Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Strange Facts about New Year's Day

Happy New Year! Or, is it? The fact is it depends on who you ask and when…In much of the world, it took quite a while before Jan. 1 was actually considered the start of the year.

Throughout history, different countries have celebrated the beginning of the year on different days ranging from March 25 to Sept. 1 to Dec. 25.

The French observed Easter as the start of the year for centuries. They introduced Jan. 1 as New Year's Day in 1564, ahead of many European countries.

Within Italy, different cities started the year on conflicting days. Venice celebrated on March 1 until 1797, when it was conquered by the French Emperor Napoleon.

Florence began the year on March 25 … as did England and the American Colonies until the end of 1751.

Until 1911, the Catholic Church started its ecclesiastical year on Dec. 25 at Christmas.

And the traditional Asian calendar begins the Chinese New Year sometime between mid-January and late-February, depending on the year.

So, as you can see, the issue of when to start the year has been anything but clear throughout much of history.

A Bit About Janus: The month of January is named after the double-faced Roman God Janus, who looks back to the old year and forward to the new one.

That makes it an appropriate symbol for those who like to spend time reflecting during the holidays on the past year and what they would like to attract for the next one.

Lunar Treat: A special bonus this year (2009) is the full moon, partial lunar eclipse occurring right before New Year's Day 2010. It's exact Dec. 31, 2009 at 2:13 p.m. EST. As the second full moon of the month, it's also a blue moon.

Images Credit: Although the moon isn't full in the delightful vintage card above, the festive mood is certainly appropriate as we enter a new decade. All of the cards in this post are from riptheskull at She has an amazing collection of old cards. Go check it out!

Happy New Year everyone! Here's to a peaceful and prosperous 2010 for us all.

For more about the calendar: Marking Time: The Epic Quest to Invent the Perfect Calendar.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Four Facts About Christmas You Probably Didn't Know

Photo: Some favorite old Christmas decorations
Christmas may be one of America's favorite holidays, but it's rather surprising how little folks know about this day. Here are four strange facts about Christmas you probably didn't know:

Christmas was Against the Law: It's true. Christmas was declared illegal in England by Protestant extremists during the English Reformation (1640s to 1660). In other words, citizens were forbidden to sing carols, decorate their homes or prepare the traditional Christmas goose.
"… no observation shall be had of the five and twentieth day of December,
commonly called Christmas Day;
nor any solemnity used or exercised in churches
upon that day in respect thereof."
An Order of the English Parliament, December 23, 1652
Even in the American Colonies, it was a penal offense to observe Christmas in New England. The law was declared in 1659 and continued until the 19th century, when the influx of German and Irish immigrants lessened the puritanical strictness.

In Scotland, Christmas was banned for nearly 400 years ... from the 1580s until the 1950s. It wasn't until 1958 that it became an official public holiday.

Photo: A neighbor's tree during a recent snow storm
Christmas Trees Weren't Popular: The Christmas tree got off to a rocky start in the United States. German settlers had brought their rich tradition to this country, and trees were found in the Pennsylvania settlements as early as 1747; but they weren't accepted by mainstream society. Many considered Christmas trees to be dangerous pagan symbols.

The custom caught on when the English Queen Victoria was photographed with her German husband Prince Albert with a Christmas tree in the Illustrated London News in 1846.  The rest is history.

The tradition spread throughout England, Europe, Russia and the United States. By the 20th century, the Christmas tree was firmly entrenched in our nation's culture.

Meanwhile, don't let that Christmas tree end up in the landfill. Here are earth-friendly ways to recycle your Christmas Tree -- from pine-needle bath oil to creative ideas for the garden. They are from a guest post I wrote recently for  aHa! Modern Living's highly entertaining blog.

Photo: Christnas decorations found while walking my pup
Santa's Big Start: Believe it or not, but Santa Claus and Rip Van Winkle have something very important in common. Washington Irving -- the author of "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" -- introduced Santa Claus to the United States.

Irving adapted legends about a Dutch Saint Nicholas to create his best-selling 1809 Knickerbockers' History of New York. In this story, he gave the first literary description of Saint Nicholas in this country.

