activities

environmentally-friendly christmas tree

There are three good things about winter pruning deciduous trees: the leaves have fallen and it’s easy to see the shape of your trees and shrubs; it will promote faster regrowth in the spring; and you get to make a stunning, unique holiday tree!

If you haven’t got trees in need of a quick cut, maybe you have friends with trees (FWT)…

The staghorn sumac trees in our yard carry beautiful burgundy seed tips on upper branches. I mix them up with whatever needs a prune from year to year. The stark beauty and architecture of bare branches can be mesmerizing, and the seeds add a touch of drama.

The tree can be floor to ceiling, or on a table in a plant urn, in whatever shape nature gives you, in whatever space you have. Also, a smaller tree is a perfect project for kids.

You’ll need:

Assortment of deciduous branches
Plant pot or large container for base
Weights or large rocks for bottom of base
Burlap or fabric
Floral foam or styrofoam blocks
12-inch plastic cable ties (local hardwares sell them in packs)

Choose and prune your branches to the height desired.

I use a large wicker basket as my tree stand. I’ve learned the hard way to put my son’s free weights in the bottom (about 50 lbs); a too tall tree can fall over once decorated.

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Lay out your branches and stand upright, starting with the largest, in your plant pot, and surround with floral foam blocks to keep upright. Keep adding branches, stabilizing with foam, and joining lower branches together with cable ties.

When you are satisfied with the fullness of the tree, hide the base with fabric.

Decorate. I don’t use lights because the branches are often not strong enough to support them, but the small battery-operated fairy lights are lovely and light weight. I have a small floor spot light that I shine onto the tree to create shadows on the walls and ceiling.

Snowflake-shaped ornaments make beautiful shadows. Bird ornaments are lovely.

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Of course, this can be a tree for all holidays and seasons: Easter eggs and bird nests; Hanukkah dreidels and coins; or Halloween candy and spiders.

At the end of the season, cut up dry branches for kindling or mulch.

Warm wishes for the holidays,

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“The wonder is that we can see these trees and not wonder more.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

 

 

 

a circle of love—weave your own

 

Nothing is more symbolic. Throughout history, wreaths have been crowns and decorations. They’ve been used to celebrate the harvest, kings and virgins. Christmas and funerals. The circle stands for infinity and eternity; it is without beginning or end. How wonderful it is to honour our plants in this noble form—and easy!

Almost any pliable long stems can be woven into a wreath. We have lots of wild grape vines in our region that grow along ravine banks and roads and they are a perfect material for wreaths. Ornamental grasses, vinca, or any trailing plant will do, depending on the season.

It is easy to from a circle by hand, but if you want to work with larger, thicker stems, it’s not too difficult to build a frame that will last forever. Easy for me, because Miles and I love Home Depot, and everything is available there, inexpensively, to create your frame. And once you’ve built it, think of the things you can weave. Every season and holiday offers new possibilities.

I left the corkscrew tendrils on the vines because they add interest. Vines are more pliable when fresh, but you can soak them in water before using if you need to store them for a while.

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This is a shopping list for frame materials:

  • 1 square piece of plywood, slightly larger than the diameter of wreath you want to weave
  • 12 6″ screws (I use 1/4 inch here)
  • 12 nuts
  • 24 washers
  • drill

Draw a circle on your wood the size of your desired wreath, using a middle nail, a string (the length go your desired radius) tied to it and a pencil on the other end.

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Drill 12 holes, evenly spaced, and slide screws through the bottom. Bolt into place and your frame is ready to go.

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Wrap your vines into the middle of the circle to the desired thickness of your wreath. Tuck ends in between the vines as you finish and begin with each length. Leave the tendrils to fall where they may. Save some of the most pliable vines for the end and weave them around the wreath to keep it together. After you pull the wreath from the frame, you may want to wrap around it a few more times to give it extra stability.

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Don’t worry too much about neatness; the beauty of this type of wreath is its rustic appearance. I decorated mine with some cotton ribbon and old cow bells I found at a flea market.

