Not Another Echinacea!!!

PowWow Wild Berry
PowWow Wild Berry

PowWow Wild Berry Echinacea

Yes, That is exactly what I said when I heard about “PowWow Wild Berry” Echinacea a couple of years ago! I have tried dozens of Echinaceas that the garden hybridizers have churned out in the last couple of years and was not impressed. They flopped, fizzled, or just faded away, never to be seen again. I crossed them off of my “try one more” list and didn’t want to be burned again.  But the catalogs really talked up the PowWow one so much, and it was available at my local wholesaler, so I took the plunge and am I glad that I did.

closeup of E. purpurea, centre of the head sho...
closeup of E. purpurea, centre of the head showing many individual flowers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This one stood out for me because of the beautiful color and profusion of flowers. I couldn’t see any bad habits after growing it for 2 seasons. According to Park Seeds; “The most floriferous Echinacea we’ve ever seen, thanks to its extensive branching and no-deadhead rebloom!” It is also the winner of the 2010 AAS (All American Select) Award and continues to win additional awards. PowWow is a brilliantly colored Echinacea purpurea and continues to bloom non-stop because of the multiple branching of the flowers. No dead heading is needed to continue the show. Oh, and did I mention that it is compact and you could easily put it front and center in your borders? It looks great with ‘Rozanne’ Geranium, another stellar performer. So, yes, it definitely is living up to all the hype for once.

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Growing to be just 20 to 24″ inches high, PowWow holds its flowers on sturdy thick stems that are great for cutting and everlastings. The color I can only describe as a deep magenta which is unlike most other Echinaceas, and absolutely will not fade out as the flower ages. Now if they could just shorten the name!

MANTS Show – Part 2

Proven Winners’ Goji Berries- The Next Super Food

Goji berry exhibit at MANTS
Goji berry exhibit

I checked out the Proven Winners’ introductions at Spring Meadow Nursery at the latest MANTS show, to see what is the latest and greatest in shrubbery! Goji Berries are the new berry bush that is being promoted as a healthy and tasty berry addition to the landscape. I know that I have increased my berry consumption in the past couple of years, and am always looking for new varieties and ways to include them in my landscape.

English: Goji berries Svenska: Gojibär
English: Goji berries Svenska: Gojibär (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I learned that Gojis, Lycium barbarum, are hardy, easy to grow shrubs that bear bright red berries that resemble little red hot peppers. You can eat them fresh or dried and they have become popular in Europe, and have been grown in Japan and China for years.

Goji berries have been called the latest superfood because they contain:

Wolfberry Farm Berries Closeup Ningxia 174
Goji Berries ready to pick
  1. Super Dose Of Vitamin C: It is estimated that a handful of goji berries have more vitamin C than a whole orange. So, these berries alone can provide all the vitamin C you need in a day.
  2. Vegan Amino Acids: It is usually very difficult for vegetarians to get proteins. But these healthy berries pack a punch of 18 different amino acids in them. So if you are a vegan, you must have these berries as a part of your diet.
  3. Anti ageing -Goji berries are a well kept Chinese secret to anti-ageing.
  4. High anti-oxidant content -Ancient Chinese beauty treatments makes use of these berries to make face pack due to their high anti-oxidant content.
  5. Omega-6-fatty acids are the new mantra for health and are abundant in Goji berries.
  6. Vitamin E: Have you ever heard of fruit that contains vitamin E?  Vitamin E is usually present in nuts and oils. Goji berries are probably the only fruits on the planet to contain vitamin E.
  7. Trace Minerals: Some very rare minerals are also present in these berries. Zinc and selenium are called trace minerals because only traces of these are found in different foods.
  8. Anti-Infection: Goji berries have both anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. So, they can give you protection against infections in general.
  9. More Carotene Than Carrots: Would you believe it, these berries have more beta-carotene than carrots! That makes these berries a must have for your eyes and skin.

A lot of nutritional punch for such a small berry!

Culture of Goji’s

Goji Berry display
Goji Berry display

Grow Goji berries in full sun but they will tolerate a little bit of shade, and are hardy to USDA zone 5 (We are 7a here in most of MD). The habit of the shrub is to sprawl along the ground so it is suggested that you bundle the largest  3 to 5 canes together around a sturdy 6 to 8 foot high stake. The berries begin to ripen in early summer and should be picked when bright red and sweet.  The berries should be on the shrub for several weeks before they turn sweet. Taste test before you pick. Unlike some berries, you don’t need more than one for pollination. I read that they do good in containers, but for such a large shrub you would need quite a large container.

I got 2 Goji berry plants at the MANTS show and will be very interested in how they perform.

Floating Aquatic Plants

Aquatic plants in styrofoam rings
Aquatic plants in styrofoam rings

If you have a pond and want to add some interesting plants to the mix, you can try these styrofoam floating planting rings. I visited MD Aquatic Nurseries and really liked these planting rings that can include one or several plants.

You plant your aquatic plant in a plastic pot and stick it into the styrofoam holder that can hold just one or several plants and plop that into your pond to float. The roots extend out of the pot into the water.

