Tips on pruning, holiday arrangements

  • Many gardeners think the best time for pruning is in January or February, but experts at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle say you can do some of the work in November and December, too.

    Many gardeners think the best time for pruning is in January or February, but experts at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle say you can do some of the work in November and December, too. Courtesy of Morton Arboretum

  • "Some of the best holiday arrangements can come from your garden," says Abbie Rea, the Morton Arboretum's assistant manager of horticulture.

    "Some of the best holiday arrangements can come from your garden," says Abbie Rea, the Morton Arboretum's assistant manager of horticulture. Courtesy of Morton Arboretum

 
Published12/25/2009 12:07 AM

Sometimes, you get more than you asked for.

As is frequently the case when I call an expert from the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, I get a great answer, and then a bonus idea.

 

Take my question for Abbie Rea, the arboretum's assistant manager of horticulture. I wondered what a typical homeowner could gather from the backyard to make a fabulous holiday arrangement. Not only did I get great tips, but here's the bonus: you can prune your trees and shrubs right now.

Maybe this was obvious to everyone else, but I had always lived by the notion that pruning had to be done in the dead of January or February. You force yourself out in the shivering cold, hands numb, and hack off the errant limbs and branches. Then - the most aggravating part - you try to figure out where to put the clippings.

Yard waste pickup in my town doesn't start until April and I've always had to smuggle any bits of branches out in the regular garbage. Hiding an oak tree limb under a pizza box is neither subtle nor smart.

Thus, Rea solved two problems at once.

"You can prune now," she said. "Some of the best holiday arrangements can come from your garden."

With few exceptions, trees and shrubs have gone dormant once they've lost their leaves. This means you can prune in November and December as well as January and February.

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"Now is a good time because you don't have a lot of snow or ice," says Rea.

She cautions that pruning should always be done according to the plant's needs first. Prune for the health and shape of the plant, then use whatever you've got for decoration.

In a single arrangement, Rea suggests "sticking to one or two types of greens." Boxwood, long-needled evergreens, juniper, arborvitae, and English ivy are good candidates.

"Stay away from greens such as spruce, which can be messy," she cautions.

Pair evergreen sprigs with persistent fruit on pruned branches of crabapples, or stems of shrub roses with colorful red hips. Seed heads on coneflowers and other plants, when sprayed with floral preservative, can be effective.

"Typical garden sage is a nice filler," says Rea. "Oak leaf hydrangea has leaves that persist."

For more accents, you can always add grocery store produce with staying power such as apples, pomegranates and walnuts.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

You also can eke another display from your outdoor containers. If your pots are winter-proof, arrange longer pruned branches in the unfrozen soil. You can spray paint branches gold or silver along with any woody parts left from summer or autumn plantings. Add ornaments, or colorful fruit for the birds.

Garden prunings also can find their way into unusual containers just for the winter. Pack some twigs into the back of a decorative Santa sleigh. No room for the wheelbarrow in the garage? Fill it with an arrangement of garden clippings, artfully arranged. Swags and wreaths can be made from twisted vines or evergreen boughs.

Like all arrangements, some plants will last longer than others. English ivy, grass inflorescence, and fern fronds have staying power, says Rea. Crabapples start to shrivel within a month or so.

"But generally, you tire of the arrangement before it gives up on you," she says.

Looking for inspiration? The Morton Arboretum displays beautiful outdoor containers with winter arrangements in Arbor Court near the Visitor Center, throughout the Children's Garden, and in many unexpected nooks and crannies. Visit the arboretum and then grab your pruners and go.

• Cathy Maloney writes for The Morton Arboretum. Visit the arboretum's Web site at www.mortonarb.org for a listing of winter and holiday events.

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