Archives For how-to

Imagine a winter landscape: White birches reflect the December sun. Snow drifts around the bare trunks. A glaze of ice gives a silvery cast to evergreens. Such a scene was the inspiration for the topiary trees designed by the horticulture staff for this year’s Wonderland Express.

PHOTO: Finished topiary tree.

Tillandsia ‘Black Beauty’, Cryptanthus ‘Pink Starlight’ and ‘Ruby’, and the spoon-shaped succulent leaves of Cotyledon ‘Orbit’ make up this 3-foot topiary.

The popular holiday event, with its indoor model train display and miniature replicas of Chicago-area landmarks, offers something for visitors of all ages and interests. The topiary room in Joutras Gallery recreates a winter scene from plants you don’t typically see in holiday arrangements. Drifts of white poinsettias resemble an undulating snowfall, and the frosty evergreens are constructed from hundreds of diverse air plants and succulents. The result is an unusual horticultural presentation that feels both wintry and alive.

The display may also give visitors ideas for incorporating different types of plants into their home holiday décor. Hens and chicks, Tillandsia, aloe, mother-in-law tongue, and agave can all be incorporated into beautiful arrangements to last all winter. Construction of a basic topiary tree is relatively simple, and gardeners looking for an indoor project might consider creating a tabletop topiary for their home.

Here’s how we did it:

Liz Rex stuffing the topiary tree frame

Bags of styrofoam peanuts fill the tree frame, covered by a layer of sphagnum moss. You’ll want gloves for the moss—it can be pointy, and a skin irritant.

  1. Stuff it! We started by stuffing cone-shaped frames with bags of styrofoam peanuts. The bags have some give and are relatively lightweight, yet help anchor the plants used to cover the frame. The topiary forest in the Joutras Gallery has a central tree standing 8 feet tall, surrounded by six smaller trees. For the biggest trees we used Sansevieria trifasciata ‘Moonshine’, Sansevieria parva, Cryptanthus fosterianus ‘Elaine’, and Euphorbia stenoclada. A tabletop tree for the home could stand 12 to18 inches tall, and be composed of more delicate air plants (Tillandsia).
  2. It’s a wrap! We took fishing line and wound it around the frame to create a grid for extra support.
  3. Gather moss. Next, we covered the frame with handfuls of sphagnum moss. The moss medium holds moisture needed to keep the plants healthy and happy. If you’re trying this at home, it’s a good idea to wear plastic gloves when handling the moss. You can also use floral oasis foam cut to shape as an alternative to the frame and moss.
  4. Insert plants. We used floral wire and sod staples to poke plants through the moss and into the Styrofoam. For smaller plants, such as the Tillandsia, wrap the wire in an inconspicuous place at the base of the plant, and twist the ends into a pick. Larger plants are held in place with the staples inserted at an angle and hidden by the foliage. Start at either the top or the bottom and work in one direction. Plants should be touching, but not completely overlapping. Place a few plants, step back and look at your work. Your eye will tell you if the plants are too sparse, overcrowded or just right. Spanish moss can help fill in any remaining gaps.
  5. Have fun! Topiary trees allow you to be creative with live plants, and make something really special for your home. The arrangements can last for months if you spritz them with water, and protect them from light and temperature extremes.
    Topiary tree detail

    The jagged white and green stripes of Aloe ‘Delta lights’ contrast with thin-leaved Agave gemniflora and a purple-edged Agave ‘Blue Glow’.

Looking for great combinations to try at home? Here’s what we used:

The 3-foot trees:

  • Tillandsia juncea
  • Garland Tillandsia abdita
  • Cotyledon ‘Orbit’
  • Cryptanthus ‘Ruby’
  • Cryptanthus ‘Pink Starlight’
  • Tillandsia ‘Black Beauty’

The 4-foot trees:

  • Tillandsia harrisii
  • Tillandsia juncea
  • Cryptanthus ‘Pink Starlight’
  • Sempervivum ‘Purple Beauty’
  • Sempervivum tectorum ‘Pilioseum’
  • Agave ‘Rasta Man’
  • Tillandsia bergeri
  • Kalanchoe tomentosa