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Pizza Oven

I have always wanted an outdoor pizza oven in my back yard, and when I visited Belgard Pavers I saw a way I could incorporate one into a wall that I am planning on building. You can buy the cement shell of the oven that  has a vent, door, and hearth. The oven is then covered with stone to make it part of your hardscape.  You build the fire inside of the oven and once it is very hot, you push the coals to the side, slide your pizza in and cook it in minutes to get that brick oven flavor. It makes for a great pizza party!

PicMonkey Collage2

Other Interesting Tidbits

  • Cryptomeria cristata

I was very intrigued to see a plant that was incorporated into an arrangement, that I didn’t recognize and looked like cockscomb.  It turned out to be Cryptomeria cristata and it is beautiful in flower arrangements and I am interested in growing it for that reason.

Crpytomeria cristata used in an arrangement to display different types of woodies grown at Foxborough Nursery
Crpytomeria cristata used in an arrangement to display different types of woodies grown at Foxborough Nursery

Also known as the Japanese Crested Cedar, it grows to be a loosely limbed small tree known for it’s fasciated branches that looks like common cockscomb. I have put this on my list to look for in my travels. It isn’t new, but I have never seen it before.

  • New Plant Introductions

Brunnera 'Silver Heart'
Brunnera ‘Silver Heart’

The variegated Brunneras, or Forget Me Nots, tend to melt in heat and humidity, and there are two new ones that are supposed to tolerate those conditions better.  They are ‘Silver Heart’ and ‘Sea Heart’ and Babikow Nursery had beautiful ones on display.  The leaves felt very leathery and tough and they looked so healthy, I am going to try a few this year.

Elevated Raised Bed
Elevated Raised Bed

For handicapped or elderly gardeners, I thought this raised bed was the perfect solution to grow veggies and flowers in.  The only improvement that I could see would be to add casters or wheels on it so you could roll it around on a hard surface like a deck or patio. It looks simple enough that a handyman could throw this together in an afternoon too.

  • Troughs

Troughs are always popular
Troughs are always popular

Troughs are pretty mainstream now and you can buy some very nice pre-made ones that are different sizes and shapes.  I still like to make my own though. I thought these troughs were well made and I liked that they had a large drainage hole.

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Kurt Bluemel’s Booth- I love the textures and colors of the grasses and bamboos!
  • Take Home !!

At the end of the show, most vendors want to sell the contents of their booth because they don’t want to take it home. Many are sold as a unit, but others will sell their wares piecemeal very inexpensively, and that is what I was interested in doing –  picking up flats or single plants. It is always a mad rush as the show is so spread out, and you can’t get to all the vendors in the last hour. So I made sure that I tagged a lot of plants ahead of time to pick up later.  I had so much to pick up that I brought a wagon and a huge tote bag but still had to make several trips to the car. I picked up a flat of hardy Cyclamen and heaths and heathers, as well as some beautiful Hellebores, Orchids, and miniature conifers. It was a good haul!

Heaths and heathers flat, hardy cyclamens, and assorted small conifers - I brought all these home for almost nothing!
Heaths and heathers flat, hardy cyclamens, and assorted small conifers – I brought all these home for almost nothing!

Related articles

MANTS Show – The Mid-Atlantic Nurseryman’s Show- Part 1

Beautiful arrangement in a wicker chair displaying Foxborough Nursery's plant wares
Beautiful arrangement in a wicker chair displaying Foxborough Nursery’s plant wares

Everything New (and Old!) in the Gardening World

Baltimore Convention Center 2005
Baltimore Convention Center 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every year right after New Year’s parties have wound down and the confetti is a recent memory, I make my annual pilgrimage to the MANTS Show (Mid-Atlantic Nurseryman’s Show) at the Baltimore Convention Center. I look forward with anticipation to see old friends, new ideas or old re-packaged ones, and buy some new exciting products. And the best part is the event is in my backyard!  The biggest show of its kind on the East Coast, with almost 1000 exhibitors taking up the maximum available space on one level at the Baltimore Convention Center, the MANTS show has exhibitors from all over the country and the world. Starting in Williamsburg Va in 1971 with 64 exhibitors, and moving to Hunt Valley, MD, in the 70’s, and finally finding a home at the convention center in Baltimore, it has become known as ‘The Masterpiece of Trade Shows’.

Sign exhibit at Popsignage.com
Sign exhibit at Popsignage.com

A Plan is Essential!!!

With so many exhibitors and so much ground to cover, I decided to start early on Wednesday morning for the opening and attend for the full three days. In earlier years, I attempted to see everything in one long marathon day, but was exhausted! I go with a plan, looking at the exhibitor list beforehand, to see which exhibits I can’t miss, and adding a few new ones that I want to try. Once you get into the hall, the mass of exhibits can be overwhelming, so you must have a plan of attack.

