Gardening Rx > The Well-Dressed House

Before heading to the store for an inflatable snowman or reindeer that lights up, take a walk around the yard and see what your local landscape has to offer. Nature can provide you with the inspiration— and the materials—for decorating the outside of your home. If you never got around to deadheading and tidying up the garden this fall, so much the better. You’ll be surprised at the treasures you can find in your back yard.

Planting for Holiday Decorating

Suzanne Bokat Stone and Cindy Driscoll of The Meandering Path in East Kingston not only design, install and maintain gardens around the Seacoast—the pair also does seasonal decorating for their clients. In fact, many of their summer garden designs include plants that can be used in fall and winter décor. “The fun part is to plan your garden beds so you’ll have things to use in your holiday containers,” Bokat Stone says.

Some of the plants Bokat Stone and Driscoll recommend are perennials that have interesting dried flower heads or seed pods, such as astilbe, rudbeckia, ornamental grasses, ferns, poppies and sedum like ‘Autumn Joy’ or ‘Neon’. Bokat Stone advises against cutting them back after flowering for two reasons: so there will be a good supply for the holidays and because they also look great in the winter garden after a frost.

Deciduous shrubs with curly or colorful branches, berries and dried flowers– such as hydrangeas, winterberries (Ilex verticillata), dogwoods, curly willow and Harry Lauder’s walking stick (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’)–have a lot to offer.

Beth Simpson of Rolling Green Nursery in Greenland recommends planting winterberries, lots of them, for the red berries they bear in the fall. “They are native plants so adding them to your garden is good sustainable landscaping. ‘Winter Red’ is an especially nice variety that is usually loaded with berries. Red-twig and yellow-twig dogwoods are also native plants that add interest to the winter garden and are useful in holiday decorating,” Simpson says.

Evergreens are the backbone of holiday decorating in New England, but Driscoll recommends paying attention to the different colors of evergreens. There are blues, such as Colorado blue spruce; many varieties of juniper; some pines, such as ‘Vanderwolf’s’ pine (Pinus flexilis); and certain types of fernspray, such as Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Filicoides’. For a touch of gold, try gold thread-leaf false cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Filifera Aurea’). Of course there are many shades of green present in pine, hemlock, cedar, fir, holly, andromeda and spruce. Simpson planted a hedge of Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa) so she can harvest the green, fan-shaped tips to use as accents in wreaths and garlands. When harvesting evergreens, look for good color and freshness while avoiding limp, brittle or faded boughs. “

We like to mix golds and greens for contrast,” says Driscoll, “and it is nice to have evergreens that produce berries, pods or cones. We collect and save pinecones as well as seed pods and other interesting things from nature all year to have enough to use at the holidays.”

Using Your Materials — Natural or Store-Bought

For a new twist on the traditional circular wreath, Lisa Aquizap of Churchill’s Gardens in Exeter suggests we try triangles, diamonds, ovals, stars and squares. You can make these wreaths yourself or purchase ready-made ones to embellish. “Last year we sold more diamonds and ovals than round wreaths,” Aquizap says. “To decorate them we like to use greens with different textures, blues and grays for accents, and variegated hollies with berries to bring in some brighter colors.” Churchill’s will even custom decorate a wreath for you in your colors.

“Ribbon is great for hanging wreaths in windows,” Bokat Stone says. “You can create a V with the ribbon or just hang the wreath with one strand.”

Garlands are available in many different species–such as pine, fir, cedar and boxwood. You can make your own garland, although it is very timeconsuming and requires lots of greenery, or purchase ready-made garland and decorate it with berries, pinecones, ribbon and bits of contrasting greenery. “A very popular garland is one made of bay leaves,” says Aquizap, “After the holidays, people keep it to hang in their kitchens and use the leaves in soups and stews.”

Bokat Stone says hanging garland can be tricky, especially around a door. “We often cut the garland in half and use floral wire to add in bits of garland where needed to make the sides drape nicely. Drape and fullness are key!” she says.

When planning holiday containers be sure to use those that are winter-proof and made of wood, Fiberglas®, metal or plastic. “Ceramic or terra cotta pots will break if allowed to fi ll with snow or water, and freeze,” Bokat Stone warns.

Even containers made of more durable materials will crack if they are not able to drain. It’s useful to drill a hole in the bottom of the container. Vintage garden urns, wire baskets, old milk pails or maple-sap buckets add one-of-a-kind rustic charm and complement the natural materials.

“We like to set a scene by using a number of containers, and often use items we have picked up at flea markets, antique stores and auctions,” Bokat Stone says. “Once you have determined the shape of your design–upright or flowing—try to match the pots with the design and use materials to help you reach your goal. Think texture and contrast–like pairing shiny, spiky holly with soft, drapy cedar.”

Simpson likes to use damp sand in the bottom of a plastic nursery pot to keep cut evergreens looking fresh. “They will last a super long time!” she says. also place the pot into a more decorative container.) “Along with the greens like Frasier fir, we also add dried flowers such as red sumac or yellow achillea ‘Moonshine’, some dusty miller for a touch of silver and miscanthus, which just shimmers in a container,” Simpson says.

Lighting Your Work

A little lighting can go a long way when the sun sets at 4 p.m. “Lighting is a key design element at the holidays because it gives your décor an impact in low light and at night,” Bokat Stone says. “But there are ecological issues associated with using the amount of electricity that holiday lighting often requires.

“There is a push to get people to use LED [light-emitting diode]lighting for seasonal decorating,” Bokat Stone continues. “It is expensive initially but a good deal more green, using 90 percent less energy than traditional lighting. Timers are very important and extension cords are usually necessary. Look for outdoor-rated cords in colors that won’t show–no bright orange! Instead of electric lights, candles in the snow are great temporary lighting for a party.”

Decorating Tips

If you are planning to make and hang your own decorations, gather your tools and supplies ahead of time. “Things to have on hand,” Bokat Stone says, “are wire snips, acres of floral wire, Velcro® tape, a staple gun and extra staples, screw-in eye hooks, fishing line, a ladder and about three times the amount of greenery you think you are going to need.

” When buying ribbon for exterior use, Bokat Stone recommends material that can stand up to the elements. “Pick a color based on the color of your house and get enough of it to use in all your decorations,” she says. “Winter can be very monochromatic, so anything you can do to decorate with bright colors will be eye-catching.”

A few secrets to stress-free holiday decorating are:
• Keep it simple; don’t upstage the natural beauty of the plants.
• Don’t be afraid to improvise.
• Think texture and combine opposites– smooth with rough, round with spiky.
• Use materials at hand.

Unlike the inflatable Santa, these simple– yet elegant–decorations can be enjoyed well into the new year. This season, make the most of nature’s gifts and take a natural approach to your holiday decorating.