Archives For Holiday Decor

Learn how to decorate your home with natural materials as Garden staff do in the Wonderland Express exhibition.

Cornucopia 101

Nancy Clifton —  November 25, 2013 — Leave a comment

It’s a big week for cooking, for getting out the china, crystal, and silver, and for setting a holiday-worthy table…but have you thought about a centerpiece yet?

A cornucopia, or horn of plenty, is a classically beautiful, easy, and crowd-pleasing way to pull together a centerpiece without a lot of fuss or expense. Last year I taught a fall cornucopia class, and last week I had the pleasure of appearing on WGN-TV with tips for making an edible fruit-and-vegetable cornucopia. This week, I thought I’d share a few tips that both cornucopias have in common.

Whether you’re using flowers or fruit or vegetables, the process of assembling a cornucopia is basically the same. Once your supplies are gathered, it should take less than an hour to put together.


Essential tools include pruners, floral foam, and a hot glue gun.

Essential tools include pruners, floral foam, and a hot-glue gun.

Gather the basic tools.

Horn-shaped cornucopia baskets are readily available at craft and hobby stores. In addition to a basket, you’ll need pruners, floral picks, a hot-glue gun, a small plastic liner tray that fits into the front of the basket, and a chunk of floral foam that fits into the tray. If you’re using fresh flowers, prepare the floral foam by soaking it in water.


Ingredients for a fall cornucopia include apples, leaves on branches, gourds, and fall flowers.

Ingredients for a fall cornucopia include apples, leaves on branches, gourds, and fall flowers.

Gather the bountiful ingredients.

No two cornucopias are the same; the ingredients will vary, of course, according to availability and personal taste.

For a fall cornucopia, your ingredient list might be: millet, wheat, gourds or mini-pumpkins, flowering kale, dried artichoke, green apples, stems of hypericum, a small bunch of long-stemmed mums, sunflowers with long stems, baby corn, dried yarrow, sweetgum leaves on a twig with seedpods, and a variety of nuts.

For an edible cornucopia, your ingredient list might be: an assortment of apples and nuts, Indian corn, pumpkins and squash in various shapes and sizes, and a bunch of fall flowers (widely available at grocery stores).


To begin, position the largest items by inserting floral picks into each and anchoring it in the foam.

To begin, position the largest items by inserting floral picks into each and anchoring them in the foam.

Assemble the base.

Set the floral foam (dry for fruits/vegetables, wet for fresh flowers) into the small tray and into the forward portion of the cornucopia basket. Anchor the foam on a prong if desired.

Starting with the largest material—pumpkins, gourds, large corncobs, and large sunflowers. Insert floral picks and position them in the foam. Heavy, rounded items should be at the bottom, toward the front.


Build up the layers with smaller items and flower clusters filling in the gaps.

Build up the layers, with smaller items and flower clusters filling in the gaps.

Layer in the smaller items.

Add picks to apples, dried artichokes, and small gourds. Layer them singly at angles to the heavy items. Try to cover the corners of the floral foam.

Next, layer in fresh or dried flowers, using them in small bunches rather than individual stems. Insert some leaning high and toward the back of the basket, and others leaning low and toward the front, creating extension and depth.


Notice how heavier items like pumpkins, cabbage, and apples are forward and low.

Notice how heavier items like pumpkins, cabbage, and apples are forward and low.

Fill in the gaps.

Add hypericum or mums in clusters to hide empty spots. Then add single flowers as needed to help pull all the elements together. A finished cornucopia has height, balance, and both forward and backward movement.

Finish with millet for “line,” plus foliage and nuts. (The glue gun comes in handy for attaching nuts to floral picks.) The overall effect should be one of spilling bounty.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Extreme Pumpkins

Adriana Reyneri —  October 12, 2013 — Leave a comment

Riley Obenchain conjures a feeling of mischief and magic.

He wears a tattered straw hat, trimmed with a red poppy, that looks like something a scarecrow might wear. His bushy black eyebrows dance when he talks, bringing to mind the woolly bear caterpillars abundant in the fall. A playfulness—tinged with the macabre—also shows in the jack-o-lantern characters Obenchain creates each year for HallowFest, the Garden’s popular, family-friendly celebration of Halloween.

PHOTO: Riley Obenchain with giant pumpkins.

Riley Obenchain poses with some enormous jack-o-lantern fodder in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden.

Obenchain’s ghoulish, yet somehow gallant, jack-o-lanterns provide a mild dose of horror while eliciting smiles and laughs. There’s the tiny pumpkin gripped in the long, pointy teeth of a massive pumpkin. The little guy has a sort of “Oh, no, Mr. Bill” look on his face. The big, toothy smile on another jack-o-lantern gives a mixed message. Obenchain describes it as an “I’m-happy-to-see-you-because-I’m-going-to-eat you” look.

“I get a lot of, ‘Wow! I could never do that!’” says Obenchain, who’s helped keep the Garden’s trams, lawnmowers, and other machinery running smoothly for 35 years, “but in actuality, anyone can do this.” Here are a few of Obenchain’s tricks and techniques, gleaned in a recent interview.

