Every great recipe for nature-based fall and winter home décor starts with two main ingredients: A dash of creativity, and a pinch of preservation. If you've got those two important starters, then you can cook up virtually anything to give your home some seasonal flair.
Ornamental displays of pumpkins and squashes, arrangements of dried flowers, grasses and corn stalks, and fresh holiday wreaths are just a few of the many cold-weather decorative creations you can make for yourself, at no or low cost.
You don't need to be a professional home designer, artist, or even a master of Pinterest to make things you'll love -- just start simple, and take on projects that fall within your comfort zone. Projects can range from a quick set-up of a pair of pumpkins on your front stoop to a large assortment of statement-piece wreaths and plant-based arrangements.
“There’s no right or wrong way to decorate, and anyone can do it,” say Elaine Bistrum and Cheryl Hammers, who are both experienced DIY décor-makers. “Don’t be afraid to try.”
Bistrum and Hammers are avid gardeners and active members of the Lady Slipper Garden Club in Perham; Hammers is the club president, and Bistrum is the treasurer. They, along with the other members of the club, often use things grown in their own gardens and found around their yards to put together fun seasonal adornments for their homes, all year long.
"(Having a nice living space) just uplifts spirits," Bistrum says. "It feels good to know that you did that."
Materials like dried grasses, leaves and flowers, pine tree branches, fall-harvest garden vegetables, pinecones, acorns, hay bales and corn stalks can be transformed with relative ease into eye-catching home adornments. Last year, for example, garden club members made winter projects out of branches and pinecones. Bistrum made a basket arrangement, and another club member, Bette Betterman, made a welcome sign. Others made gnomes out of pine tree branches.
"You don't need to spend a lot of money," Hammers says of collecting materials. "Use what you have and what you can gather. Keep it simple."
The search for materials is part of the fun of nature-based décor-making. It might be a solo mission that stirs the creative process -- a peaceful walk in the woods -- or it may be a social experience shared with friends and fellow decorators. It can also be an opportunity for quality family time, especially with young kids, who love a good “scavenger hunt.” Hammers says she likes to go to Otter Berry Farm with her family to collect squashes, gourds and pumpkins.
Once you’ve got a good stash of materials, it just takes a little inspiration to put them together into a workable design. The internet is a fast, free and easy place to find all sorts of seasonal home décor ideas and how-to guides for DIYers. Just search for something like "pumpkin arrangements" or "pine branch arrangements,” and allow your creativity to flow.
Hammers recommends Pinterest as a particularly helpful online resource, though she cautions with a laugh that, “(Your finished decoration) won't look like the Pinterest picture. But you can make it your own and go from there."
For a more hands-on learning experience, look for classes or special décor-making events offered through local community education programs or garden centers. Local University of Minnesota Extension offices are another resource, as are gardening clubs like the Lady Slipper Garden Club.
“If you’re interested in (making your own natural décor), this is the place to be,” says Betterman of the Lady Slippers. “You learn a lot.”
Fall décor how-to #1: Drying flowers
There are a few different ways to dry flowers, as well as leafy plants and long grasses, but the simplest way is also usually the best: hang them upside down for a while.
Cut the flowers to your desired stem length on a dry day, when there’s no dew or other moisture on the plant, and remove any unwanted foliage.
Hang the flowers, either in small bundles or individually, in a basement closet or other cool, dark, dry spot. They should be hung from the lower parts of their stems, flowers faced down, using string or twine or something similar.
If bundling, use a rubber band to keep the bundle together (stems shrink when drying and you don’t want the flowers to fall and get damaged).
Leave the flowers alone until they feel dry and stiff to the touch. This could take several days or weeks, depending on the type of flower.
Some types become quite delicate when dried; a gentle spray of hairspray can help keep them from falling apart.
Fall décor how-to #2: Carving a long-lasting jack-o-lantern
Carved pumpkins may last a week or two, while uncut pumpkins can last for a month or more. Keeping pumpkins hydrated and mold-free will prolong their lifespans. Here are some tips for a longer-lasting jack-o-lantern.
