I was introduced to beekeeping in Virginia while visiting my brother-in-law Bruce. He had several beehives and I wanted to try my hand at working the bees before I made the plunge on my own. Since then, Bruce has moved to Vermont with his hives – prime bear country. In Vermont, he set up a remote control camera surveying their property and the camera took this picture of a juvenile bear roaming around causing trouble last year. The bear clawed his way up to a two-story deck and knocked over the hives sitting there. There were claw marks on the post “bearing” this out.
Well, that bear must have grown up and/or been kicked out by Mom to sink or swim on his own and come back for more mischief. Bruce’s neighborhood which is pretty rural recently had a rash of bear invasions in the last couple of weeks which included a garage being torn apart. So, I guess it was only a matter of time until the bears sniffed the hives out again! There is something about bears and honey that is irresistible.
As you can see, the bear/bears (?) tore right into the hive to get to the honey and larvae. This hive was set up in a nearby field, ripe for the picking.
I found this video on you tube which just goes to show you how impervious bears are to stinging bees. It is pretty amazing.
Could This Happen to Me?
Here in Maryland, there have been several bears spotted within 50 miles of here. Right now, I think the likelihood is slim but there are no guarantees. I remember maybe 20 years ago, it was pretty unusual to see deer nearby. Now they are just as common as squirrels. I live in a suburban area and have a friend nearby who saw a mountain lion on her front porch! So, I don’t believe that it is impossible that a bear will make a visit.
Bears can cause considerable beehive damage, including the destruction of hives and frames to get at that finger lickin’ honey and larvae. I was surprised to find out from news articles that bear destruction is pretty common in northern states, and to the south in North Carolina, Florida and Louisiana. Massachusetts has been getting a rash of hive attacks from bears which I really didn’t think of as being rural enough for bears. But with our mild winter, bears are roaming, so check this out – http://www.npr.org/2012/04/06/150079405/bears-stuffing-themselves-near-massachusetts-homes
Fortunately for Bruce, the hive the bears attacked was probably dead but had some honey stores that they could have used for the other hives.
Fish and Wildlife publications suggest putting your hives at least 50 yards from wooded cover. And virtually everyone comes to the same conclusion – the only effective method for preventing costly destruction is an electric fence. As for Bruce, he has several hives on his deck that are producing and the one that was attacked will be salvaged and set up closer to the house and an electric fence may be in the works.
If you ever venture to Montreal, be sure to visit one of the most interesting botanical gardens in the world that includes unique themed gardens. One of the more unusual gardens was the poisonous plants area surrounded by a high wooden fence with a very noticeable danger sign.
You have probably heard one of these sayings:
Raggy rope, don’t be a dope!
Leaves of three; Let it be!
Hairy vine, no friend of mine.
Berries white, run in fright.
If you haven’t figured out what these sayings are referring to, you must not have any experience with the great outdoors. Poison Ivy, Toxicodendron radicans, which is the bane of many a gardener and outdoorsman is just starting to leaf out this spring. When I did maintenance on gardens professionally, I encountered poison ivy many times. I knew exactly what it looked like in all stages of development but sometimes the vine was so entwined into the weeds and other vegetation that it was very hard to avoid.
Avoidance At All Costs
The most likely time for me to encounter poison is in the early spring or winter before the vine leafs out and becomes visible. Sometimes while working in the garden you don’t notice the thin innocuous looking woody vine. You can still get poison ivy from the stem of the plant with no leaves showing. My husband got a severe case when we went to a “cut your own” Christmas tree farm to bring home the perfect Christmas tree. He grabbed the dried up vines and debris at the trunk of the Fraser Fir that we had carefully selected, to clear them out prior to sawing the trunk. You guessed it! It was poison ivy and he got the worst case I have ever seen just in time for Christmas!
All parts are highly poisonous to people, the roots, stems, berries, and leaves. Urushiol is the clear liquid compound that is the culprit that causes a painful itching and rash.
You can barely brush past the vine and pick up the oil very easily. If I know that I have encountered the leaves by accident, I quickly wash off the area thoroughly with soap and water. Or for a down and dirty method where soap and water are not an option, rub the affected part in dirt. But you have to do this immediately – don’t delay.
