Bring the outdoors in

Local plant, flower experts say holiday garnishes can be found in your backyard

Posted: Friday, December 18, 2009

The roast is in, the pies are cooling and there's finally time to de-clutter, de-grease and de-grime the bathroom, living room and kitchen.

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For anyone entertaining during the holidays, preparation for the arrival of guests can be chaotic, at best.

But even with all the last-minute details that need attending, it's absolutely possible to adorn your home with holiday decor that is not only unique and Southeast-inspired, but also beautiful and, sometimes most importantly, cheap.

Surprisingly, it's in the backyards and ditches all over Juneau where local experts say a wealth of resources can be found.

Teresa Busch, owner of the Plant People, finds some of her most unique items (such as bright red huckleberry bushes, still-rosy rose hips and yellow willow) on roadsides in the area.

"Yellow willow, which is just gorgeous, seems to grow in areas that are recently disturbed. These rose hips I just found in the ditch," she said.

Tamar Green, owner of Miss Scarlett's, said she'll often go into her backyard for arrangements.

The possibilities are nearly endless - even in winter. Huckleberry bushes without leaves look deep burgundy. Alder branches often feature black and white splotches that will stand out against more traditional evergreen bows. And moss, more common than not, can be turned into a bed upon which the rest of the arrangement can be designed.

In short, our temperate rainforest surroundings offer a plethora of textural surprises that can be used in a variety of ways.

"You're only limited by your creativity," said Lynne Clements, owner of Martha's Flowers.

Green agreed and said it also comes down to how much time is available.

"You do want to look at what you already have," she said. "(Before you) go cutting, have an idea of what you're going to do and allow time to hydrate your materials."

Evergreen trees this time of year are dormant, so it's a good idea to plunge cut bows into a bucket of water to let them "wake up," Green added.

"Sap has gone down into the roots and things are the least hydrated even though it (might be) raining like crazy out there," she said. "Make sure they're hydrated so they will last and to reduce fire risk."

How long depends on the type of material, but "an hour or so is sufficient," Green said.

The "hydration" step can also happen in a vase, if that's what the arrangement calls for, Busch said. But remember that water will get absorbed quickly, so a re-filling might be in order just before company arrives.

Touch on the senses

Busch said it's always nice to include things in an arrangement that smell good. Rosemary, arborvitae and hemlock are good choices. Clements also recommends jack pine and cedar. She said spruce is nice, but it not quite as "friendly" as some of the other varieties.

"Unless you wear gloves, they are difficult to handle," she said.

And while looking for greens, Clements said to pick up a couple dozen pine cones.

"I like to soak them a bit of soapy water to get rid of any spiders. Rinse them off and lay them out to dry. This will take a few days. But they will 'fluff' as they dry out," she said.

And on the topic of cones, Busch said she likes to include small clusters of alder cones in her arrangements. She also said that even simple things like bark will add an interesting textural aspect to an arrangement.

Green recommends bare branches and lichen, which often go hand in hand, for texture. It's a combination that shouldn't be hard to find and there are over 500 lichen species that grow in the Southeast region. Most commonly seen are those that are lime green, but other species come in bright orange or green with red tips. Some even look like complicated lung tissue.

"Just choose things that look good to you," Green said.

Put it together

Once the goodies are clipped, it's time to assemble.

Busch, Clements and Green all agreed that what you choose and how you choose to do it, is totally up to the individual. Whether it's a doorway swag, a traditional wreath or a tabletop centerpiece, they say options abound.

"Anything that will hold water and keep the stems in it (will work)," Clements said. "If it's a door swag, then bind (greenery) together with whatever you can."

"I like to make bunches with greenery when I'm making a wreath or swag," said Busch. "But my mom taught me to use long bows (and bind them into a circle) and then add the bunches and extras. You can also use an old wire coat hanger, bend it into a circle and use that as a base."

Busch recommends using green or dark colored wiring to hold swags and wreaths together. And in place of floral foam for arrangements, which she said does not degrade, she endorses chicken wire placed in the bottom of a vase. She said it will support the stems of greenery and flowers well.

"Plus, you can reuse it when you're done," she said.

But even without floral foam or chicken wire, it's possible to create something unique and beautiful. Busch suggests lightly packing aborvitae in the base of a vessel to hold up the stems of the other additions.

"Once filled with water, there is this really unique magnification effect," she said. "We'll also sometimes put flowers under the water against the glass to hide the wire. They're really beautiful."

Making it last

It's on the topic of water and what to put in it, where our experts diverge.

Green recommends commercial preservatives, like the kind often received with flower bouquets. But said it's not absolutely necessary.

"If you're going to put food in, I would recommend a commercial preservative because you want to have an antibacterial medium in there. Sugar will help bacterial growth," she said. "Usually they come in a powder but I've sometimes seen them in little capsules."

Busch stands by her soda.

"I like to use a soda like Sprite," she said. "Just put a little bit of that in your water."

She said you don't have to worry about bacteria if you change your water often. Busch recommends every other day or so.

And the temperature of water is important too. Busch said fresh flowers should be plunged into warm water, while evergreens and other items plucked from the outdoors are best submerged in cool water.

All the extras

One trip through a craft store and it's plain to see there's plenty of products out there to adorn just about anything with glitter, glue, ribbon or fur. When it comes to arranging, there are a few things to look for that will add, not detract, from a holiday arrangement and that you won't have to brave a craft store to find.

"Accents from nature could be feathers, a clam from the beach or rocks," Clements said.

Busch likes to use dried flowers. Her favorites, because they remind her of her sons, are straw flowers.


Busch said it's hard to know when an arrangement is done. But she said it is easy to notice when something is "too much."

"You just know," she said. "I'll look at something and say, 'that's it, no more.'"

She said it might be an out-of-place branch or a flower that's just too big, or maybe not big enough.

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," Clements said. "Who hasn't loved their own creation or the one the kids made. It is the thought that counts not the perfection of the arrangement."

So create away, and do get carried away. Feel free to be fueled by the holiday spirit and let the rainforest be your muse.

• Outdoors editor Abby Lowell can be reached at 523-2271 or by e-mail at

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