Sunday, December 23, 2012

Monday, December 17, 2012

Christmas for the Birds

birdseed-ornament-and-orange-cup on a tree

Christmas is for the birds or at least it should be when it comes to treats. With all the holiday goodies popping up in offices and homes everywhere this time of year, our feathered friends in the garden certainly deserve their fair share.

I’ve always wanted to make holiday treats for the wild birds and finally got my act together this past weekend. After all, I live in a subdivision where all the streets are named for birds. What could possibly be a more appropriate way to celebrate the season?

The treats I recently made are described below. Several are suitable for children while others, such as the edible bird seed ornaments, definitely require parental guidance.

Orange cups
orange-cup-for bird-seed

Cut oranges in half and scoop out the middle. Poke four evenly spaced  holes around the edge of the orange using a wooden or metal skewer. Cut yarn or string in 12" pieces. Poke the string through each hole and tie it so the string doesn’t slip out. Repeat with the remaining holes. Knot the top ends together. Fill with bird seed and hang on the tree.

These are especially colorful although the process can be a bit messy. You may want to do these near a sink or on some towels. I used red cotton/hemp string to make it a bit more colorful.

Bagel feeder
Cut one stale bagel in half.  Mix together 2 teaspoons of peanut butter and 2 teaspoons of shortening. Spread the mixture on each bagel half. Pour bird seed on a plate. Press each bagel half, peanut butter/shortening side down, onto the plate. Put a string through the middle of the bagel and hang on tree.

Peanut butter pine cones




Find plain pine cones. Wrap a string around the bottom so it can be hung from a tree.  Mix peanut butter with a little bit of vegetable oil. Spoon it into the pine cone’s crevices. Roll in bird seed and hang. You can also add raisins, other fruit or nuts.  I used some of the leftovers on the bagel feeder shown above.

Log feeders

Don’t forget that some birds are ground feeders. I mixed some peanut butter with oatmeal and spread the mixture on the rough bark side of a split log. The log was placed under the tree where the rest of the ornaments were hung.

Bird seed Christmas ornaments

These are probably the most complicated treats as they involve some cooking.

        1 package of unflavored gelatin           Drinking straws cut in 2" pieces
        ½ cup hot water                                   Cookie cutter or cupcake pan
        ¾ cup of flour                                       Cookie sheet
        3 tablespoons of corn syrup                  Waxed paper
        4 cups of birdseed

Pour flour into the birdseed and mix.  Heat the water and dissolve the unflavored gelatin in it. Add corn syrup.  Pour water/gelatin mix into the birdseed /flour and stir. It will have the consistency of newly mixed Rice Krispie marshmallow bars.

Put wax paper on the cookie sheet and choose a cookie cutter that does not have a top. Grease the insides of the cookie cutter and place on the wax paper. Fill the cookie cutter about halfway full or put a thick layer in the bottom of the cupcake tins. Press down hard and I do mean hard! Use the straws to poke a hole where you want the string to go. Refrigerate at least overnight.

This made 6 rather large gingerbread men. I also made some Christmas trees with a second batch, but the weight of them proved to be too much for the hole. I ended up tying them up with colorful string and hanging them on the tree that way. (See photo above.) When I make my next batch, I will probably use a smaller shape, like a star, and put the hole in the middle.
The Finished Tree

It took the neighborhood birds a while to realize the treats were there. By the time my son came home from school today, though, he found the pear tree had turned into Party Central! (Now if only I can figure out how to attract a patridge....)

I hope you’ll try making at least one of these treats with wild bird food this holiday season. They make a colorful display in the yard and also make great gifts for the bird lover on your list.  Either way, the birds will thank you.

By Karen Geisler

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Meet Me Under the Kissing Ball

Kissing Ball
I’ve never cared much for mistletoe at Christmas. A kissing ball, though, now that’s a different story.

Not that I need a kissing ball in my life, mind you. (Although after 25 years of marriage, it probably wouldn’t hurt either.)

No, I like the idea of a kissing ball. Festive greens hanging on a colorful ribbon. An excuse for smooches, hugs and a little PDA (Public Display of Affection) around the holidays. What’s not to like?

Somehow I’ve just never gotten around to buying or making a kissing ball. I've vowed to shake things up a bit this Christmas, though, so it went straight to the top of my to-do list.

Mistletoe goes way back to the ancient Greeks and the Druids. Both used mistletoe -- thought to symbolize fertility and power -- during their celebrations of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year.

The tradition evolved. Evergreens were added. During the Middle Ages, anyone standing under the mistletoe could not object to being kissed. And anyone who wasn't kissed under the mistletoe supposedly wasn't going to be married in the next year. Or so the story went.

The Victorians updated the tradition a bit more, adding herbs. The kissing ball reached the height of its popularity although it has made a comeback in recent years.

So how to get a kissing ball? I thought initially about trimming the boxwoods in my back yard.  But they’re only a few years old and I loathe cutting back anything that’s still green in my garden this time of year. So it was off to my favorite nursery/garden shop.

Red berries for a kissing ball
Red berries, red ribbon and cedar
I gathered up some oregonia, which is like boxwood but with white and green leaves, and a packet of (fake) red berries. Then I visited a craft store for some ribbon and a base. There wasn't any floral foam to be found, at least in a ball shape. Floral foam gets soaked in water and would have kept the greens from drying out. I checked other stores, but came away empty handed so I reluctantly went with Styrofoam.

