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Making Sweet Grass Baskets

sweet grass basket how-toLeave it to the Experts

When I visited the open market in Charleston I was drawn immediately to the sweet grass basket weavers. The stacks of baskets next to the women had a refined quality not present in any other hand woven basket I have seen. The wrappings looked like strips of veneered wood and the bundles of stems they secured had smooth uniform diameters. Picking up and handling the baskets was a surprise. The feel was solid and strong. Then I noticed the prices. Yikes! $50 for a medium sized basket and $25 for a token souvenir. I left without a basket.

Later, I found out that the baskets are made with common marsh grasses that grow in the swamps. Very few people sell the finished baskets online. When they do, the prices are sky high. I also learned that the swamps were full of alligators. The extreme prices began to make sense to me!

I have since seen exquisite examples of sweet grass basket weaving. The beauty of the contrasting light grass bundles and dark, woody windings appealed to me. I began to so some research, hoping I might be able to make a basket on my own. I wanted to duplicate the examples or even create innovative new containers using the same technique.


Promise of a New Year

winter blooming perennial

At just about the time I have given up on life and the land, the Hellebores begin to perform. How does such a broad-leaved species not wither in the deep freeze? Instead, the foliage takes on new life and sends out blooms! No wonder it is called a Lenten Rose. My faith in a returning spring is renewed.

If you are lucky enough to have a few Hellebores plants, save the seeds to make even more next year. Because new plants can be easily grown from seed, you need to be prepared for variations in the results, from deep purple to almost white. More is better, because you will want to use the flowers in arrangements. The purple-tinged chartreus blooms go with every color scheme. The flowers are long-lasting and substantial in size and turgidity. The weight of the blooms causes them to nod on their stems.

The blooms hide from you, hovering under the foliage. It is such a nice surprise to discover them each January or February! The foliage is evergreen in the south, staying under two feet tall.

There are a lot of hybrids that offer reliable color choices. 

What to Do with Old Holiday Lights

Continue the Cheer Year-round

old holiday light sets reusedDo you have a bunch of old, outdoor holiday lights that are languishing in boxes? It’s hard to throw them out, isn’t it? You can give them new life as an outdoor light sculpture. String them along a garden fence to turn them from obsolete to artistic—your own light-infused Jackson Pollock! Use chalk to draw your lines and wrap the strings around screws or nails to create cheerful, linear, garden illumination. Tuck away and secure any sections that won’t light (That’s probably why they were stored away in the first place). Run only a few sets per extension cord to avoid blowing fuses. Creating an outdoor light sculpture gives useless, old strings of light a new purpose. The wires remain untangled, in case you ever decide to use the light sets again, and they are no longer taking up space in closets. When the time comes, and it will, when the final bulb fades to darkness, you can throw the sets away guilt-free, knowing you have used them to their fullest potential. Recycled lights can have one last moment of glory as free-form fence art.  what to do with old holiday lights


Holiday Foliage from Your Own Yard

Fresher, More Colorful, and Free!

free holiday foliageWhy pay for special holiday foliage to simulate the real thing, when the real thing is in your own back yard? Look around to see if there is potential greenery in your landscape plants. Some species work better than others, but anything you cut needs to be conditioned for a day or two, outdoors, in water, before bringing it inside for decorating. A good way to do this is to fill large lawn bags with water and store cuttings outside overnight. This cleans the foliage and allows the stems to last longer on the mantel or tablescape.

Here are some home-grown favorites that work reliably well:

An Evergreen Perennial Star

Berggarten Sage

favorite perennials, evergreen perennialsThis semi-herbaceous/semi-woody herb is an extraordinary performer. And, yes, there are two “G’s” in the name. Typically, I wouldn’t recommend an herb for commercial landscape projects, but this one doubles as a fine evergreen ground cover as well as a culinary flavoring. It forms thick mats of bright green, thick foliage that morphs to grey in the winter. Wait until early spring to prune back old, woody growth, just as you should for all herb plants. Pruning in the fall can open stems to moisture and decay.

If you have colorful conifers nearby, Berggarten sage is a perfect counterpoint. The contrast of pale, purplish-blue-grey looks striking next to lime golds, pinks, and oranges. The leaves are much wider than regular garden sage, too. Regular garden sage burns out and goes spindly at the end of fall, but Berggarten sage revives and thrives with the change of seasons.

You will love this plant so much, you’ll want more of it. That’s simple. Just root the long, thin, old growth when you prune in the spring. 

Saving Money on Wedding Flowers

Set Goals to Establish Design Direction

save on wedding flowers, cost-conscious weddingsYou can save a lot of money on wedding flowers by first determining their purpose in the celebration. Of course, if the function of the flowers is to pretend you and your family have money to burn, then don’t bother reading the rest of this article. When did joining two people in holy matrimony become a spending contest? Good floral design doesn’t have to be costly, and obscenely expensive wedding decorations are in poor taste. They detract from the celebration, rather than elevate it.

Young brides are pressured into pretending to be financial princesses through popular media and industry professionals out to profit from the family’s naiveté.  Wedding florals are there to provide proof of the couple’s love, not the size of their pocketbook. Their purpose is to create a special, unique look for a single moment in time—just a few hours. The whole beauty of fresh flowers is their ephemeral nature. The design can be done in a cost-effective manner, without waste and with the understanding that the event is temporary in nature. Not to worry! Photographs can preserve the moment for the future.

