Over the river and through the woods you trekked to find the perfect, most lush Christmas tree (okay, maybe you drove to the nearest retail lot and pointed at that one). Now that you picked your evergreen, how do you make it last through the holidays (and possibly even longer)?
Keeping your tree fresh isn’t hard—most can live up to a month—as long as you follow some simple rules of evergreen thumb. Get it? Horticulturist Tom Weaver explains how to get the most life out of your tree in a few easy steps.
Pick a fresh tree
If you’re shopping for pre-cut live trees at a nursery or retail lot, never buy a bagged tree, says Weaver. It’s harder to know whether the tree is fresh if it’s wrapped in netting. The best way to tell which pre-cut tree will last longest is to do the “shake test.” Grab a tree by its trunk and give it a little jostle. If more than handful of the tree’s needles fall off, you may want to keep looking. Also, make sure the needles are firm, flexible, and dark green—not dry, brown, and brittle. Firs keep their needles longest, but there are many kinds of evergreens to choose from.
Give the stump a fresh cut
If you purchase a tree at a location less than 20 minutes from your home, ask for the tree stump to be cut ½ to 1 inch while at the retailer. If you’re commuting more than 20 minutes with tree in tow, make the cut yourself at home. When a tree sits in a lot, its stump creates a callus to prevent it from losing water and sap. A fresh cut allows the tree to absorb water more easily. Make sure the cut is perpendicular, not at an angle or pointed.
As soon as you get your tree home, plunge it in a bucket of room-temperature water until you’re ready to put it in a tree stand. Make sure the tree stand reservoir can hold enough water for the size of tree you picked—Christmas trees generally drink a quart of water a day per 1 inch diameter of the tree’s stem. Most drink up to a gallon a day. Don’t let the water dish run dry!
To feed or not to feed?
Although some tree experts say water is plenty, Weaver recommends adding Christmas tree food to the mix. “Think of it as a giant cut flower,” said Weaver. “You’ll have better luck extending the life of your tree with some food.”
Step away from the heat
Though you’ll likely want to snuggle up next to the fire to gaze lovingly at your tree, the tree doesn’t share this wish. Position it far away from any heat source (fireplaces, furnaces, radiators, and heating vents), because heat speeds up the drying out process. Not only will that mean your tree will die sooner, but a dry tree is also a big fire hazard. Show your tree some love by keeping it in a cool place, and you’ll enjoy its piney scent through the New Year.
With just a bit of effort, you can make your holiday table warm and inviting—and a worthy backdrop for your meal.
Nancy Clifton, former program specialist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, shared some easy, crafty ideas harvest-inspired centerpieces.
A Festive Look
Here’s how you can make Thanksgiving-themed floral centerpieces like a pro:
Pick flowers in autumn colors. Buy a few bunches of flowers in different fall colors and textures. Nancy chose red roses, yellow mums, red-yellow mums, and hypericum berries to give the arrangements some variety.
Paint Thanksgiving mason jars. If you want to up your Thanksgiving game, paint your vases in holiday colors such as brown, orange, and ivory. Nancy used craft paint on mason jars, and sanded the lettering on the jars to give them a vintage look.
Save time by measuring flowers. Nancy’s time-saving hack is to trim one flower with pruners and remove foliage at the bottom of the stem. Place that flower in the mason jar vase. If you’re happy with the height, remove the flower and use it as a measuring tool to trim the rest of your flowers.
Fancy Pumpkin Planters
Add a natural look to your table with pumpkin succulent centerpieces. The best part? You can repurpose and eat parts of them when you’re done.
Gather the basic tools and ingredients. Grab a hot-glue gun, reindeer moss, and floral picks. Gather small- and medium-sized pumpkins (you will want several), a succulent container, bunches of kale, and cabbages.
Assemble the planters. Cut the ends off of your succulents so they have a flat base, and set them aside. Adhere moss to the top of your medium-sized pumpkins with your hot-glue gun. Once the glue is dried, add the succulents on top of the moss, and adhere with hot glue or floral picks.
Arrange your centerpiece. When the pumpkins are dried, place them in the center of a large decorative tray. Add smaller pumpkins, bunches of kale, and cabbages to tray, arranging them in a bountiful display. You can even paint the stems of your small pumpkins with glitter-paint to give them extra-fancy glitz.
Add an intimate glow
Improvise! Try adding pumpkin planters, candles, and string lights to the centerpiece to bring a warm, enchanting feel.
Tiny hands, belonging to a class of third graders, carefully fold rulers into squares and rest them on a grassy meadow near the Dixon Prairie. Inside these 2-by-2-foot quadrants is a fantastical world to discover: the height of different species of plants, the temperature of the soil, the wind and the sun, and the climate of the lawn.
