Creative, low-cost decorating

The holidays ask us to accomplish two conflicting feats: create a relaxed, beautiful environment for family and friends that embraces tradition and creativity, and hurry up and get it all done – meals, gifts, baking, finishing work deadlines.

Are the two mutually exclusive?

Keeping the holidays down-to-earth may be a good place to start. The clarifying sweetness of pine, the spicy, earthy warmth of ginger bread cookies and the festive touches of red ribbons all create a holiday ambiance that invites your family and friends to linger, and are touches that shouldn't send you rushing to a mall to create.

In fact, many people just need to look around their home to find inspiration. Clipping evergreens can be as simple as strolling your property and using common evergreen plantings like rhododendron, azaleas, mountain laurel, and holly, said Matthew Greene, floral designer.

In fact, using what you have can create interesting texture and color when bunched up in groups for garland making.

Greene organizes the evergreens into separate piles, so that when he creates a bunch to put on the garland, he pulls from each pile, creating varied clusters to work with.

"It comes out natural and organic looking. It's just stunning to see those different textures and colored greens," said Greene, who also might mix in some white fluffy pine or coarse cedar.

Greenery from your back yard can also be used in decorating for centerpieces, said Suzanne Lane, owner of three stores in the Olde Mistick Village that caters to home; Gray Goose Cookery, Gray Goose II and Elizabeth and Harriet.

Use forms, such as grape wreaths, or even a coat hanger, to make your own wreath, picking the small princess pine found growing in the ground — a tradition both Lane and Greene recall as children. Adding elements like lights, feathers, other evergreens, or a ribbon can all enhance the festivity of this New England staple hung on the front door.

Other natural touches can include dead branches — about three feet long — that have an architectural form with multiple branches shooting off, said Greene. These branches can be hung indoors either on a wire fishing line, or even in a flag pole holder. Take bunches of cotton balls and let them adhere to the rough branches for a snow-like effect, and even add little red cardinals for a pop of color, and adorn with lights.

"It's so beautiful, like a winter wonderland indoors," said Greene.

Susan Adam, who owns Gira, an event décor business in Stonington, said that driftwood is another lovely element for the holidays — especially when dressed with some evergreens.

"Make it work for your home as opposed to trying to reinvent a look in your living room," said Adam, who believes you shouldn't abandon any passions or collections just because it is the holidays.

For example, if you have a Western chic love affair that includes chili peppers, use them on a mantel piece with your evergreens. Or if you have a collection of mason jars, keep those on display and fill with snow and twigs for a holiday transformation.

And holiday touches don't need to just be confined to the mantle, or table. Place simple arrangements in the bathroom, and kitchen.

"Look at your surroundings," urges Adam. "Don't think you have to go to the store and get a garland. Use twigs and vines, whatever is out there," she said, adding that perfect coffee table plants would include orchids, and amaryllis.

Above all, don't forget the special holiday ingredient: sparkle.

"You can never go wrong with sparkle," said Adam, a fan of bowls of glittery snow, or a glittered leaf or branch.

"Just don't overkill it," she advised.

Candlelight is another touch that helps illuminate the intimacy and mellowness of the holidays. "Candles are beautiful at the holiday, putting various candles in every room makes it sparkling and exciting," said Lane, who also finds simple ribbons charming.

A tradition Lane remembers from her own childhood is cookies – her mother would place a small tree by the door and under it, have bags of cookies for guests to take as they departed.

Try the quintessentially festive gingerbread cookies for guests, and don't stress over the baking – just leave some dough in the refrigerator to bake off when you have the time.

Re-purposing older items can also help inspire some creativity, said John and Louise Phetteplace, partners in the Gales Ferry business Seasonal Home.

"Think outside of the box a little bit," said John Phetteplace, who said that using older items, like ice skates, skis or snow shoes as a wreath can impart character and warmth when dressed up with some greens and ribbon.

Using old items in unique ways fits into the theme of today's homeowners, who want to express themselves, noted John. And these old, often tarnished or paint-peeled items impart warmth.

"I think you know things that have gone through time will give you memories of times past, knowing they've been around forever. There's something about obsolete things that attract people," said Phetteplace.

With Pinterest, the holidays are increasingly becoming another outlet of expression, and finding your own flair as opposed to buying Christmas off the shelves is even easier than ever. Forget tortured Martha Stewart projects, all it takes can be as simple as turning various sized wine glasses upside down and placing votives on top, and scattering some red berries, or greenery at the base.

"You don't have to spend a lot of money, it's just a creative process," said Lane. "You have to let your mind go a bit."

"Walk around and look at your surroundings, and look past what things normally are," Adam agreed. "See what you can create with them."


Courtesy of Matthew Greene

Materials: Traditional boxwood or mixed greens

Take a watertight container, such as a glazed flower pot — even a tea cup or kettle — and take a block of floral foam, cut it into the size of the container, making sure a few inches are above the rim. Place water in the container that will soak the foam. You can tape a strip of floral tape over the top to keep in place.

Gather mixed greens (you can use your garden greens of

laurel, holly, azaleas) and start making a tree shape.

Begin at the bottom of the foam, and as you circle around, make the sprigs progressively smaller with each circle.

At the top of the foam, place the greens vertically to create the tree's shape.

These make nice gifts and will last as long as the foam is watered.

Tip: To keep evergreens from wilting, use Wilt Pruf, a garden product on them, or spray hairspray on the underside of the leaves to seal the pores.

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