The legend traveled fast. Before long, the character evolved into the loveable Santa Claus we know today.

Xmas Not So Bad: Those eager to keep "Christ" in Christmas needn't worry about using "Xmas." The letter X is the first letter in the Greek word for Christ -- Xristos.

So, saying or writing Xmas is actually quite appropriate, when you think about it.

Ho ho ho... happy holidays everyone!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Nest in Style this Winter Solstice

Photo by stevendepolo on Flickr

Welcome winter solstice - the year's longest night - in the Northern Hemisphere (exact Dec. 21, 2009 at 12:47 p.m. EST). From this point forward, the days will grow longer and the nights will shorten until the summer solstice in mid-June. 

Considering how cold and dark it can be at this time of year, it's little wonder the winter solstice was considered "midwinter" for centuries... not the start of winter as we know it today.

The return of the light is certainly a time to celebrate! But there's another reason for solstice cheer too.

Introducing Nest In Style Podcasts ... providing you with the latest in home and garden trends mixed with a twist of the past. Your hosts: Jayme Jenkins of aHa! Modern Living and Yours Truly (Teresa O'Connor) of Seasonal Wisdom.

Don't miss our first podcast episode where we reveal strange facts about the solstice as well as Christmas and Hanukah. For example, did you know Christmas was once illegal?

You'll find cool gift ideas and holidays traditions from folks around the world. And there are loads of resources for more information. In other words, there's plenty of news you can use at Nest In Style.  To hear this podcast...

Feeling hungry? While you're listening to the Nest In Style podcast, why not try the winter solstice celebration menu featured at Helen Yoest's Gardening With Confidence blog? There are several delicious, vegetable-based recipes sure to put a smile on your face this solstice. Here's what you'll find:

Seasonal Wisdom's Kale with Bacon and Feta (pictured above)

Vitamin-packed Solstice Stuffed Acorn Squash recipe from
Blue Moon Cafe and Indigo Gardens of New Hampshire

Super-easy and fast Sweet Potato Casserole from
Helen Yoest of Gardening with Confidence in North Carolina
    Step-by-step directions for a yummy Apple Crumb Pie
    by Kelly Senser, senior associate editor at National Wildlife Magazine
However, you decide to celebrate the annual return of the light this winter solstice, be sure to have yourselves a special and magical time. Ho ho ho.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Snow-Storm

With snow falling all over the nation this week, I couldn't help think of a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson. It goes like this...

"Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow; and driving o'er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight; the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden's end..."

"The sled and traveller stopped, the courier's feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, inclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm."

Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Snow Storm

Wherever you may be ... enjoy the beginning of winter and stay warm and safe.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Part V: Favorite Winter Plants (Western Washington)

Pieris japonica 'Flaming Silver'

Winters in Western Washington are wet ... pure and simple. The final stop of this multi-part series on Favorite Winter Plants may not be as cold as the other regions, but this lovely area definitely has its challenges, reports personal garden coach Christina Salwitz (aka @Arcadia1 on Twitter).

First, consider the area (USDA Hardiness Zone 7B). The Puget Sound region sits squarely between two mountain ranges, the salt water centering it and approximately 857,492 lakes, large and small, streams, creeks and rivers. The result? Moderate temperatures, and lots of moisture.

"A true northwest gardener mildews from all angles for about six months a year," says Christina with a laugh. "Rarely do we have snow for more than a few days here. Instead, we have seemingly unending, gray and drizzly days of soggy, muddy, misty, damp and cold weather. You have to want to be out weeding, transplanting or cleaning up here."

If you take the plunge, however, you can grow lovely winter plants like Pieris japonica 'Flaming Silver' (shown at the top). "This variegated shrub looks elegant and showy without even a bloom on it," she says.

Another favorite is Helleborus 'Ivory Prince' (shown above), which blooms heavily in winter on lovely, evergreen foliage. That's important in this sometimes dreary climate.