The children have a mission on this blustery October morning, an adventure in the far reaches of the Chicago Botanic Garden, where a yellow school bus opens its doors to a field trip inside the life of a Garden scientist.
Prairie Pondering is just one of the Garden’s guided field trips, where students from Chicago area schools can experience the day-to-day work of a Garden ecologist. Trained Garden volunteers engage students in guided field trips from September to June. They use the same tools as horticultural scientists, take samples in the field, and ask questions that Garden experts examine on a daily basis. The goal of the field trips is to create real-life opportunities for students to have fun with science outside of their classroom walls, said Drew Wehrle, the Garden’s coordinator of student field trips.
To get their hands dirty, so to speak.
“What are the biotic—or living—things affecting the prairie?” asked a Garden volunteer during Prairie Pondering. Students scribble answers in their notebooks: sun, wind.
“What does the soil look and smell like?” More answers: dry, smells bad.
“What is the temperature of the soil? Why do you think it’s different from the temperature in the air?”
One girl watches her thermometer fluctuate from 77 to 76 degrees. “The temperature is changing!” And so begins an early, hard lesson about Chicago weather.
As the group moves on to the prairie, the children are asked to consider the many different plants they’ve found. One girl counts 100, another 200. One boy points out a milkweed plant that reminds him of the game Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare.
“The point of the field trips is less about botanical expertise and more about asking the kids to consider why they think a plant looks or behaves the way it does,” Wehrle said.
Each of the guided field trips is crafted to fulfill age-appropriate state Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), so students get to explore while also engaging with ideas that complement what they’re already learning in the classroom. Guided field trips include a range of botanical and nature topics, including The Wonders of Worms and Soil, Lake Investigations, Water Bugs, and Tree Detectives. Field trips are offered for third grade through high school students, and can be guided or self-directed. Self-guided field trips allow groups of all ages to explore while their teachers direct them on independent activities.
Towering palms, bold swaths of color, and tropical plants have transformed the Chicago Botanic Garden into an exotic paradise this year for Brazil in the Garden.
To create the “Brazil effect,” floriculturist Tim Pollak and Andrew Bunting, the Garden’s assistant director and director of plant collections, drew from designs by renowned Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, who was known for his bold, modernist style.
We talked with Pollak and Bunting to learn how you can grow a Brazil-inspired tropical garden.
1. Find color in foliage
Burle Marx used bold, bright colors such as purple, orange, and green in his gardens. When planting your garden, Pollak recommended choosing foliage plants with various shades of green. Foliage tones are endless: silvers, blues, bronze, and burgundy. Foliage plants can also bring out the colors of flowers, and vice versa. For instance, if your garden’s foliage is silver, blue, and purple, pops of white flowers will enhance the foliage colors. “Remember,” Pollak said, “there are no rules when it comes to color.” Complementary or monochromatic schemes are subject to taste. But gardens can still be attractive without flowers. Instead, think of flowers as icing on the cake.
2. Use contrasting textures and shapes
Burle Marx was known for using large swaths of contrasting textures and forms in his landscape designs. Get the Burle Marx effect by choosing plants with various surfaces and shapes. For instance, Pollak said to think about the foliage of your plant—is it shiny or muted? Waxy or fuzzy? Is the venation (patterns of veins on the leaf) netted or in parallel lines? Are the shapes of the leaves long and thin, or short and wide? When shopping at your local garden center or nursery, follow Pollak’s trick: Lay your plants next to each other on your cart or on the floor. You’ll see which plants have different styles, which create a lush, biodiverse mood in your garden.
3. Think: thrillers, fillers, and spillers
Pollak and Bunting often advise gardeners to think “thrillers, fillers, and spillers” when planning their garden design. By using a combination of these kinds of plants, you can easily create a varied garden design. Here’s a breakdown of the three types:
Thrillers: Tall plants are your “wow factors.” They’re dramatic, and stand out in your garden. Think of these plants as conversation starters. Pollak and Bunting recommend palms (Arecaceae), elephant ears (Colocasia), and cannas (Canna generalis) for Brazil-themed “thrillers.”
Fillers: Medium-sized plants fill space in your garden. They can be interesting foliage plants or flowers, or flowers with interesting foliage. Pollak and Bunting recommend Persian shield (Strobilanthes dyerianus) and firecracker plants (Cuphea ignea) for Brazil-themed “fillers.”
Spillers: Low plants spill out of a container, or trail along the foot of your garden bed. Pollak and Bunting recommend sweet potato plants (Ipomoea batata) and purple spiderwort (Tradescantia pallida) for Brazil-themed “spillers.”
