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"An Old-Fashioned Christmas"

It's that time of year again to dress up the home with holiday decorations. The garden is a great source of natural materials that can be used in all sorts of decorations this time of year. Wreaths, centerpieces, roping, swags, kissing balls, boxwood trees, mantlepiece decorations, and windowbox and outdoor planter decorations are just some of the holiday decorations that can be made from materials gathered from the garden. Evergreen boughs, colorful berries, colorful branches, seed heads, dried flower heads, cones, and nuts can all be gathered from the garden and used in a variety of festive seasonal decorations.

The base of just about all wintertime decorations is composed of evergreens. Both needled and broad-leaved evergreens can be used as the base of a variety of decorations. I like to use a combination of different evergreens so there is a pleasing contrast of textures. I think it's more visually interesting.

White pine is one of my favorite needled evergreens to use as a background material. The stems are slender and tend to bend gracefully when used in windowboxes and other planters. The needles are soft and long. Spruce and fir have shorter, more rigid needles on stiff stems. Blue spruce has attractive blue-green needles that provide a colorful contrast to the other evergreens.

Rhododendron and mountain laurel are two top choices for broad-leaved evergreens. Rhododendron has glossy, deep-green leaves. Both catawba rhododendron and "P.J.M." rhododendron can be used in seasonal decorations. Catawba rhododendron has large leaves up to six inches long. "P.J.M." rhododendron has smaller leaves, only three inches long or so. Mountain laurel has light green, long leaves. Other broad-leaved evergreen shrubs I like to use in holiday decorations are Japanese holly and boxwood. Both have small, rounded, dark green leaves. Boxwood is the perfect base for a boxwood tree.

My favorite way to add color to evergreen boughs is to insert stems of winterberry and holly. Winterberry is a deciduous type of holly. When its leaves drop in autumn, bare branches lined with bright-red berries are revealed. The berries are long lasting when cut. I use stems of winterberry in my windowboxes to add color. Holly is a familiar broad-leaved evergreen shrub with dark-green, prickly leaves and bright-red berries. Other berried plants that can be used when decorating during winter include blue-berried juniper and bayberry.

Colorful and interesting branches add another dimension to seasonal decorations. The most colorful branches to use are redtwig and yellow twig dogwood. Redtwig dogwood has bright-red, slender stems. Yellow twig dogwood has golden-yellow stems. Both provide bright color. For interesting form, I like to use stems of Harry Lauder's walking stick. The twisted and contorted stems seem to twist every which way and provide a whimsical element to seasonal decorations. They are good to use in centerpieces and small arrangements where their interesting shape can be appreciated.

The garden is a great source of seed heads and dried flowers this time of year. To make sure I have a good supply of seed heads and dried flowers this time of year, I wait to cut down any dead plants until after I've finished with my seasonal decorations. Take a walk around the garden toward the end of the season and look at plants with decorating in mind. What at first appears to be a dead plant may actually turn out to be an interesting accent in a holiday decoration. Some of my favorite seed heads and dried flowers include astilbe, ornamental grasses, clematis, hydrangea, and chives. Siberian iris seed heads turn deep brown and make nice accents. They can also be spray painted gold for a gilded effect.

Cones and nuts are popular accents in wintertime decorations. Various types of evergreens provide cones including hemlock, spruce, and white pine. Hemlock cones are the smallest cones, usually under an inch wide. White pine cones are long, slender cones. Because of their varying sizes and shapes, an assortment of cones can be used in all sorts of decorations. Acorns are abundant this time of year. They can be used in their natural state or they can be spray painted gold or silver.

Pernell Gerver's Gardening Q & Aby Pernell Gerver

"Use Antidesiccant to Protect Trees and Shrubs from Winterkill"

Q. The past several winters have been pretty tough on the shrubs in my landscape, especially my rhododendrons. One died completely and two others had a lot of dead branches this past spring. I'd hate to lose the remaining two this winter. Is there anything I can do to prevent that? Thanks in advance for your help.

A. Here in western Massachusetts, winters have been pretty severe on plants, especially evergreens and broad-leaved evergreens like rhododendron. Many suffered winterkill the past couple of winters. In addition to rhododendron, other trees and shrubs that have been damaged over winter include azalea, holly, boxwood, dwarf Alberta spruce, redbud, dogwood, rose of Sharon, hybrid tea roses, and even forsythia. With such widespread damage, it's imperative to provide winter protection.

What happens is the evergreen plants lose moisture through their leaves or needles and can't replace it because the ground is frozen. Wind, sun, and dry air all cause the plants to evaporate moisture. To prevent this desiccation, spray Antidesiccant on all your rhododendrons and other landscape plantings now. Antidesiccant seals in the moisture and protects the leaves and stems from drying out.

Now is the ideal time to apply Antidesiccant. With the kind of winters we've been having the past couple years, I've seen damage on plants that never experienced winterkill before so I'm recommending spraying all the plants in the landscape, not just the "usual suspects" like rhododendrons and azaleas.

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