How to add sparkle to your natural decorations: sugaring

sugaredtoyon

In my last post, about our mostly all-natural Christmas tree, I mentioned that some of the ornaments are sugared leaves and berries. Sugaring is a really easy, simple way to bring a little bling to natural ornaments, and to invoke snow and frost inside the comfort of our cozy homes.

Sugaring is the green alternative to spray paint and glitter, or heavens forfend, that white foamy stuff that comes in spray cans. After the holidays, this all-natural bling can go straight into the compost pile, or out into some remote corner of the yard to be reabsorbed into nature.

I associate sugaring mostly with cake decorating (think of pretty little sugared violets and borage flowers on wedding cakes), but I remembered it when I wanted to fancy up my ornaments.

It’s super easy. Or more specifically, the basic technique is easy, though I think bakers who capture delicate flowers in a perfectly even coat of shining sugar have the skill down to a fine art. But sugaring sturdy things, like berry clusters or leaves, is simple.

You’ll need:

  • One egg white, furiously whipped
  • White sugar
  • A small paint brush
  • Possibly a fine mesh strainer to shake the sugar though, but you can sprinkle sugar with your fingers, too.
  • A system for holding the finished product while it dries. Things on sticks or with stems can be propped up in a tray of sand or rice. Flat things can go on racks. Things already hanging from ornament hooks could be dangled from a clothes hanger to dry.

All you do is paint the object with a thin coat of egg white, then sprinkle sugar over it while wet. If the egg white coat is too thick it will A) form snotty looking drips and B) soak up all the sugar after a few minutes. If this happens, you can just add more sugar, but the sugar layer could get kind of chunky looking if this goes on too much.  Oh, and I also discovered C) the hard way: a very thick coats of egg white may encourage mold development before it manages to dry. So keep it thin.

Put the ornaments somewhere safe to dry, as mentioned above, and don’t let them touch each other, or they’ll stick. They’ll be dry in a day or so, depending on your weather.

And that is it. If you want more pictures, details and pro-tips, there are really nice instructions over at The Wandering Spoon.

sugared sage

The recyclable/compostable Christmas tree

startree

I must confess: Erik and I are Scrooges. Ask anyone who knows us and they will tell you our Christmas spirit is measured in negative numbers. There are a lot of reasons for this, but those are beside the point. The point is that this year we’ve decided to embrace the madness instead of rejecting it. We’re getting our Christmas on.

To do this right, we needed a tree, a real tree.* Sticker shock prevented us from getting a big tree, but we’ve got a cute little tree balanced on, of all things, a stack of bee boxes in the living room. (Bees Not Included.)

Because of our essential scrooginess, we have very little in the way of Christmas decorations, especially for people of our advanced age. Usually Christmas decorations grow and multiply over the years like a tinsely coral reef. Kids, of course, generate many decorations. And some families give or buy commemorative ornaments every year. Ornaments get passed down. And some people just can’t resist a new ornament. None of these things apply to us. And, as I said, we are scrooges. I started this tree pretty much from scratch, like a kid in her first apartment. We had a string of white lights, and a couple of random things here and there.

buck tree

I just had to throw in the demented cat.

Since I was starting from scratch, I could saddle up my high horse and take her for a ride. I declared this tree and its decorations would all be compostable, or at a stretch, recyclable. Except the lights. I don’t know if the high horse would allow me to buy lights or not, so I’m glad I didn’t have to find out.

As I mentioned in the wreath post a couple of weeks ago, I really like the idea of natural, ephemeral holiday decor. There’s pleasure in finding decorations in nature, and in crafting by hand. There’s also pleasure in being able to send most of it back to the earth when the holiday is over. It saves money, saves storage space and gets you in touch with nature and your own creativity. What’s not to like?

So anyway, this year’s tree is fairly minimalist so far. I may make/find some more ornaments before Christmas, including a classic popcorn/cranberry chain. But  one thing I’ve realized is that this can be a year-round project in the future, because you never know when you’re going to find something wonderful in nature. And what better way to remind yourself to keep a sharp eye on what’s around you?

I want to collect bird feathers, and small pine cones, and young acorns and rose hips and pretty sticks covered with moss and dried flowers. I have more ideas right now than I have time. I do know that next year’s tree will be more wilderness themed than this one. This one I like, though.

Ideas for Ephemeral Ornaments

Most of these are classic, old-fashioned ornaments. I love the fact that they are free or inexpensively made, and don’t have to be stored from year to year.