"Our plant choices must be made lovingly, and with much regard for the mental aspects of the garden," Christina explains. "We need to be able to look out our windows into the gloominess of winter and see color."

Another great plant for winter color - especially in December - is Mahonia x media 'Charity,' according to this gardening expert.

This stunning plant (shown in above two photos) is "a hummingbird extravaganza of sweet yellow flowers in December, on tough, blue-green holly-like foliage," adds Christina.

Foliage is another great source of winter color. As Christina reports, "Winter heathers have many feisty foliage colors, from yellows to oranges to hot pinks."

From hot pink heathers to variegated shrubs to sweetly blooming flowers, there are many plants that can lift the spirits and brighten the gardens during the wet winters of Washington. And maybe even your garden too...

Learn more: on Christina's blog Personal Garden Coach; or on Twitter @Arcadia1

Did we forget any of your favorite winter plants in this series? If so, what are they? We'd love to hear...

Monday, November 23, 2009

Part IV: Favorite Winter Plants (North Carolina)

There may be a snow storm or two, but Raleigh, N.C. (Zone 7B) enjoys more moderate winters than the first three locations featured in this Favorite Winter Plants series. In fact, you can pretty much garden all winter long, reports garden writer and coach Helen Yoest. And she should know. Helen not only owns Gardening With Confidence, she also serves on the board of advisors for JC Raulston Arboretum.

"I planted Helen's Haven with winter interest in mind," she says about her own garden and wildlife habitat. "During the coldest, darkest days, when I need it the most, I have plants bringing me scent, color, form and texture."

One example is coral bark maple (Acer palmatum  'Sango-kaku'), shown above. The tree offers fabulous fall color as well as orangey new leaves that turn green in summer. But Helen grows the tree for its winter beauty. "In winter, the bark color is more pronounced, especially on the new branches," she reports. "The coral color will dazzle you."

Not far from the maple is winter daphne (Daphne), shown above. "A winter daphne may up-and-die on you, but the scent in the middle of winter is worth the risk," admits Helen. "I have two at the front entrance. One for now and one for when one dies. The wildlife appreciate the pollen and evergreen cover as well."

Speaking of critters, they love to feast on the berries of deciduous holly (Ilex 'Winter Red). "For the wildlife, the color red says GO!," she says. "The deciduous nature of this shrub bodes well to show off the striking holly berries."

This holly does need a male holly plant as a pollinator, and 'Southern Gentlemen' works well, according to Helen, who adds with a laugh, "But of course, can't we all benefit from a southern gentleman?"

Another plant Helen can't live without is southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora).  "We have one on the south side of the house," she says. "It shades our home from the hot summer sun. And their May and June blooms look and smell heavenly. But for the winter, nothing beats the glossy evergreen cover this magnificent tree offers. There is a lot of chirping going on in that tree during the winter and all seasons."

As Helen successfully shows, there are many ways to use plants in the winter garden ... from feeding wildlife to adding visual interest to your landscape.

Learn more:

Don't Go Away.  Our final stop is Western Washington, where the winters are wet and cold, but the planting options are hot hot hot.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Part III - Favorite Winter Plants (Canada)

For part 3 of "Favorite Winter Plants," we travel to Lake Ontario, Canada.  It takes a special plant to survive these rugged growing conditions, reports award-winning garden writer Doug Green (aka @DougGreen on Twitter). His garden is USDA Hardiness Zone 4 or 5, depending on the season and whether you're in one of the property's microclimates.

But as Doug explains," A winter plant here has to have the substance to survive our shallow, limestone soils, the high winds out here in Lake Ontario and the mind-numbing winter cold. This is not a garden for cosseted Southern belles but rather the hardy souls of our garden world."

Take apple trees, for instance. "My old orchard, unpruned for many years before we purchased the property, gives amazing contours and shapes when snow invariably flies," he says. "I love wandering around in the orchard and indeed right outside the back door, where the biggest and oldest specimen lives."

"Sumacs (Rhus) are notorious spreaders and have totally invaded what used to be a nice little patio garden down at the water's edge," Doug explains. "I'm reclaiming this area for a garden, by slowly whacking them back. But a soft snowfall reminds me why I plan on leaving just a few."