This wreath is inexpensive, weatherproof and offers a great craft to do with kids. They can have fun decorating it with flowers, grasses, evergreen boughs or even sumac cones.

The vine wreath may also be made into a gorgeous holiday centrepiece or Advent wreath, decorated with evergreen boughs, holly and candles.

Now that the Halloween candy wrappers are swept up, I think it’s okay to hang my wreath on the front door…

smudge sticks: it’s easy to make your own

 

Smudging is a beautiful, spiritual Native American tradition. Bundles of fragrant herbs, grasses and tree branches are burned in a ritual to purify and cleanse a space or a person. Although I am not Native American, I enjoy the peaceful process of gathering, braiding and wrapping the herbs. It is customary to say a small prayer when gathering your plants—ask the plant for permission to use its healing power, and show gratitude by leaving a small token of appreciation, commonly a bit of tobacco. I leave a lock of hair because it’s a gesture from my person. A bit of flour or cornmeal may also be a traditional offering.

Different plants have different meanings and the meanings vary by Tribe or Nation. The most commonly used plants are white sage, cedar and sweetgrass, but many garden herbs can be used. Please make sure, though, that you don’t choose toxic plants or plants that create toxic smoke when burned. (Check under the menu item Urban Foraging 101 for links to lists of toxic plants if you are unsure.) Pick your herbs on a dry and sunny day because moist branches may get mouldy when wrapped. The ideal branch length is 8-12 inches.

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I gathered the above from my garden: cedar (blesses and offers protection and grounding), sage (cleanses negative energy), rosemary(heals and offers remembrance), and thyme (spiritual cleansing in matters of love).

Divide your herbs into bunches for each smudge stick.

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Use a sturdily branched herb as the base and wrap or braid the other branches around it. Cedar burns quickly so it is best kept in the middle. Use the longest branches in the centre and shorter ones on the outside. Use only natural fibre or string; red is traditional, but it’s up to you. Tie the string fairly tightly up to almost the top and back downward, wrapping several times around the bottom of the bundle to create a handle.

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Wrap the finished stick in brown paper to keep the herbs from fading, and hang upside down to dry for a week or two.

When you are ready to use the dried smudge stick, light it with a candle. As it begins to smoke, keep it over a fireproof container at all times. Move the stick to direct the smoke toward whatever is being smudged. In traditional ceremonies, smoke is often fanned with an eagle feather.

To smudge a house, carry the stick and move clockwise around each room, filling corners and blocked areas.

how to tap your own maple sap for syrup

 

Making the evergreen tisane got me thinking that it’s time to start preparing for the annual sap run. If you are lucky enough to live near some maple trees, tapping for syrup is easy. I’d like to share my list of everything you need to tap for your own syrup; then all that’s left is to find a tree or two. It’s a great activity for kids, one that even my son is willing to leave the Xbox for. It’s a lot about anticipation and waiting, activities that are becoming rare given the immediacy of our technological world. Also, there’s a lot of history and folklore around maple syrup; once you are hooked, it’s worth researching and reading about.

Sugar Maples are the best because their sap has the highest sugar content (3%). They’re recognizable by their symmetrical crown, and they provide the distinctive leaf on the Canadian flag. We’re lucky enough to have two in our yard, but I wouldn’t be shy to ask friends about their trees; not many people can say no to pancakes smothered in fresh maple syrup. Other maples will work (Black Maple, Red Maple, Silver Maple, Ash Leaf Maple/Box Elder) but their sap has less sugar concentration so more boiling is required.  How to Identify a Sugar Maple

If you order your supplies in advance, you’ll be ready for when the ideal conditions strike in your area. Sap usually runs for about a two-week period in late winter. Temperatures need to be below freezing at night, and above freezing during the day up to about +7C˚. It’s exciting to go out and check the buckets every day. After several years of tapping, my son and I are still thrilled at the first run, often called the ‘Robin’s Run’. It’s best to boil sap when it is fresh, but if you need to save it for a few days, keep it refrigerated.

