Holiday Wreaths, Traditions & Lore

It happened again last week– the annual gathering of wreath makers at Barb Kelley’s house in south Felton. The day was crisp and clear and with ginger bread and Prosecco in hand, a dozen or us shared techniques and ideas for this year’s wreaths. 14 wreaths were made on the day I was there but Barb told me the total last year was 44 for the week-long event. Creating a wreath or swag for the holidays from foliage cut from your own garden is a good way to make a little light pruning around the yard fun. Here are some tips.

Hydrangea-holly-juniper-pepper berry wreath

Every year the foliage and flowers provided by Barb and her husband, Reg varies. Some greenery like the Hollywood juniper comes from a neighbor who waits until December and then allows the Kelley’s to prune to their heart’s content. The gardener at the bank near Safeway allowed the magnolia tree to be pruned along with some of their impressive pink seed pods. The hot pink Chinese pistache berries come from a secret source in Scotts Valley. Variegated holly is harvested from another garden as are the Ruby Glow tea tree branches.

Huge piles of douglas fir boughs, cypress branches, oleander and eucalyptus flowers, purple Japanese privet berry clusters and feathery Japanese black pine boughs were also available for the making of our wreaths. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that Barb decided to rejuvenate her hydrangea shrub collection and there were boxes of blue and rich pink flower clusters, too.

Take advantage of this opportunity to prune your evergreen shrubs and conifers but don’t whack off snippets indiscriminately. To reveal the plant’s natural form, prune from the bottom up and from the inside out. Avoid ugly stubs by cutting back to the next largest branch or back to the trunk. If the plant has grown too dense, selectively remove whole branches to allow more air and sunlight to reach inside the plant.

The author making first of three wreaths

Winter solstice is December 21st. Solstice literally mean “Sun stands still” and for a few days around this time of year the sun does appear to stand still in the sky. Nearly all cultures and faiths have some sort of winter solstice celebration. These celebrations date back thousands of years starting at the beginning of agriculture among people who depended on return of the sun. We have incorporated many of the same plants into our holiday traditions like holly, ivy, evergreens, rosemary and mistletoe.

Holly remains green throughout the year. Decorating with it has long been believed to bring protection and good luck. Placing a ring of holly on doors originated in Ireland. Norseman and Celts use to plant a holly tree near their homes to ward off lightning strikes. The crooked lines of the holly leaf gave rise to its association with lighting and in fact holly does conduct lightning into the ground better than most trees.

Evergreen trees also play a role in solstice celebrations. Early Romans and Christians considered the evergreen a symbol of the continuity of life. Fir, cedar and pine bough wreaths were used to decorate homes. Small gifts were hung from evergreen tree branches which may have been where the Christian tradition of decorating an evergreen tree in December originated.

Take a few minutes to create your a wreath for your door or tabletop or to give away to friends and neighbors. It’s a fun way to celebrate the holidays and trust me, you can’t make a bad wreath. They all turn out beautiful.

Holiday Plants that are Toxic for Children & Pets

Throughout the year we enjoy many types of plants inside the house but it’s during the winter as we spend more time inside that we appreciate them even more. With the holidays season upon us I like to enjoy some colorful plants on my tabletop and window sill. My cat, Archer, sits on the same window sill. How safe are holiday plants for pets and small children?

Amaryllis flowers

I have a beautiful poinsettia on the table and soon I’ll be getting other holiday plants such as cyclamen, paperwhite narcissus, maybe a pink jasmine wreath or one with holly, ivy and evergreens. I also like those rosemary topiaries that are trained in the shape of a Christmas tree and have already started one of those huge showy amaryllis bulbs. Christmas cactus grow in several locations.

Pointsettia

The classic plant to decorate our homes at this time of year is the poinsettia. Are poinsettia poisonous? Ohio State University conducted extensive research and concluded that although poinsettia sap from leaves and flowers that might give you a stomach ache if you ate them they won’t seriously hurt you. The sap may cause a rash if it comes in contact with the skin on some people. With this in mind, you should keep poinsettia plants out of the reach of curious pets and small children.