"There's no doubt that cedars (Thuja occidentalis) form the hardy backbone on our shallow cliff edge leading down to the water," he says. "They hold the bank in place, tenaciously winding the limestone shale subsoil into a firm mat, and I hate to lose even one of them. They too give us some measure of shape and substance to our winter view, and are not to be denied their place in our garden."

"Call it the last gasp of winter or the first warnings of spring," adds Doug. "But I'll never have a garden without hellebore. When this plant finally springs to bloom from its roots (it's not evergreen here), you know the frost is out of the ground and spring can't be far behind."

Learn more: or on Twitter @DougGreen.

There's More! Our next stop is North Carolina. The winters are certainly milder there, but the winter garden excitement is just as hot. Don't miss part four of this series, coming soon.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Part II: Favorite Winter Plants (No. Idaho)

In part two of our "Favorite Winter Plants" series, we travel to the frigid region of Northern Idaho to show some of the wonderful winter plants that can add interest to these gardens in colder months.

Dan Eskelson (aka @daneskelson on Twitter) began his horticultural training in the balmy hills of Santa Barbara, California. But these days he gardens and designs landscapes from his company Clearwater Landscapes in Priest River, Idaho. This distinctly four-season climate is a frosty USDA Hardiness Zones 4 and 5. Even in this cold climate, however, there are plenty of interesting winter plants. Here are some of Dan's favorites:

"Rose hips from the native Wood's rose (Rosa woodsii) are plentiful this year in Idaho," reports Dan. "They really provide bright, cheerful color for the fall/early winter landscape."

"Ocean Spray (Holodiscus discolor) is another native that we encourage and incorporate in the landscape," says Dan. "The seemingly delicate cream-colored flower clusters turn eventually dark brown and persist through much of the winter."

"Oregon Grape (Mahonia repens, M. aquifolium, etc.) is quite common and often used in the landscape," he admits. "Yet, it remains one of my favorite plants for winter interest. Each year seems to bring different combinations of leaf color, including green, purple and scarlet."

"These river birch (Betula nigra 'Heritage') are closely related to the native black birch," adds Dan. "They provide a continuously evolving show of trunk transformation. Their colors range from almost white to pinks and browns."

Learn More: Clearwater Landscapes, Inc.; or on Twitter @daneskelson

More to Come! Don't go away. We're traveling to Canada next, where the winter gardens can be especially beautiful if you just know what to plant. Look for part three, coming soon...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Part I: Favorite Winter Plants (Maine Containers)

Winter is right around the corner, but that doesn't mean your garden can't still look beautiful. Many plants provide visual excitement in the colder months with colorful berries, patterned trunks, interesting textures and fabulous foliage.

That's why I asked five knowledgeable garden writers, coaches and designers from Canada and the United States to name some of their favorite winter plants. In the next few posts, you'll hear what they had to say.

First, I head to New England to hear about container plants that transition well into winter. My source is Kerry Michaels, who writes all about container gardening for and on Twitter as @containergarden.

"There are so many great plants that will bring you through fall and well into winter in grand style," explains Kerry, who lives on the Maine coast (USDA Hardiness Zone 5).

"I'm ridiculously enamored of heucheras, also known as coral bells," she admits. "They come in a huge assortment of colors, from almost black to the rocking 'key lime' green one pictured above. Most are hardy down to a whopping minus 25 degrees F, and continue to look good far into winter."

"My other favorite fall to winter plants are ornamental grasses," says Kerry. "I particularly like purple fountain grass 'Rubrum' and Japanese forest grass, Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola,' which is shown in the above picture."

"I also love sage (Salvia officinalis 'Aureaus')," she adds. "It cruises beautifully into winter and then comes in handy when you want to make stuffing for holiday turkeys. This photo shows sage combined with croton and purple fountain grass." Beware: when temperatures start to really fall, you'll want to remove the croton.

