City Guides » Green

Decorate with Martha

Felonious pruning and swaggering misdemeanors


I love fall the most. I truly do. Even if I say in spring that I love spring the most, I love fall the most. A fall like this one, anyway. Too precious to be called Indian Summer, it deserves its own name. Last year, a sudden brutal frost followed quickly upon a merciless late summer, and plants were irrevocably halted in their preferred orderly progression to dormancy. Before leaves could develop the color that signals allocation of energy reserves, the cold sapped the shine out of their greenness, and left them holding uncertainly to a twig or branch as they awaited a gust to finalize the anomalous quality of that year's demise. Even after temps moderated a bit, the biological window for autumn color had closed, and we were reminded of why we must not take for granted the spectacle we're now savoring. The deep undertones of the colors, replete with their experience and knowing, seem to ache with an eloquent desire to be remembered long after the water bill has been paid.

Leaves don't fall in alphabetical order, though the tidy and well-mannered ash is the first. The graceful beech, whose autumn hues are not the most spectacular, would be next if that were so, but its spent food factories hang on to smother emerging spring bulbs in March. The large cherry in my backyard, its ego inflated because of its towering value to the shade-loving shrubs under its canopy, likes to drop a few leaves into the pump reservoir in my midget water feature every day. That brings us to "D", for dogwood, and with its rich burgundy tones, I'm glad it's slow to release. There's plenty of fodder for raking and composting on this site, as we move interminably through maples, oaks and sycamores, though not necessarily in that order. "Tomorrow ..."

"Because," I say to myself when I pass the rake leaning on the gate, "I am a garden professional, I must venture out on numerous fact-finding missions around the neighborhood." How might I sit to write a column on fall colors and home decorations with plant materials if I don't peruse the prospects and pirate a sample here and there? Last year, when I wrote a column on construction of wreaths from plant materials that neither I nor my close neighbors possess, I ventured onto random pruning raids at overgrown sites with no evident maintenance. My husband was unhappy that people could make a positive ID on my truck, so this year, I take his when I leave the immediate area. I prefer local hits, but my rusty wagon squeaks and rattles noisily, and dragging a burlap or onion sack makes people think they should give me old sweaters. I snip no more than I can slip in a pocket or backpack, and carefully if it has thorns.

We, and our peaceful neighbors, the squirrels, have harvested all sorts of bounty from plots both cultivated and wild. Some we cut for vases before the reproductive parts at the base of the blossom grew into rounded and nutritious fruits. Others, such as the crabapples that fall onto the driveway and smell like old beer cans when they're tracked onto the carpet, have matured into orbs of exquisite color, and gathered in brilliant profusions that cry out to become wreaths, swags and table arrangements. OK, some of you hear them saying other words, and some of you don't hear them saying anything. I pity you.

The sounds coming from the mailbox are the sounds of trees that have suffered and died to produce catalogs full of "holiday savings." (And full of other stuff, too.) I look through a couple of them to congratulate myself on the gorgeous things I've created in my garage workshop for much less than the prices Black Blossom Ranch asks for theirs. With the forms from the crafts store, or skeletons from past years' arrangements, or in various buckets or baskets from the thrift store, perfectly lovely gifts and decorations can be cranked out on a rainy afternoon of Buffalo Springfield, Irish lattes and M&M's.

The plant material that lasts the longest and has the most dazzle: sprigs of berries and fruits from crabs, hawthorns, Oregon grape, cotoneaster, pyracantha, junipers, holly, dogwood and rosehips, especially Bonica and Golden Showers. Evergreens, of both conifer and broadleaf types, will hold up in a dry arrangement or even longer in water. Sprays of baby's breath, German statice, yarrow and sea lavender are elegant finishes. A simple stand of redtwig dogwood is quite appealing, and twigs of this plant in conifer wreaths provide the cheery red so welcome in dark winter. Arrangements in water will freeze and thaw outside, so the container must not be brittle or it will break. A metal bucket works great, especially with rocks in the bottom to weigh it down.

A modest assortment of florist wire, twist ties in neutral colors and garden twine will anchor items to forms. For standing arrangements in water, as with floral bouquets, remove the foliage below the water line to reduce the decomposition rate. The grape vine wreath and swag forms at the crafts shop are easy to work with, because there are numerous cracks and crannies to shove stems in, but remember that the stems will shrink and shift as they dry.

I purchased a plastic wall-mounted container in which I arrange fir, spruce, juniper, crab sprigs, redtwigs and a large bow. I looped a string of lights around it, and for a fraction of the cost of buying one, I have an arrangement that lasts until I remember to throw it out before Easter. If my attorney can talk the judge into reducing my fine, my husband gives me back the keys to my truck, and I can do my community service hours pruning in the Highlands, I can reduce the costs of this years' arrangements to only 10 times as much as they are in the Stiff and Gawkin' catalogs.

Linda Jarsky is a master gardener, certified arborist, landscape designer and marketing director for DG Nursery and Turf. Questions and comments may be directed to LJ at