I always wear long sleeves and pants if I think that I will be working close to the vine. If I pull it out, then I put plastic bags over my hands fastened with rubber bands. The vines and roots I stuff into a trash bag and get rid of it, and not in my compost pile!
There are lots of products on the market supposed to help with the itch and to stop you from getting the oil on your skin.
Poison Ivy Soap at Walgreens in Union Square. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I like TECNU which is a liquid that you apply and forms a film over your skin to protect you from contacting the oil. I use it and think it works great but you have to reapply if you sweat or it rubs off.
I have been exposed to the oil after my dog has run through some poison ivy, and then petted her not knowing about her brief encounter. The oil is very long-lasting and can be transmitted on clothing, gloves, tools and fur!. I have even set my gloves down on my car seat and the oil was transferred from the gloves to the material of the seat and then sat in it for an interesting rash! The oil can remain there and keep on being transferred for a long time.
I am highly allergic to it and have had it so many times that I can speak from experience about the pain and discomfort of contracting poison ivy. The rash is long-lasting, extremely itchy, very painful, and downright ugly! The giveaway that points to poison ivy is the fluid filled blisters. A bad case can last up to 4 weeks and leave scars for much longer.
Now, if I get a bad case, I go straight to the doctor who will put me on steroids which quickly nips the rash in the bud and saves me from all kinds of discomfort.
Poison Ivy Factoids
Poison Ivy is not a true Ivy and can come in three forms: a trailing vine on the ground 4 – 10″ high, a shrub up to 4′ high, and a woody climbing vine that grows on trees for support.
The vine can grow up to a hundred feet and the base of the vine can look thick and woody, with scrubby hairs and no leaves. People who touch the vine not seeing the leaves will not realize that it is poison ivy until they develop a rash.
The oil Urushiol is extremely potent – A billionth of a gram can start an allergic reaction! It is so potent that only 1/4 of a cup of urushiol would be needed to cause a rash for every person on earth!
Urushiol will remain active for one to 5 years. There have even been specimens from dead plants that cause a reaction centuries later.
Allergies to poison ivy or poison oak, the western version, is the most common allergy on the planet. At least 90% of people are allergic.
Sensitivity to urushiol can develop at any time and the more you are exposed to it, the greater the reaction.
The name Poison Ivy was coined by Captain John Smith in 1609.
Poison Ivy is not contagious but by scratching the rash, you can make it much worse, even infected.
Even though the saying is to avoid leaves of three, there are other plants that have three leaves, most commonly juvenile leaves of Virginia Creeper. The leaves of Virginia Creeper have a few more serrations along the leaf edge but the differences are very difficult to pick up by even the most experienced gardener. Another similar looking plant is Box Elder. This can fool even the most experienced plants person and you have to closely examine it to make sure.
Poison-ivy vine located in Mount Airy, NC (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I am always amazed at the number of people who do not recognize poison ivy. I even have had neighbors ask me to find it in their yards when their kids develop the telltale rash and blisters. I usually can find it right away and it is in plain sight!
When I walk my dog every day in the summer, I see large billowing banks of poison ivy on either side of the road that choke out any other species. But it is a native species that has evolved to take advantage of its environment and in the process is taking over large areas.
The Garden of Poison
So, back to that poison sign from the Montreal Botanical Garden. I visited there a couple of years ago with some bored young adults who know that I go “ga ga” over any notable gardens in my travels. I convinced them to go with me to this world-renowned botanical garden and promised them there would be interesting things to see. Little did I know that the botanical garden had an area dedicated to poisonous plants. This was the hit of the day! I couldn’t believe that they had planted and were growing poison ivy along with some other noxious plants. Poison hemlock, stinging nettle, monkshood, and wild parsnip were growing right next to poison ivy. It was a veritable smorgsabord of poison!
Yes, there are some good attributes to poison ivy. But I really have to try hard for these since I hate it so much!
The berries are useful for wildlife in the fall and winter, especially birds. When food is scarce, the berries are very important to other animals also.
Surprise, surprise!Bees also frequent the flowers for nectar. I did not know this and wonder if the urushiol is transferred to the finished product? I do know that some honey can be harmful, such as honey collected from Rhododendron flowers which can be toxic.
