Home & Garden

Dressing Up Your Home for the Holidays

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Whether you enjoy the holiday season or despise it, we’ve come up with some tips to make holiday decorating simple and enjoyable.

Decorating your home for the holidays doesn't have to be a burden. There are tips and trends that can help make the experience enjoyable.

Decorating your home for the holidays doesn’t have to be a burden. There are tips and trends that can help make the experience enjoyable.

Some folks love every aspect of holiday decorating. They make some cocoa, crank up the Christmas tunes and lift each ornament out of its storage box as if greeting a long-lost friend.

Others find the mere thought of “decking the halls” to be exhausting. They dread dragging out dusty boxes, climbing icy ladders, wrestling with broken light strings and getting sticky sap all over their hands.

Whichever camp you’re in, there are tips and tricks that can make your season brighter. Here are a few.

Hire it Done

A growing number of businesses offer outdoor holiday decorating services. In our region, many are landscapers looking for winter work. If you hire one, make sure the owner carries both liability and worker’s compensation insurance and has a valid business license. Ask for references and check the company’s record with Angie’s List and/or the Better Business Bureau.

“Many people hire a professional lighting company to avoid the risk of injury, or because they don’t like heights,” says Josh Robertson, owner of Christmas Décor, in Belvidere. “Others do it because they’re getting up in years and no longer feel comfortable handling the task. Still others simply don’t have time to hang lights, or would rather relax and leave the job to the pros.”

If you go with a pro, be clear about who pays for the materials, what the timeline is for putting up and taking down lights, and where decorations will be stored. Christmas Décor designs a lighting plan, reviews it with customers using 3D software, provides a written estimate, supplies and maintains all materials – lights, cords, timers, animated displays etc. – and stores them after take-down.

“Prices vary widely, based on the size of the job,” says Robertson. His minimal package starts at $397. “The average cost is about $1,000 to $1,400 for the first visit, which includes the purchase of lights, and about half that every year after.”

Beat the Cold

If you don’t want to hire the job done, get a jump on it while the weather is still relatively warm. Just because you hang lights now doesn’t mean you have to turn them on yet. Fumbling with ladders and screwing bulbs into sockets is much easier when your dexterity isn’t hampered by frigid weather and slippery surfaces. Take advantage of gadgets that make the job easier and ask your local hardware store staff what’s new in that regard.

Think Green & Fresh

Fresh greenery is making a big comeback in the form of fresh wreathes, roping, hanging baskets and especially porch pots. For whatever reason, people are craving authenticity.

Both Gensler Gardens in Loves Park, Ill., and K&W Greenery in Janesville, Wis., make it easy to pick up a ready-made fresh porch pot or to buy the materials to assemble your own.

“Our whole goal is to make sure that customers love the arrangements they get and enjoy them for a long time,” says Scott Gensler, co-owner at Gensler Gardens. “One thing we do is soak the greens in moisture for at least a few hours before we assemble the porch pots. We recommend that customers water them once a week until freezing weather. If they do that, and if the pots aren’t in a lot of direct sun, they’ll be beautiful until March or April.”

Simply remove Christmasy accents, like bows, after the holidays, for winter-long enjoyment.

Gensler stocks about 25 kinds of greens – from pine to cypress – plus natural accents like pomegranates, yarrow, eucalyptus, birch branches, lotus pods, artichokes, curly willow branches, dogwood, fantail willow and several kinds of pinecones, including 10-inch sugar cones.

“Some people want to do everything themselves, others want us to do everything for them. Either way is fine with us,” says Gensler.

A fairly recent development in outdoor greenery is the ability to adorn it with battery-powered lights, notes Jordan Graffin, co-owner of K&W Greenery. Branches imbedded with lights add charm to porch pots and twinkling lights nestled in greens-stuffed hanging baskets are a welcome sight on winter evenings, even after the holidays have passed.

“People really hate how early it gets dark, in wintertime, in our region,” says Graffin. “Anything that adds light is welcome, and the recent development of outdoor battery-powered lights makes it possible to tuck lights into places where we couldn’t have them before.”

Use Living Plants

The trend toward fresh greenery and plants is no less evident indoors, this season, so look to your local greenhouse for inspiration. The poinsettia, a native of Mexico, is the No. 1 potted plant sold in the U.S. What we think of as petals are really a form of bract, or a special leaf, on the plant.

Both Gensler and K&W grow their own poinsettias, planting in July, then staking and nurturing them until the Christmas season.

“This has been a really good growing year for them,” says Graffin at K&W. “We’ve had a lot of warm, sunny days, and they’re getting huge.”

While the bright-red poinsettia remains top dog, there’s an explosion of new alternatives.

“We experiment with something new every year,” says Graffin. “Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it bombs. One that turned out to be great is the Christmas Rose poinsettia. It’s curly on top and looks almost like a rose that’s opening up.”

Other varieties may feature splotchy colors, variegated leaves or extra-large creamy white flowers. K&W uses special florist paint to custom-tint your poinsettia to match décor or even to celebrate your favorite team colors.

So what do you do with a poinsettia after the holidays pass?

“If you’re really good with plants, you can hold over a poinsettia, but it’s difficult and it’s not likely you’ll get it to color up as well next year,” says Gensler. “My grandma had one she kept for four years, but she was really good with plants.”

