Friday, November 18, 2011

Decorating from Your Back Yard

Want help putting together your own wreath or swag?
Join Duke Gardens for a class Dec. 3.

By Kate Blakely

Now is the perfect time of year to bring the outdoors inside. Use natural materials from your own back yard to create a beautiful and fragrant winter holiday display. Duke Gardens horticulturist Michelle Rawlins has a few tips and ideas for you.

First, select a variety of colors to add richness. Think of building a colorful tapestry in your home. Use deep greens, yellow, brown and red tones from leaves, stems and berries.

“Choosing magnolia leaves for both the glossy deep green side and the fuzzy brown underside is very useful,” Rawlins says. In particular, she recommends cultivars such as Magnolia grandiflora ‘Southern Charm’ or ‘Little Gem’, which have a rich brown tone underneath. As another source of color, use holly leaves such as Ilex opaca ‘Steward's Silver Crown' to provide a rich holiday green color and red berries – don’t just use green. The variegated form adds a bright note of white or cream color to your display.
Rawlins suggests experimenting with other sources of color, such as spray-painted pine cones. Rawlins also often uses nandina berries (Nandina domestica) and sweetgum balls (Liquidambar styraciflua).

Varying textures will build upon the tapestry effect. You can introduce a fine texture with pine branches, using newer growth because it looks more fresh and the color is more vibrant, Rawlins says. She also suggests adding both color and fine texture with golden threadleaf falsecypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Filifera Aurea’).

“It really makes an arrangement pop with color and adds an interesting texture,” she says.

Fullness in a display with contrasting colors and textures is generally more interesting than a single flat display, says Rawlins, who looks for plant materials that can layer well. Pick a variety of plants, such as white pine (Pinus strobus), cedar tree branches (Juniperus virginiana), Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria radicans), boxwood (Buxus selections), or sweet olive (Osmanthus fragans).
For a swag, you’ll likely need a “cage” or base, which you can get at a craft store or nursery. This holds your natural materials together as you design. Beyond that, says Rawlins, consider using holiday ornaments, ribbon, bells and holiday bulbs to personalize.

“Add that little extra flair for the holiday season,” Rawlins says, noting that you can make a swag and a wreath at once using the same materials. “We’re going to experiment with some fruits and vegetables in the arrangements, as well as a vintage flair.”

Natural swags do best outdoors. But if you decide to use it indoors, you’ll be able to enjoy the beautiful smells of your natural materials. Put a candle in it and display it on a table or a piano. But be careful with candles, she says. “As soon as your materials start drying out, they could go up in flames really quick!”

If you want more tips on DIY swags, consider joining Duke Gardens’ class “Holiday Decorations” on Dec. 3, from 2 to 4 p.m. Rawlins and Gardens superintendent Harry Jenkins will show you how to create several different centerpieces using natural materials. Once the class gets the basics, each participant will create his or her own holiday wreath or swag. All materials and ribbon will be supplied, but Rawlins encourages students to bring their own special embellishments. The cost is $65; $50 for Gardens members or Duke faculty, staff or students.

For information or to register, please call 668-1707. For more information about Gardens events, please go to
Sarah P. Duke Gardens creates and nurtures an environment in the heart of Duke University for learning, inspiration and enjoyment through excellence in horticulture. The Gardens is at 420 Anderson St.

Kate Blakely is a graduate student at Duke Divinity School and a work-study assistant at Duke Gardens. This column first appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on Nov. 12.

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