Lastly, the vines turn a spectacular flaming scarlet in the fall. I enjoy them from a distance!!!
With the coming of spring a couple of weeks early this spring, I am getting a little nervous about my bees. The honey flow which is the frantic bee activity of bees collecting nectar from spring flowers will be here very soon. I have a strong hive that made it through the winter and I am on the lookout for swarms! 2012 marks my tenth year anniversary as a beekeeper and I have had my share of swarms from my own hives as well as from the wild. I hate it when my bees swarm! If you ask any beekeeper how to prevent swarming, you will get 10 different answers and opinions. Other non-beekeeper friends who don’t understand will ask me, ” Why don’t you want your bees to swarm? You can increase your hives !” The answer is really simple. Say goodbye to any honey production for that year! And there is no guarantee that you will catch the bee swarm. The bees have a mind of their own.
As a beekeeper, I am sometimes called by a panicked home owner when a huge ball of noisy bees appears in their backyard. They are afraid of them stinging and just want the bees to go away or be killed. In fact, swarming bees are loaded up with honey and are very unlikely to sting. They are not dangerous and are just looking for a new home.
Swarming is a natural duplication process for honey bees to form a new colony. When a colony is bursting at the seams in their home with little room to grow, the bees will raise a new queen. The old queen will take off with up to 10,000 to 15,000 bees from the home colony and fly a short distance and cluster on a tree branch, shrub or other object to form a large ball or cone shaped mass which can weigh 10 pounds or more. The queen is usually centered in the cluster and scout bees leave looking for a suitable new home such as a hollow tree or the walls of your house! The swarms can stay in their temporary location for several days as the scout bees do their job and find a new home.
The Big Event
I have observed a swarm in progress from my hives several times and it is very impressive and exciting. One of the signs that precedes a swarm is the sound! The tone of the hive increases greatly in volume and the bees start to exit in a huge undulating wave from the hive box and head for some nearby structure, usually a tree, to land. The bees seem to have a unified purpose and know exactly what to do.
The new queen that the hive produced in preparation for swarming, will remain with the original colony and the remainder of the worker bees and start building up a viable hive once again. Beekeepers try to avoid a swarm because it splits their population and reduces the likelihood of producing honey to harvest that season. The advantage to swarming is that now you have two hives instead of one but again you have to put off harvesting any honey because both colonies will need honey stores to get through the winter.
Capturing the Swarm
If the swarm is from a beekeepers own colony the beekeeper will try to capture it and put it in a new hive. But if it is a wild colony that swarms it can land in a unsuspecting homeowners yard and they start calling 911 in a panic. If a beekeeper gets the call, and the swarm is not that far off the ground, they can knock the swarm with a firm yank into an empty hive box and take it away. As bees can be expensive, about $125 for a laying queen and brood, beekeepers are usually delighted to take them off your hands. Sometimes beekeepers will charge the homeowner a fee, especially if the swarm is located in a difficult to access place.
I have heard of swarms under picnic tables, on grills, on the bumpers of cars, and in the walls of houses. If they are in your walls, the bees are almost impossible to extricate and should be euthanized. April through June is prime swarming season when the hive is at it’s strongest. If you discover a swarm in your yard, the best thing to do is call a local beekeeper by looking on the internet for the CMBA, the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association which keeps a database of beekeepers interested in capturing swarms. If you are not in MD, just look up Beekeepers in your area and someone will take them off your hands.
Also, a pheremone called Swarm Commander has been reported to work by spraying it around where you want the swarm to be captured, like an empty hive body with some drawn comb. I have yet to try this, and it is on my list to try next season. According to GloryBee;
“Swarm Commander mimics “Nasanov” which is the natural pheromone of the worker honey bee. Nasonov pheromone is released by worker bees to orient returning forager bees back to the colony. To broadcast this scent, bees raise their abdomens, which contain the Nasonov glands, and fan their wings vigorously.”
Here are my pointers on avoiding this catastrophe:
I like to give the bees plenty of ventilation by not only having the entrance unimpeded with reducers but also by shimming my upper boxes open slightly to give the bees more openings for air flow.
