This Holiday Decoration is for the Birds

finished project
Not perfect, but fun.

twig ballsSince the summer, when I went on a garden tour in Hudson, Wis. (a highly recommended tour) and saw these twig balls, I’ve been interested in making some kind of twig decor. You can buy them in many nurseries and garden centers, but I wanted to try my hand at making them. First I checked youtube, where I found one decent video, but when I tried to replicate the instructions, it was a complete fail. My twig circles kept boinging open.

orb with greeneryI gave up until I went to the Rice County Master Gardener holiday party, where one of the gardeners (Karen) showed me how she did the circles. Using large branches (willow or red twig dogwood work well), she lashed two branches together at the thick end using 18 gauge wire. The branches should be facing the opposite direction, so you have one very long branch, which is tied in the middle.  Then, bend the branches around so that they form a circle. You can twist them around each other and then lash the ends together, using wire. Make four circles using this method. The circles need to be very close in size. Then, fit the circles together to make an orb. You may need to use a bit more wire to keep everything together. My orb was not nearly as neat and shapely as Karen’s but it was an something close to an orb.

grapefruit ornamentI decided it might make an interesting outdoor ornament, if I dolled it up into a bird feeder. I started by adding greenery, which was pretty easy to wind into the twigs. Earlier this week, I watched a video from the Daily Connoisseur on making ornaments using dried citrus. This was very easy to do and cute. I took my dried grapefruit ornaments, added dental floss, so they could be hung from the orb, spread them with peanut butter (make sure the citrus slices are not too thin — one of mine broke during the peanut butter speading), then dipped them in bird seed. I also used a margarine tub top in the center of the feeder/orb. The top is also spread with peanut butter and covered with bird seed, and I used duck tape to attach the tub top to the branches in the center of the orb.

Covered with bird seedI added a thick holiday ribbon at the top of the orb so it could be hung from our maple tree out front. I’m not sure how long this will last and I plan to monitor it today because the wind is supposed to pick up. What fun projects have you done this holiday season?


Snow Blooms, at Last

Snow covered chokeberries.

“Well, you got what you wanted,” my husband said as he stomped the snow off his feet from shoveling our back deck. Over the past 24 hours, we got a good coating of ice (not what I wanted!) followed by about 4 inches of snow, according to our shoveling estimates. Northfield seems to have picked up more than the Twin Cities, which is fine by me, as we at last have snow on the gardens.

Ice clings to 'Karl Foerster' grass. (click to see more clearly)

The ice formations were pretty last night, but the sidewalks and roads were more than a little treacherous. It’s good to have snow — we’ve had a brown winter long enough!

Winter Weirdness

Salvia in January

I’m not sure which is more disconcerting–that I spent 15 minutes outside today wearing only a cardigan and was comfortable doing it, or that I found an unusual number of signs of life in the garden. Just a reminder: It’s Minnesota and it’s January.

Yet, today when I pulled aside some leaves I found this Salvia sending up several new shoots. In the backyard, the Clara Curtis daisies I ripped out in October had sent up new leaves — green ones. And, in the vegetable bed, a few sprigs of parsley were growing. Now all of these plants are decidedly in the hardy category. I have found parsley under snow in spring before, but still, there are far more green things in my yard than is usual for January (when things are usually covered in snow).

We’ll see what the rest of winter holds. But, so far, it’s just weird.

The Garden in Winter

A Gardener’s Reading, 15 of 30

By Suzy Bales (Rodale Press, 2007)

Gardeners in the North are often told to console themselves through the long winter by planting a garden with “winter interest.” Give yourself something to look at during that fourth or fifth gray, cold month.

Suzy Bales shows how to do this with structures, ornaments, conifers, shrubs and trees with colorful, textural or structural interest. Bales is an accomplished writer and a joy to read. She describes the winter landscape as “a chiaroscuro of black, white and gray—a glorious pen and ink drawing” and views garden design as a battle among three strong-willed individuals—Mother Nature, plants and the gardener. Even if you did not implement any of Bales’ suggestions, passing a few winter evenings in her literate company would be time well-spent.

But do consider her advice, because it is solid. She begins by recommending that gardeners build structure into their landscapes. The structure may be crafted by the gardener or other people (pergolas, gates, seating, art objects) or it may be plant-based (hedges, shapely trees and shrubs). I received a review copy of this book when it first came out – and in part due to her advice, added a pergola to our backyard. That structural element changed the yard dramatically, in all seasons, but especially in the winter. It’s the one, strong place my eye goes to after each snowstorm.

Bales suggests a myriad of plants that provide exciting colors and shapes in all seasons, and that is where my one quibble with this book arises. While her suggestions are gorgeous, many of them are not hardy in truly northern climates. (When’s the last time you saw a crape myrtle in Minnesota?) I don’t mind that she suggests plants only hardy to zones 5, 6 or 7, but I do think it would have been sporting of her to list USDA Hardiness Zones with the plant recommendations – or in an index in the back of the book.