PHOTO: A white pumpkin with a shocked expression and a rubber snake in its mouth.

The removed pieces of the eyes of this “Ernie” are recycled as ears; leftover mouth pieces are used for hands.

Where do you get your inspiration?

A lot of times, the shape of the pumpkin has the idea. The pumpkin determines what you’re going to carve. How is it going to sit? Is it a “Bert” or an “Ernie”? (A Bert has a more elongated shape, while an Ernie has a round, well, pumpkin head. Obenchain is cultivating a large pumpkin this year that has a sort of crocodile look to it.) 

What are your favorite tools?

I like using old-fashioned steel knives. (The steel is more rigid than stainless steel. Obenchain uses a range of sizes and keeps them sharp. He taps them into very thick pumpkins using an old hickory log that he’s kept for years. Toothpicks, bamboo skewers, or even the occasional nail can be used to patch mistakes. A trowel with a sharpened end makes a good seed scooper.)

What sorts of other materials do you use?

Long, skinny gourds for antennaes. Gourds for ears and eyes. One year I used a forked stick for the tongue of a snakelike pumpkin. (Obenchain shows photos of jack-o-lanterns carved by nephews under his tutelage. One looks a little worse for wear, with crosses for eyes and an arrow through its temples.)

What is the biggest pumpkin you’ve ever carved?

An Atlantic Giant squash (Cucurbita maxima ‘Atlantic Giant’). It topped out at 1,010 pounds. (The record-breaker could cover a small table top. Obenchain needed a hand-pruning saw to carve its foot-thick walls. The big galoot had to be moved with a forklift. Another behemoth was so long that Obenchain had to crawl inside to scoop it out, creating the ultimate Obenchain image—a man-eating pumpkin!)

PHOTO: A devilish pumpkin with lots of pointy teeth.

Carving stalks instead of using toothpicks to inset eyeballs ensures they don’t rot out and stay in place while your jack-o-lantern is on display.

While most of the pumpkins carved for Hallowfest are from outside growers, each year, Obenchain tries to grow a few giants of his own in friendly competition with other Garden staff members. This year, he’s growing another ‘Atlantic Giant’ with seeds saved from the thousand-plus-pound monster—if the raccoons don’t get it first!

Join us for HallowFest on October 26 and 27, from 6 to 9 p.m. on Saturday and 4 to 7 p.m. on Sunday, to see Obenchain’s creations for this season.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Beets = Purple

A dozen all-natural Easter egg dyes

Karen Z. —  March 18, 2013 — 1 Comment

Go greener at the holidays this year! With Easter just a couple of weekends away, forgo the food coloring and kits, and go for naturally safe, naturally kid-friendly, and naturally beautiful “homemade” egg dyes instead. Dyes can be used on hardboiled or fancy blown out eggs. Most of what you need is probably already in your own kitchen and pantry.

PHOTO: The vegetables we use, and their accomanying egg colors.

What colors will you get? Beets = purple, yellow onions = yellow, red cabbage = pale blue.

PHOTO: the tools you'll need to create your own egg dyes

The tools you’ll need to create your own egg dyes.

Step 1: Gather your supplies.

Stainless steel utensils and glass containers won’t stain; always rinse utensils as you go from color to color, so there’s no contamination.

  • Pint and half-pint Ball jars or heat-safe glass bowls (the better to watch stuff happen!)
  • Non-reactive stainless steel or enamel saucepans
  • Strainer
  • Tongs

Step 2: Gather your ingredients.

Vegetables, fruits, and spices can all create lovely, earthy colors. Vegetables, fruits, and spices can all create lovely, earthy colors. We hardboiled large white eggs and used plain white vinegar, which helps to set the color. Here are the dozen dyes and “recipes” we tried, in order of color intensity (after about 20 minutes of steeping):

Chopped and simmered fresh carrot tops create a pale yellow dye.

Chopped and simmered fresh carrot tops create a pale yellow dye.



We used a straightened paperclip to poke holes in an egg for blowing.

We used a straightened paperclip to poke holes in an egg for blowing.



Rinse blown-out eggs thoroughly inside and out.

Rinse blown-out eggs thoroughly inside and out.

  • Beets = Purple. 1 large beet (cut into chunks) + 4 cups boiling water + 2 Tbs. vinegar. Cool and strain.
  • Yellow onions = Yellow-orange. Skins only of 6 medium yellow onions + 2 cups water; simmer for 15 minutes. Strain and add 2 tsp. vinegar.
  • Grape juice = Magenta. 1 cup all-natural grape juice + 1 Tb. Vinegar.
  • Coffee = Gold. ½ cup ground coffee + 2 cups boiling water. Steep, strain and add 1 Tb. vinegar.
  • Red onions = Blue. Skins only of 6 red onions + 2 cups water; simmer for 15 minutes. Strain and add 3 tsp. vinegar.
  • Green tea = Light green. 6 green tea bags + 1 cup boiling water. Steep 5 minutes and strain.
  • Red cabbage = Pale blue. ½ head red cabbage (cut into chunks) + 4 cups boiling water + 2 Tbs. vinegar. Cool and strain.
  • Turmeric = Yellow. 2 Tbs. turmeric + 1 cup boiling water + 2 tsp. vinegar.
  • Paprika = Orange. 2 Tbs. paprika + 1 cup boiling water + 2 tsp. vinegar.
  • Blueberries = Blue/Gray. 1 cup frozen blueberries + 1 cup water. Let stand ‘til room temperature and strain.
  • Carrot tops = Pale yellow. 2 cups chopped carrot greens + 1½ cups water; simmer for 15 minutes. Strain and add 2 tsp. vinegar.
  • Orange peels = Palest yellow. Peels of 6 oranges + 1 ½ cups water; simmer for 20 minutes. Strain and add 2 tsp. vinegar.