The other pet in my household, Sherman, the Welch springer spaniel. doesn’t usually pay attention to the plants but if they have plastic wrapping he’s been known to get into mischief. I usually put a couple red and white cyclamen on a table in the house. Are cyclamen safe around the dog or cat?

Cyclamen

According to the Pet Poison Helpline cyclamen are mild to moderately toxic to dogs and cats if ingested but it’s the root or corm that is especially toxic if ingested in large quantities. Pets and people react differently and it is unlikely that children) would eat the corm and be affected.

My beautiful amaryllis flower and leaves are safe but the bulb is toxic. Amaryllis bulbs contain the same alkaloid that is found in narcissus and daffodil and is the reason deer know to leave them alone. Keep them away from pets and small children although ingesting a small amount will produce few or no symptoms.

Christmas cactus

Azalea leaves and Christmas cactus are toxic and should be kept away from pets and small children. Holly berries are also toxic if eaten in large quantities. Same for ivy.

Mistletoe contains multiple substances that are toxic to both dogs and cats, It can cause severe intestinal upset as well as a sudden and sever drop in blood pressure, breathing problems and even sometimes hallucinations. If a large amount of mistletoe or ivy is ingested, seizures and death may follow. The leaves and berries of holly and mistletoe plants, even dried, should be kept well out of your pet’s reach.

While serious complications aren’t likely with most holiday plants it’s still best to keep them away from small children and out of your pet’s reach.

Holiday Gifts from the Garden

I’m getting excited about the holidays. Time to dust off the Christmas list. I admit I look forward to what might be under the tree for me but half the fun of the holidays is coming up with an inexpensive gift that is just right for each person. With so many gardeners on my list, there are a lot choices.

I know some of the best gifts are the ones from nature or something that I made myself. With that in mind I have a few ideas up my sleeve.

Coreopsis ‘Mango Punch’

Plants provide needed food year round for wildlife in the garden and especially during the winter. Why not give a friend a plant or offset of one of your plants that birds, bees or butterflies would appreciate? Some easy-to-divide favorites that attract birds include foxglove, coral bells, red-hot poker, California fuchsia, mahonia and purple coneflower.

Or you might have one of the following butterfly favorites that you could divide and pot up for a friend. Yarrow, aster, veronica, agapanthus, astilbe, coreopsis and gaura are just a few that butterflies favor. Ceanothus and columbine are two plants that self sow in my garden and would be easy to pot up for a gift.

Another simple, inexpensive gift for the gardeners on your list is the tillandsia. Sometimes called air plants, these relatives of Spanish moss and pineapple have tiny scales on their leaves called trichomes which serve as very efficient absorption systems to gather water. They are very tolerant of drought conditions and will grow with just an occasional spritzing of water although I like to run mine under lukewarm water to mimic the showers they might get where they normally grow in tropical tree limbs.

Tillandsia mounted on drift wood

Tillandsia prefer the light from a bright window but not direct sunlight and are among the easiest of indoor plants to grow and maintain. Wire one on a branch or piece of driftwood or place in a shell and they will live happily for years growing pups at the base that replace the mother plant.

echeveria ‘Lace’

Succulents are also easy to grow. They are very forgiving plants when it comes to watering and light conditions. Seems I’m always coming across someone who has a story about how long they have had a particular specimen and where it came from. “You see that hens and chicks over there?”, they say. “Well my aunt gave me a little slip way back when… and it blooms every year.” If you have succulents in your own garden, break off a couple, allow the bottom to callus and pot in a small recycled cup or container to give as a gift.

It’s not too late to start a couple of hyacinth bulbs in the refrigerator to give as gifts. Part of the fun is watching the bulbs put out roots well before the fragrant blooms. Choose a hyacinth jar or other narrow necked jar that will support the bulb just above the water and keep in the frig until roots start to fill the jar. Take the bulb out of the dark and give it a bit more light each day for a week until acclimated to bright light. The house will fill with the sweet scent of spring even though it may only be January.