About Flowers

professional flower design, wedding basket of flowersI am a plant nerd. My fascination started at summer camps and state parks, touring woodland wildflower trails with experts on edible natives and shady stream ephemerals. In college I was motivated to study landscape architecture after being inspired by Mary Wharton, my professor and author of A Guide to the Wildflowers & Ferns of Kentucky and Trees & Shrubs of Kentucky, books I still refer to today. During my landscape architecture internship, Michael Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants: Their Identification, Ornamental Characteristics, Culture, Propagation and Uses was the essential reference in the landscape industry, and I read it cover to cover. It was such a privilege to hear so many great plant experts speak, and even better to visit their home gardens.

My background is in landscape architecture with a strong emphasis on horticulture. I did a lot of industrial campus plans and municipal work before being hired to review landscape design plans for a state department of transportation, and I worked, early in my career, on large-scale planting and irrigation plans. I did lots of residential work, too. I got to know the green industry and gained practical experience in how to keep plants alive and maintain them. You get to know plant species after specifying several hundred of them on a single site! My work with the department included helping with the wildflower program. I even designed one of the state’s wildflower tags.

purple coneflower tag, wildflowers

I love flowers and garden-clubbing! Several years ago I went through the Nations Council of State Garden Clubs, Inc. flower show judging school to learn how to arrange flowers. I was lucky enough to create two exhibits for the Southeaster Flower Show, back in its glory days, for work. Much of my experience, though, is in using flowers in professional landscape designs, rather than greenhouse-grown florals.

What do I want to tell you about flowers?

• Seasonal changes transform a landscape, and this is most noticeable and dramatic when herbaceous floral plants are used.

• Flower blooms are transient in nature. That’s part of their beauty. I’ll write an article about artificial flowers one of these days.

• It’s easy to grow flowers all year round as long as you pick the tried-and-true species and provide the right setting.

The devil is in the details, though!

I want to share as much as I can with you about what I’ve learned over the years, but you can find detailed information in my Advanced Guide to Flowers eBook, coming soon. Until then, keep reading articles on the website, and join our email list for updates. I would love to hear your comments and about your roadside enhancement stories and experiences, too.

Advanced Guide to Flowers







You might also enjoy the Advanced Guide to Landscape Grants eBook, full of practical tips for applying for funding and making your beautification project a success.








Flower Beds Need Special Soil Preparation

Getting Things Ready for a Beautiful Flower Border

soil preparation, grit for plant bedsProfessional landscapers start every flower bed by building superb soil structure—at least the ones who make money do! A flower bed without the right components is like a cake without flour. The preparation starts with a soil test. The result is a handy list of essential ingredients for your best-blooms-ever recipe. Take a paper bag full of the typical existing soil down to your local extension office for analysis. The cost is usually just a few dollars.

Now I’m going to say something you may not like—I know you aren’t going to get a soil test. Almost no one does, even if they are required to do it in the contract specifications! I can give you no logical reason for this, except an unnatural phobia for agriculture extension agents. Anyway, I will repeat it. Professional landscapers who are successful in their business have their soil tested before digging in. You can’t change the weather or control which pests and diseases that visit your site, but you can modify the soil. The sites with the pretty flowers make the time to test.

Sometimes All You Need is the Perfect Little Vase

So Many Fun Choices

perfect little vase, floral vasesFlowers are beautiful, all in their own special way. You don’t have to be an expert floral artist to enjoy them. Sometimes all you need is the perfect little vase. This one works well because it is heavy pottery, so the vessel won’t tip over with flowers. It is an antique stoneware-cream color, which goes with everything and makes a nice contrast with the dark, maroon flowers. It also helps with the transition from that color to the soft pink blooms.

It’s easy to start a collection of favorite vases. Visit trash to treasure shops. They carry glazed pottery of all colors made by manufacturers along the clay banks of the Ohio River and other streams in the Midwest from the early nineteen hundreds through the seventies. Prices generally run from 50 cents to 20 dollars, so you won’t cry too many tears if one breaks. They made millions of them and sold them in floral shops and dime stores. They were used to hold floral arrangements or as planters (lined with gravel) to grow house plants. Larger pieces were sold as umbrella stands. Now we get cheap plastic or plain glass vases that cannot be trusted to reliably hold steady under the weight of a bunch of tall flower stems.

Big Blue Salvia

An Irresistible Lure to Butterflies and Hummingbirds

big blue salviaThere are many reasons to love this perennial. First, the color is a deep sky blue—quite unusual for flowering plants. Before the blooms open, the color is so deep it appears almost black, and then the flower spike opens from the top down. When it does, the winged creatures come on an hourly basis to sip nectar.

Second, it is reliably hardy to zone 8 and marginally hardy in zone 7b, so southeasterners get to enjoy this three to five-foot gem every year. Farther north, treat it as an annual or provide some protection from lower temperatures.

Third, there are a lot of cool cultivars, if you like different shades of blue. ‘Argentine Skies’ and ‘Black and Blue’ give you an idea of the variations from the species, Salvia guaranitica.

Fourth, it has a wonderful garden fragrance. Maybe that’s the strongest attractant for the pretty birds and bees and butterflies. Whatever it is, they are crazy about this plant!

Fifth, it is heat and drought-tolerant, once well established. It can take a surprising amount of heavy clay. Even so, it prefers moist, well-drained soils, just like every other plant in the universe. The thing is, most gardens aren’t perfect, and it is nice to know this plant is adaptable.