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Gardening: Botanical holiday houses can be detailed, dazzling

Credit: Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

Amy Clark is assistant registrar and also volunteers her time and talent crafting botanically embellished miniature holiday homes.

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When is a nandina berry a doorknob, a translucent seed pod a window pane and a cluster of tree fungi shingles? When a designer uses them to decorate small-scale holiday houses.

Unlike traditional gingerbread houses and ceramic villages, botanically crafted holiday houses feature elements from nature. Dried flowers, seed pods, bark, leaves and twigs used for construction and decorative elements not only bring the outdoors in, they engage your imagination and cause you to view nature's bounty from a different perspective.

Best of all, this type of project enhances holiday decor in a uniquely artistic way.

"It's fun finding botanical things you can use to represent everyday objects," said Laura Lee Folman, education registrar at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden who helps make the holiday displays for the GardenFest of Lights. "There's just something special about the miniatures. The small scale is part of their magic."

Amy Clark, assistant registrar who also volunteers her time and talent crafting botanical houses, said it's her favorite pastime during the holidays. "I've always liked tiny things, and I'm detail oriented," she said.

Shannon Smith, a garden horticulturist who has made botanical houses for more than eight years, encourages others to try their hand at crafting holiday buildings, perhaps as a family project or ongoing tradition. "Build one (botanical) house per season, and over the course of a lifetime you'll have a village," she said. "The houses can become family heirlooms if constructed from your own garden and carefully stored between seasons."

Work begins with the harvest of botanicals, which can vary from late spring through late fall. Most items are then cleaned, preserved by air drying, silica drying or pressing, then stored in a moisture-free place.

When assembly begins, use a hot-glue gun to affix the items one by one to the building frame (which usually is constructed by hand from repurposed materials). Decorating the buildings takes diligence and time. The work is tedious, and drying time is required between layers.

Simple dwellings can be made in a few hours, but Smith estimated that from harvest to final display, each of Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden's holiday houses involved anywhere from 40 to 100 hours of labor.

Decorating tips

  • Cured wood slabs make ideal bases for miniature buildings, and they're a good use of felled trees. The building should be affixed to the slab before decorating. Moss, twigs and similar landscape enhancements can be glued at the end to complete the setting.
  • Separating botanical items by size in advance makes it easier to create realistic patterns, such roof shingles and siding.
  • Though most botanicals should be dried before use, nandina berries can be applied fresh since they air-dry well. Grape vines are easier to manipulate while fresh, but leaves should be removed first.
  • The money plant's "coins" (translucent seed pods) are ideal for window panes. A battery-operated candle or luminary set inside the building glows through these transparent "windows."
  • Scales clipped from pine cones make realistic rooftops, and peeled bark suffices as siding.
  • Before beginning, stock up with a good wire or box cutter, pruner and long-nose tweezers.
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