Plenty of Room
I have already added supers (extra honey boxes) on top of my brood boxes to make sure that the queen has plenty of room to lay eggs. I have stopped using a queen excluder to the horror of many beekeeper friends. I feel that this keeps the queen from going where she needs to go and if she feels restricted, swarm production will start. When I harvest my honey, if there is brood in the supers, I just move it down to the brood boxes.
Requeen when your queen is a couple of seasons old. Some beekeepers say every year, but there is so much supersedure going on (bees making their own queen) that sometimes this isn’t necessary.
Split up your hive early in the season if it is going strong. This simply means take a few frames of brood with some nurse bees and place them in a new hive. You can add a new queen or let them make their own. This can be a gamble because it takes time to make a new queen but by separating the hive you reduce the urge to swarm.
Removing Swarm Cells-Forget it!
Beekeepers recommend to go through your boxes frequently and remove the queen swarm cells that are ready to hatch out new queens. I think at that point, it is too late. Bees are programmed to swarm and you are swimming against the tide by trying to stop the process. I have tried this and it hasn’t worked for me. Also, I don’t think it is a good practice to open up your hives too frequently. Leave them alone!
I create containers for clients all the time and am always looking for inspiration to move away from the “geraniums with spike and trailer” school of thought. With a little more planning and shopping, you can come up with a showplace masterpiece with WOW impact. For pollinator containers, go to Nectar in a Pot- Movable Feast
The best piece of advice that I picked up over the years was the secret to coordinating your colors in a container. Choose a piece of fabric or piece of art that you really like and take it with you when you plant shop. Of course, you can’t take a painting with you so grab refrigerator magnets with famous paintings on them from museums, or cut out paintings from magazines. My most successful container was inspired from a Van Gogh magnet obtained from my many museum visits. Van Gogh’s iris painting has that intense blue which is hard to get with flowers – also orange, greens, a touch of white and yellow. If you like it in a painting, you will like it in a container!
I have plenty of room to plant in my beds but I really enjoy planting in containers because they become a piece of art in miniature. This is my opportunity to try new annuals that look good in the nursery and go wild with the color combos. I also do it professionally for clients who don’t have the time or ability to put it all together.
Musical Plants-Rearrange for the Season!
I rarely keep my flowers in the pot all season. They just fizzle by the end of the summer and I get tired of them. Sometimes I have three seasons of containers – a winter one with an evergreen and some pansies, then I move on to petunias, supertunias, cannas, lantanas -everything that likes heat, and finally to fall plants – mums, asters, grasses, cabbages, and ferns. I mix and match perennials, shrubs and annuals to get the most versatility and longevity out of my pots. For All Season Containers, go to my post on adding and subtracting plants for all season interest.
Large Containers Are Best
Choose a large enough container to avoid constantly watering it during long hot summers. A pot with a circumference of at least 15 to 18 inches is enough to get you going with a selection of different types of plants, plus enough room for them to grow throughout the summer. I like the light faux pots that look like real pottery, but will not crack and will retain water better than terra-cotta ones. These faux pots will last for years and you can leave them out all winter, plus they are inexpensive and portable. There are even self-watering ones available which have a water reservoir built into the container. Regardless of the type of container that you have, make sure there are drainage holes in the bottom. If there aren’t any, drill some using a large bit on a portable drill.
Good Soil – Good Plants
Soil or potting medium can make or break your container. Use a more expensive potting medium that has an organic mix of compost, sphagnum moss, and perlite. There are a lot of commercial potting mixes on the market so be sure to choose one that has added fertilizer to it as container plants need a good boost of fertilizer to bloom all season long, plus regular applications. Make sure that you add a good dollop of compost in the bottom of the pot – a couple of inches at least. This is where the roots are going to reach down and use up all those nutrients to produce flowers all season long.
