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Archive for December, 2011

The winter sun peeks through ice covered branches.

Thursday, December 22nd at 5:30am UTC (12:30am EST) marks the 2011 winter solstice. At this moment in time, the North Pole (due to the axial tilt of the earth) is at its furthest point from the sun.

The day on which the winter solstice occurs is deemed the first day of winter. It is the shortest day of the year and consequently the longest night of the year. For eons, many different festivals have been held in observance of this annual astronomical event, most of them celebrating the birth of the new solar year.

I find it a time to reflect on the beauty of the season – the quiet stillness of winter. And when there is snow on the ground – even better, softer, quieter …

Flower buds of the native dogwood lie in wait under a coating of fresh snow.

Flower buds of the native dogwood lie in wait under a coating of fresh snow.

But even in the midst of this tranquility, one can catch a glimpse of the dynamic new season that awaits us. A leisurely walk through the winter garden can be very peaceful; but at the same time quite exciting if you are observant to the world around you.

Though most plants are “sleeping” at this time of year, many show the promise of the beautiful blooms to come with plump flower buds adorning their otherwise naked (except for the evergreens of course!) branches.

Rhododendron flower buds are wrapped up tightly for the winter but come spring ...

Rhododendron flower buds are wrapped up tightly for the winter but come spring ...

Dogwoods, azaleas, rhododendrons, and other spring blooming trees and shrubs all produced their flower buds last season. These buds lay dormant now but as spring approaches they will begin to swell and then it won’t be long until they burst into a glorious display of blossoms.

Something to look forward to!

The herbaceous perennials may be brown and dry above the ground but I know that below the soil surface, the new buds are cozy and protected, just waiting for the first warm breaths of spring to initiate their growth.

A cardinal sits on the snowy branches of a honeysuckle vine.

A bright red cardinal sits on the snowy branches of a honeysuckle vine.

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The woods are full of the sights and sounds of critters scurrying around busy with their winter activities. Walking through the woodland garden, we always see loads of birds flitting through the trees and shrubs foraging on a wide variety of seeds and berries. We typically leave everything standing in our gardens over the winter and this provides an abundance of food for the birds. There is a wonderful diversity of wild birds that live and winter in the woods around our house. They’re great fun to watch at the feeders during the winter and happily many of them stick around to gobble up some of the insect pests in the vegetable garden during the summer!

The elongated hole is typical of the Pileated Woodpecker. Notice the strategically placed holes! Do you think they were using the shelf fungus as an unbrella?

The elongated hole is typical of the Pileated Woodpecker. Notice the strategically placed holes! Do you think they were using the shelf fungus as an umbrella?

Often the silence is broken by the drumming of woodpeckers in the surrounding woods. We purposely leave dead trees standing –
if they’re in an area where we’re sure they won’t fall on the house or across our driveway! The woodpeckers love them and most of these trees are riddled with holes of all sizes and shapes where the different species of woodpeckers have been pecking for insect treats.

Squirrels are busy rustling through the dry oak leaves in the woods sniffing out acorns, hickory nuts, and other seeds that have fallen to the ground in great abundance. They scurry up the nearest tree if we get too close and then sit on a branch flicking their tails and scolding us for disturbing their foraging.

A fluffed up bluebird tried to stay warm on a snowy day.

A fluffed up bluebird tries to stay warm on a snowy day.

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I have so much to be thankful for and a quiet walk through the woods on a beautiful winter day just seems to be a fitting time to reflect on all the good things that life has brought and to look forward to a wonderful new year full of promise.

My Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) is beginning to bloom right now!

My Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) is beginning to bloom right now!

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So on this winter solstice, take some time away from the hustle and bustle of the holiday season. Enjoy a relaxing stroll through your garden and just immerse yourself in the quiet beauty of the winter day!

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Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and Happy Holidays to all!

I’m looking forward to sharing many new gardening adventures with you in 2012!

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Noon in Alaska on the solstice. The beautiful Chugach mountain range. Sent to me by Bill McDonald

Noon in Alaska on the solstice. The beautiful Chugach mountain range. Sent to me by Bill McDonald

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Winterberry Holly

I love trees and shrubs that produce berries – especially the ones that hold their berries into the winter. Berries brighten the landscape and provide a splash of color at an otherwise drab time of the year.

The bright red berries of Ilex verticillata brighten the winter landscape and provide a nutritious snack for the birds.

The bright red berries of Ilex verticillata brighten the winter landscape and provide a nutritious snack for the birds.

But these berries offer more than beauty in the landscape. They supply a natural source of food for birds and other wildlife through much of the winter and many also provide them with some great winter “hiding places”.

One of the secrets to creating a wildlife and bird-friendly landscape is to plant a diversity of trees and shrubs that will provide food and shelter for a wide variety of furred and feathered critters. There are loads of beautiful berry producers that feed the critters and also make wonderful landscape plants. I’ve written quite a lot about Beautyberry (Callicarpa) and Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) but there are many others out there for the planting!

These colorful yellow crabapples brighten one the fall gardens at Viette's.

These colorful yellow crabapples are a great food source for birds.