Despite that, there is so much to like about this book. For example, Bales devotes considerable space to two topics northern gardeners should embrace as part of their winter-survival strategy: early-blooming spring bulbs and plant-based holiday décor. We are stuck with winter a long time, so we should make the best of it on the two ends of the season. Bulb bloom times are compressed in the North, compared to the East Coast where Bales lives, but the sight of the first crocuses, scillas or dwarf irises are just as meaningful. Bales’ holiday decorating tips are steal-worthy, too. I especially like her holiday tree made of hydrangeas and allium and have made something similar in the past based on her design.

For winter inspiration, The Garden in Winter is a cozy fireplace on a snowy day.

Make A Holiday Wreath Like Governor Dayton’s

Today, folks from the Minnesota Nursery and Landscape Association are scheduled to hang two massive holiday wreaths at the Minnesota Governor’s Residence on Summit Avenue in St. Paul. I was fortunate yesterday to observe Diane Lee, who has made the governor’s wreaths the past six years, as she designed the wreaths in the back shop at Mickman Brothers in Ham Lake. (Mickman’s donates the wreaths, plus lots of evergreen roping for the holiday decorations.)

Diane has some great ideas for anyone who wants to make an original wreath for their home this holiday season.

For a more manly looking wreath, use elements that evoke the north woods.

Tip No. 1: Pick a Theme.  Because Gov. Mark Dayton is a single man known for his love of big dogs, Diane decided to choose masculine elements and colors for the wreaths. They each have a big red bow, but the rest of the elements are muted and north-woodsy: a pheasant, ferns, pinecones, large pears, cranberries and pheasant feathers in one and a tiny deer, ferns, pinecones and cranberries in the other.

Tip No. 2: Add Extra Greens at the Bottom of the Wreath.  To nestle her two focal points – the pheasant and deer figures – Diane put extra greens at the bottom of each wreath. This nest gives the wreath extra texture and draws the eye to the focal point. As I’ve noted in previous posts on holiday containers, beautiful wreaths tend to have lots of types of greenery. Diane used four kinds of greens in these wreaths.

Diane made these pears out of paper mache, then piled them on one side of the largest wreath for Gov. Dayton.

Tip No. 3: Don’t Make it Symmetrical. On the biggest of the two wreaths (60 inches in diameter), Diane loaded one side of the wreath with three over-sized imitation pears, a few pinecone clusters, as well as ferns and cranberries. The other side had only pinecones and cranberries.  But she also placed the bow slightly off center on that side to balance out the wreath. Also, the ends of your bows should always have a long and a short side.

Tip No. 4: Use Odd Numbers. Like plantings in your yard, odd numbers seem to work better on wreaths. Diane used three imitation pears and one focal point piece; she wired three pinecones together before placing them on the wreaths.

Tip No. 5: Mix Fake and Real. Diane used a mix of natural pieces with fake ones. The pinecones are real, but the cranberries are extra large fake ones. The fakes tend to hold up better in our tough weather, and from a distance, no one will know.

Diane uses 24-guage floral wire to tie down the bow on the wreath.

Tip No. 6: Wire it Down! Diane uses 24-gauge floral wire to lash the decorative pieces on the wreath. The wire is green, so it blends well with the greenery of the wreath and it’s thin enough that it can’t be seen. She also keeps a hot glue gun handy to secure wayward cranberries or cedar boughs.

Tip No. 7: Know When to Stop. Diane doesn’t have any specific suggestions about how many elements or how full a wreath should be. But, when you add something and it seems to detract from what else is there, then it’s time to stop.

The finished product: It will look even better hanging on a big red brick house.

You can see Diane’s wreaths hanging at the Governor’s mansion. She also designed two apple-themed wreaths that will hang at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul. Diane teaches about floral design frequently. If you are interested in learning more from Diane, she will be making a presentation at the MSHS Open House, at 11 a.m., Saturday, Dec. 3 at the hort society store in Roseville.  Check out the MSHS website for more information on this and other holiday events.



The Insulating Power of Snow

Here’s a fascinating bit of information picked up at this morning’s Master Gardener class at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. How much difference does snow make in insulating plants? According to researchers at Rutger’s University, 9 inches of snow cover can make a 42 degree difference in temperature. According to their experiment, if the air temperature is -14 degrees F, the ground temperature under 9 inches of snow would be 28 degrees.

It must be about 85 under those monster piles at the end of my driveway!

Hoar Frost on the Garden

Hoar frost on tree hydrangea and 'Bali' cherry tree (rear).

We had our first display of hoar frost today. This is why I leave some flowers and seed heads out for winter interest. When the plants are colder than the dew point and air temperatures are also low, ice crystals form directly from water vapor, leaving feathery tufts of snow on the plants. It’s a lovely way to mark the end of the year.