Plants – Dress It Up
Placement of the container is key to what plants you select. Notice if the site will get all day or part-day sunlight, or will be in mostly shade. Shady container plants are just as colorful as sunny ones with careful selection of vibrant foliage. Go to the nursery and ask a knowledgeable employee for suggestions on varieties. For any situation, you want something tall for the back- a thriller, like a grass or Canna or Caladium, a filler-something shorter for the middle area, and a spiller to cascade down the sides – thrillers, fillers, and spillers! – I am sure everyone has heard this phrase. It is an overused phrase, but it really describes the process well. For a pot 18 inches in diameter, you would need approximately 5 to 9 plants. Of your chosen 5 plants, use a tall architectural one, a couple of fillers, and a couple of spillers. Aim for a variety of foliage sizes and textures so that each plant stands out.
Planting window boxes uses the same principles as containers. To create depth you really make use of those spillers. Silver Falls, Dichondra, is a great asset for trailing down walls and window boxes.
When selecting your plants, consider your textures. I see too many containers planted with flowers and foliage that are similar in texture and look too busy. Try mixing it up with some broad sculptural leaves, variegated foliage, and deeply lobed leaf shapes. Using varying forms will help your plants stand out instead of blending together in an indistinguishable mass.
Cannas and Caladiums
Cannas are good selections for containers – just make sure your pot is large enough. I have seen cannas get 8 feet tall or higher! For shade, try Caladiums. There are beautiful Caladiums on the market with very colorful unusual markings and they will shine in the shade. The foliage of Cannas is their best attribute but some varieties have beautiful flowers also.
The Coleus on the market now are not your grandmother’s Coleus! Bred for both sun and shade, these plants come in a veritable kaleidoscope of colors. Literally, there are hundreds of varieties on the market and you could simply do lots of containers with just Coleus and have very colorful pots. Coleus are among my all-time favorites with beautiful striking foliage with endless color combos.. I prefer not to let Coleus flower as the flowers detract from the foliage beauty, and when they appear, I remove them.
Maintenance-Nip and Tuck!
Maintenance includes regular watering, at least once a day when it is hot, fertilizing with a dilute or granular fertilizer at least once a week, and pinching back plants as they grow to maintain their shape. I call this nip and tuck. If you don’t do this on a regular basis, your plants will get leggy, unattractive, and woody. It is also a good idea to elevate containers on bricks or “pot feet” so that they drain properly. If you don’t have good drainage, your plants will sulk and die! Make sure that your drainage holes are large enough so they don’t get clogged up and don’t use gravel in the bottom. The gravel just makes the pot heavier and does not help with drainage. Drip irrigation is an option if you have lots of containers that need regular watering and you don’t want to be a slave to your water can. Drip is pretty simple to set up, with all the components available at a local nursery or hardware store and they just snap together. I compare it to playing with Tinker Toys!
Group your containers, especially if you have many small ones. By grouping, you achieve a bigger impact and it is far easier to take care of them in one bunch. If you do drip irrigation, grouping is essential as you use less tubing and you can hide the tubing in the adjacent pots. Pollinators like hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies will more easily locate plant groupings. Go to Nectar in a Pot-Movable Feast to check out my pollinator container ideas.
It seems like everyone these days is thinking about a rain barrel or has already installed at least one at their home. Some are very plain and utilitarian, while others have been decorated to complement the home. If you want to join the trend, here are simple pointers on getting you started.
What It Does
A rain barrel is simply a large container at the end of your drainpipe that collects rain water that comes off your roof. You can fill a 60 gallon rain barrel in a matter of minutes in a good rain storm. All the water off your roof would otherwise be diverted into the main sewage drains and enter the Chesapeake Bay eventually. Just a quarter inch of rain falling on the average home produces over 200 gallons of water.
How It Helps
Lawn and gardening watering make up nearly 40% of your total household usage during the summer months. You can use the water in your rain barrel for washing your car, watering outdoor plants, and filling your pool. A typical rain barrel will save homeowners around 1,300 gallons of water during the peak summer water usage months. That is a lot of savings on your water bill and is an easy way to help protect the Chesapeake Bay. Your rain barrel is your contribution in reducing ground water usage, reducing Bay-killing storm water runoff, and helping rain water replenish the groundwater supply.
Here is a quick step-by-step on how to make an inexpensive rain barrel:
But rain barrels usually aren’t that attractive especially if you have them at the front of your house. They tend to stick out especially if they are a glaring white which my rain barrel was, so I decided to decorate it and reflect my personal tastes.
