When this year's holidays arrive, share these lovely homemade keepsakes.
PHOTO: KEN FORESGREN
How to save money and perpetuate natural gift-giving by making homemade Christmas gifts from your garden. Includes instructions for maize decorations, dried-flower straw hats, dried wreaths and garlic braiding by the numbers. (See the garlic braiding illustrations in the image gallery.)
Make Homemade Christmas Gifts From Your Garden
THE SURPRISING NIP OF a morning chill, the first fallen
leaves and yellowed vines, the subtle shortening of evening
light-all are phrases in nature's announcement of the end
of the season. While harvesting still-thriving tomatoes and
bouquets, the home grower heeds the message—knows that
fresh flowers and fruits will soon be things of the past
and yearns to save a few mementos of garden life to warm
the long winter months ahead.
It can be done. Simple yet striking garlic
braids...decorative wreaths bursting with colorful dried
flowers...harvest-symbol corn hangings...and straw hats
gaily decked with blooms are four souvenirs of summer that
you can put together easily at home. These craft creations
can brighten your winter hearth or be given away as
presents. (They can also be sold to bring in a little extra
pre-holiday income.) And you can gather virtually all the
materials you need from your own garden or by foraging from
nearby fields or lots to make your homemade Christmas gifts.
Olivia Abel and Susan Sides, MOTHER's gardeners past and
present, have made these growers' gifts every fall for
years. With their help, and that of Kathy Askew (a local
craftswoman whose dried flower wreaths are shown in the
photograph), we'll share the secrets that will make your
own garden as "giftworthy" as theirs.
Hung at the doorway or inside the home, ornamental dried
corn clusters are signs of harvest fertility—preserved
tributes to the fields and garden. The traditional
ornaments bespeak a household grateful for nature's bounty.
Maize decorations (as Susan likes to call them) are the
simplest to make of the four crafts presented here. They're
fashioned from field corn or popcorn since, unlike sweet
corn, these varieties are normally dried. Seed companies
generally list their colorful hard corns under such
headings as Indian, ornamental, calico or multicolored.
Don't harvest the corn until it has dried thoroughly. Then
store the ears-away from the elements and varmints-until
you're ready to work. (If you'll be storing them for more
than a month, spread the ears out one layer thick instead
of piling them in heaps.)
To begin each maize decoration, peel back, but don't
remove, the husks. Then stack three ears together pyramid
fashion: two on the bottom and one on top. Tie them
together, where the husks and cobs meet, with stout string
or pliable wire.
While the cluster is decorative as is, Susan often adds
dried flowers, seedpods, grass stalks or feathers for an
extra touch. She gathers many of the wild materials in the
fall. She also grows several of the flowers she uses dried,
such as acroclinium, globe amaranth, statice, strawflower,
scabiosa (or starflower), nigella and celosia. Dried blooms
or foliage from such herbs as artemesia, chives, lavender,
tansy, blue spire sage and emerald sage can also be put to
good use. (Remember, most flowers will last longer if
harvested before they're fully open. They also dry best if
hung in bunches upside down.)
Susan first arranges each bouquet of decorations in her
hand, then ties the bundle together with light string or a
length of ribbon (with a bow) and binds it to the corn
ears. When she plans to give the decoration as a gift, she
often attaches a card telling a little bit about that
particular type of corn, how it's grown and how to use it
in the form of cornmeal. She might even include a jar of
hand-ground meal made from extra ears.
Dried-Flower Straw Hats
Hats decked with flowers add splashes of spring and summer
color to their wearers, bringing to mind summerfests,
picnics in the meadow and Maypoles. Consequently, they make
very popular gifts, both for wearing and for adorning
walls. They're lucrative craft items, as well. Kathy Askew
asks around $20 per hat. (In comparison, maize decorations
generally sell for $5 to $12.)
You can buy the hats themselves at import stores, dime
stores and flea markets. (Perhaps a local craft-supply
outlet can direct you to a wholesaler if you want to buy in
bulk.) Buy only hats with tight weaves and solidly made
rims, so they'll be less likely to fray or lose shape.
Your goal will be to add a band of summer color to each hat
by overlapping small clumps of flowers or foliage all the
way around, leaving no trailing stems to show. You may want
to first put down a layer of background material such as
Spanish moss, lamb's ears or artemesia. Susan's
particularly fond of the artemesias Silver King and Silver
Queen, since their fullness and silvery gray color make for
a wonderful background, and they can be woven round hats
(and wreaths) when freshly cut and pliable, then allowed to
dry in place.
Many wild garnerings such as rabbit tobacco, mints, grass
heads, Queen Anne's lace and various seedpods can be used
to decorate the hats. The same homegrown flowers and herbs
used to garnish corn hangings also work quite well.
To attach this dried bounty, some people sew clusters to a
ribbon and then glue or sew that band to the hat. Others
stitch the flowers directly in place. These methods are
slow, but fine for decorating an occasional hat. To speed
up the whole process, use a hot-glue gun (available at
craft-supply, hardware or department stores). Squeeze the
trigger on this electric tool, and the end of the glue
stick at its tip begins to melt. Starting at any point
around the hat base, you can apply a quarter-sized dab of
hot glue, attach a few decorative sprigs, shoot another dab
of glue, add more foliage and so on.
A hot-glue gun is easy to use and its adhesive dries
quickly. But watch out: The tip and adhesive get
dangerously hot. Be especially careful never to leave one
unattended around children—it looks a lot like a toy!