The 6-foot trees:

  • Aloe ‘Delta lights’
  • Agave ‘Blue Glow’
  • Agave gemniflora
  • The starburst on top is Euphorbia stenoclada
  • Sansevieria trifasciata ‘Moonshine’
  • Agave gemniflora
  • Agave ‘Blue Glow’
  • Aloe ‘Delta Lights’
  • Kalanchoe tomentosa
  • Agave ‘Rasta Man’
  • Haworthia fusciata
  • Sempervivum ‘Purple Beauty’
  • Several different kinds of Tillandsia 

The 8-foot tree:

  • Sansevieria trifasciata ‘Moonshine’
  • Sansevieria parva
  • Cryptanthus fosterianus ‘Elaine’
  • Euphorbia stenoclada

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Star Appeal for the Holidays

Bling in the season with a striking wreath of your own creation!

Adriana Reyneri —  November 14, 2014 — 2 Comments

You don’t have to be Martha Stewart to fashion this charming star-shaped wreath from branches, raffia, zip ties, and a little duct tape.

PHOTO: Heather models the finished star wreath.

Heather models the finished star wreath.

Find additional inspiration with a selection of wreaths created by Chicago Botanic Garden staff in 2013. See this year’s staff wreaths in our Greenhouse Gallery during Wonderland Express

Just follow these step-by-step instructions from Heather Sherwood, one of our very creative senior horticulturists, to get your own star appeal for the holidays. Heather has selected red-twig dogwood (Cornus sericea) for its warm, cheery color, but the star can be made from any combination of branches and natural materials, including evergreens (such as junipers) and corkscrew willows. If taste dictates, you can bling out with bells, bows, glitter, or other embellishments. Here’s how Heather does it:

Difficulty Level: Intermediate
Time Needed: Two Hours

Materials:  

  • Heavy scissors
  • Pruning shears
  • A large working surface
  • Five heavier red-twig dogwood branches roughly 3/8” in diameter, cut into equal lengths. Heather recommends 30-inch lengths for a front door wreath. You can use shorter lengths to make a smaller star. This will use less plant material and may be quicker and easier to assemble. The base can also be constructed of wooden dowels.
  • Five 4-inch lengths of duct tape  (Heather recommends black.)
  • 20 plastic zip ties (Heather likes 6-inch ties, but shorter ones will do.)
  • Five 1½-inch bundles of red-twig dogwood branches cut in roughly 22-inch lengths (or slightly more than two-thirds of the length of the base branches)
  • Five 1½-inch bundles of twigs cut in roughly 11-inch lengths (or slightly more than one-third of the length of the base twigs)
  • Roughly 90 36-inch lengths of raffia
  • An 8-inch length of floral wire to create a loop for hanging
  • A strand of Christmas lights and additional 8-inch lengths of floral wire (optional)


To Make the Base:

You will need the five heavier branches, duct tape, and zip ties:

  1. Connect the five base branches into one long strand, using the duct tape to create “knuckle” joints: Place the end of the first branch 1 inch away from the top of the duct tape. Position the branch so it covers one-third of the width of the strip. Place the second branch opposite the first branch, leaving a gap between the two branches. Wrap the 1-inch end of the duct tape around the branch ends. Take the longer length of duct tape and wind it around the ends in the other direction. The joint should bend at the gap in the tape between the two branch ends. Create three more joints so that the five base branches form one very long, bendy stick.
  2. Twist into a star: Hold each end of the long, connected stick and bend the first and last joints, creating a rough pentagon shape. Fold the right side of the pentagon over, then the left side. The base twigs should fall into a rough star shape.
  3. Create the final joint in the star: Notch both ends of the last piece of duct tape so it resembles a knuckle bandage. Hold the loose ends of the base sticks together, forming the last point in the star. Center the duct tape under this point. Wrap duct tape ends, one by one, around the point.
  4. Check to see that all five arms of the star are level and even. Rotate star to double check spacing of the points. Adjust as needed.
  5. Use zip ties to secure the base: You’ll see that the base branches intersect to create a pentagram in the center of the star. Loosely wrap a zip tie around each of the intersecting branches at each of the five angles of the pentagram, making sure the ties pull to the back of the star. Check again to make sure the star points are level and even. Tighten the zip locks. If you’re using freshly cut wood, remember that it will shrink and lose diameter.
PHOTO: Place two branch ends together with a gap of 1/2 inch, and tape together with duct tape.