Aquatic plants in floating rings, Goji berry plants at Spring Meadow Nursery, a miniature garden at Meehans Miniatures
Aquatic plants in floating rings, Goji berry plants at Spring Meadow Nursery, a miniature garden at Meehans Miniatures

HERShovel by Green Heron Tools

A new vendor that I wanted to look at was Green Heron Tools that was billed as “High quality farm and garden tools for women”.  I was very skeptical because I have seen a lot of boondoggle tools made for women that were laughable – not pink, but flimsy and not sturdy enough to withstand abuse. But once I went up to the booth and picked up their custom designed shovel, I knew I had to have it! The company is run by a mother/ daughter team, and their team designed and tested the shovels themselves, and call it the HERSh0vel. Started in 2008 in nearby Pennsylvania, Green Heron Tools, has been featured in Organic Gardening Magazine at http://www.organicgardening.com/living/womens-work. 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. I was hooked.

Ann Adams and Liz Brensinger showing off their HERShovel at MANTS
Ann Adams and Liz Brensinger showing off their HERShovel at MANTS

Designed as a shovel – spade hybrid, it is light weight and has a large convenient digging handle and comes in 3 sizes.  I am 5’3″ tall and the middle size was perfect for me. The price was $57, 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.  The company sells other products from different companies made for women, but the shovel is one that they designed themselves. They are working on a tiller made just for women slated to come out in 2014 and I am anxious to see that.  My tiller is much too large and cumbersome for me to handle, and I would love to have something more manageable.

Green Heron
Green Heron – One of the few birds that uses tools!

Miniatures!!!

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Since I sell a lot of miniature/fairy gardens in the spring, I was happy to see several vendors carrying a good variety of tiny furniture and other products for fairy gardens. It seems like the gardening product world is always a couple of years behind the trends that I see happening in my business, but it looks like they caught up this time.  I have had to order online in the past for these items but it looks like they are mainstream now.

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A display of bonsai at Meehans Miniatures

Stay tuned for part 2, (Goji Berries and my incredible haul at the end!!!)

DIY SOAP

Beautiful handmade soap
Beautiful handmade soap

I love handmade soap, preferring it to the commercially overly scented variety, picking it up at local craft fairs and boutique stores.  The cost was adding up, plunking down $5 or $6 for a small bar, and I looked into making it at home. I have always hesitated to make soap due to the use of caustic lye in creating the chemical process of making soap, which is called saponification.

Olive oil beeswax soap
Olive oil beeswax soap

In the old days, when people had to make their own soap in addition to their lye, they made lye with wood ashes. They would take the white ash left over from a hardwood fire and boil it with rain water and liquid lye would float to the top. It sounded so simple, that I really considered doing it for about 1 second and then thought that the soap making would be enough of a challenge without complicating things.

Commercial lye which is also used as a drain cleaner- very toxic!!!!
Commercial lye which is also used as a drain cleaner- very toxic!!!!

Lye is 100 percent sodium hydroxide, NaOH. I got mine at Lowes in the plumbing aisle as Crystal Drain Opener.  It can be hard to find as it is used in the illegal manufacture of meth ( who would have thought!!!) and it has been pulled from drugstore shelves.  You can also buy it online.

I also wanted to use my accumulated hoard of beeswax in my soap so started looking for soap recipes which included beeswax.

Beeswax cakes from my hives
Beeswax cakes from my hives

Gather Materials

Immersion blender, scale, large saucepan, large juice jug, plastic disposable cup, wooden spoon- I don't have the thermometer here but you need a good digital instant read one
Immersion blender, scale, large saucepan, large juice jug, plastic disposable cup, wooden spoon- I don’t have the thermometer here but you need a good digital instant read one

First off, make sure that you have the containers and equipment needed.  They are:

  1. Immersion blender
  2. Digital cooking thermometer
  3. Kitchen scale
  4. Variety of containers and cook pots that you will only use for making soap like a heavy saucepan, plastic 2  quart beverage container, wooden spoon
  5. Soap mold- I bought a small kitty litter pan
  6. Old clothes and apron
  7. Goggles
  8. Rubber gloves
Safety items- apron, goggles, white vinegar, rubber gloves
Safety items- apron, goggles, white vinegar, rubber gloves

Safety Precautions

I recommend making soap in your kitchen or basement laundry tub where curious kids and pets cannot get into it. Lye is very caustic and you need to respect that, but don’t be afraid of making soap because of that.  If you are careful and use common sense, you will be fine. Keep a bottle of white vinegar handy, if you spill any caustic lye on your skin.

Assemble all your ingredients and equipment in advance and put on old clothes and an apron, though I have never damaged any of my clothes in the process. Put on your safety goggles and rubber gloves and you are ready to make soap!!

Recipe for Olive Oil Beeswax Soap

36 ounces olive oil

6 ounces coconut oil

3 ounces castor oil

2 ounces of grated beeswax

12 ounces water (distilled is best)

6 ounces lye

2 ounces essential oil of your choice ( I used Vitamin E, but the possibilities are only limited to what you can think up)!

Olive oil, castor oil, coconut oil
Olive oil, castor oil, coconut oil
  1. Measure your plastic pitcher first and then measure 12 ounces of water into the pitcher. Your scale should subtract the weight of the pitcher from the weight of the water.  Everything has to be measured precisely. Set your pitcher in the sink.
  2. Weigh out 6 ounces of lye. I used a plastic disposable cup.
  3. Pour the lye from the cup into the water in the pitcher NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND!! And gently stir it in with the wooden spoon.
Pour the lye into the pitcher of water and stir
Pour the lye into the pitcher of water and stir

A thermal reaction will occur and the solution will get very hot and give off some fumes. It stinks!! At this point, I set the pitcher outside to cool off –  away from animals. I hate the smell of the fumes.

