Christmas décor, naturally
I feel like it was such a short time ago I was anxiously writing about spring gardening, it is hard to believe we have made it to December and true winter is just a few weeks away. Despite the bitter cold, howling winds, and difficult travel — OK, I will stop — undoubtedly the brightest time of the winter is the holidays. Otherwise dark streets by night are illuminated and transformed by decorative lights in all colors, doorways are bedecked in greenery and ribbon, and trees shine from inside packed to the gills with family mementos. While I do love the freedom of summer warmth, my absolute favorite time of the year is December. This special time of year is made even more special by using natural materials in your décor. As soon as I was old enough to hijack my family holidays, I pawned the cumbersome, dusty artificial off on a family friend and proclaimed we would only have real trees from this point on.
I aim to address the most common issues people have with natural trees and dispel a few myths as well. As with many other facets of the design world right now, it is all about natural. A simple satin bow on a natural boxwood wreath packs more punch than an ornately labored-over artificial. It is a designers’ best trick — live flowers, greenery, or cuttings always bring the room to life. Subtle details that make all the difference.
The first and easiest misconception about natural Christmas trees is that they dry out before Christmas. Usually it is in fact the basin of water that dries too soon, not the tree. To maintain your tree until Christmas, it is important to check the water level every day. Equally important is keeping the water clean. This can be challenging, as removing the tree to clean the basin is not an option. I have found the best way to kill the bacteria released from the trunk of the tree that will block the tree from accepting water is adding one-half teaspoon liquid bleach to the water. Not enough to harm the tree, but enough to kill the pathogens. If pets are drinking the water is a concern, wrap plastic wrap around the trunk and the basin. Also important when purchasing your tree is to ask for a fresh cut.
Another common fallacy is that all natural trees shed needles all over the house. I have learned the hard way, that there are indeed right and wrong varieties for indoor use. A few years ago, I discovered a thick row of beautiful Norway spruce trees in a neighborhood under development. The trees were marked with orange Xs so I figured I could cut from them for Christmas décor. I was elated — beautiful, full branches of fresh greenery. Unfortunately, Norway spruce has terrible needle retention. Pine needles were everywhere. Luckily, the six varieties sold as Christmas trees here in Central Ohio are all ideal for indoor longevity. Scotch pine, eastern white pine, blue spruce, Douglas-fir, Fraser fir, and Canaan fir. According to OSU’s fact sheet F-49–99, “The most effective way for a buyer to evaluate the freshness of a cut Christmas tree is by how firmly the needles are attached to the branches. The easiest way to evaluate this is to lightly grasp a branch of the tree and gently pull the branch and needles through your hand. If the tree is fresh, very few needles will come off. Another way to evaluate needle fastness is to shake or bounce the tree on the bottom of its trunk and observe needle drop. Again, if only a few green needles drop, the tree is probably fresh. When evaluating freshness, do not be concerned if excessive amounts of brown needles fall. Remember, these are the needles that the tree sheds each year. Just make sure the tree is shaken before it is taken into your home.”
While it may seem that cutting down any tree is not the environmentally friendly option, in the debate between live and artificial trees, actually choosing a natural tree is the far more ‘green’ option. Artificial trees are made of PVC and non-recyclable and non-biodegradable; meaning an artificial tree will sit in a landfill for hundreds of years.
Another fabulous project for the holidays is forcing bulbs. While amaryllis is without a doubt the queen of holiday forced bulbs, I also love to force paperwhites (Narcissus papyraceus). They are much easier than amaryllis and require far less planning. Paperwhites, unlike many other members of the Narcissus family, do not require chilling. My favorite way to grow paperwhites at Christmas is in a glass container, with river rock and water. Simply place the bulbs on top of the rock and fill water up to the bottom of the bulb. Roots will begin to set immediately and in 3–4 weeks there will be a strongly perfumed white bloom.
Paperwhites in large groups with a touch of greenery make a spectacular Hanukkah centerpiece. Unfortunately for a Christmas bloom, amaryllis must be planted several weeks earlier. Another alluring quality of paperwhites is how inexpensive the bulbs are. Whereas one amaryllis bulb can cost between $12 and $20, for that amount one can purchase enough paperwhite bulbs for several containers.
The holidays are a very special time, made even more special by the introduction of fabulous organic materials. Having natural holiday décor makes this short season even more magical. It forces your décor to be a little different every year, and best of all, no year-round storage required. Equally important to upholding long-standing holiday traditions is creating new ones—selecting the perfect tree, making wreathes by hand with live materials, and forcing bulbs that provide a burst of freshness and bloom in the cold all make for lovely new experiences, worth repeating every year.
Stephen Jones is an OSU Extension Master Gardner volunteer.