When creating the branch joints, leave a gap between the ends when taping them together, so that the finished joint will bend.

PHOTO: Hold both ends of the long, bendy stick to create a rough pentagon shape.

Hold both ends of the long, bendy stick to create a rough pentagon shape.

PHOTO: Cross the ends over to form the star shape.

Cross the ends over to form the star shape; tape the final joint together.

PHOTO: Secure the inner joints of the base star with zip ties.

Secure the inner joints of the base star with zip ties.


Make the top layer:

You will need the longer and shorter bundles of branches, zip ties, raffia, floral wire, and optional Christmas lights.

  1. Start with the longer bundles of twigs: Lay the first bundle along a base branch, positioning the cut edges just past the inner edge of the inner pentagram. The uncut edges should extend 2 to 3 inches past the point of the star. “I want the stems to ooze around the base,” explains Heather. Secure the bundle with zip ties at two points, the middle of the pentagon, and the middle of the star point. Make sure the zip ties pull to the back of the work. Continue around the base branches, so that the pentagram and one side of each star point are covered with branches.  
  2. Secure the shorter twigs. You’ll arrange the shorter twigs in a similar fashion, laying the cut edges on the outside edge of the pentagram with the natural edges covering the star point. Blend the cut edges, to give the star a woven look, and fan out the natural edges to soften each star point. Secure the shorter branches with one zip tie in the center of the star point.
  3. Double-check the placement of the bundles. Tighten and trim the zip ties.
  4. Cover the zip ties with raffia: Heather has chosen a simple look, tying the raffia in the back with a square knot. You may decide to pull the knots to the front, tie the raffia in a bow, substitute ribbon for the raffia, or add other types of embellishments.
  5. Using four to five strands held together, wrap raffia around once and tie in the back. Continue winding the raffia around and around until it completely covers the zip ties and creates a nice, thick band around the bundle. Tie in the back and trim. Continue until all the zip ties are covered.
  6. Use floral wire to create a loop to hang your star.
PHOTO: Start with longer twigs; uncut edges point outwards towards the star tips.

Start with longer twigs; uncut edges point outward toward the star tips.

PHOTO: Continue placing bundles; one to each side of each star point.

Continue placing bundles; one to each side of each star point.

PHOTO: Next, position and secure shorter bundles of twigs until the base is completely covered.

Next, position and secure shorter bundles of twigs until the base is completely covered.

PHOTO: Cover zip ties with raffia.

Cover the zip ties with raffia or ribbon. Knot in back.

Add lights!

You can backlight your wreath by securing a strand of holiday lights along the back of the base branches. Lay the strand along the star outline and secure it with floral wire threaded between the base sticks and the stick bundles.

PHOTO: Add lights by tying them to the back of the frame with floral wire.

Add lights by tying them to the back of the frame with floral wire.

For more holiday decorating ideas, consider Heather’s classes on Holiday Lighting Techniques or Winter Containers at the Garden.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Tomato-licious!

See what we’re harvesting at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden.

PHOTO: An infographic on tomatoes.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

If you’re reading this article, you’re likely familiar with some of the challenges facing older folks: your muscles may get weaker and ache more readily. Falls can do more damage. Your energy and endurance may wane, and your skin may get thinner. Your eyesight and memory many not be as sharp, and your fine motor skills may become less coordinated.

What can the estimated 85 million U.S. gardeners do to continue gardening as they age? Gardening provides so many physical and emotional benefits that it’s well worth pursuing. The activity may even improve problems associated with aging, such as depression, osteoporosis, diabetes, and poor sleep.

PHOTO: Garden volunteer Lauren waters lettuce seedlings in the greenhouses.

Keeping active in the garden is what our volunteers love best.

