Sunday, November 30, 2014

Swags from Nature

It's late November here in Pleasant Valley, MD and most of the leaves are gone.
For the past couple of years we have been going out to the backyard for our holiday decorations.  It's a great time to get the family out to explore nature in the off-season and get a little creative too.  With an impending pre-Thanksgiving snowstorm we moved up our timetable for collecting materials that could be used in holiday swags.

This year we didn't have a lot of colorful berries to use.  One reason is that I have been diligently cutting or removing the invasives like oriental bittersweet, Japanese barberry, winged euonymus and multiflora rose all with colorful fruits that were overly abundent in past years.  The native 'replacements' I've put in, like winterberry holly, chokeberry and smooth sumac, are still maturing. There are still many different textures and evergreens out there that work well together.

Here's what we gathered from around the property.  While it was easy
 to stuff the cuttings into the bag, getting them out without
damaging the delicate seed heads was pretty tricky.
Rather than starting with a preconceived plan for our decorations we just headed out to take cuttings of anything that looked interesting.  The base for most of our swags is some sort of evergreen, so our first stop is to get some pine branches.  You could also use things like yews, holly and rhododendrons.  The broad leaves of the Rhody offer a real contrast in texture from the other smaller leafed plants.

Types of plant material we harvested were:
  • Grasses, provide browns, tans and gold shades, some with interesting seed heads.  Deer tongue grass and little bluestem have a lot of structure to them.  The foxtails are large enough to show up at a distance.
  • Seed heads provide detailed texture.  Monardas, agastache, ironweed, asters, goldenrods, cone flowers and members of the mint family are good examples smaller flowers. The dried heads of larger flowers like annual sunflower, milkweeds, hydrangea and tree peony can really stand out.  Pine cones, of course, are classic wreath material.
  • Berries and Fruits are a great source of color.  Holly berries are a regular addition to winter decorations.  Berries from various Hypericum, roses and beautyberry are some other possibilities.  We also harvested some crabapples for color; although these may not be a good choice for indoors, since they may begin to rot. As I mentioned I have removed many of the brightly colored invasives, like bittersweet and barberry, from our property.  
  • Leaves add a different texture.  This year we were able to get some leafy branches off of the Beech trees.  Some species of oaks also retain leaves that could work well in a swag/wreath.  We also picked up some individual leaves off the ground that had good color in them.  We bundled them in a little sachet, but they could also be used individually.
  • Branches can add a unique structure.  We took some from our winterhazel (Corylopsis) which has a zig-zag stem.  Red twig dogwood would be another good choice having both color and texture; however our plants are are a bit too small to cut back yet.
  • Vines can be used in several ways.  Bundled together they can form the basis for a wreath.  Singly they can add a free flowing element to the design.  Most of the vines we have available are from invasives like oriental bittersweet and Japanese honeysuckle.  We also have some native river grape and Virginia creeper.  I caution you about harvesting the Virginia creeper since, without leaves, it is difficult to distinguish from poison ivy.
When I first started doing this I only wanted to use native species.  But then I decided that I should take this as another opportunity to remove these plants for the property.  I just need to remember to dispose of those plants properly when we take down the decorations.

We covered the table with some large pieces of paper so that the debris could be bundled up more easily.

The basic swag-building tools are clippers, wire cutters (don't use your pruners for cutting wire) and some flexible wire.  I use copper wire for binding together the larger branches and a thinner steel wire to attach the smaller materials.  What I like about swags is that they are so easy to build.  First bind together the thicker stems at one end with some wire. This creates a bundle of stems that form the base or background.  Then layer other materials on top of the base, tying them in with wire.  More details can be added as desired.  You can also push single stems into the bundle as accents, the tightness of the bundle will usually hold them in place. Finally tie in a loop of wire at the main bundle to use as a hanger.

The swags you create can be simple with just a few different materials, or more elaborate with a variety of shades and textures.  Here are some photos of what we made this year:

Here we started with a bundle of white pine and attached a wide variety
 of seed heads on top, such as virgin's bower (Clematis virginiana),
garden phlox, tree peony, annual sunflower (at top) and various grasses.
  To finish we tied in a wide branch of beech to the back.

This one used the same technique, but fewer materials.
Here there are a variety of grasses including deer tongue grass
and purpletop, on top of the bundle of pine branches.
At the tie off point there is a small bundle of maple leaves and some rose hips
Here, some of the branches point up, others down.
Also a rhododendron branch in the center changes the texture of the swag.   
These next two were constructed by my sister using a lighter touch.

Here she created a circular wreath using Japanese honeysuckle.
Then she tied in a little bundle of of beech leaves, foxtails,
cone flowers on a base of white pine.
Since we had so much interesting material left over my wife suggested putting it into a pot.  This was so easy to put together.  To help things to stand up better I put a 6" short log in the center, then wedged the branches between it and the pot.

Here we put in some of the left overs including some Corylopsis branches,
 a wild mint, spotted beebalm, a wild onion and rhododendron branches.
When the holidays are over most to these can be put into the composting, after removing the wire bindings.  I will separate any fruits or seeds from the invasive plants that were used (oriental bittersweet and multiflora rose, in these examples) and put them in the trash to keep them from spreading.

We had a great time making our natural decorations.  Hope you all have a great holiday season!!


Petyer said...

Adam, Just surfing the internet for info on Adlumia fungosa. I see you've had some success with it in your garden in Maryland and certainly note you take a lot of wildflower images. You wouldn't by any chance have images of first year rosettes of Allegheny vine?

Curtis said...

I have a post just on Adlumia that shows what first and second year rosettes look like. See or you can search 'adlumia' in the serch block on this blog page.