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!!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Fall Grasses

We've had a long and relatively mild fall here, that is until this week when overnight temps got to the low 20's.  Many trees held onto their leaves for a long time wait for a real cold snap to trigger leaf drop.  The Fothergilla I planted last season finally turned the fluorescent orange that I was hoping for.

As the temperature dropped the leaves of this
 Fothergilla 'Mt. Airy' changed to this intense orange color.
It got me thinking about my plant selection.  I am always looking out for plants with exciting fall foliage, reds, golds and oranges.  It got me to thinking that these are more effective when contrasted with cooler or muted colors like pale yellow, green or tan.

One class of plants to fill that role are the native grasses. Late or warm season grasses that produce flowers and seeds in the fall are particularly effective.  The low angle of the sun late in the year really plays off the seed stalks, bringing them to life.  I usually leave these stalks standing through the winter to get the most out of them.  I'll clean up what remains in the spring.

Another benefit of these grasses is as a food source for birds and as shelter for many insects and overwintering animals.

Here are some of the grasses I have that are showing off nicely this fall.

I have planted inland sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), aka, Northern sea oats and several other names, along a sloping area by the house subject to erosion.  This grass produces a dense fiberous root system that holds the soil well.  While its native habitat is in moist shady locations it will also tolerate dry shade.  It sprouts early in the spring and can spread, both by expanding clumps and seeds, to form dense stands.

The broad leaves of Inland Sea Oats has a bamboo-like appearance.
These copper colored seeds will persist into winter.

The plan is for this Pink Muhly to fill in along this fence.
When they open the flowers look like exploding fireworks.
Another grass that I have added to the property is Pink Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris).  This species is native to the eastern US and the gulf coast, but you're not likely to find it naturally in the mountain regions where I am.  The reason I put this in was the light-catching effect of the flower plumes.  At first I was concerned that this effect would not be strong because I didn't have a good angle for the backlighting. But that's not a problem.  The photo above was taken at 2 PM and there is penty of light being scattered by the flowers even though the sun is still rather high in the sky.

I've found this plant to be slow to establish here. Some of that has to do with competition from the surronding plants. Clumps of pink muhly will expand, but it is not an aggressive spreader.  Larger masses should be mown or burned back in late winter to clean up the clump.

This clump of little bluestem is easily identified
by the silvery seed tufts along the stem..

These next three species are growing wild around my home.  Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is a common native species around here.  It is well suited to dry sunny sites.  It grows well in poor soils.  In excessively rich soils it puts on too much growth and flops over.  As a warm season grass it grows to 2-3 feet by mid-summer.  In the fall it turns golden and produces fuzzy white seeds along the upper stem.  These catch the light and envelop the stem in a silvery glow.  Some selections of little bluestem take on redder shades in the fall.   Small birds feed on the seeds, so I leave these up all winter.

One of the more distinctive grasses I have is Deer-tongue grass (Dichanthelim clandestinum, formerly Panicum clandestinum).  It has relatively broad leaves compared to other grasses.  It is a cool season grass, producing terminal spikelets in early to mid-summer.  Unlike most other cool season grasses, branching and growth continues through the summer.  The name, deer-tongue grass, refers to the shape of the inch-wide leaves, not to any preference for deer to eat it.

Deer-tongue grass persists well into fall, here as a deeply textured mass.
No longer colored, the seeds of Purpletop still catch the light.

Another common pasture grass here is purpletop (Tridens flavus).  When it first blooms in late summer it has a reddish purple color.  When distributed through a field, these blooms cast a purplish haze over the scene.  As the seeds mature the color is lost and the seed stalk becomes a brownish-gold.  As a pasture grass it is very palitable to livestock.  It is also a larval host to a variety of butterflies.

I have not seen purpletop used in any designed plantings, though it does have some interesting features.  The red colored flowers are best appreciated en masse and at a distance.  What might be useful in a smaller garden is to use the 3-4 foot tall flower stalks as a translucent screen between plantings.  Since the leaf blades are concentrated in the lower half of the plant they would not block a view across a planting.  Purpletop grows well on dryish soils in part to full sunlight.