Twas the Night before Christmas – A Poem for Gardeners

Twas the night before Christmas and all through the garden,
The creatures were stirring, the deer got a pardon.
The hummingbird feeders were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that the Anna’s soon would be there.

The flowering cherries were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of spring glory danced in their heads.
The summer vegetables were harvested and beds put to nap,
The compost’s a brewing so next year’s a snap.

When out on the lawn there rose such a clatter,
I ran into the garden to see what was the matter.
And what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a big flock of chickadees and eight black-tailed deer.

They spoke not a word, but went straight to their work,
The chickadees devouring aphids with amazing teamwork.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the deck,
Prancing and pawing, the deer making a wreck.

A hydrangea here, an abutilon there, this garden’s a feast,
With edibles and perennials at the very least.
We love this garden, they whispered to themselves,
With any luck, they’ll think we’re the elves !

Beautiful flowers and nectar and fragrance abounds,
We’ll include this forever on one of our rounds.
The birds can sing and fly in the skies
But we have the charm with huge brown doe-eyes.

We get a bad rap, it’s not all our fault,
Most of our feeding grounds are covered with asphalt.
Just give us a sleigh and we’ll make you proud,
We’re good for more than eating roses, they vowed.

Call us Dasher and Dancer and Comet and Vixen,
Or Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen,
Then maybe you’ll forgive us for our past mistakes,
We can’t help that we eat plants, we don’t eat steaks.

Now if you’ve been good this year, do make a wish,
And then when you see us- welcome, don’t banish.
All of us creatures will give our best shot,
To nourish your garden with nary a thought.

So everybody listen carefully on Christmas Eve,
And maybe you’ll hear and then you’ll believe.
You may even hear us exclaim as we prance out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

My thanks to Clement Clark Moore who wrote the original poem in 1822 in New York. I’d like to believe that he would enjoy my version for gardeners everywhere. Happy Holidays from the The Mountain Gardener.

Sherman & The Mountain Gardener in front of their Christmas tree

Holiday Traditions & Customs

We all celebrate the holidays in different ways. Each family has their own traditions and warm memories from years gone by. Some of us celebrate Christmas, some Hanukkah, some Kwanzaa. Many of our traditional Christmas customs originate from Winter Solstice celebrations. The plants associated with each are an important part of tradition and symbolism.

Winter solstice is the 21st of December. Solstice literally means “Sun Stands Still’ and for a few days around this time of year the sun appears to stand still in the sky. Nearly all cultures and faiths have some sort of winter solstice celebration. They have been with us for thousands of years starting at the beginning of agriculture among people who depended on the return of the sun. We have incorporated many of the plants from traditional winter solstice celebrations into our own- holly, ivy, evergreens, rosemary and mistletoe. How did this come about?

A holiday wreath made with holly and evergreens welcomes visitors

Holly remains green throughout the year when deciduous trees like the oak shed their leaves. Decorating with it throughout the home has long been believed to bring protection and good luck. Placing a ring of holly on doors originated in Ireland since holly was one of the main plants that was green and beautiful with its red berries at this time of year. Norseman and Celts planted a holly tree near their homes to ward off lightning strikes. The crooked lines of holly leaves gave rise to its association with lightning and in fact holly does conduct lighting into the ground better than most trees.

Holiday wreath made with hydrangea, camelia, berries, tea tree blossoms, variegated pittosporum 

Like other evergreens, ivy symbolizes immortality and eternal life. In England it is traditionally used in kissing balls with holly and mistletoe. It has also stood for fidelity, healing and marriage. Ancient Romans thought it brought good luck and joy. It was worn as a crown or fashioned into wreaths or garland.

Evergreen trees play a role in solstice celebrations. Early Romans and Christians considered the evergreen a symbol of the continuity of life. Fir, cedar, pine boughs and wreaths were used to decorate homes. Small gifts were hung from the branches in groves. This may have been where the Christian tradition of decorating an evergreen tree or Yule tree in December originated. Other sacred trees of the solstice are yew, birch, arborvitae and ash.

We often see rosemary plants trained into a Christmas tree shape. Rosemary is evergreen in the winter and blooms at the same time making it the perfect plant for the holidays. Traditionally rosemary was spread on floors at Christmas as people walked over the herb releasing the fragrant scent and filling the home with blessings and protection.

How did our enduring fascination with mistletoe get started? From earliest times it has been one of the most magical, mysterious and sacred plants of Greeks, Celts, Scandinavia, England and European folklore in general.The Druids believed the mistletoe’s magical powers extended beyond fertility. It was believed to cure almost any disease and was know as the “all healer”. Sprigs fixed above doorways of homes were said to keep away lightning and other types of evil. Because the plant has no roots it was believed that it grew from heaven.

Kissing under the mistletoe probably came from the Greek/Roman belief that it bestowed fertility and had life-giving power. In Scandinavia it was considered a plant of peace under which enemies could declare a truce or fighting spouses could kiss and make up. However this tradition originated it’s a good one.

Traditional plants symbolic of Hanukkah are the citron, myrtle twigs, willow twigs and palm fronds. The Four Species are waved together along with special blessings as part of the synagogue service or at home.
Kwanzaa, another celebration of light, features the harvest foods of Africa: ears of corn, fruit and nuts. It is a secular celebration observed during the last week of December to celebrate the “fruit” or accomplishments coming out of the year of labor.

Around the world, holiday celebrations have their own special meaning. With friends and family, embrace your traditions and have a wondrous holiday.