One of the best trees to plant for wildlife is the crabapple. The fruit lasts well into the winter and provides an excellent source of food for many different wild birds including waxwings, bluebirds, cardinals, grosbeaks, wrens, robins, and mockingbirds. According to Andre, the small fruited varieties (fruit less than 3/4″) are preferred by birds. The squirrels, chipmunks, and deer enjoy the larger crabapples especially after they fall from the tree.

The fruit of Cornus kousa.

The fruit of Cornus kousa.

Dogwoods, both the native (Cornus florida) and the Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa), are beautiful in the landscape especially in the spring and they produce wonderful berries/fruit that the birds love. The fruit of the Kousa dogwood is fleshy; more like a cherry than a berry and the birds just devour these!

Common Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) is a very hardy deciduous tree that provides food for birds and wildlife. The fruit ripens in the late summer and persists into winter. Wild turkeys, woodpeckers, waxwings and even little mice find the fruit of hackberry irresistible!

Colorful blue juniper berries are a treat for cedar waxwings!

Colorful blue juniper berries are a treat for cedar waxwings!

There are many evergreens that provide food for birds through the winter. Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is a beautiful native cedar that produces attractive blue berries that are a favorite of Cedar Waxwings and many other birds.

The red berries of the American Holly (Ilex opaca) mature in October and persist on the tree well into winter – at least until the birds eat them all! These evergreen hollies are a wonderful addition to the garden and provide great nesting sites for many species of birds including mourning doves and robins.

Ilex opaca 'Merry Christmas' is aptly named with its reliable profusion of red berries in fall and winter.

Ilex opaca ‘Merry Christmas’ is aptly named with its reliable profusion of red berries in fall and winter.

Berry laden holly boughs can also be cut in December for use in holiday arrangements – an added bonus!

Many ornamental species of Sumac (Rhus) and Viburnum produce berries that ripen in late summer or early fall and remain on the shrubs into the winter. These shrubs attract a variety of different birds to the garden including flickers, woodpeckers, cardinals, robins, bluebirds, sparrows, and grosbeaks.

There are several beautiful cultivars of Scarlet Firethorn (Pyracantha coccinea) that have spectacular berries in shades of red, orange, and yellow. These shrubs can be used as a specimen in the garden, as an informal hedge, or espaliered on a wall or trellis. In addition to feeding on the berries, many birds also like to nest in these shrubs because the branches are covered with sharp thorns which provide protection from predators.

A bull moose enjoys a snack of mountainash berries in the middle of Anchorage, Alaska. Special thanks to Bill McDonald for the photo.

A bull moose enjoys a snack of mountainash berries in the middle of Anchorage, Alaska. Special thanks to Bill McDonald for the photo.

Mountainash (Sorbus spp.) produces spectacular clusters of brilliant red or orange fruit that is a favorite of many different birds and even larger critters. My brother-in-law sent me some photos of a large bull moose noshing on the berries of Mountainash right outside his office in Anchorage, Alaska! “He doesn’t come everyday,” Bill said, “but when the snow gets thick and it is harder to forage in the woods, he comes into town for a snack.”

How cool is that to see outside your office window – and in the middle of the city. Never a dull moment!

Rose hips from a wild rose provide winter food for many critters.

Rose hips from a wild rose will provide winter food for many critters.

Rugosa Rose (Rosa rugosa) and many varieties of honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.) also produce loads of rose hips and berries to feed the birds and other wildlife during the winter.

Consider adding some of these wonderful trees and shrubs to your gardens next spring. You will not only be rewarded with a beautiful and colorful landscape but your wildlife friends will love you forever!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

P.S. – Don’t forget to provide your feathered friends with a source of fresh, unfrozen water over the winter!

A flock of bluebirds enjoys a drink at the water trough!

A flock of bluebirds enjoys a drink at the water trough!

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A mix of evergreen boughs and 'Sparkleberry' holly makes a festive holiday display

Last Sunday I snuck into the back of André’s Christmas decorating workshop under the pretense of taking pictures but I mostly just wanted to learn some of the wonderful Christmas decorating techniques that he was teaching that day.

A mix of "greens" adds color and texture to a beautiful holiday display.

A mix of "greens" adds color and texture to a beautiful holiday display.

André is amazing (and quick) at making all kinds of festive decorations for the holiday season. In his workshop, André taught all about using different types of greens, both needled and broadleaf, to create beautiful outdoor displays, as well as centerpieces, wreaths, kissing balls, and roping. He made it look so easy and really it is if you know some of the tricks of the trade.

He started out describing the greens he had laid out in front of him – greens that he “harvested” from some of the many different species of evergreens growing around the nursery; firs, spruce, pine, cypress, juniper, boxwood, holly …

All the boughs were fresh cut for use in the various arrangements he would create for the holidays, while at the same time benefiting the trees and shrubs through some thinning (never taking more than 10% when cutting for greens). After they were cut, all the greens were sprayed with Bonide Wilt Stop to help keep them fresher and reduce needle drop even when they are kept indoors. He sprays his Christmas trees with Wilt Stop before he brings them inside, too. The “snow tree” is also sprayed before it is flocked.