4. Create repetition for effect
When arriving at the Garden’s Visitor Center, you might imagine you’ve landed in Miami. Rows of swaying coconut palms, towers of bromeliads, and beds of elephant ears greet visitors as they walk through the Garden. The tropical illusion is deliberate: We repeated similar plants in our beds to broaden the Garden’s designs, making small spaces look larger. In your own garden, you can use swaths of similar plants in rows or curving shapes. The result may transport you to the tropics.
5. Add a touch of tropics
Planting a tropical-themed garden doesn’t require you to use 100 percent tropical plants, said Bunting, but a few plants can have an impact. To create a Brazil-themed garden, do as Burle Marx did: Find plants within your reach. That is, at your local garden center or nursery, find palms or other tropical plants that can be brought inside for the winter. To care for tropical plants, keep in mind they thrive in heat and humidity, and need plenty of moisture. Use supplementary fertilizer to keep them healthy and thriving. And remember, if you want the tropical effect without tropical plants, there are plenty of ways to think creatively by using bold houseplants, annuals, and perennials.
Learn more about the flora and fauna of Brazil in our upcoming conservation talks, held on the following Thursdays from 2 to 3 p.m. in the Linnaeus Room, Regenstein Center.
This summer, the Chicago Botanic Garden is transforming—with tall coconut palm trees and other iconic plants of Brazil, inspired by the designs of renowned Brazilian landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx.
The making of Brazil in the Garden started with an unlikely source, a family’s brick townhouse in Philadelphia.
Two members of the Garden’s design team visited the townhouse last summer, not sure what to expect. What they found was a treasure trove of original work by Burle Marx (1909–94), including stacks of rare, numbered lithographs, rolled tapestries too large to hang, and framed paintings. Some of the pieces, which had never been on public display, are now part of an exclusive Burle Marx exhibition at the Garden.
The collection had been in private hands, owned by landscape architect Conrad Hamerman and kept on the third story of his townhouse. When Hamerman died in 2014, his family inherited the pieces. Hamerman was a close friend of Burle Marx, and represented his work in the United States; Burle Marx gave him the pieces as gifts and as payment for his services.
Through a contact, the Garden’s exhibition manager Gabriel Hutchison and senior designer Nancy Snyder met with Hamerman’s wife and daughter in Philadelphia to discuss Burle Marx’s artistic legacy and his friendship with Conrad Hamerman. The Garden’s Burle Marx exhibition reveals a rare glimpse of Burle Marx as an artist known for his bold colors, abstract shapes, and modernist style.
Hutchison and Snyder spent two days reviewing and evaluating the material for possible exhibition. “The collection was so much more diverse than I had imagined—sketches, oil paintings, landscape plans, and painted canvas wall hangings,” Snyder said. “This was really an honor to work on, and all along it felt like exhibiting the work was a suitable tribute to the rich friendship between the Hamermans and Roberto Burle Marx.”
Hamerman and Burle Marx met as young men in Brazil. Hamerman was a landscape designer who wanted to become an artist, and Burle Marx was an artist who wanted to become a landscape designer. Above all, they were both avid plant people. Their mutual love of plants, art, and design formed the basis of a lasting friendship that inspired them to travel on many expeditions to collect plants together.
“Conrad was a professional colleague of Roberto’s and collaborated with him a lot,” said Hutchison. “Over the years they became close friends, and although Conrad enjoyed doing his own work, I think he was most passionate about working with Roberto.”
The two even taught university courses together, which is where landscape architect Andrew Durham first encountered Burle Marx’s work. A former student and family friend of Hamerman’s, Durham arranged the loan of pieces from the family’s personal collection for the Garden’s exhibition.
“One thing that made Hamerman unique as a professor was his close friendship with Roberto Burle Marx,” said Durham. “Our class traveled for a month to Brazil, where Burle Marx personally showed us his gardens. That trip changed many of us forever, and I’ve embedded in my own work much of what I learned from Burle Marx’s use of texture and color.”
Though known for revolutionizing tropical landscape design, Burle Marx also worked in other artistic mediums. The paintings and textiles at the Garden exhibition showcase his style of vast swaths of bold hues, cubist influences, and contrasting fabrics.
See the Roberto Burle Marx exhibition, open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the Regenstein Center, Joutras Gallery, through September 10, 2017.
Throughout the Garden, we’re paying tribute to the vibrant spirit of Brazil. Look for samba on the Esplanade, the Brazilian national cocktail in the Garden View Café, cool plants including striking Bismarck palms, and much more. See Brazil in the Garden—throughout the Garden—through October 15, 2017.