Holiday Decorations from the Eye of the Landscape Designer

By Layne Knoche, RORG Landscape Designer

Early each December, my mom and I take on one of our favorite tasks of the year: putting up the Christmas tree. It sounds fairly simple, but I promise you, it’s anything but. While the tree isn’t the showiest or most extravagant, it’s steeped in traditions dating back to those of my great-grandmother in the 1930’s. We cover it in an array of glass, crystal, acrylic, and brass- and silver-plated ornaments, some of which have been collected and passed down through the generations. And through all of the work we put in, several parallels emerge between designing the decoration of the tree and designing the landscapes I work in, including the Red Oak Rain Garden.

For this blog, I’d highly encourage you to play Vince Guaraldi’s “O Tannenbaum,” which is typically the first Christmas song we listen to as we start working on the tree.

We’re not against real trees (my uncle and aunt grow real ones at the family farm), but we use an artificial tree because of family allergies. The 9-foot tree is not pre-lit, and it goes up branch by branch in the bay window of our 1924 Craftsman home in Dorchester, Illinois.

All 260 ornaments are organized before they’re moved to the tree

Step 1: Tree Structure & Lighting (RORG’s Groundcover Layer)

As we unbox the tree, each branch is meticulously shaped to resemble, as closely as possible, the branch of a real Fir. This means each twig is unfurled with a slight lift at the tip, as real branches have a slight tilt toward the sun above. We begin lighting the tree from the time the first level of branches is installed. This ensures we have depth of lights towards the middle of the tree. As we work our way up, the process is repeated. In all, the tree has over 1,000 white lights. Once the lights are fully strung, we stand back and squint hard to blur our vision. This is a tradition that my great-grandmother passed on to my grandmother, then my mother, and on to me. So why do we blur our vision…? It helps us to see where there are dark spots! (Seriously, try this sometime. It works!) Once the dark spots are found, we adjust the lights to ensure they are evenly distributed throughout. I see this stage as a parallel to RORG’s Groundcover Layer. The lights, which cover the entire surface of the tree, can be compared to the thousands of sedges and other plants that set the stage for the beauty yet to come.

Step 2: Special Ornaments & Beads (RORG’s Structural Layer)

Now that the tree’s structure and lights are finished, it’s time to move on to the decorations. My dad, who is enlisted to install the special lighted ornaments, is told where to place them. Most have been on our tree since the 1980’s, when my siblings were born. Then we install the largest of our ornaments, some of which are 18” in diameter, towards the center of the tree where they fill in gaps and bare spots between the branches and the trunk. The larger ornaments on the tree are similar to the Structural Layer at RORG, where the trees, shrubs, and large forbs perform similarly, providing small groupings of larger elements in the garden.

Once the largest ornaments are up, my mom directs the placement of 100 feet of gold and silver beads which wind their way from top to bottom.

Step 2: Special Ornaments & Beads

Step 3: Ribbon & “Medium Sized” Ornaments (RORG’s Structural Layer Cont.)

We then start on the gold ribbon which crisscrosses the tree. This is more of an accent to us, and each year we play with different textures and colors. Nevertheless, the ribbon always provides a touch of solid color to the tree in contrast to the glass and crystal. We start placing some of the larger “medium-sized” ornaments at this point. Similar to planting groupings of larger forbs in the garden, this is a continuation of the Structural Layer.

Step 4: Snowflake & Globe Ornaments (RORG’s Seasonal Layer)

The crystal, acrylic, and brass- and silver-plated snowflakes and globes (over 100 in all) are the first big wave of ornaments to go up. We place them at varying depths to give the tree dimension. This wave includes beautiful handmade, crocheted snowflakes made by my paternal grandmother and ornaments that my maternal grandmother placed on her tree each year before she passed away.

Step 5: Icicle Ornaments & Base Decorations (RORG’s Seasonal Layer Cont.)

The last wave of ornaments to go up are the glass icicles, which range in size from 15 inches to 3 inches in length. In total, there are 132 icicles that hang from the branches. This stage in the tree decorating process can be equated to the designed drifts of plants throughout the Seasonal Layer. Swaths of similar textures and colors provide movement and interest.

The rest of the interior decorations include handmade garlands and arrangements using fresh cut evergreens and red twigs from our gardens. To tie in with those red accents, we use a red skirt and place groupings of poinsettias on either side of the tree. We also place lit ceramic houses which belonged to my maternal grandmother under the tree.

Final Tips

From start to beginning, it takes us about 8 hours to put up our tree. Here’s what you can do to make the time even more enjoyable:

  • Find your favorite Christmas album (for us, it’s Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas”) and listen to it approximately 14 times.
  • Work with your local weatherman to schedule a snowstorm for that timeframe.
  • While decorating, bake 4 dozen cookies and eat them all yourselves. Be sure not to burn them.
  • Hire Mariah Carey to belt her famous “yyooooUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU” from “All I Want for Christmas is You” every 10 minutes to keep your energy up.
  • Chug a gallon of Egg Nog and 5 shots of Five Hour Energy once per hour (please don’t actually do this).
  • While taking a break, open the pile of Christmas cards from people you don’t know, your various insurance agencies, and your car dealership.

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