There were so many different colors and textures – the word “greens” is really misleading! Beautiful blues, silvery blues, and golds joined the greens in André’s stock pile of plant material all waiting to be turned into beautiful holiday arrangements.

Ilex 'Sparkleberry' provides a brilliant splash of color in the winter garden.

Ilex 'Sparkleberry' provides a brilliant splash of color in the winter garden.

“Plan NOW to add a few of these beautiful evergreens to your landscape,” he suggested. “By the time spring rolls around, you will have forgotten all about the holidays and needing greens for decorating!” In some areas, it’s not too late to plant even now. “If you plant a new evergreen each year, in a few years, you will have all the fresh greens you need.” Some of André’s favorites for decorating are Concolor Fir, Nordmann Fir, George Peabody Arborvitae, Gold Mop Cypress, Scotch Pine, juniper, holly, and boxwood. For bright accents in his arrangements, he likes nothing better than the berry laden branches of Ilex ‘Sparkleberry’, a cultivar of the deciduous holly, Ilex verticillata. Another good variety according to André is Ilex ‘Maryland Beauty’. To me, these ‘Sparkleberry’ branches really make the display!

Before he began his demonstration, André gave us another tip; “I don’t wear gloves when I do my arrangements, so before I start, I always apply a good layer of hand lotion to my hands. This keeps the pitch from sticking to them. Everything washes right off!” Great advice!

Making a table centerpeice

Andre strips off the lower needles before sticking the greens in the oasis. A branch stub holds the place for the candle.

André first showed us how to create a beautiful centerpiece for a table. He warned us not to make it too large – “Always start out making it smaller than you want because in the end, it will invariably turn out much larger than you thought it would!” He began with a water-saturated block of oasis cut to fit into his container, then he snipped short pieces from his stock pile of cut boughs and set them aside. When he had a nice variety of greens ready, he began to create his arrangement. The lower needles were stripped off the branches and then poked into the oasis. He poked and turned, poked and turned, and before long he had a lovely centerpiece full of colorful greens and many different textures.

A handful of greens ready to wire to the wreath form.

A handful of mixed greens ready to wire to the wreath form.

For a finishing touch, he added some peony and Siberian iris seed pods, some dried Achillea flowers, a few pine cones, a red candle in the center, and just like that he was finished. The whole thing took him about 10 minutes even with explaining the process to us. Of course he’s been doing this for many years! This arrangement could even be flocked with snow after it is finished.

He went on to show us how to make wreaths and roping by taking handfuls of mixed greens and wiring them in overlapping layers onto either a wire ring (for a wreath) or some heavy twine (for roping).

Andre shows the wreath almost half finished. A beautiful mixture of greens adds color and contrasting textures to the wreath.

Andre shows the wreath almost half finished. A beautiful mixture of greens adds color and contrasting textures.

Each successive layer was laid down so that it overlapped and covered the cut ends of the previous layer. Florist wire from a spool was wrapped tightly around the ends and the wire ring securing it all together. The cut ends of the final layer were tucked under the first layer and carefully wired to the ring so no wire showed. I always wondered how that was done!

The pièce de résistance was when André demonstrated how to flock an evergreen bough. Every year André creates a beautiful “snow” tree for his home and every year when people see it they ask us how to do it. This year for the first time, he decided to add this demonstration to the decorating workshops. The hardest part is finding the flocking material, a mixture of cellulose fibers, mica (for sparkle), and glue.

Flocking should NEVER be done inside the house. Always wear a good quality dust mask while you work. Be sure to carefully cover the surface you are working on with newspaper to protect it – this flock will stick to anything!

Here are some photos showing the process:

The first step is to wet the boughs with water. A spray bottle filled with water is the easiest way to accomplish this. ALWAYS wear a mask when flocking to avoid breathing in the flocking material.

The first step is to wet the boughs with water. A spray bottle (with a mist setting) filled with water is the easiest way to accomplish this. ALWAYS wear a mask to avoid breathing in the flocking material.

Using a seive, sprinkle the flocking lightly over the evergreen boughs. It will stick to the moistened needles.

Using a sieve, sprinkle the flocking lightly over the evergreen boughs. It will stick to the moistened needles.

To add more layers of flocking to the bough, spray the flock with a mist of water as it falls from the sieve. This will activate the glue and allow the flock to stick when it lands.

To add more layers of flocking to the bough, spray the flock with a mist of water as it falls from the sieve. This will activate the glue and allow the flock to stick when it lands.

When you are satisfied with the amount of flocking on the branch, mist the whole branch with water to set the flock. Once the whole thing is completely dry, it can be brought inside.

When you are satisfied with the amount of flocking on the branch, mist the whole branch with water to set the flock. Once the whole thing is completely dry, it can be brought inside.

Andre's beautiful "snow tree". It takes a lot of flocking material and quite a few hours to create this beautiful effect but it is well worth the time!

André's beautiful "snow tree". It takes a lot of flocking and quite a few hours to create this beautiful effect but it is well worth the time!

It doesn’t seem too hard – at least André makes it look easy. I’ve never tried it but I’m sure with practice …

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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