Episode 11 – Decorative Holiday Containers and Thanksgiving Favorites

Ground Breaking Banter

Stacey and Rick discuss using colorful and interesting branches from the landscape to create holiday containers now that the flowering annuals from the gardening season are done.

Here are some things to keep in mind when filling planters with branches for the holidays:

  • You need thawed soil to push the branches into, and containers with some “gravitas”, weight or foundation so they don’t topple over in the wind.
  • When it comes to containers consider trying some hanging baskets too.
  • No, it’s not a Michael Jackson album. Take the approach of “thriller, filler, spiller,” a 3-dimensional look working from the center first and out to the edge of the pot.
  • Many people use Birch branches for the center “thriller” but there are so many great choices, such as ninebark branches, fruit wood, driftwood, willow branches, and dogwood (like the Proven Winners ColorChoice ‘Arctic Fire’ Stacey will talk about in “Plants on Trial”).
  • White Pine, Hemlock, Euonymus, Cedar, and Douglas Fir are great for the “spiller” aspect as evergreens whereas Juniper, Spruce, Fraser fir, and Scotch Pine are excellent as the “filler.”
  • Add some battery-operated LED lights to put some sparkle in your container.
  • It has been said that a good landscape has 25% to 30% evergreens (the bones and foundation). A holiday planter should have at least 50% evergreen content.
  • Some people will use cuttings from perennials like Baptisia (False Indigo), Ornamental grasses, Russian Sage, Sedums, or Bergenia. Consider cuttings from your Roses (rose hips) too. 
  • Limelight Hydrangea cuttings are fabulous and you can prune panicle hydrangeas without affecting next year’s bloom!

Our word of the day is something we miss in the landscape now that winter is upon us: psithurism, the sound of wind in the trees, and the rustling of leaves.

Why: Whether you are looking for winter beauty indoors or outdoors, you can count on Artic Fire Red red-twig dogwood to do that for you effortlessly – and with very little effort on your part, too! Red twig dogwoods are one of the most, if not the most, ubiquitous shrubs, both in nature, as it is native to a huge portion of North America, and in landscapes, where it is widely planted in home and commercial settings.

When most people think of dogwood, they likely imagine the flowering tree. However, the type of dogwood we are talking about today – red-twig dogwood, also known as red-osier dogwood (“osier” is just a fancy name for twig or branch) – is a shrubby type known botanically as Cornus sericea. It comes by its name earnestly, because the branches are, well, red. But only in winter. It spends pretty much the entire growing season not looking like much at all, but once the foliage drops in fall, it reveals vivid red branches. You can’t miss them, even going 75 miles an hour down the highway (this is Michigan, after all – of course, you’d be doing whatever the speed limit is in your neck of the woods!).

All that ubiquity out in the wild should give you a pretty big clue as to how versatile and adaptable this shrub is when it comes to the landscape. Spoiler alert: super adaptable. You can plant this thing just about anywhere in your yard and it will thrive. It’s not the showiest thing on earth, except for winter, but it does an amazing job at transforming any area into a low-maintenance, eye-catching little oasis. Arctic Fire Red red-twig dogwood was selected because it’s about a third of the size of conventional red-twig dogwoods, and it doesn’t sucker nearly as much, so it keeps a tidy look while also staying in scale with your yard and home.

Who: Arctic Fire Red red-twig dogwood comes from our friend Mike Farrow of Holly Hill Farms in Maryland. Mike is a great plantsman who has selected a lot of unique native plants. He recognized that it was not like all of the wild ones and that it had the potential for use in home landscapes, and it has since become one of our best-selling varieties.

How to grow: growing Arctic Fire Red dogwood is about as easy as falling off a log. It will grow in any light – it’s one of the most shade tolerant of all landscape plants, and it will grow in pretty much any soil. I would advise against growing it in extremely dry conditions – in nature, it’s most often found along the edges of ponds, streams, drainage ditches, and though it will tolerate some drought, it’s definitely happiest if it gets regular moisture. So, if you live in an area with dry soil or low rainfall, definitely give it a good layer of mulch.

So, it’s easy to grow. But growing it well does take a little bit of know-how. Those nice red branches don’t stay red forever. As they start to age beyond the two-year mark, they start to develop grey, corky growth that obscures the red color and starts making the overall display a little less stunning. This is no problem whatsoever from the plant’s perspective, but for you, you’re probably going to want it to look like something a little more special. That’s easy to do: you just need to prune it. Not necessarily every year, perhaps every two to three years, and you can do it two ways, depending on what the plant is doing in your landscape. Way one is to cut it back to stumps each spring. This sounds extreme, but the plant will have no trouble rebounding, even after such an intense cut back. This keeps the plant a little smaller and more refined but has the disadvantage of leaving you with nothing for a few months of the year until the new growth starts. Another potential disadvantage to this approach is that it will remove the potential for flowers and fruit – while neither is a major ornamental feature, they are both nice and attract wildlife.