Measuring out your oils on the scale
Measuring out your oils on the scale

4. Weigh your oils and beeswax and put them into the wide saucepan and heat on a low heat until everything dissolves. Remove from the heat to cool.

Heating the oils- the beeswax melts the last
Heating the oils- the beeswax melts the last

5. Test the heat of the lye solution by touching the outside of the pitcher to see if it is cooling down a bit. It should feel tepid to the touch, not hot.

6. Take the temperature with your digital thermometer of the oil solution and the lye solution, making sure that you wipe off the probe with a paper towel between each use. The trick is to get the two solutions around the same temperature, around 98 degrees to 110 farenheit.  This is the most difficult part of the whole process.  The lye solution will take about an hour to come down from a high of around 160 degrees to the lower temperature that you need. The following is a useful video on how to do this:

7. Plug in your immersion blender so it is ready to use.

8.Combine the two solutions once they have reached the right temperatures (see above), pouring the lye solution into the pan of oils and stirring with the wooden spoon a couple of times.

10. Without turning on the blender yet, immerse it into the mixture down to the bottom of the pan. Make sure that your gloves and goggles are on because you could get splattered a bit.  I also like to put the saucepan in the sink for this step. You can do this by hand without a blender, but it will take much longer with a lot of stirring!

11. Turn on the blender and slowly circulate it around the circumference of the pan. Keep blending, watching the consistency.  Within a few minutes, the mixture will start turning opaque and thicken. Keep blending until the mixture starts forming a ‘trace’, which is just part of the mix leaving a visible swirl on top.  The mixture should be the consistency of runny pudding.

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12. Add your essential oil and mix in.

13. Pour your soap into your mold which has been lined with parchment paper and smooth it down with your spoon.

Pour into your mold (kitty litter pan) lined with parchment paper
Pour into your mold (kitty litter pan) lined with parchment paper

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14. Cover with a board and throw some towels on top and leave it for 24 hours to cool down and harden.

15. The next day, the soap is still soft enough to be cut into blocks with a sharp knife.

Cutting the soap into blocks
Cutting the soap into blocks

Out of this one batch, I made 20 blocks of soap which should last me a long time for my use and for gifts.

Clean up

To clean up your mess, I take bunches of paper towels and wipe everything off thoroughly and throw the towels into a garbage bag to go outside. Remember, this stuff is very caustic and can still burn you. The immersion blender I treat the same way, and then take off the blender stick and thoroughly clean it in hot soapy water –  same with the digital thermometer.

Variations and Additions

With this soap base, you can add anything to personalize and complement your own preferences, like herbs, spices and colorings.  For colorings and scents, you could add chocolate, coffee, tea, paprika, mixed herbs, turmeric, cocoa, cinnamon, mint, poppy seeds, star anise, lavender buds, orange peel, rose buds, honey, marigolds, and orange peel. The possibilities are endless.

Oatmeal honey soap
Oatmeal honey soap
Lavender swirl soap
Lavender swirl soap
Poppy seed lemon soap
Poppy seed lemon soap

Experiment! These soaps above look good enough to eat!

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Oatmeal soap which looks like honeycomb

I tried an oatmeal soap batch where I added oatmeal after the mixture had traced up and was getting thick.  I poured the mixture into an empty clean milk carton with straight sides which had one of the long sides cut out. I pressed bubble wrap into the mixture while it was still soft to get the texture of honeycomb.  The next time I add oatmeal, I will grind it up into smaller pieces. When you use this soap now, clumps of oatmeal fall out!

Soap ready to give as gifts
Soap ready to give as gifts

You have to let the soap age about a month before using as it will retain some of its caustic nature immediately after you make it. I leave it out in a sunny window to age it for a few months before using or giving it as gifts.

Related articles:

Stand Out From the Crowd – Fresh Green Entrance Accents

Completed green arrangement on porch
Completed green arrangement on porch

If you need some last-minute pizzazz for your outside entrance to greet visitors, create a live green arrangement with evergreens and twigs cut from your property.

Once I empty my large pots and window boxes at the end of November, I can dress them up again with greenery which will last most of the winter. I keep the soil in them as that is the glue which will hold my greens in place.

Boxwood with greens and silver balls
Boxwood with greens and silver balls

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Wreaths

A trick that I have used for a long time which will get you started in a hurry, is to make a boxwood or magnolia wreath on a wire base and use that as your base. Placing this wreath on top of the rim of the pot will hide most of the soil and you can stick your greens in and around it.