Hope these container gardening suggestions get your creative juices flowing. Remember container gardening can be a four-season hobby, even in the cold climates.

Learn More: Kerry Michaels, About.Com Container Gardening or on Twitter @ContainerGarden

More to Come! Next, we travel to Northern Idaho, where the winters are frigid but there are still plenty of ways to add interest to the garden. Look for part 2, coming soon...

Monday, November 2, 2009

Winter Survival Tips From Five Pros

The days are growing shorter. The temperatures are dropping. And old man winter will be here before we know it. Meanwhile, I can't help but wonder how gardeners in much colder climates survive the dark, dreary days of winter.

I'll be honest with you. In my USDA Hardiness Zone 6B garden, winters are relatively mild, especially compared to the rest of Idaho and the northern states. But what about those brave souls in the really cold places? What about those regions where snowstorms come as early as October and frosts can continue until June? Ever wonder how they do it?

Well, keep reading. Five popular gardening writers, bloggers and tweeters share their winter survival tips:

Jodi Torpey

Jodi Torpey is a Denver-based garden writer, master gardener and author of "The Colorado Gardener's Companion: An Insider's Guide to Gardening in the Centennial State." In her Zone 5 garden, she saw snow before Halloween this year.

"I'm convinced T.S. Eliot got it wrong," says Jodi. "April isn't the cruelest month, it surely must be January. I know those cold, dark days are coming when I do my planting in May. Then, in late August, I fill the freezer with containers of slow-roasted tomatoes, prepared chile peppers and home-made pesto. Every time I savor the garden-fresh aroma of a winter dinner bubbling on the stove, summer is within reach."

Learn more: or follow her on Twitter @WesternGardener.

Amanda Thomsen

Amanda Thomsen (aka Kiss My Aster) knows something about cold winters too. From her Zone 5 garden in the Chicago area, she manages her busy life as a "blogger for Horticulture magazine, garden Jedi, half of Good Enough Gardening podcasts, co-author of 'Grocery Gardening,' wearer of vintage clothing, Hello Kitty fan and thriftaholic."

How does she stay sane in the Windy City when those winds turn frigid?

"You know how I keep busy when the snow is knee deep?" she asked. "I search relentlessly for junk! It hardly matters what kind of junk; it sparks my creativity whether it's a dryer vent that can be repurposed or toys from the past that would look creepy in my garden come spring. I hit thrift stores, antique malls (the crapper the better), indoor flea markets and scour My winter revolves around junk. That and coffee."

Learn more: or follow her on Twitter @KissMyAster.

Kathy Purdy

Kathy Purdy saw snow in upstate New York by October this year too. This popular blogger and cold climate gardening expert says her area was definitely Zone 4 about 20 years ago, but it's been leaning towards Zone 5 in recent years.

Translation: That means temperatures haven't dropped down to minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit in a while. But she can still see frost the first week in June. So, how does she survive those long winters in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains?

"The most important thing I do in the winter is train for strength and flexibility," explains Kathy. "It may not seem garden-related, but gardening in spring is much more pleasurable when your body is ready for physical labor, and it does keep your spirits up during the gloom. I also try to get out on milder days and stamp proposed paths or garden beds into the snow. Then I go upstairs to see how they look from above. I'm hoping this year to force more bulbs to have something fragrant and fresh in the house."

Learn more: or follow her on Twitter @KathyPurdy.

Helen and Sarah Battersby

Helen and Sarah Battersby admit Toronto, Canada can get depressing in the dead of winter, especially for gardeners. And they would know. Descending from a long line of English gardeners, the sisters and neighbors write a popular gardening blog about Toronto together.

Here's how Sarah says she tackles Toronto's Zone 5 (Canada Zone 6) winters:

"Winter in Toronto can be especially grueling," explains Sarah. "Any snow we get, if it stays around at all, quickly gets filthy. We don't have many perfect winter wonderland days here. This can send me screaming to Allan Gardens, a Victorian conservatory in downtown Toronto. As soon as you walk in the door you're hit with warm, moist tropical air. There are three greenhouses: one cool, one warm, and a cacti and succulent room. Victorian sculptures, ponds with waterfalls and goldfish, and even a miniature mill with a water wheel, make the place magical for all ages."