  • Sturdy fruits and berries
  • Popcorn/cranberry strings
  • Paper chains
  • Dried herbs and flowers
  • Moss
  • Feathers
  • Cool looking seed pods
  • Nuts
  • Origami
  • Paper snowflakes
  • Homemade rock candy
  • Gingerbread figures

There’s tons more possibilities. What have I forgotten?

Some of my ornaments

sugared sage

This is a sugared white sage leaf. I added sugar because I decided the tree needed a little bling.

sugared toyon

Ditto with these–sugared toyon berries. I will do a separate how-to post on sugaring.

pepperberries

But berries don’t need sugaring to look nice. These are pink peppercorn tree berries.

twirl ornament

These  pretty twisty spiral things fall off a tree in our neighborhood. I’m sorry that I don’t know the name of the tree.

origami ikea

Next year I’m going to do my own origami for the tree. This year I’ve got some paper stars I dug up, which I believe came from Ikea.

snowflake

And there’s always snowflakes.

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*We considered a potted tree but decided against it because first, we could never plant it–we don’t have the space, and second, most of these conifers aren’t meant to live in the LA climate. I didn’t want to keep a potted tree on life support on our back patio. I think it would be unhappy. This little tree will be dismembered after Christmas and will become part of the ecosystem of our yard.

An Early Resolution

coffee cup

Last night I wrote a rant against disposable coffee cups, aka to-go cups. I didn’t post it this morning because I didn’t feel good about it. It was too negative, and worse, I was projecting. My rant went into some detail about the fraudulent idea of “disposability”, and how this idea degraded both our environment and our culture.

And this is true. A to-go cup is not particularly recyclable, despite its pretenses. Many (most?) communities don’t find it worthwhile to recycle dirty paper cups. And by culture, I mean that is far more civil, not to mention communal, to share beverages from a common pot. To sit together and drink, instead of run and gulp alone. I said that is important to share a communal drink, leaving aside your own preferences for this happy wholeness and communality– i.e. your choices comes down to “cream or sugar?” rather than a whole menu blackboard full of incremental and ultimately insignificant customization options. I find that in the case of coffee, individualism is a lonely business.

At any rate, I realized I was spending too much time on my high horse (her name is Princess and she has a pink mane) when I am a frequent enough user of disposable cups. True, I don’t work in the office, so I’m not lining up at Starbuck’s twice a day, and I often carry a travel mug, but I don’t say no to hot beverages when I’m at meetings and gatherings, or when I’m on the road, and these almost always come in disposable cups.

If I try to imagine how many disposable cups I’ve used in my life–say the earth (justly) vomited them all back at my feet–how high would the pile be? As big as my house?

So I’m making a resolution. Instead of berating others, I’m declaring a personal moratorium on to-go cups–all disposable cups for both hot and cold drinks, actually, because why not? I banned plastic water bottles from my life long ago. Why it took so long for me to eschew the cups, I don’t know. I guess I was always able to mutter, “Well, at least they’re paper.” Denial is a beautiful thing! But it’s time to face facts. They’re just as bad as the bottles.

Thus the resolution: no more disposable cups personally, and I also vow to help groups/organizations I belong to wean themselves from disposables, even if that means me doing a lot of dishes in random bathroom sinks. Oh yes, I’m going to be that person.

One hopeful note: in researching I discovered that use of personal mugs at Starbucks  is up by 22% in one year:

In 2013 customers brought their own tumblers into our stores 46.9 million times, up from 35.8 million in 2012, saving more than 1.4 million pounds of paper from landfills. As more customers brought in their personal tumblers over the previous year, the percentage of customers choosing reusable mugs saw a 22% increase over the prior year from 1.5% to 1.84%.  (Starbucks blog)

Okay, so it’s not even 2% of their customers, but those few kept 1.4 million pounds of paper from the landfill, and that’s significant. Individual choices do matter.

A few more thoughts:

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To-go cups c. 1963, from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. See? Not so hard.

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Bitter intelligence agents share a nice pot of tea. Also from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. (I just watched it, so I noticed the cups.)

