UD, Hagley horticulturalists offer seasonal decorating tips

December 2, 2011 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

An October hike always puts Renee Huber in a holiday state of mind. It’s not the reds and golds of the autumn leaves that do it; it’s because, like, Santa, Huber knows she has a big holiday job on the horizon.

She is responsible for planning and installing the holiday decorations at Hagley Museum, which includes not only Eleutherian Mills, the du Pont family home; but also the Belin House, home to an organic café; the Soda House, where special events are held; and Gibbons House, where visitors can make paper ornaments or pop corn on a wood-burning stove.

“I start thinking about each year’s theme and what materials I’m going to use in October,” says Huber, who has been a Hagley horticulturalist for 17 years. “I love walks and hikes and get inspired by what I see in the landscape. Before I go to bed, I take notes and make sketches so I don’t forget my ideas.”

By mid-October, Huber has ordered all of her supplies. In early November she gets a jump start on any tasks that can be done in advance. Mid to late November is crunch time, when she and a team of volunteers make the decorations and install them. Recently, the first visitors streamed in to enjoy “Christmas at Hagley.”

As much as possible, Huber uses natural plant materials collected from Hagley’s 235 acres. Evergreens are a mainstay but she’s always on the look out for other materials. “I love seed heads and ornamental grasses,” she says. “Pink mulhy is a native grass that’s most dramatic in fall, with pink, wispy flower heads. But after the frost, when the flower heads have turned brown, I like to tuck strands of this grass into wreaths, garlands and other decorations.”

Like Huber, Sue Barton is a big fan of natural holiday decorations. But for Barton there’s nothing stressful about the decorating process. An ornamental horticulture specialist for UD Cooperative Extension, Barton decorates her own home, not a museum that attracts thousands of visitors during the holiday season.

The Sunday afternoon she makes decorations is one of the high points of the season for Barton. She collects materials from her 7-acre property and often snips evergreen magnolias branches from a friend’s yard. And this year her decorations will include lots of Eastern red cedar and blue-hued berries, which she collected recently on a long weekend in the Outer Banks.

“It’s a lot more fun and a lot more relaxing than shopping for tinsel and garland,” says Barton. “Simple homemade decorations are nicer than anything you can buy. And they bring a touch of the outdoors inside during a time of year when most of us don’t get outside as much.”

Huber maintains a cutting garden specifically for decorating purposes, planted with a variety of evergreens, winterberry and other perennial favorites. But most of us don’t have that luxury. So it’s important to prune carefully so that your landscape still looks good when you’re done, cautions Barton.

Cut back to the trunk or another branch, she says. Stay away from hemlock and spruce because their needles will start dropping within days in a heated home. Barton soaks her greens overnight to re-hydrate them but Huber skips that step. Because both horticulturalists put up their decorations early, they check throughout the season to see if anything needs to be replaced.

“If evergreens become dried out they’re a fire hazard,” notes Barton.

If you don’t consider yourself a natural Martha Stewart or P. Allen Smith, no worries. Barton says to go with the flow and let nature inspire you. “I never know what I’m going to cut until I get out there and see what looks good,” she says. “Even during the crafting process, I don’t work from carefully laid-out plans.”

But if you work better with a little instruction, here are some tips, courtesy of the UD and Hagley horticulturalists:

• Be bold with color. Think beyond the classic red, green and silver. This season Huber used lots of yellow. For example, she paired yellow yarrow and bright red winterberry in several decorations to good effect. Both plants are native to Delaware and easy to grow.

• Think beyond tried-and-true evergreens. Barton often decorates with oak leaf hydrangea, which still sports fall foliage in gorgeous shades of maroon. As long as you place the branches in water, hydrangea will stay fresh in your home into December.

• Start collecting materials now even if you don’t plan to make your decorations until later in the season. When you’re out in the yard or on a walk, look for interesting berries, pine cones and nuts. Maybe you’ll get lucky and find a long-abandoned bird’s nest to tuck into an evergreen wreath.

• A basket of pine cones, in all shapes and sizes, makes an attractive, rustic centerpiece. Add a bit of greenery and fresh citrus to the basket for texture, color and a great aroma. For something a bit splashier, spray paint the cones gold.

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo by Danielle Quigley

This article was originally posted on UDaily


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.