Wiring Brackens Brown Magnolia on a wire base
Wiring Brackens Brown Magnolia on a wire base

Tips on Creating Outdoor Christmas Arrangements with Greens

Threaded balls on rebar- Love these!!
Threaded balls on rebar- Love these!!
Dramatic accent
Dramatic accent
  1. Use a winter hardy pot – fiber glass, metal, cement – not        terracotta
  2. Add water to soil so that it is moist and mix lightly – it will freeze the arrangement in place
  3. Fill up and mound soil 3-4″ above rim to give branches height and depth
  4. Use Wilt-Pruf, but be careful of some firs and juniper berries- they could lose their color
  5. If using a light strand, use garland to hide unsightly wires
  6. Create outside in place as the urn will become very heavy to move. Once in position, the arrangement should freeze in place
  7. Use only artificial berries and fruit (not Styrofoam) because naturals turn black and rot outdoors and Styrofoam splits
  8. Use completed wreaths of greens as bases for urns
  9. For center height and drama, use curly willow, dogwood      branches, birch logs, or broom
  10. Since most arrangements will be viewed from a distance, the bolder and larger, the better
  11. Add large outdoor ball for added drama

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Red Twig Dogwood Branches
Red Twig Dogwood Branches

  Merry Christmas!!!!

Decorating the White House for Christmas-Part 1

East Landing with Bo

Now that the White House has been decorated for Christmas for 2012, I thought that I would repost my experiences decorating there in 2011. I looked at the pictures for this year and one caught my eye, the ‘Rainbow Tree’! I thought that this interpretation of a Christmas tree was outstanding.

tumblr_mehn0xjBPU1ry3a70o1_500Here is my experience from 2011:

Everyone loves to decorate for Christmas and after finishing decorating my house, I itch to do more! So I have always had a desire to decorate the White House but thought it was an impossible dream. But after watching the HGTV special last year and seeing the army of volunteers that are busily hanging garlands and balls, I was determined to try.

I wrote a letter to Michelle Obama right after Christmas and forgot about it. But in August I was thrilled to get an official letter from the White House Social Office informing me that I could fill out the volunteer application on line which I did right away. The application was pretty standard and asked things such as to list and explain in some detail your volunteer experience, and to send pictures of your work. I have decorated Hampton Mansion for Christmas with my Garden Club for many years and hoped that that experience would help.

In October I was thrilled to learn by email that I was accepted conditionally pending a security check. The Social Office also requested that volunteers not post to Facebook or blog about their experiences before the event but afterwards was fine.  The reason was to keep the theme secret before “the big reveal” on November 30th. The theme was to be kept secret until our opening reception on the 30th but we suspected that it was a military theme.

Everything Red!

Once I learned that I was accepted, I started to get emails from AgencyEA, an event planning company based in Chicago. AgencyEA is known for planning Ophra Winfrey’s events so I knew that they must be good.  AgencyEA reserved blocks of rooms in two hotels that were within walking distance of the White House with a really good rate as it can be quite expensive to stay in D.C. I made arrangements to stay at the Donovan House for 6 nights and planned on checking in on Thanksgiving night.

After eating dinner at my brother’s house, my husband and I drove into D.C. and checked in to the hotel and met some of my fellow decorators and people from AgencyEA. I got a red badge, red work apron,  and room assignment- the red room! The Agency told everyone that we would be working for 2 days at an off site warehouse and then 3 days at the White House.  I learned that I would be working with a team of 130 volunteers and AgencyEA employees from over 40 states.  There were mother/daughter , husband/wife, and sister teams, and the youngest volunteer was 12 and the oldest was 80!

After being told to report the next morning at 6:30 AM in the downstairs lobby to board the buses I turned in.

Warehouse

The next morning, the drive to the warehouse lasted about 40 minutes and we arrived at a huge brick warehouse that the National Park Service rents and stores all the Christmas paraphenalia from previous years and other props used by the Park Service.  It was fascinating to walk up and down the aisles and see what was there.  There were pallets of stuff, such as lumber, corn oil ???, sleds, silver bowls, large urns, plus tons of Christmas stuff.  It was a veritable treasure trove of Christmas decorations- the mother load!!!

But we were put right to work and there was a huge amount of work to do!!! I started out inventorying boxes of ornaments, taking the wrappers off of ornaments and removing the hang tags from balls and replacing them with wires.  People are known to steal the ornaments from the trees at the White House so the balls must all be wired to the trees. We worked with the decorations that belonged to a specific room and made sure that everything was accounted for and placed in the loading area when we were done.  It could take hours and hours to do a room depending on the size. I worked with a team of about 6 or 7 people. Each room had a “key” basket that contained an example of every kind of ball, ribbon, or branch used to decorate that particular room.  A designer from AgencyEA had selected the colors and ornaments and ribbon months before.

Wreaths and Things

Cedar Stars in White House East Landing

Someone from the Agency  asked if anyone knew how to make wreaths and I volunteered because I preferred to make something rather than count and wire ornaments. I was assigned then as the team leader for a group of 7 people to assemble 8 cedar stars about 3 feet in diameter that would be hung in the East room landing by the Gold Star tree. Since the cedar stars would be hung in the window, they needed to be double sided. After dragging 50 feet of extemely heavy garland over to our work station, we set to work dismantling the cedar garland and wiring the bunches onto the star wreath bases. The wreaths took all day and into the next as they were very labor intensive.