Make it Unique!
If you have a piece of fabric that you really love, use that for your color inspiration. If you are a wine lover, try the grapes and leaves that is pictured. For beach lovers or beach residents, I have seen really creative ones with herons, and beaches themes painted on them. The ideas that you can use are endless. I ended up with a totally whimsical creation from nature because I love the beautiful colors of lizards and newts.
Follow these easy steps in creating your masterpiece:
Prepare the surface-this stage is critical for the white plastic ones as the surface is slippery and smooth. Clean the barrel thoroughly with a soap solution and dry. You have to lightly sand the surface to rough it up so that paint sticks to it.
Prime- it– I went to Home Depot and picked up Martha Stewart’s Living Exterior Flat Latex Paint to prime and paint it. It took 4 coats to completely cover it! You might be able to get away with 3 coats but I wanted to make sure that it lasted and didn’t flake off. It is important to use a high quality paint as it will be out in the weather.
Decorate– This is the fun part! If you don’t feel comfortable painting designs on the barrel, enlist some artist friend’s help. Sketch out what you want to do before you start painting. Anything goes and here is your chance to be creative! Use stencils like the grape vine barrels below if you feel intimidated about painting a design. I painted the base and had my talented daughter paint the designs.
Protect- I bought afew cansof polyurethanespray and coated it thoroughly with a couple of layers.
Get It Level
Rain barrels work on gravity and must be raised up from the ground to work properly. Four concrete blocks laid into a square covered with a slab of bluestone works fine and makes it more attractive.
You can also hook together several rain barrels to increase your holding capacity. If you are worried about breeding mosquitoes, you can throw in some mosquito dunks which is a natural pesticide in a pellet form sold at nurseries to kill any hatching larvae. I never use these because I always use the water in the barrel within a short time. The collected water never sits around when I have some plants nearby to use it on.
If you don’t want to go the paint route, then just cover the barrel with chicken wire or enclose with lattice and grow vines on it!
While working at the White House, we were very excited to see Bo, the presidential dog, run through the hallway one morning. He was leashed up to go for a walk and we were delighted to see the most famous dog acting like a normal dog, prancing and ready to run!
So of course Bo is depicted in many materials throughout the house. There is one in nearly every room and it is fun to try and find them all – both for kids and adults. The library has the largest rendition where Bo is made of black and white recycled trash bags. I call him ‘Trash Bo’! There is one perched outside the beautiful gingerbread house in the state dining room made out of liquorice, also one from buttons, and one from pom-poms out of spun wool.
But I guarantee that no one will find the one in the East Room. This is the largest room of the White House located on the first floor. I worked there for two 12 hour days decorating. Sitting on the floor, I hot glued dozens of itty, bitty, pine cone scales onto a resin base replica of Bo for 3 hours straight. Then he was sharpied in black ink and placed in a moss garden under a window. He is only 3 inches high so I doubt that anyone will find him!
The gingerbread house was a masterpiece of 400 pounds of white chocolate made to represent the White House in detail with crazy candy trees.
The East Room
I headed to the East Room the next day which is the largest room on the first floor of the White House. There were 4 very large fresh trees set up to be decorated that already had hundreds of tiny white lights.
Our task was to place hundreds of feet of chartreuse green cedar garland around the trees with out toppling the trees. The garland was extremely heavy and had to be laid carefully on the branches and wired in. Then, thousands of 2 to 3 inch high real rock crystals were dangled all over the trees to give them a shimmery effect.
I also climbed ladders and scaffolding to add magnolia leaves, white pine, and cedar to the garlands that were draped over all the mirrors. It is scary to climb up on those shaky structures! We were always losing a ladder when we left it for a few minutes and someone came in and grabbed it. Ladders were at a premium.
Rock Crystals on East Room Trees
I started on the moss gardens at the base of the windows when the room designer asked for someone with gardening experience. Hello!!! Waterproofed bases that were made ahead of time to fit into the embrasures of the four windows were set in place and we started filling them with soil and ‘mood’ moss which is simply mounding moss to give dimension. I quickly filled them up and started to mold the moss into hills and valleys to give the gardens a three dimensional look. Then boulders were artistically added and made to look part of the landscape by sinking them into the moss. Next we planted paperwhite bulbs, White Hellebores, and some blooming paperwhites. With all the bulbs at different stages of bloom, there should be a succession of fragrant flowers for weeks to come. These winter gardens were natural and fresh for the winter season when you need to see something growing, and I will definitely try to duplicate this at home.