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A Tea Lady in Britain keeps the war workers well-caffeinated, without the use of disposables.

coffee urn

This is so common, and yet so very unappealing. The plastic stir sticks! The creamers! Seriously, does anyone approach this situation with any more enthusiasm than you would a port-a-potty when you really have to go? Meaning, it’s there to fulfill a basic need, not to give anyone joy. Photo credit Colin Harris

CMOC_Treasures_of_Ancient_China_exhibit_-_large_grey_mug

Guess how old this coffee mug is. Guess. This mug was made in China 4000 to 4500 years ago. Humans have appreciated a good brew in a good mug for a long time. Let’s get back to that.

Compostable Holiday Decor

wreath3

Yesterday evening I was out in the back yard trimming our perennials (yep, it’s very California to be working in the yard the day before Thanksgiving) and afterward I twisted together a wreath out of what I’d cut: mostly lavender, with some strawberry tree branches, white sage and toyon berries. All I did was attach the green bits with wire to a thin branch I’d bent in a circle.

The wreath was spectacular last night. This morning it is a bit wilted, as the picture shows, but still nice. Properly, if a wreath is to last, it should be made of dried stuff and/or evergreen boughs. We’ll see what this one does over the next couple of days. I’m not bothered if it doesn’t work, as it only took about a half hour to make, and I made it more for the pleasure of the making than anything else.

It is worth remembering that you can throw together a wreath or swag or centerpiece out of whatever fresh plant matter you can find, and it will look fresh for the rest of the day. It’s really nice to have fresh, fragrant greenery on the walls and tables for parties. Here’s a thoughtstyling for you: maybe holiday decor should be as compost-able as the food, so we don’t end up burdened with boxes full of low-grade novelty holiday items which have no future outside a thrift store–kid art and family treasures excepted, of course!

Behold the Ant Lion

Antlion_trap

Speaking of astonishment, I learned something new last weekend, and I love learning new things, especially things which remind me of how strange and wonderful the world is.

Have you ever heard of an ant lion or antlion?

I was out tracking with the lovely Channel Islands Tracking Team (if you live near Ventura, CA and want to learn how to track animals for fun, look them up). We were under a tagged-up bridge, in a dry river bed.  Someone pointed out a hole or divot in the sand and quizzed us: what made the hole?  I had no idea. It was a divot that could have been made by a big man’s thumb. I might think it was made by dripping water, if there was ever any water anywhere in this dry land.

The answer was “ant lion” —  and I was the only one among them who did not know the answer. Ant lion??? It was such as strange conjunction of terms  (see jackalope) that I thought they were pulling my leg. When I got home and checked the Internets, I realized that, as always, truth is stranger than fiction.

The name ant lion is a simple translation of their genus name, Myrmeleon— “ant-lion”.  Ant lion because they eat ants rather fiercely. This activity, and so the name, only applies to the larval stage of the insect. The larvae are also sometimes called “doodlebugs” in North America because of the linear, wandering trails they leave in the sand when not killing ants. Ant lions are found all over the world, in any region which has a dry, warm climate–and sandy soil.

Dry sand is necessary for their predation style. They dig holes in which to capture their prey. The hole I saw, like the hole above, is called a lion ant trap. (And a wicked trap it is! Arrggg matey!)

What dug the hole?  This:

Antlion1_by_Jonathan_Numer
This is an ant lion in its larval stage. And believe me, there are scarier pictures of these guys on the Internets, but none free of copyright restrictions. Go look at them if you’d like to have nightmares.

So, this creature digs sand pits and hides in the bottom of them waiting for a hapless ant to wander by. The ant slips on the crumbling edge of the pit and tumbles in. The ant lion is waiting in hiding at the bottom and may grab the ant when it first falls. If the ant  is lucky enough to regain its feet and start out of the hole, the ant lion kicks sand at it, barraging the ant with heavy fire until it slides back down to the bottom of the death pit and is caught in those fearsome pincher jaws. There is no escape from the ant lion.

Cunning. Efficient. Voracious. This is the ant lion. This is a baby ant lion, the larval stage. It makes you shudder to think what it’s like when it’s grown up, right?

Behold the adult ant lion:

Distoleon_tetragrammicus01

It looks like a damselfly or dragonfly but is not related to either. The adult ant lion is sometimes called an antlion lacewing. They are not much seen by humans, because despite those beautiful wings, they are weak fliers, and mostly lurch around in the bushes at night trying to find another bumbling antlion, so they can mate. In the daylight hours they rest on branches, where they are well camouflaged.

From pinchered, death pit-digging predator to delicate, bumbling, romance-seeking nectar drinker. You just never know where life will take you.

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Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for all of the photographs in this post.