Pick a local pumpkin. Pumpkins that have been shipped miles and miles in hot cargo trucks may be overly ripened or battered. Pumpkins that were grown nearby may be fresher, and thus last longer once carved.
Pick a sturdy pumpkin. Inspect the pumpkin of your choosing carefully, looking for gouges, spots and holes. Even a small blemish can quickly expand into a mushy mess. Select pumpkins with even color and firm flesh, and make sure that the pumpkin doesn’t feel tender when you push on the skin.
Don’t carve too early. It can be tempting to carve a jack-o-lantern as soon as the calendar turns to October, but it’s unlikely the finished product will last until the end of the month. Horticulturists indicate that jack-o-lanterns have a shelf life of roughly five to 10 days, though especially cold weather can shorten that life expectancy even further. If you want your carved creation to greet trick-or-treaters on Halloween, wait to carve it until a few days before the big day.
Use a dry-erase marker to outline a design on the face of the pumpkin, to alleviate mistakes before you cut.
Don’t sever the stem. Pumpkin carving experts say removing the top cuts off the vine, which supplies the pumpkin with nutrients and moisture even after it’s been cut. A hole in the back of the pumpkin will still provide easy access for lights, without cutting off the stem.
Scoop everything out. The interior of a pumpkin is loaded with seeds, which can be removed and roasted to make a savory snack. In addition to removing the seeds, be sure to get all of the pulp out. Pulp left in the pumpkin will get moldy and that can shorten the lifespan of a jack-o-lantern. Try to scrape the walls of the pumpkin thin, to about a one-inch thickness.
Avoid candles when lighting the interior of the jack-o-lantern. Candles might seem like the most authentic and spooky way to light the interior of a pumpkin, but the heat produced by a burning candle can shorten the life expectancy of the jack-o-lantern. A battery-powered LED light won’t give off much heat and will provide ample illumination.
Coat the pumpkin. Commercially sold pumpkin preservation products, such as Pumpkin Fresh, hold up well. Soaking and spraying carved pumpkins with a bleach-and-water solution can also preserve designs.
Fall décor how-to #3: Pressing flowers
Pressing flowers can preserve them for years to come, and transforms them into flat decorative pieces ideal for framing and hanging or casting in resin.
While flower lovers may want to invest in a flower press, other heavy objects can be effective at pressing flowers, too.
Start by choosing a flower that is either still in bud form or is freshly bloomed. Place the flower between two pieces of white, nontextured paper. Then place all within the pages of a book. Depending on the size of the book, you may be able to press more than one flower at a time. Place other books on top to weigh down the book with the flowers inside.
Change the moisture-blotting sheets every few days. After two to three weeks, the flowers will be completely dry and flat. Remove the flowers carefully using tweezers or fingertips.
Fall décor how-to #4: Make a holiday wreath
Wreaths hung on doors, windows and fences are ubiquitous during the holiday season. Here are a few ways to make them:
One of the easiest ways to make a wreath is to design it around a circular floral foam form. Supplies needed to make the wreath include sprigs of evergreen, ribbon, floral wire, bows, and artificial or dried berries. Working around the foam form, arrange the boughs of evergreen, using the floral wire to wrap or pin them onto the foam. Keep the layers coming until you get the desired coverage. Embellish with a ribbon or bow.
Another way to make a wreath is to create a wreath jig. Cut a dollar-store laundry basket bottom from the top ring to make a template, on which you can place wreath-making materials so they keep their circular form. Use floral wire or natural jute string to tie the materials together. Experiment with fresh evergreen, twigs, holly branches, or whatever materials you choose.
Thick card stock also can serve as a wreath template. Attach dried flowers or greens, spray snow, ornaments, or other items to the card stock ring with a firm adhesive.
If you don’t want to start entirely from scratch, many craft stores sell wreath forms made of natural vines that have been strung in a ring. You can purchase one of these and use it as a starting base for your own additional decorations.