Other teams were involved in a variety of tasks- making endless pine cone garlands, sewing felt poinsettia petals and leaves, unloading and sorting tons of fresh greens, making knotted wreaths out of military medal ribbons, constructing felt trees, and wiring hundreds of thousands of ornaments.  Someone was even sewing on an ancient Singer sewing machine. The tasks were endless.

Lunch was a festive affair with wraps, hot soup, snacks, desserts, and drinks.  It felt good to be sitting down for a while!

Military Medal Ribbon Wreaths
Pine Cone Garlands

At the end of the day, we piled into the buses and went back to the hotel and collapsed. But we returned the next day and did it all over again, but at a more feverish pace because we had to get it done by the end of the day. By the end of that second day we all realized that the theme for the Holiday would be a military one as so many of the decorations were all about the armed forces.

Cut Out Poinsettias in East Landing
Framed Purple Hearts on Blue Room Tree

White House!!!!

Here was the whole reason we all volunteered! To actually go to the White House and decorate.  I met some of my new friends in the dark outside our hotel at 6:15 AM for our trek. We walked 10 minutes to the White House and ended at the North East entrance for security check points.  The Agency stressed to us beforehand that we needed our badges, name tags and a photo ID to get in.

Security Checkpoint at the White House

There were two security checkpoints to go through where they look at your driver’s license and check your name off of a list. You and your belongings have to go through a metal detector. It was pretty much like airport security except you could keep your shoes on. The security lines took about a half an hour and then we were in! We entered through the East Landing and were treated to coffee and donuts and figured out where the bathroom was. The entrance hallway is quite interesting with lots of candid photos from past and present administrations lining the walls.

East Landing of the White House

We were given a tour of the White House and met the Chief Usher, the Special Assistant to the President, the Curator, and the Executive Housekeeper. We were made to feel welcome and appreciated. The Curator stressed to us that the White House is a living museum and asked that we not touch or handle the furnishings.  All of us were just in awe to be inside and wouldn’t think of touching anything!

Our first task was to unload all the boxes that were delivered by truck to the White House and make sure that each labeled box was carried to the correct destination. Then we got to the best part –decorating!

Red Room

The Red Room is one of three state parlors on the first floor of the White House and is decorated in different shades of red.  The walls are actually hung with burgundy silk. Usually the Christmas decorations are all bright screaming red but I was relieved to see that the decorator had taken a different tack and we were going to use copper, gold, dark red, wine, cinnamon, and touches of cream.  I approved of the color palette!

My job the first day was to decorate the Red Room with 5 other people.  We looked through our “key basket” to see what materials we had to work with and started brain storming about the best way to get everything done.  We had two 5 foot trees mounted in large red wooden planters, and a gorgeous Italian marble mantel with caryatid supports to decorate.  For materials, we had beautiful glittery pine cone balls, yards and yards of 8″ wide coppery gold wired ribbon, gold leaf branches, fresh lemon leaves, 2 long balsam fir garlands, and assorted glass ornaments with some snowflakes.  The ornaments ranged from a dozen large copper balls, smaller gold and white ones, to glittery tear drops. We were told to start decorating and we jumped right into it and made some very large bows for the mantels and adorned the garland on the mantel with an assortment of the ornaments.

Then we started to decorate the trees with doubled ribbon garlands swagged around the trees.  We put the larger ornaments in the center of the tree and filled in every available spot with the smaller ornaments.

When lunch rolled around we strolled over to the formal dining room where a fantastic hot buffet awaited us. Salads, thick sliced ham, soups, breads, drinks and dessert were all available.  The White House staff ate first and then we got in line. The kitchen staff was phenomenal! They must have known that with all the physical work that we did we would be hungry.

Red Room Tree

A crew from HGTV with Genevieve was circulating around the rooms filming and interviewing people for the Holiday special that will be aired Dec 11. They talked to me for a few minutes while I was decorating the trees and had me sign a release form.

After working all day, we left at 4PM to go back to the hotel and collapse.

To see Part 2 of this blog, search my blog for White House Christmas!

 

Luscious Honey-Scented Body Butter

Finished body butter ready to use

BODY BUTTER

In the dry air of winter, I go through a lot of “body butter”!  I have been buying it from Burt’s Bees at $13 for a small tub and it was adding up. I like to apply it all over my body after I shower and butter goes on smoothly and sinks right into your skin and really hydrates. For an updated version of my body butter with lavender, go to my post Lavender Scented Honey Body Butter.

After going through some recipes on line and experimenting with several, I came up with one that works great and costs about half of what I was paying. Plus, I got to use some of my beeswax from my hives! The whole process is so easy, I don’t know why I was spending all that money before.

First of all, gather your ingredients.