So let’s explore some ideas that might help you continue gardening despite these challenges. I’ve found that prevention, preparation, positioning, and partners—the four “P’s,” if you will—enable many older gardeners to carry on.

There is no better place to start than prevention. Since recovery takes longer as we age, let’s make sure we have less to recover from. Make a solemn oath not to go out to the garden until you are wearing proper footwear! Even if you plan to just survey the yard while barefoot with your first cup of coffee, danger lurks! Without shoes, you are more likely to fall or sprain an ankle. The damp grass can be slippery, and uneven surfaces can lead to a twisted ankle. Falls can lead to serious complications and are best avoided. 

Take a few minutes to limber up your joints, especially your back and legs, before you start working in the garden. You will be much more comfortable if your muscles are warmed up. Surprising them by pulling a stubborn weed can cause pain and injury that could have been avoided. 

Remember to protect your skin. That means sunscreen, a hat, gloves, and loose, light clothing. Invest in a pair of really good gloves that you will keep on no matter what the task. Cuts and abrasions in the skin of the hands are an invitation to infection. Likewise, protect your eyes from extreme brightness with sunglasses. 

Prevention even applies to the end of a day in a garden. Make sure to put away all tools and to coil all hoses away from walkways. Painting the handles of tools with bright colors make them easier to spot in the garden or lawn. 

Preparation is the next area where the time spent will be repaid handsomely.

PHOTO: A container box planting of rosemary, sage, eggplant, and smaller blooms.

Containers along a path are an elegant solution to reducing overall garden space, and making seasonal plantings easier to maintain.

Begin with a critical appraisal of the areas you tend. Note what you enjoy most as well as what you dread doing. Look at quantities of plant material, and consider the age and condition of your trees and shrubs. This is an opportunity to make some well-considered decisions and create your ideal garden. Whether you implement changes all at once or gradually, your ideal should include your favorite plants and tasks in manageable proportions. 

If you do a lot of pruning regularly, decide if that is pleasurable to you. If not, hunt for some woody plants that maintain their shape naturally. If your perennials have grown into huge beds, decide if you would be just as happy with less. If so, remove your extra perennials and offer to friends or garden clubs. 

If you have been forceful and unsentimental with your removal decisions, you are likely left with some empty areas that need to be filled. This is a critical juncture. In order to avoid swapping one huge garden for another, see if you can cluster your remaining plants into smaller beds. Absorb some of the newfound space with trees or shrubs that provide structural interest, but are low in their demands. Of course, you can always plant more grass, but groundcovers do a nice job with less chemicals and mowing. Another possibility is to begin raising your garden to an easy-to-reach height. Use containers or create raised beds so that you can tend the plants without getting down to ground level. Perhaps all that space where plants have been removed can be re-envisioned as walking paths among containers and beds. 

Positioning is the third area to think about.

As you revise your garden, keep in mind that reaching down to ground level and up over your head are positions that demand a lot of energy. You will tire quickly unless you can work more in the midrange of your reach. Containers and raised beds bring the soil level up nicely. A raised bed that allows a comfortable approach with a knee space for sitting while facing the bed is ideal. A ledge for side sitting works for short periods of gardening. Try using a pulley system to bring hanging containers down to a workable level and then raise them back up again. 

Finally, let’s think about partners.

PHOTO: Two scoop-shaped grip-handled trowels with serrated edges combine two gardening tools into one.

These scoop-shaped, grip-handled trowels with serrated edges combine two gardening tools into one.

Partners in gardening can be human—perhaps hired help for the most demanding or onerous tasks, such as removing weak trees. Partners can also be the wonderful tools that bolster your body’s ability. A tool that has good leverage, sharpened edges, and smooth operation of moving parts is a joy to work with. An increasing number of ergonomic tools are on the market. Look for larger, nonslip grip surfaces, handles that allow for two-handed manipulation, tool holders that distribute the workload over more than one joint, and carriers that keep tools safe and handy. 

Prevention, preparation, positioning, and partners can have you gardening for a lifetime. Such a healthy hobby is worth the time and effort it takes to keep it enjoyable.  

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

PHOTO: Pollinator infographic.