Straw wreaths decorated with dried blooms make rings of
beautifully subtle colors—just what the gardener ordered to
banish doldrums from the winter home. They also offer a
wide choice of patterns and hues for creative crafting. And
they can be made with many of the same foraged and grown
adornments that are used on corn hangings and straw hats.
You can probably buy the wreath foundations at a local
craft-supply shop for about a dollar each. Olivia Abel
often makes hers, using a homemade form—a wooden board with
eight to ten dowels arranged in a circle—to help shape the
rounds. (You can, instead, hold a dinner plate up to your
work as a guide.)
To make a wreath foundation, tightly bunch a handful of hay
and start coiling string or thin wire (Olivia's choice)
around it. Add hay as you go, looping the wire close and
tight so the wreath won't break anywhere. Once you've
worked your way around to form a complete circle, wrap it
an extra time or two to provide reinforcement. Then tie the
wire off and use scissors or pruning shears to clip off all
the loose straw ends that poke out. The foundation-making
process takes about 10 minutes.
Most of Olivia's wreaths are about one foot across. You can
make yours larger if you wish, but be forewarned: Wreaths
use much more decorative foliage and flowers than do maize
decorations or straw hats, so it's easy to run out of
Now comes the fun part. Figure out the patterns and flowers
you want to use, then start tying a bunch of flowers on
with wire (not string) wrapped around the stems. Once your
first clump is secure, lay a second one down so it covers
up the first group's stems, and bind that in place.
Continue laying flowers over stems all the way around. When
you reach the end, tuck some stiff-stemmed flowers under
the first batch, completely hiding the wire and stems. (If
you want to make a lot of wreaths, forget the wire. Follow
Kathy Askew's lead and attach the flowers with that
ever-useful aid, the glue gun.)
Olivia's favorite wreath pattern consists of one
mild-colored plant as background, highlighted by five or
six clusters of bright flowers. Another common pattern is
the "crazy quilt," where you run a continuous series of
clusters—each in a single color—all the way around. Susan
sometimes makes an outer ring of one color and texture and
an inner ring of another.
Kathy Askew (who sells her wreaths for anywhere from $10 to
$48) has even more creative ideas. She'll weave a circle of
grapevines and lushly foliate only the lower third of it.
The result? A "basket wreath." Or she'll build a small
heart-shaped wreath by tying two clumps of hay together at
the bottom, wiring up the two sides, bending the tops in
and then binding them in the middle. She'll totally cover
its front with loose petals and leaves left over from other
efforts. The whole is topped off with a bow for a gay
Choice materials for wreath backgrounds (be creative!)
include German statice, baby's breath, lamb's ears, tansy,
pearly everlasting, goldenrod, joe-ye weed, ironweed, white
yarrow, hydrangea, foraged plumes and sumac. Strawflower,
statice, acroclinium, globe amaranth, errant, celosia,
golden yarrow and nigella provide attractive highlights.
The lovingly laced strands of a garlic braid hanging in the
kitchen are a sight that strikes the senses, evoking the
rich smells and pungent tastes of meals to come. This
cook's delight also is the most useful of the garden
craftings presented here, because—if you can bear to
disassemble it—you'll eventually use it all up. (Or you
might plant the cloves next spring and grow an abundance of
To make one braid, you'll need at least 15 or 16 homegrown
and partly dried garlic bulbs, complete with tops. Pick
ones that have long stems and are all about the same size.
Then clean them by rubbing off the dirty outer skin layers
and clipping off any root hairs.
You'll start with three bulbs and add one more at a time as
you braid—a technique called French braiding. Work tightly
and neatly, making three distinct rows of bulbs as you go.
Follow the accompanying step-by-step drawings. But don't
let the directions throw you off-this is a lot easier to do
than to explain.
Keep fumbling along even if you lose track of what you're
doing—the braid almost always looks good in the end. When
you're done, tie the remaining stem ends together with
string. Hang the braid-stems up-on a hook in the kitchen
and take bulbs off from the top as needed. The garlic
should stay fresh for a year or more.
You can go on to adorn your garlic braids with dried
strawflowers, statice, celosia, cayenne peppers, golden
yarrow, marjoram, oregano or thyme. Such highlights can
fill in gaps, but don't clutter up the basic beauty of the
braid itself. To add strawflowers, run a thin, green
26-gauge wire (available from hobby shops) through each
bloom from below, bend the tip of the wire, and pull it
back down to hook into the head. (Do this the first week
after you harvest the flowers, before they get too dry and
brittle.) You can either wire your cayenne peppers or run
strings through them with a needle.
It takes about 30 to 45 minutes to make one garlic braid
(that includes cleaning the bulbs). They can be sold at
craft shows, flea markets and roadside stands for about $12
(plain braids) to $16 (fancy ones).
By the way, if you don't have enough homegrown garlic to
make your own braids this fall, now is the best time to
plant some so you'll have plenty of big bulbs next year.
Fall planting is one of the three keys to a good garlic
crop. Set individual cloves an inch deep and five inches
apart in well-drained soil fertilized with compost or aged
(not raw) manure. The other two keys are good weeding (you
can pretty much avoid that tedious task by mulching your
new planting with a two-inch layer of leaves) and regular,
Preserve the Season
The time is ripe, in this lull between the hectic days of
garden toil just past and the harried holiday season to
come, to create this quartet of natural craftings. In the
process, you'll be capturing and sharing some of the
essence of summer's beauty to be enjoyed by others for
seasons to come.