Step 3: Gather your family.

Kids love to color eggs. Guided by the recipes above, experiment with veggie/spice quantities and steep times. The longer you steep, the deeper the color—steeping eggs can even be left overnight in the refrigerator. Hardboil eggs or blow them out:

Beets, green tea bags, and orange peels all make gorgeous natural dyes.

Beets, green tea bags, and orange peels all make gorgeous natural dyes.

  • Use a heavy needle or bent paperclip to poke holes in each end of a fresh egg.
  • Wiggle the needle around inside to pierce the yoke.
  • Blow strongly through one hole, collecting the contents from the other in a small bowl.
  • Rinse eggs thoroughly inside and out.
  • Don’t waste your egg contents—scramble them or use in baking.

Kids with the urge to decorate can:

  • Wrap rubber bands around eggs before dyeing for striped designs.
  • Wrap onion skins around eggs and secure with rubber bands for marbled looks after coloring.
  • Write names, etc. in wax crayon on eggs before dyeing: magic!

Step 4: Embrace the imperfect!

Naturally dyed eggs sometimes splotch or dye unevenly—we had great success with beets and green tea, but our paprika-dyed egg looked marbled and our orange peel dye gave up just a tinge of color. Nonetheless, all look beautiful in an Easter basket!

The finished product: gorgeous colors, all "homemade."

The finished product: gorgeous colors, all “homemade.”

We loved the look of natural-colored, shredded kraft paper with white baskets. Tell us below: How did you display your naturally dyed eggs? 

Enjoy brunch and an Easter egg hunt at the Garden and spend the rest of the day viewing all that spring has to offer.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

While the construction crew and the railroad guys were busy laying out the trains and buildings in Wonderland Express, 28 horticulturists and other staff members were busy building their own creations—making the wreaths that now line the Greenhouse gallery walls.

The big “now” story is that they’re all for sale.*

The big “wow” story is that behind each wreath are the hands and hearts of our horticulturists, our maintenance staff, our plant healthcare guys, our security personnel, our managers, etc. Although each person started with the same thing—a wreath form and the beauty of the Garden—we are rocked by the imagination, talent, and joy that they brought to the project.

Here are a few of their stories:

It took Cindy Nykiel (tram driver) and daughter Stacey (security) 46½ hours to engineer a wreath loaded with fun details: birch bark train cars with pistachio shell trim, black bean “coal,” and tiny battery-operated lights twinkling within the ginkgo leaf/catalpa pod bow.

Cindy wreath

A highly-decorated wreath by a mother/daughter team.

The twisted palm frond rosettes are genius.

rosettes

A close-up of the palm frond rosettes.

 Senior horticulturist Heather Sherwood redefined starlight in three easy steps:

  1. Bamboo sticks duct taped together for a frame.
  2. Red tube lights zip-tied to the bamboo.
  3. Red twig dogwood, raffia-tied over it all.
Heather wreath

Red tube lights work straight through Valentine’s Day.

Nuts for the holidays? Plant Information Service Manager Kathie Hayden pairs nuts (oak, buckeye), beans (coffee tree), and pods (honey locust, sweetgum) with an appropriately amusing mascot. All but the walnuts (store bought) were collected from Garden grounds.

Kathie wreath

A wreath with a sense of humor.

Custodian Carlos García’s exuberant design is rooted in a vivid memory of a wreath he made in his fifth grade class in Ciudad Hidalgo, Michoacan, Mexico. The construction was a family affair: his kids helped with the cheery and heartfelt decorations.

Carlos wreath

A great solution for a plain front door.

Horticulturist Lisa Hilgenberg has a passion for seeds. Her stunning 11-bean-and-legume snowflake wreath celebrates the great variety found in just one species and hints at the fun we’ll be having at our second annual seed swap on February 24, 2013.

Lisa wreath

By the horticulturist in our Fruit & Vegetable Garden.

After cutting the birch trunks to size for Wonderland’s entrance hall, Exhibitions Manager Dawn Bennett took the leftover trimmings over to the carpenter shop…got out the chop saw…and turned waste into wonderful.

Dawn wreath

A wreath made from slices of birch.

*Priced at $150 each, wreaths are available for pickup after January 6.  Many were made with dried materials gathered at the Garden, which may last for many months indoors.


©2012 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Pastry chef Kathy Skutecki shows you how to decorate gingerbread houses like the ones she made for the entrance to the Wonderland Express exhibition. Visit http://www.chicagobotanic.org/wonderland for more information.