The second method is to simply cut back about one-third of the oldest branches each year. This removes the old growth that will turn grey and encourages the production of new wood. One way to kind of get around the need to do this is to go ahead and cut some branches for holiday decorating each year – just take the oldest ones, and the work is done!

Ready to add Arctic Fire Red red-twig dogwood to your landscape or garden? Ask for this Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrub at your favorite local garden center.

Gardening Mail Bag

Do you have a question for us? Click “contact us” above, or send us an email

Bev asks: what can I do in the fall to discourage snails and slugs next year?

Great question! While you can’t really do anything here in November, aside from destroying any egg masses you might happen to notice, you’re definitely right to think about this now. Few people know that slug eggs actually hatch in late winter, so if you use slug baits, they should be placed out in February – way before most people think to do this! By managing the sluglets, you can prevent a whole lot of damage to your garden. For growing season management, baits are effective, but so are non-chemical methods like putting down a piece of wood in a cool, shady spot in the garden and then scraping off the slugs that take shelter under it the next morning. 

Whether you are battling slugs or some other garden pest, it’s always a good idea to learn as much as possible about them and their life cycle and use that information in your management decisions. Here’s a great resource on slugs to get you started!

Diane sends garden greetings and asks:

My husband and I built a hoop house this fall to extend the growing season for lettuce and spinach.  Despite 3 frosts, we’ve had a couple of pickings and it’s already been worth it!  My first goal is to have fresh greens for Christmas dinner.  My second ambitious goal is greens for Easter.  Tell me about planting the next crop, please.  I have frost-tolerant lettuce and spinach seed.  Do I plant directly in the hoop house? Late February/early March?  Does the soil need to be a certain temperature? What else can I do to meet Goal 2? Is it possible to do this without adding heat? Hoop house is on the south side of our garage and well protected from the west and north and slightly protected from east winds. We are having a lot of fun with this gardening experiment.  Thanks so mulch for your tips and tricks!

What a fun project! We love the idea, and your hoop house – you can see photos of Diane’s hoop house below. Both of your goals are totally doable, and the easiest way to determine whether to sow seed directly in your hoop house or indoors under lights is to use temperature as your guide. Lettuce and spinach seeds will both germinate at temperatures as low as 40°F, though it will take up to 30 days to do so. So, we suggest that you invest in a soil thermometer and monitor the temperatures in the soil in your actual hoop house. It’s impossible to predict what it will be, as so many factors impact it: how sunny the weather is, the temperature outside, whether there is snow cover, just to name a few. And of course, those things will vary from season to season, so start reading the soil temperatures in January and February, and make a decision at least 60 days before your intended harvest date. If temps are much below 45°F, we’d suggest starting indoors. If it’s warmer, start in your hoop house. And in the true gardening spirit, consider starting some in both ways and seeing what happens. We’re sure you’ll make some interesting discoveries about what works in your particular situation that will make homegrown greens on every holiday table a no-brainer. 

Thanks for including these photos, Diane!

Branching News

  1. Make it a day to November! Thanksgiving day favorite side dishes. While stuffing is usually considered the most common Thanksgiving side dish, it surprisingly isn’t America’s favorite side according to this poll where 2,000 Americans were asked to settle the debate on the best Turkey Day sides, and mashed potatoes were crowned the favorite by nearly half (46%) — just narrowly beating stuffing (43%). Meanwhile, sweet potatoes (39%) and cranberry sauce (37%) were among the most popular choices, as well. And when it comes to after-dinner desserts, apple pie (43%) surprisingly beat pumpkin (42%) for the top spot, with chocolate (34%) securing third place. The survey also found that many Americans will be keeping their eyes peeled for sweet potatoes, as three in 10 consider them to be underrated. It doesn’t get any “butter” than this.
  2. This new research from King’s College London has found that seeing or hearing birds is associated with an improvement in mental well-being that can last up to eight hours. This improvement was also evident in people with a diagnosis of depression — the most common mental illness worldwide — indicating the potential role of birdlife in helping those with mental health conditions.
  3. A deer got loose in the JCPenney store at the Park City Center mall in Lancaster PA. Check out the story here.
  4. Can those cute Woolly Bear Caterpillars really predict what kind of winter we will have this year?
Pink rose of Sharon flowers bloom on a plant with variegated foliage.

Episode 92 – Weeding by Example

Ah, weeds – maybe the #1 thing that discourages people from gardening. But weeds are interesting and become a lot easier to manage when you apply some basic IPM principles. Featured shrub: Sugar Tip rose of Sharon.

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