Natural materials make great holiday decorations, even on a budget

December 15, 2010 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

Six years ago, Americans spent almost $8 billion on holiday decorations, according to research firm Unity Marketing. That averaged out to $115 per household.

Hot trends included multiple Christmas trees in the family room, living room, foyer and beyond. Pam Danziger, president of Unity, said in 2004, “Families are spreading the holiday cheer to the bedroom too, with personal trees placed in each bedroom.”

My, how a recession changes things. Last year, the average household spent $40.75 on holiday decorations, according to the National Retail Federation.

But the size of one’s decorating budget doesn’t have much to do with the end result. Take Sue Barton’s greenery-bedecked home in Landenberg, Pa., which sports gorgeous, oversized evergreen wreaths on every door, lush evergreen magnolia in the dining room and an elegant arrangement of Carolina silverbell branches in the foyer.

These warm and welcoming decorations cost her about $5 annually — the price of florist wire, a can of spray paint and glue. Barton, the ornamental horticulture specialist for University of Delaware Cooperative Extension, decorates her house with natural materials — greenery, pine cones, berries and more — that she collects in her backyard. Although Barton uses plenty of American holly and Virginia pine, she goes beyond such tried-and-true favorites and collects seed pods, native grasses and even red-twig dogwood branches to create out-of-the-ordinary decorations.

She’s been decorating this way for years and regardless of economic conditions, wouldn’t think to use store-bought wreaths. “I look forward to making decorations from the trees, shrubs and native grasses growing on my property,” says Barton. “It’s a lot of fun and a lot more relaxing than shopping for tinsel and garland.”

If you’re not the neighborhood Martha Stewart, no worries, it’s not that hard to make holiday decorations, says Barton. She creates her wreaths free-form, bending branches into shape and wiring them together. But if you’re a fumble fingers, spend the extra dollar or two on a pre-made wreath form.

If you’re stumped as to what to put on that wreath, Barton suggests a visit to Longwood, Winterthur, Hagley or one of the other holiday hot spots. For example, at Christmas in Odessa, Barton was so captivated by a pineapple decoration that she now creates a similar piece for her own home.

To make it yourself, cut a pineapple in half, scoop out the fruit, and stuff one half of the rind with newspaper. Then attach the pineapple rind to a board that has four rows of nails. Place apples on the nails and arrange magnolia leaves around the perimeter. Feel free to experiment, says Barton, and substitute oranges or another fruit for apples, and any kind of evergreen for the magnolia leaves.

Don’t compare your final product to professionally crafted creations. The point is to be inspired by the pros, says Barton, and then add your own personal touches. Besides, the local museums and gardens get a lot more help with their decorating efforts than you do.

It takes about 100 people, including staff, students and volunteers, to transform Longwood Gardens for the holiday season, says Longwood’s Patricia Evans. “In three days we transform the conservatory and decorate the trees but we start putting the outdoor lights up on the trees in September,” she says.

At Hagley, horticulturalist Renee Huber is the creative mastermind for “Christmas at Hagley.” She makes the outside decorations and oversees floral designer Chris Metzler, who decorates the inside of the 1803 du Pont ancestral home, Eleutherian Mills. Both are assisted by a team of volunteers. Most of the natural materials come from Hagley’s cutting garden and include greens, flowers, native grasses, and, new this year, cotton.

“I had never grown cotton so I gave it a try,” says Huber. “We added cotton pods to our wreaths, both inside and outside the mansion, for something totally different.”

Huber has never been afraid to try something different. One year, she made a wreath of onions — red, white and yellow varieties — interspersed with apples. It looked great but wasn’t suitable for museum conditions because it only lasted a week. “An onion wreath is a great idea for the home, as you long as it’s made shortly before the holidays,” notes Huber.

Native grasses are another natural material that she recommends for home use. Put the plumes in wreaths, table arrangements or in a vase, perhaps combined with a few sprigs of holly. “Cut off the plumes and give them a shot of hair spray so the seeds don’t scatter,” she says. “Or, depending on your decorating theme, hit them with gold or silver spray paint.”

Barton also likes to use spray paint to jazz up her natural materials. For a festive front porch, she suggests spraying osage orange balls with gold paint and arranging the balls in a container by the front door.

Article by Margo McDonough

This article can also be viewed online on UDaily.

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