Learn more: or follow on Twitter @torontogardens.

Lynn Felici-Gallant

Lynn Felici-Gallant spends winters on New Hampshire's scenic coast; also Zone 5. The garden writer, marketer and garden/container designer survives the cold weather by taking a philosophical look at the changing seasons.

"Each autumn, I lament the inevitable winter to come," admits Lynn. "I find myself holding on to the vestiges of my gardens with a vengeance, as if I might somehow stop the cold. And then, without warning, I begin to embrace the change of seasons; I savor the fragrant wood smoke from my stove, and relish Sundays with a pot of soup. I head outdoors as often as I can -- to walk in the woods, to track evidence of an evening critter, or to count the winter birds at my feeders. Slowly I realize the bare beauty of nature, stripped of the often overwhelming cacophony of summer flowers and foliage, and I feel grateful for the quiet."

Learn more: or follow her on Twitter @IndigoGardens.

Tell us: How do you survive winter? Have any winter survival tips you'd like to share?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Happy Halloween!

"From ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties,
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!"
Old Cornish Prayer

Since the earliest times, the evening of October 31 has been considered a scary time, when the dead walk among us and the witches are particularly powerful. So, I thought it would be interesting to research some of the old superstitions about Halloween or All Hallows E'en. Read them if you dare.

Keep Fires Lit: In earlier times, bonfires were lit on hilltops to drive off witches: and on no account were household fires allowed to go out that night, or evil things might gain an entry. Incidentally, if your fire flame turns blue, it's said that an other-worldly being has entered the room. Consider yourself warned.

Don’t Turn Around: If you’re walking on Halloween and hear footsteps right behind you – don’t turn around. You might find yourself staring Death in the face. And who wants that?

Meet a Witch: Wear your clothes inside out and walk backwards on Halloween night. It's a sure way to run into a witch ... or at least an angry "trick or treater."

Predict Future Spouse: Eager to know the identity of your next love? Tonight is the perfect time. Here's what you do: Go in a darkened room with a candle and step up to the mirror. Look in the mirror, eat the apple and comb your hair ... all at the same time. Supposedly, the face of your next loved one – or the devil – will appear over your shoulder.

Most Importantly: Have fun, stay safe and don’t eat too many sweets.

Select resources:
The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore
The Oxford Book of Days

Monday, October 26, 2009

The City of Trees Gets Colorful in Fall

One of the best places to see fall foliage in the United States may be in a place you wouldn't expect: Boise, Idaho ... also known as the City of Trees.

To give you a peek, I drove or hiked around Boise shooting pictures using only my iPhone as a camera.

Julia Davis Park in downtown Boise is a riot of colors now. Canada geese congregate down by the pond, preparing for the winter.

I hung out the window at a stoplight to capture these pink roses and colorful trees near downtown Boise. The car's rearview mirror is in the bottom right of the picture.

This colorful autumnal scene in the North End of Boise was snapped from a stop sign, on my way home from a hike. It was so pretty I couldn't resist.

Just outside the city, this scenic road passes by turning trees, rolling hills and horse farms.

A splendid tree stands in the afternoon's golden light in Hulls Gulch Reserve, which offers 218 acres covered with hiking and biking trails.

Sages, shrubs and deciduous trees prove that Idaho's drought-tolerant, native plants can be stunning in this season.

Don't those autumnal colors and textures lift your spirits? There's nothing like passing by these colorful native plants while taking a hike in the foothills.


Along one of Boise's foothill trails, this jungle of flowering sage provides an aromatic and visual treat.

Speaking of foothills, here's the summit of Table Rock. The trailhead starts about a ten minute drive from downtown and offers great views, not to mention wildflowers like rabbitbrush.

Now if I can take these photos using an iPhone, hanging out the car window and such, you can just imagine how lovely these scenes would look with a real camera.

When it comes to fall foliage, Boise really does compete well with the big boys.