Ingredients for body butter: Shea Butter, Sweet Almond OIl, Beeswax chunks, Coconut Oil, and Vitamin E

I shopped for my oils at MOM’s Organic market.  You could try WholeFoods or a good pharmacy, or online. I used 1 Cup of Shea Butter, 1/2 cup of Coconut Oil, 1/2 cup of Sweet Almond Oil, and 50 drops of Vitamin E. If you can’t find Almond Oil, you could substitute olive, jojoba, or any other liquid oil. I also use about 4 Tablespoons of Beeswax.  The Beeswax is hard to measure, so I just broke off a hunk from my stash and chopped it up into smaller pieces.  The beeswax keeps the butter from becoming too soft and scents the body butter with honey. Here is the recipe:

Honey Scented Body Butter

1 C Shea Butter

1/2 C Coconut Oil

1/2 C Sweet Almond Oil

4 T Beeswax, broken up into small pieces

50 drops of Vitamin E Oil

Melt the Shea Butter, Coconut Oil, and Beeswax in the top of a double boiler until all lumps are melted.

Melting the Coconut Oil, Beeswax, and Shea Butter in the top of a double boiler

The Beeswax has the highest melting temperature, so will be the last to melt. Beeswax has honey deposited in it so you get the fragrance of the honey from your added beeswax.

Beeswax chunks are the last to melt

Remove from heat, letting cool slightly, and add the Sweet Almond Oil and the Vitamin E drops.

Remove from the heat and add the Sweet Almond Oil and the vitamin E drops and stir

Stir until mixed and place into the refrigerator for about an hour.

Place the mixture into the refrigerator to solidify

While in the refrigerator, the mixture will turn opaque and become very thick.

The mixture after chilling looks like icing

Bring the mixture out and whip it with a mixer or immersion blender or mixer.

Whipping the body butter with an immersion blender

Place in containers. I used an old Burt’s bees container and just some other containers that I had sitting around.

Scooping out the butter into containers- It is the perfect consistency!

Don’t worry if you forget the mixture in the refrigerator and it gets too hard.  Just gently warm it until it softens enough to whip.

With this recipe, I made about 3 1/2 cups of body butter that cost about $25 for materials.  I was spending $13 for a 6.75 ounce container from Burt’s Bees. After some calculation, I figured that if I bought 3 1/2 cups of body butter from Burt’s Bees, it would have cost me twice as much. Plus, I knew exactly what went into it.

Enough body butter to slather on for months!

I am thinking about making another batch for Christmas gifts!

The Dreaded ‘Hive Beetle’ Attacks

Honeycomb of Western honey bees (Apis mellifer...
Honeycomb of Western honey bees (Apis mellifera) with eggs and larvae. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I opened my hive the other day to check on things -removing my last super, and to button everything up for the winter. When I took off the inner cover, I noticed some small black beetles scurrying around on the top bars of the hive and my heart sank.  I knew right away that these were the dreaded ‘hive beetles’ that I had heard about but never had to deal with. Honeybees get a lot of pests, and I thought that I had dodged the bullet on this, because I have never seen them in more than 10 years of beekeeping. But even though I had never seen one, I knew exactly what it was when I saw them dart around the top bars of the combs. How could something so tiny be so destructive? And be in my one hive that was doing do well?

Aethina tumida Common Name: small hive beetle ...
Aethina tumida Common Name: small hive beetle Photographer: James D. Ellis, University of Florida, United States Descriptor: Adult(s) Description: 2003; Grahamstown, South Africa Image taken in: United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Life Cycle

Hive beetles, Aethina tumida,  are opportunistic creatures and will seek out weak hives. They fly into the entrance of a hive and lay eggs in the comb.  The larvae hatches and feeds on pollen and honey stored within the hive. When feeding on the honey and pollen, they can leave a slimy mess of honey that can ferment and ruin the honey. Yuck!! I didn’t want those %!!*)!!!! beetles in my hive.


Small Hive Beetle life cycle

The larvae exit the hive and enter the ground to pupate for 3 to 6 weeks, emerge from soil as an adult, and can fly 5 to 12 miles in search of a hive to invade. A severe infestation can cause an entire hive to leave and find better conditions, so I was quite worried. And I saw at least a half-dozen of those darn beetles darting around, so I had to do something before they became too numerous for the honeybees to take care of. I wanted to use non-chemical means so I found a ‘trap’ from http://greenbeehives.com that is basically a bottom woodenware drawer that you fill with vegetable oil.  You place the drawer under the slotted rack (if you have one), at the base of the entire hive and the beetles fall and drown in the oil. Yea!!!!

First I tore apart the hive down to the bottom board.  Here was my opportunity to scrape all the debris off and clean it.

Tearing the hive down to the bottom board

Then I removed my screened bottom and put the new ‘drawer’ with oil in its place.

New wooden ware drawer with oil stacked on top of the bottom board

Then I placed the slotted screen on top to maintain good circulation throughout the hive.

Placing the slotted board on top of the drawer of oil

Then I placed both hive bodies on top and the inner and outer cover to put it all together again.

The newly inserted drawer acts as the new entrance to the hive

The idea is that the beetles in their travels through the hive will fall, especially when the honeybees chase them.  Normally, they would fall to the bottom and come back up to the combs and start wreaking more havoc.  But with the oil at the bottom, they become stuck and drown.  If water was used in place of oil, the water would freeze in cold weather, so oil is the best option. The next day, I pulled open the drawer and voila, there were at least a dozen very dead hive beetles floating in the oil. Hooray!!! It works!!