The holidays are a time to bring a smile to someone you care about. Your gift doesn’t need to cost very much to show your love.

Post Thanksgiving What-Not-To-Do List

Twas the weekend after Thanksgiving and all through the house, not a creature was stirring not even a gardener. I should probably do something productive, but what? Should I be good and do a little light weeding? Maybe I can muster up the energy to plant a few more bulbs. Come spring I’ll be happy I did. Then again I could make notes of my gardening successes and not so great horticultural decisions. “I know”, I say to myself, “this weekend I’ll revel in what I don’t have to do in the garden”.

Japanese maple in fall color

I don’t need to prune trees and shrubs at this time of year. Other than clipping a few well placed branches to use in a holiday wreath, I’m off the hook for this task right now. Deciduous trees are still in the process of losing their leaves and are not fully dormant. Evergreens shrubs and conifers can be trimmed lightly but most shaping is done when they start growing in late winter or very early spring.

The season is pretty much over for me except to enjoy what’s left of fall color and the ornamental grasses waving their seed heads in the wind. A lot of perennials are dying back but I’m not in a hurry to neaten things up. The seed heads left in the garden supply food for birds and other creatures while the foliage provides shelter for the plant in the cold and frost. Remove anything that has turned slimy or just plain unattractive but leave berries and seed heads for food and winter interest.

Purple finch

At this time of year my garden is visited mostly by chickadees, nuthatches, goldfinches, purple finches and warblers. They will spend the winter here and I’m doing them a big favor by not cutting back brown foliage containing nutrient-rich seed heads. Some of the reliable seed producers that I won’t have to clean up this weekend include artemisia, aster, coreopsis, penstemon, sedum, lupine, salvia, black-eye Susan, coneflower, phlomis, monarda, agapanthus and grasses.

Chickadees gather hundreds of seeds in fall and early winter and store them in hiding places to ensure themselves a food supply later in the season. They are a remarkable bird that we take for granted being so common. I read in Audubon magazine a couple years ago that a chickadee weighs about as much as a dozen paperclips but their body is large for their weight. This means they have to ramp up the number of hours they devote to feeding. At night chickadees cram themselves into tiny cavities and shiver, burning the day’s fuel to keep from freezing.

Anna’s hummingbirds at feeder

Hummingbirds still need a nectar source at this time of year. Anna’s hummingbirds live in this area all year long. So In addition to the plants in my garden that supply nectar I keep my feeders up year-round and keep them clean. They need your nectar even more in the winter when very little is in bloom. In addition to nectar rich natives like mahonia my abutilons are a winter favorite for them.

Other tasks I can put off at least for this weekend include planting wildflower seeds. I see California poppies coming up all over the place. Nature knows when the time is right. Well, maybe I’ll broadcast a few working them into the soil very lightly. I need to hoe off some early weeds that would compete with them. How many calories are burned in light gardening tasks? I might just reconsider not being a total couch potato this weekend.

A Poem of Thanksgiving by the Mountain Gardener

Once upon a time when our area was under the sea
there were no parks or trails or trees or gardens.
I’m thankful that our mountains rose from an ancient ocean
and we can now enjoy this beautiful place we call home.

Mini pumpkins, Indian corn and redbud leaves

I’m thankful for the bigleaf maples with leaves as big as saucers
and for the giant redwoods that sprouted long ago
and the five-fingered ferns that grow lush
along Fall Creek on the way to the old lime kilns.

I’m thankful for the pond and western turtles who live at Quail Hollow
and for the unique sandhills, grasslands and redwoods
and for the western bluebirds and other creatures that call it home.

I’m thankful for the dog park and soccer field at Skypark
where little kids and dogs both big and small have a place of their own
and for the picnic area and Fourth of July fireworks,
and the Art and Wine festival and Music in the Park on summer nights.