Shine, Give, Share
The theme of Shine, Give, Share was used to honor all military families and to pay tribute to our troops. There were present ‘American Gold Star Mothers’ who are mothers who have lost a son or daughter in the service of our country. The official White House tree was located in the Blue Room and was covered with purple hearts, military ribbon wreaths, medals, and patches from all the military branches. The ‘Gold Star’ tree was located on the East Landing and had memorials from servicemen and women who have died in service. I talked to two of the Gold Star mothers. One had a small picture of her son around her neck and came all the way from Kansas to work on the tree.
Blue Room Tree
White House Basement
The last day we were working we were led downstairs into the basement to visit the White House gift shop which is actually a closet. It was stuffed with merchandise with the Executive Seal imprinted on it and I picked up a few shirts, jackets, and an apron. I was fascinated when one of the guards pointed out to us that the lintel over the door to the basement showed burn marks and bullet holes that were still there from the war of 1812, when the White House burned down. That is certainly a piece of history that not many people see.
Basement Opening with Burn Marks
All the utilitarian offices are located in the basement, such as the carpentry shop, the groundskeeper’s office, the florist shop, cold storage, housekeeping office, and the laundry. I never found the famed bowling alley! But I was interested in the florist shop where the florists come up with their beautiful designs and they magically appear upstairs. I was even interested in their piles of beautiful containers and supplies.
Arrangement in Progress
State Dining Room
I kept peeking into the State Dining Room as the decorating progressed and this ended up being my favorite and most beautiful room. The ornament combinations were breath-taking in the texture and colors. Jim Marvin led the team for this room and he designed a lot of the ornaments that we used at the White House. The trees were adorned with a collar of beaded fruit in vibrant colors. The garlands over the door and mantel repeated the theme.
State Dining Room Tree
The colors of the State Dining Room were rich and wonderful. The beaded fruit was wired with bay leaves and seeded eucalyptus to give a natural but lush sophisticated look.
The ribbon used everywhere in the White House was extraordinary. I think that the quantity and quality of the ribbon really added to the look, but I shudder to think of how much all that ribbon cost. But we weren’t focusing on the cost, only how to get the most dramatic and striking effect with it.
The most anticipated evening of my life was here! Here, all the hard work and planning that went into this endeavor was revealed. All the volunteers with guests started to line up on the street at the southeast entrance to the White House in a chilly wind in their best holiday finery. We progressed through the security checks slowly, anxious to start the reception. The White House staff had cleaned and made everything spic and span for the onslaught of visitors. We were greeted by a school choir and a five piece military band playing Christmas music.
I was already anticipating excellent food from my experience the previous several days, but the reception cuisine was extra special. There were raw oysters, a carving station, petite multi-colored potatoes, smoked salmon, shrimp, and crab claws. I just took a bite of each. Decadent desserts prevailed; there were even iced cookies in the shape of Bo, as well as honeybees.
We were all expecting Michelle Obama to appear as there was a podium set up and people started to gather in anticipation. Mrs. Obama descended from the residential floor and, since I am too short to see anything, I relied on my taller husband. All I could see was everyone’s cameras held aloft with her image. But my husband somehow got in front and shook her hand along with many others.
Before we knew it, it was time to go. The White House staff doesn’t just throw you out though. They go room by room and shut the doors so no one can go back in and the people already in there just trickle out. It is done very unobtrusively, so you really don’t feel rushed, but people gradually meander out.
Decorating the White House was huge fun for me. Surprisingly, when I asked other volunteers if they would apply next year, most reponded that one year was enough. They remarked about the expense, the time, and the hard work involved, and thought that would be it. But I am already thinking about next year!
Copyright Claire Jones 2011
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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.
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.
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
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.
Framed Purple Hearts on Blue Room Tree
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.
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!
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.
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.