Dead beetles in the tray of oil

History

I always like to look at how these things start so you can put this in context. Hive beetles originated in sub-saharan Africa and were noticed in the United States in Florida in the late 1990’s and gradually have invaded 30 states, mostly in the southeast. They are a tropical insect so are more active in warmer areas. Here are some interesting facts about them:

  1. First noticed in the U.S. in 1996
  2. Larvae will not hatch when humidity is less than 49%
  3. Attracted to weaker hives and bee alarm pheromones
  4. Females lay 4000 eggs a month for 2 months!
  5. Beetles prefer hives in full sun, not shade
  6. Severe infestation can cause bees to abscond the hive

The best way to avoid infestation is to have a strong, queenright, healthy hive. If the hive is strong, then the honeybees will chase them out. But the beetles are very wily. The following scenario just blew me away:

The beetles have developed the ability to stimulate the mouth parts of worker bees with their antennae, similar to drones begging for food and able to trick bees into feeding them!

Wow, how do you deal with a pest like that?

The honeybees cannot sting them – they are unable to penetrate their hard shell.  So, they chase them and the beetles hide in cracks and crevices in the hive. Honeybees are able to contend with fairly large populations of hive beetles, but there is a tipping point where they become too numerous and can be a huge problem, and that is why I was worried. I wanted to nip the problem in the bud and would recommend this method of the oil to anyone.  It was easy and safe, rather than resorting to chemical controls.

A Cut Above – Creating Sculptures from Wood

Play area at Oregon Ridge Nature Center

It doesn’t seem possible to be able to use the words ‘chainsaw‘ and ‘art’ in the same sentence.  The chainsaw is such a workmanlike and crude tool that it is always surprising to me what beautiful carvings can be made within a couple of hours with the right kind of wood and a noisy, sawdust spitting, dangerous chainsaw. But when I visited Oregon Ridge Nature Center recently, my eyes were opened to the possibilities, as soon as I saw the new play area that was designed with all chain saw creations by Pat Hundley, a local chainsaw artist.

Creations from Logs

These chainsaw creations are perfect to decorate your garden or outdoor space and will last for years. You can get one to hold up your mailbox, embrace a sign, use as a play set for kids, or just for decoration.

Bear emerging from log by Pat Hundley

Chainsaw art has become very popular, especially in timber heavy areas of the country. In western Maryland, Deep Creek  Lake is chock full of chainsaw artists on every corner, advertising their masterpieces. There is even a new TV show called Chainsaw Gang, which features premier chainsaw artists from around the country who battle each other to deliver incredible works of art.

Fox sculpture by Pat Hundley

I talked with Pat Hundley, who has a day job as a teacher for Baltimore County Schools, about how he got started in this unusual hobby. He said that he got started after Baltimore Gas & Electric did some tree trimming at his house and left some logs behind. Pat got the idea of carving a bear out of one as a surprise for his wife. An hour later, he created a bear coming out of a log and he hasn’t stopped since.

One of Pat Hundley’s creations

Pat says it takes about an hour to do a bear and he will charge around $100 for the piece, depending on the complexity. The carving can last for years if you seal it at least twice a year with deck sealant and/or polyurethane. He paints some of the pieces also to make the details pop. Pine is the primary wood that he carves in as it is readily accessible in MD, but he uses anything that becomes available. Pat is friendly with some tree removal professionals to obtain the materials that he needs.

Painted Bald Eagle on log by Pat Hundley

The most popular design that Pat does is the bear emerging from a log and I can see how that one would fit right into my garden! Pat sells his creations at local craft shows and by word of mouth.

There are special tools of the trade to make the detailed carvings come to life. Pat uses guide bars or carving bars called ‘quarter tip’ and ‘dime tip’, that have very small ‘noses’ that allow finer cuts for details such as fur and feathers.  The important advantage of these special bars is that they do not produce ‘kickback’ when using them, and are much safer than the standard bars.

Pat in action

In order to reach the high levels of skill required to be a “chainsaw carver“, a good amount of instruction and practice is required in the safe operation of a chainsaw. This is then followed by plenty of study and practice in carving basic shapes which then ultimately leads on to more ambitious projects. It is extremely important that anyone using a chainsaw wear the proper protective clothing, like leather chaps and ear protection. A cut from a chainsaw is not just a cut, it  can actually remove a chunk of flesh and bone.

Chainsaw Women

Chainsaw art is a relative recent art form dating back to the 1950’s. Not only is it seen as a sculpture, but also as performance art or spectacle –  with the noise, flying sawdust, and very fast carving results. It is stunning how fast the carving comes to life, as opposed to old-fashioned carving using mallets and gouges that can take much longer. Also, the detail that you can achieve with chainsaws amazes me.

Turtles by Cherie Currie

I was also delighted at the number of women who make a living out of chainsaw art. There is even a group called ‘Chainsaw Chix’ which is the first group of all-female sculptors. Go Girls! Chainsaw art is not limited to the United States either. There are international artists all over and competitions all around the world.  There is even a chainsaw carving school in Toei, Japan.

World's tallest Virgin Mary carving at Schochw...
World’s tallest Virgin Mary carving at Schochwitz, Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now, I just need to find that perfect spot in my garden to showcase one of these pieces of art!