Other fresh plants you’ll find in local greenhouses during the holidays include crisp, white florist hydrangeas (“florist,” in this case, means non-hardy), bright-colored cyclamen, potted and living evergreens like Balsam, and blooming bulb plants like the joyous amaryllis or slender paperwhite narcissus. A pot of fresh herbs is always a practical, tasty and welcome sight in winter, too. Put a red bow on it and enjoy the scent, flavors and sight of fresh greenery in your kitchen.

Greenhouses also offer the main attraction of indoor holiday decorating: The Christmas tree. Gensler sells fresh Fraser firs; K&W sells Fraser and Balsam firs sourced in Wisconsin and will freshly cut the trunk and bale the tree for you.

“We’ve been doing this for more than 40 years and have found that Fraser and Balsam are the only varieties that hold up to our satisfaction,” says Graffin.

The greenhouses also sell fresh wreaths and roping, by the foot or roll.

Gensler believes there are several reasons for the resurgence of fresh greenery in peoples’ homes and yards during the holidays.

“One is environmental responsibility,” he says. “Fresh trees are grown for the purpose of being harvested and they’re not going to fill up landfills. When a farmer cuts one, he plants more trees. Also, for sure, people love the scent of fresh evergreens. You can’t duplicate that. And, they’re just so beautiful. Very few artificial trees look real, and those that do are very expensive.”

Pull It All Together

In an age of McMansions with soaring ceilings, many people find it difficult and even dangerous to do their own interior holiday decorating. Sometimes they turn to professionals like Marcy Mielke, an interior designer at Absolutely Home, in Lake Geneva, Wis., who isn’t intimidated by a 10-foot-tall Christmas tree.

“There was a lot more reliance on professional holiday decorators before the Great Recession, but we’re starting to see a return of it,” she says. “Usually people have their own decorations, but sometimes they send me to shop for new ones, especially if they want to change up their holiday look.”

Mielke closely studies a client’s regular home décor so that holiday décor will be compatible.

“In more formal settings, with a neutral color palette of gray and white, which is so popular right now, we’re seeing a lot of trees decorated in white and silver mercury ornaments. There’s shine but it’s elegant.”

Occasionally a homeowner requests a particular holiday color palette that matches existing home décor, such as lime, teal and blue.

In homes with an industrial-style décor or rustic feel, Mielke may use more natural-looking materials to decorate a tree, such as grapevines, burlap, sprigs of berries (purchased at a craft store) and pinecones. She may top it with birch branches or a clump of berries dusted with glitter.

“Many homes have multiple trees and the family may want something more colorful in the family room or children’s area,” says Mielke.

She’s a big fan of the new warm-glow LED white lights and always starts winding lights from the bottom of a tree.

“Don’t buy the white lights that have that florescent, bluish undertone,” she says. “The newer warm ones are really pretty, very durable, much cooler and more energy-efficient.”

It’s easy to coordinate the look of wreaths, mantle greens and a Christmas tree by repeating accents like silver balls, berry sprigs or the same color of ribbon.

Stand-alone Christmas decor, like nativity scenes, candleholders and Santa dolls can personalize a family’s space, but beware of going overboard. If your collection of favorite items has outgrown your surface area, rotate items from one year to the next.

Think Safety First

The holidays are a notoriously hazardous time. The American Red Cross reports that nearly 47,000 fires occur during the holidays each year, claiming more than 500 lives and causing more than 2,200 injuries. Brad Tolliver, owner of Krup Electric in Rockford, offers these tips for keeping your family and property tragedy-free.

1. Respect electricity. “At the beginning of the season, carefully inspect every light string and other electrical cords, for damage, before using,” says Tolliver. “Make sure there are no bare wires or insulation showing, and that cords are not cracked. It’s important that wires don’t come into direct contact with water and snow, but it’s also important, indoors, that they aren’t in contact with pine needles or other flammables.”

2. Don’t overload circuits. “Most homes have 15 amp service, which means you don’t want the total load to add up to more than 80 percent of that amount of amps for one outlet,” he says. Read labels and do the math. “If you plug six cords into one another, the first cord may end up carrying too much load.” Using LED lights lowers the risk considerably. “They require much less currency and run much cooler than the incandescent style of lights. They’re great,” says Tolliver.

3. Use the right kind of outlets. Outdoor lighting, which is bound to come into contact with snow or rain, should always be plugged into a GFCI [ground-fault circuit interrupter] outlet, which helps to prevent people or animals from being shocked. “This type of outlet is required for new homes, but older homes may not have them,” says Tolliver. The cost of installing an outdoor GFCI outlet is $15 to $100. Also, make sure any extension cords you use outside are made for outdoor use.

4. Beware flammables. Keep fresh Christmas trees well watered and don’t keep them or any kind of evergreens indoors too long after the holidays, once they become very dried out and brittle.

5. Replace real candles with flameless battery-powered candles, if possible. “If you do use real candles, don’t set them on a countertop underneath an overhanging top cabinet. We had a friend whose home caught on fire that way,” says Tolliver. “Make sure candles can properly vent so heat doesn’t build up.” Keep them away from flammable items, out of reach from children and pets and away from high traffic areas, where they can easily be bumped and tipped over.

6. Be vigilant. Unplug your tree and other Christmas lights when you leave your home or go to bed. Make sure smoke detectors are installed and have working batteries; they save lives.

As with all home interior decisions, the most important thing is to provide a place for our loved ones, and ourselves, that’s safe, comfortable, functional and pleasing to the eye. Festively dressing it for the holiday season is icing on the cake.

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