Grocery-bag turkey

I’m thankful also for all our parks from Garrahan, Junction, Highlands
and Felton Covered Bridge in San Lorenzo Valley,
to Lodato, Siltanen and MacDorsa in Scotts Valley.
Each place is unique and is each one of us.

I’m thankful for Bonny Doon where I can see both sides of Ben Lomond Mountain
and for the Ecological Reserve with its fossilized marine animals and sharks teeth
that are exposed in the mountain made of sand.

I’m thankful for California’s oldest state park. Big Basin, with its waterfalls and lush canyons
and slopes covered with redwoods sorrel, violets, fragrant azaleas and mountain iris
and for the banana slugs, marbled murrelets and red-legged frogs who make it their home.

Thanksgiving table decorations

I’m thankful for the whisper of the wind blowing across the water at Loch Lomond
and for the gentle whir of fishing reels along the bank,
thick with tan oaks, redwoods and madrone.

And finally, I’m thankful for friends, family and neighbors
who share the knowledge that in nature life continues.
Look around you and be thankful for the bounty, the restfulness,
and take time to enjoy these beautiful mountains that we call home.

I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving.

The Beauty of Fall

Looks like Indian Summer is over and fall is really here. The trees, especially our own Big Leaf Maples, are showing off their new fall clothes and the rains will soon green up the hills. Will the foliage be as vivid this year?

Cercis ‘Forest Pansy’

Although we don’t get as much fall color as other areas we enjoy what we have just as much. Besides we don’t get snow on Halloween. Enjoy these cool nights and warm days. That’s the combination that brings on the best fall colors.

The vivid colors in a leaf are always there. They are just masked by the green chlorophyll which is busy making food by photosynthesis while the sun shines. Come autumn, shorter days and cooler temperatures cause the trees to switch into energy-storage mode and their leaves stop producing chlorophyll. For the few weeks before the leaf falls to the ground it is colored only by natural pigments. It’s these colors -red and purple anthocyanins, yellow and orange carotenoids – that make fall foliage so glorious, sometimes anyway.

Quaking aspen- Wyoming

Weather conditions play a major part in fall color. Some years the show is more dramatic than others. The best conditions for intense leaf color to develop are dry sunny days followed by cool, but not freezing, nights.

A warm, wet autumn will almost surely result in less-than-spectacular foliage because the process of chlorophyll loss will be less consistent. Freezing temperature meanwhile can cause leaves to drop suddenly denying the opportunity to enter a slow, colorful dormancy.

Which plants put on the best show in our area? Here are some of my favorites.

California native Western redbud turns yellow or red in the fall if conditions allow. This plant is truly a four-season plant starting in spring with magenta flowers, then leafing out with apple green heart shaped leaves. Colorful seed pods give way to fall color. This small native tree or large shrub does well as a patio tree in gardens with good drainage.

Other native plants like spicebush and Western azalea turn yellow or gold in the fall. A native vine that lights up with the onset of autumn is Rogers Red California grape. If you have an arbor, wall or fence that needs covering quickly this is your plant. The green and gray leaves are transformed in autumn into great draperies of rich, scarlet leaves with clusters of summer fruit turning all shades of purple.

Edibles that turn color in the fall include blueberries, pomegranate and persimmons.

more Forest Pansy in fall color

Other trees and shrubs that do well in our area and provide fall color include Chinese flame tree, ginkgo, Idaho locust, Chinese pistache, crape myrtle, witch hazel, all maples, liquidambar, katsura, dogwood, locust, cherry, crabapple, oakleaf hydrangea, barberry and smoke tree.

Now through late fall is a good time to shop for trees that change colors because you can see in person just what shade of crimson, orange, scarlet or gold they will be. I’m off to the the Sierra to see for myself the dogwood, cottonwood, willow, black oak and quaking aspen in fall color. What’s not to love about fall?

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