Kissing ball base with straw and skewer
The process of making a kissing ball turned out to be much more involved than I had anticipated. I put a metal barbecue skewer through the middle of the ball, then used the skewer to guide a drinking straw. That, unfortunately, was the easiest part.
Next, I  cut some transparent ribbon, enough to make a loop at the top and have some dangling below the ball. I pushed the ribbon through the straw using the same metal skewer. Then, I put a knot on the bottom where the ribbon came out in order to secure the ball.

I started cutting oregonia and putting it all around the foam ball. Using a toothpick to make a hole before inserting the evergreen sprig made things go much faster. The more oregonia I put on the ball, however, the more the bottom knot in the ribbon seemed to slip. I ended up putting a toothpick in the bottom knot to make it hold better.

A toothpick at the bottom helped
keep the knot tight
After I had covered the entire ball with a spotty layer of oregonia, I added some cedar leftover from my winter container and some trimmings from the Frasier fir we had bought as a Christmas tree.
Then I went back and filled in the bare spots. And filled in the bare spots. And filled in even more bare spots.
The final touch: Adding berries all over and some thin gold and light green ribbon at the bottom.

Total time elapsed: 5 hours

Well, I had been halfway watching some of the Sunday morning political talk shows when I started but the total amount of time did take me aback. Maybe it was because I hadn't made a kissing ball before. 
I'm happy with the result although the jury is still out on whether or not it boosts the amount of kissing in our household this Christmas. Even Nate Silver probably couldn't call this one.

By Karen Geisler

Monday, December 3, 2012

Ten Steps to Great Winter Containers

Winter container garden with fresh evergreen (Photo credit: Karen Geisler)
With the start of December, it's time to go full speed ahead on everything Christmas -- even if the temperatures in Chicago are near 60 degrees. For me, that means decorating the front door with a container full of fresh evergreen branches.

I still customize and hang a wreath as I've done for more Christmases than I'd care to admit. A winter container garden, though, is a recent addition and has proven to be a nice complement.  It was a bit intimidating at first, but with a few helpful hints from my co-workers, the pots have started looking better and better.

Tip #1 -- Use many different types of evergreens. Spruce and pine are all well and good, but other evergreens can add different colors, textures and fragrance. The more the merrier!

Tip #2 -- Use topsoil, not potting soil, in your winter container. Topsoil is heavier and therefore much better at holding evergreen stems upright.

Tip #3 -- Make it your own. Add berries and other natural materials. Throw some glitter in the mix. Or omit red to make it more of a generic winter pot. It's all up to you.

Below is the official Chalet Nursery winter container "recipe" formulated by horticulturalist Jennifer Brennan. Its 10 easy steps will help you add a classy touch to your home's entrance in no time flat.

Ingredients:            Spruce tops, small or medium
      White pine tips
      Noble fir tips
      Port Orford cedar
Blueberry juniper
Incense cedar
Winterberry and red twig dogwood 

Tools needed:         Top soil, placed in container and watered
                                    Polyurethane container
                                    Pruning shears
                                    Wire cutters
Step by step directions:
  1. Select a spruce top that is twice the height of your container and insert into the middle of the container.
  2. Insert 3 more spruce tops that are shorter than the first, placing one in each third of the surrounding area. This is your “foundation,” the basic form of your arrangement.
  3. Select 5 white pine cuttings to insert through out the spruce top foliage for texture and color variation.
  4. Add 3-5 Noble fir tips.
  5. Accent with 3-5 Port Orford cedar tips for an arching soft shape and for the lemon scent it provides.
  6. Place 3-5 incense cedar tips throughout the arrangement to accent with the yellow color; one in the middle of the arrangement, 1-2 cascading over the edge of the pot, and 1 echoing the central spruce top.
  7. Do the same with blueberry juniper if desired.
  8. Use 5 redtwig dogwood stems as color extensions, placed throughout the arrangement.
  9. Place 3 winterberry stems for the final accent. Use as you would use lipstick – the focal point, to draw the eye into the most interesting part of the arrangement. You can also add pine cones, lotus pods, eucalyptus and other materials.
  10. Spray the entire arrangement with Wilt-Pruf (to prevent drying) and place outside to enjoy until March.
Yes, that's right -- March. A few branches may turn brown, but most of the arrangement should last until you can almost smell spring in the air. For the best results, try planting some miniature evergreen trees in your pots and generously water them in.

In the picture above, I kept the arrangement low because my container, the base on an old fountain, was shallow and already pretty high. It includes white pine, Noble fir, Port Orford cedar, incense cedar, red twig dogwood, huckleberry stems, seeded eucalyptus, lotus pods and some red balls.

A note about containers: Use one made of metal, resin, plastic or concrete. If you use ceramic or terra cotta, it could crack if the soil has water in it and freezes.

Picture below are some pictures of winter container gardens done by Chalet. How do you decorate your front door for the holidays?

Winter pot with winterberries by Chalet Specialty Garden Care staff

Winter pot with blue eucalyptus and white sticks by Chalet's Specialty Garden Care staff

Winter container garden with oregonia and orange berries by Chalet's Specialty Garden Care staff
Winter container gardens with dogwood and winterberry by Chalet's Specialty Garden Care staff

By Karen Geisler