Toxic Holiday Plants

With the holiday season upon us I enjoy colorful plants on my tabletop and window sill. How safe are holiday plants for pets and small children?

I already have a beautiful poinsettia on my table and soon I’ll be getting other holiday plants such as cyclamen, paperwhite narcissus, maybe a pink jasmine wreath or one with holly, ivy and evergreens. I also like those rosemary topiaries that are trained in the shape of a Christmas tree and have already started one of those huge showy amaryllis bulbs. Christmas cactus grow in several locations. Some of these plants that may be toxic.

Poinsettia

Poinsettia hold up well either as a cut flower or a living plant. This is the classic plant to decorate our homes at this time of year. Mostly it’s too cold here in the mountains for poinsettia to survive outside at night but being native to Mexico they thrive in the warmth of the house. They need a bright spot and the soil should be allowed to dry slightly, but not completely, between watering. Deprive them of either of these requirements and the lower leaves will yellow and drop. Also be sure they aren’t sitting in water at the bottom of the container. Poinsettia are brittle but if you break off a branch sear the end of the stem with a flame and it will hold up quite well in a vase or arrangement.

Are poinsettia poisonous? Ohio State University conducted extensive research and concluded that although poinsettia sap from leaves and flowers that might give you a stomach ache if you ate them they won’t seriously hurt you. The sap may cause a rash if it comes in contact with the skin on some people. With this in mind, you should keep poinsettia plants out of the reach of curious pets and small children.

There are two pets in my household– a cat named Archer and Sherman, the Welch springer spaniel. I usually put a couple red and white cyclamen on a table in the house. Are cyclamen safe around them?

Cyclamen

According to the Pet Poison Helpline cyclamen are mild to moderately toxic to dogs and cats if ingested but it’s the root or corm that is especially toxic if ingested in large quantities. Pets and people react differently and it is unlikely that children) would eat the corm and be affected.

Amaryllis

My beautiful amaryllis flower and leaves are safe but the bulb is toxic. Amaryllis bulbs contain the same alkaloid that is found in narcissus and daffodil and is the reason deer know to leave them alone. Ingesting a small amount will produce few or no symptoms, however.

Azalea leaves and Christmas cactus are toxic and should be kept away from pets and small children. Holly berries are toxic if eaten in large quantities. Same for mistletoe and ivy.

While serious complications aren’t likely with holiday plants it’s still best to keep them away from small children and out of your pet’s reach.

Winter Flowering Plants & Gift Ideas

Finally the rain has come. Outside my window a Townsend warbler feasts on suet. It’s a rainy day and I”m enjoying the vivid colors of my late fall garden. Backlit leaves take on a whole new look.There are so many ways of combining plants in the garden. I’m taking notes so I remember my favorites to include in my own garden and future designs.

Many of my grasses and plants are deciduous and are in the process of going dormant. Even when I mix in broadleaf evergreen plants these groupings lose their impact this time of year. I have only been gardening at this house for a few years so the new plants are still small except the ceanothus that grow like a weed. I’ve had to replant many shrubs and perennials as I was a little cavalier with my gopher basket use at the beginning. But I persevere as I love color in the garden, especially foliage color.

It’s the combinations that look great year-round that hold a garden together. I’ve got two leucadendron that are real troupers when it comes to drought, mucho summer sun, zero winter sun, sandy soil and deer browsing.

The ’Safari Sunset’ shows off those vivid burgundy bracts nearly year round with the best show starting during the summer and extending right through to the next spring. Leaucadendron require good drainage and prefer acidic conditions. It’s easy to love this plant to death with too much water.

Mexican marigold

Yellow is always a cheery color in the garden at any time of year. The deep golden flowers of Mexican marigold are carried on branch ends sporadically all year, peaking in winter and spring. Finely divided leaves are strongly fragrant when crushed and smell like a blend of marigold, lemon and mint which is why deer avoid them. Prune them lightly to control shape and size. They grows 3-6 ft tall and as wide. Another shrub that blooms all winter and has yellow daisies is euryops. They are deer resistant and grow to about 3 ft.

Blue and yellow foliage or flowers combine well. You can pick from yellow or gold foliage plants such as phormium ‘Yellow Wave’, abelia “Kaleidoscope’, coleonema ‘Sunset Gold’ or sedum ‘GoldMoss’ and pair it with a dwarf blue spruce, blue fescue or blue oat grass, hens and chickens, a blue euphorbia such as ’Glacier Blue’ or ‘Blue Haze’ or the blue-gray succulent senecio mandraliscae.

If you have a little more space, try ‘Rose Glow’ leptospermum near a ceanothus ‘Concha’. The contrast between the deep red flowers of the tea tree with the bright blue flowers of the California lilac will certainly get your attention. These larger shrubs reach about 6 ft tall and as wide.

You might have one of the following butterfly favorites that you could divide and pot up for a friend. Yarrow, aster, veronica, agapanthus, astilbe, coreopsis and gaura to name a few that butterflies favor. Ceanothus and columbine are two plants that self sow in my garden and would be great to pot up for a gift. A gift doesn’t need to cost very much to show you care.

One of the lime foliage Heuchera 

With the holiday season upon us think of giving plants as gifts. Any of the above plants would be appreciated by fellow plants lovers or you could give an offset of one of your plants that birds, bees or butterflies would appreciate. Some easy-to-divide favorites that attract birds include foxglove, coral bells, red-hot poker, California fuchsia, mahonia and purple coneflower.