A small space natural Christmas

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER, 20 Mark and Ben (his son) Cullen are seen in the Star studio for logo photos. The two will be co-writing the weekly Urban Growth column in Homes & Condos. September, 20 2017

Mark and Ben Cullen

The other day, Ben and wife Sam were invited to a friend’s 500 square foot condo. It was an eye opener for a couple who live in a fully detached century home.

With more of us living in smaller spaces, the challenge during the holiday season is to decorate without having to move out. Clearly, a real Christmas tree is out of the question, unless you opt for the small table-top-sized cut trees.

Mother Nature has some cues for us.

Here are our six recommendations for small-space, natural holiday decorating:

Norfolk Island Pine. This is the tropical version of a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. Thin between the branches, small and goofy looking. If you are looking for that classic pyramidal look, this may be your best choice. Norfolk Island Pine is a native to the south Pacific. It loves a sunny position, needs the soil to dry between watering and is low maintenance. Go away for a week or two and it will still greet you with wide open branches. Hang some light, small Christmas lights or balls on it or string popcorn.

Rosemary tree. This popular culinary herb can be trimmed into most any shape at all. It is the boxwood of herbs. You will find plants this time of year at food stores and Farmer’s Markets, often shaped like an evergreen tree. Rosemary works well over the holiday season but does not make a good permanent indoor plant. Let them get dry, about two centimetres below the soil surface, between watering and place in your sunniest window. As they produce new growth or you get tired of having it around, whichever happens first, cut foliage off your rosemary and use in your kitchen when preparing an appropriate meal. Rosemary goes with turkey, we are told.

Orange tree. We think that oranges are very seasonal, perhaps due to the many stories of an orange being the only thing in Grandpa’s stocking Christmas morning when he was a child. Some people poke cloves into mandarin oranges this time of year to create a seasonal scent. An orange tree fits with this theme. This time of year, garden retailers carry an assortment of small orange trees that are hanging with attractive, edible fruit. It is almost as if you hung orange balls on a small tropical shrub for the holiday season. Convenient and a great permanent addition to your tropical plant collection. Sunny window.

Bittersweet Vine (Celastrus scandens) A native plant that produces masses of orange/red fruit this time of year and looks great however you wish to use it. Add stems of Bittersweet to an arrangement of evergreen branches or dried vine as a table centrepiece or on a mantle. Note that bittersweet fruit is poisonous, as is mistletoe.

Mistletoe. Native to Europe with a long history of lore attached to it. For instance, it was used during the winter solstice in Druid times by the local priest as part of a fertility ceremony. We will skip the details but suffice to say that none of this activity would go over well today. We have extended the tradition in a more civilized way by kissing under it, with consent from both parties. The appearance of mistletoe lends it nicely to being placed in a bowl with chestnuts or acorns. Reminder: poisonous.

Rose Hips. The most ornamental enhancement of your Christmas table may be just outside your back door. Or, in a local park where we recommend you are judicious about harvesting rose hips in a public place. A few colourful rose hips, snipped from a large rose bush, would not offend anyone, we don’t think. They are decorative and display well.

Back to the small condo and the issue of limited space. We suggest that you explore the selection of tropical plants at your favourite plant retailer and decide what you like best. Chances are, it will lend itself to a few twinkle lights or stringed popcorn.

Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author, broadcaster, tree advocate and Member of the Order of Canada. His son Ben is a fourth-generation urban gardener and graduate of University of Guelph and Dalhousie University in Halifax. Follow them at markcullen.com, @markcullengardening, and on Facebook.