks ago and was blown away with the decorations celebrating the theme – “A Vanderbilt Christmas”. Getting in the spirit of Christmas as you go through the house is exciting as you see the amazing decorations. A 250 room house, Biltmore is so large that any decorations could look lost, but there are 55 trees in the house and another 45 trees scattered throughout the estate and everything is done on a grand scale.

Bows & Ribbon

More than 1000 bows are used inside the house with twice that many in the surrounding estate. Velvets, metallics, burlap, satin, and printed cotton are all used with a blue velvet one my favorite.

This jeweled cobalt blue velvet ribbon was my favorite

In the Banquet Hall, there are two trees flanking the triple fireplaces; 1000 yards of ribbon were used to create these ribbon swirls!
Detail of the multi-looped bow on top of the tree; it takes 15 yards of ribbon for these!
Rosettes of ribbon held up the garlands in the Banquet Hall
I loved how the ribbon ends were scrolled
Another beautiful tree topper

Think “Gilded Age”, a period of economic prosperity in the U.S. from the 1870’s to the early 1900’s, the age of The Titanic, and you will see evidence of this everywhere. These weren’t simple decorations – lavish, elaborate, and rich were the words that came to mind when I entered the house.

George Vanderbilt opened Biltmore House for the first time to family and friends on Christmas Eve 1895. Biltmore’s Christmas events are based on what has been learned from the archives about that first holiday celebration.

On the day the tree arrives on November 1, hundreds of people line up to see the show

The Changing of the Firs

Since 1975, the Andrews family of North Carolina, has supplied the 35-foot-tall Fraser fir trees that are erected in the seven-story-high Banquet Hall during each holiday. A side of their mountain overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains dedicated to the estate, the Andrews family grows these trees especially for Biltmore’s holiday celebration.

One of the 35 foot Fraser firs being roped into place in the banqueting hall, photo from The Biltmore Company

Taking approximately 50 Biltmore staff members to carry in, raise, and secure the Fraser Fir in the Banquet Hall, I was amazed to learn that the tree is replaced mid-season!  Because of fire safety of the house, the replacement comes in around 4 AM of the day it is to be replaced and everyone rushes to decorate and is finishing it up by 9 AM when the first guests arrive. In addition, the fresh garlands of white pine and Fraser Fir are replaced weekly to maintain a fresh look and fragrance!

The Banquet Hall was decorating in blue, silver, and green

Wreaths & Kissing Balls

Wreaths are made of fresh white pine and Fraser fir, with sprays of golden arborvitae, holly, or other natural materials such as twigs and cones. About 360 fresh wreaths are used as well as 130 faux pieces are placed around the estate. Over 100 kissing balls, both fresh and faux are used, some with the signature topper bow.

Different types of kissing balls

Gilded Age Decor

A unique time in American history, the Gilded Age included the construction of grand and elegant estates filled with high society and glamorous parties. Rich layers of color accented with metallic touches of gold, silver, and platinum reflects the luxury of the times.

Fans decorate the trees in the library

Fans decorate the trees in the library

Tapestry Gallery

A huge rectangular room, the Tapestry Gallery contains tapestries from 1500’s Flanders woven from silk and wool. These were intended to show how the seven virtues−faith, prudence, charity, chastity, temperance, fortitude and justice−would always prevail over vice.

Multiple trees line the Tapestry Gallery

The Nativity Scene

Christmas Traditions

Starting on Christmas Eve in 1895 when George Vanderbilt welcomed his family and friends for the first time to his new home in North Carolina, the family started a tradition. He and his wife, Edith, and their daughter, Cornelia, spent many Christmases together in Biltmore House, and started a gift-giving tradition that is still honored today. Mr. Vanderbilt’s descendants – the Cecil family, now the estate’s owners and caretakers – host the annual employee holiday party, just like the Vanderbilt’s did. Making sure each child of the estate employees receives a gift, an employee party is held. A team fills the Winter Garden floor with more than 1,000 wrapped gifts for the party and Santa and the Cecil’s will hand them out to each child.

I love this mantle decorated with an unusual treatment of garland

The Conservatory

Tall arched windows look out onto the terraced butterfly garden and the Walled Garden beyond, and the pointed glass roof lets in an abundance of natural light at the Conservatory, a short distance from the house.

The Conservatory overlooks the walled garden

 

 

Beautiful mantle in the conservatory
Orchid wreath at the conservatory
Bromeliad tree in Conservatory

 

There are over 1,000 traditional poinsettias found in the Christmas displays around the estate, along with over 1,000 Amaryllis, Christmas cactus, orchids, peace lilies, cyclamen, begonias, and kalanchoe and potted green plants.

A Decorating Heritage

Seven full time floral designers as well as 14 staff on the floral reserve team starts very early for the onslaught of over 300,000 visitors. It takes lots of help from Engineering, Housekeeping, Museum Services, Horticulture, Guest Services, Security, and Events, to make the magic happen. Read an interesting article about Kathy Barnhardt who was the Floral Displays Manager for 40 years at Biltmore. Kathy started fresh from college at Biltmore with decorating just five trees in the house from paper ornaments that she and her mother cut out! She just retired this year, but she certainly started many of the decorating traditions seen today.

The theme is selected a year in advance, and the preliminary work in a warehouse starts in July. Actual decorating of the house commences in October. Sounds like a White House Christmas! See my post on Decorating the White House .

What’s Next?- Titanic Exhibition

One of the costumes on display at Biltmore, photo from the Biltmore company

The first exhibition of fashions from “Titanic,” the Oscar-winning film that celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, will launch at Biltmore in February 2018 in “Glamour on Board: Fashion from Titanic the Movie.” Set for Feb. 9 through May 13, 2018, the exhibition represents the extensive wardrobes preferred by transatlantic travelers like George and Edith Vanderbilt in the early 1900s.

More Images

 

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. 

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

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.