My son was delighted to buy a hammer drill at Home Depot. They’re about $50 if you don’t need cordless; it’s all a teenaged boy could hope for—big, heavy and powerful. I like that it comes in its own fancy carrying case. You’ll need to invest in a 7/16″ titanium drill bit, a little pricey at almost $20, but it’s necessary to cut through the hard wood.

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Even more exciting is shopping for buckets, lids, spiles (spouts) and bottles. I use an excellent Canadian supplier and am able to order everything online; they ship to the US and internationally. http://atkinsonmaple.com  The bottles shapes are adorable, and make great gifts if you are generous enough to share your syrup. My son hoards our syrup for pancakes for him and Hunter, and I use it for salad dressings. (I’ll share the perfect dressing recipe in a future post.)

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It is important to limit taps per tree. Measure the trunk diameter about four feet above the ground. For a diameter of 11-17 inches: use 1 tap; 18-24 inches: 2 taps; +24 inches: 3 taps. This way less than 10% of the tree’s sap is removed, and the health of the tree is protected. Drill the tap hole above a large root, or below a large limb, on the sunny side of the trunk, at a slight upward angle, 2 1/2 inches inward from the outside of the bark. I put masking tape on the drill bit to help my son gauge the depth. Then gently tap in the spile with a hammer, and hang your bucket. A lid is essential because it can be a rainy or snowy time of year.

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The sap looks like water and has a very slight maple flavour. If the sap becomes yellow or cloudy, it’s time to stop tapping. Strain the sap through a reusable filter into a large canning pot, and you’re ready to boil!

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The boiling down requires some time. I use the outdoor gas barbecue. A full pot takes 6 to 8 hours of boiling to get it to the final syrup stage. Boiling inside your house is not an option; the humidity released all day will peel your wallpaper! The sap will slowly darken and thicken. It’s a long day, but exciting nonetheless. I check its viscosity on a metal spoon, when it gently ‘sheets’ off the spoon (coats the spoon) instead of dripping, it’s done. (Or when it reaches a temperature of 7 degrees above boiling point on a candy thermometer.) I change from the canning pot to a smaller pasta pot and bring it inside to the kitchen stove when the syrup starts to darken. This will give you more control—you don’t want to overcook or syrup will crystallize and you’ll have maple sugar. (Not necessarily bad thing; it’s twice as sweet as regular cane sugar. If this happens, pour into a small cup or ramekin.)

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While still hot, and at the “sheeting” consistency, filter the syrup through a funnel lined with cheesecloth or a piece of felt into sterilized jars. Fill to the top, leaving little air, and seal. Store in a cool place and always refrigerate after opening.

When I lived in Quebec, I visited many sugar shacks (cabanas à sucre) where the celebration of the annual tapping is serious fun. They sometimes serve ‘caribou’ (red wine, whisky and maple syrup) which isn’t my favorite, but the eggs, pancakes, sausages and baked beans slathered in syrup more than make up for it. And they know what they are doing—Quebec supplies almost 75% of the world’s maple syrup.

Hunter hoovers up his Sunday pancakes with maple syrup.

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Here’s an easy ‘first-time’ checklist: (let’s assume 2 large trees)

  • Drill + 6/17″ titanium drill bit
  • 6 buckets, with lids (I use 2 gallon ones)
  • 6 hooks
  • 6 spiles (spouts)
  • Felt filter (washable)
  • Large canning pot
  • Outdoor heat source
  • Smaller pasta pot
  • Candy thermometer (if desired)
  • Small funnel
  • Cheesecloth
  • Assorted 250 ml bottles/jars + lids

Books I Love:

61G2m1VTIFL._AA160_Maple Sugar from Sap to Syrup, by Tim Hero

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Au Pied de Cochon Sugar Shack, by Martin Picard