Big List of Earth-Friendly (homemade, compostable, recyclable, no-plastic) Holiday Decorations



My previous post on this subject garnered so many excellent suggestions that I decided to condense all the suggestions into one big list for easy reference. In addition, I’ve added a new board to our Pintrest account called Compostable, Recyclable Homemade Holidays.  I’ve started gathering projects which reflect this list.

A big thank you to Bellen, fishbee, Hazel, Indigotiger, rainey, Michael and Practical Parsimony for offering suggestions!

I know–the last thing Pintrest needs is yet another board devoted to holiday decorations! But I figured my standards are a little sterner than most, so it is a worthwhile project. I really want these decorations to be able to return to the earth. This means I’m avoiding paint, glitter and Styrofoam (not to mention plastic and batteries!)  and I prefer things which don’t feature glue, or can use a simple non-toxic white glue.

Why this obsession with natural ornaments?

I like the idea of ephemeral decorations–decorations which are meant to last only for the season, maybe only for a week or two. It is more work to make decorations afresh every year, but gathering materials and making simple ornaments is an act of meditation and appreciation.

This kind of work helps us slow down and reconnect with nature. This alone can be enormously calming at a stressful time, and may help us back into a more expansive state of mind. The holidays can be so loud and jangly and rushed. Just stepping back and spending some time admiring the geometry of a pine cone or the cleverness of an acorn helps cleanse the mind of all that noise.

Seasons come and go. Holidays come and go. Ornaments which reflect the seasons should come and go, too. The fact that they don’t last, that they have to be savored in the correct season, is what makes them special.

Also, this kind of decorating also saves on storage space, and saves the labor of packing up ornaments once the season is over.

Most of these things can go to the recycle bin or the compost pile–or just to some obscure corner of nature to return to the earth.

But, more romantically, they can be hung outside for the remainder of their lives: ornaments for the fairies. This makes it easier to part with them at the end of the season.

Finally, these ornaments are light–they don’t burden our earth with yet more plastic and toxins. They aren’t made in some far off factory by an underpaid laborer. They are not helping the bottom line of some soulless big box store.

The List

This is broken down into two parts: the first list includes ornaments that come straight from nature, and which will only last a short time. Collect them on walks around the neighborhood, collect them as mementos of trips to the mountains, the beach, or grandma’s house. Bring them home and hang them straight up! At the end of the season, they can be returned to the earth.

The second list is more crafty, requiring more input from you, and creating ornaments which you may or may not decide to keep.

Straight from nature:

  • Sturdy winter berries
  • Rose hips
  • Dried herbs and flowers
  • Moss
  • Feathers
  • Cool looking seed pods ( milkweed pods, thistle heads,  sweet gum tree pods, sycamore pods, star anise, Indian cigar tree pods, magnolia pods–keep your eyes open in the autumn and you’ll find lots) If you want sparkle, sugar them instead of getting out the glitter.
  • Nuts
  • Clusters of acorns
  • Sticks covered with pretty moss and lichen
  • Curls of bark
  • Seashells
  • Dried hops
  • Fresh ivy
  • Fresh holly
  • Dried citrus peel spirals
  • Dried citrus slices
  • Wild grapevines made into tiny wreaths
  • Pine cones
  • abandoned or human-constructed bird nests, filled with moss, pine cones, quail eggs, candy…
  • Succulent rosettes–should last a week or more after cutting

Some assembly required

These projects require some crafting, and some are not as ephemeral as the ornaments above–you may want to keep them from year to year. Or, they are made stuff you find in your house, instead of out in nature.

If glue is necessary, use non-toxic glue. Make the yarn and cloth projects biodegradable by choosing cotton or wool yarn, and natural fiber cloth. Making little cloth ornaments is a great way to use up scrap cloth and yarn. Save colorful scrap paper for the paper projects.

  • Popcorn/cranberry strings (pro-tip: stale popcorn threads better)
  • Gather a few evergreen branches by the branch ends to make a broom or fan shape, decorate with a spray of berries, tie with a ribbon. Much easier than a wreath!
  • A few cranberries strung in a circle= mini wreath
  • Re-purpose old jewelry directly as tree ornaments, or use pieces in making other ornaments (loose beads, pins, chain, etc.)
  • Tie scraps of pretty cotton ribbon into bows on tree limbs
  • Make paper chains
  • Sugared flowers, leaves, berries, etc. White sugar adds a little natural bling to things
  • Milkweed pods glued into star shapes
  • Bay leaves glued into wreaths and stars.
  • Paper cones with raffia hangers filled with…sweets? berries?
  • Blown eggs, especially quail eggs
  • Origami birds, stars, boxes, wreaths, etc. (use up scrap wrapping paper!)
  • Paper birds
  • Paper snowflakes
  • Gingerbread figures
  • Bundles of cinnamon sticks
  • Homemade rock candy
  • Orange peel roses
  • Citrus pomanders (you know, clove-studded oranges)
  • Oranges with decorative carving of the peels  (see this, scroll down)
  • Stars made out of twigs
  • Creatures and whatnot nestled in walnut halves
  • A tiny boat made of a walnut half and a paper sail
  • Make little creatures out of teasels, acorns, milkweed pods, etc.
  • Make cookie-type ornaments out of a simple dough made of applesauce and cinnamon–add applesauce to cinnamon until it forms a dough. Just leave to dry–no baking, or maybe try drying in a very low oven. These smell great, and their scent can be revived by sanding them.
  • Tiny God’s eyes
  • Hollow an egg and cover surface with beans and seeds and rice. Can dip the finished egg in wax to seal,  can also swirl some wax inside the egg to strengthen it
  • Make tiny felt dolls, dressed with scrap cloth
  • Crochet tiny stockings
  • Cardboard stars wrapped with yard
  • Bird seed ornaments, either to hang outside right away or after the holidays
  • Needle felted creatures
  • Hang up corks from special bottles of wine or champagne
  • Slice a loofa into rings and add natural fiber bows to make little wreaths
  • Goats made out of straw (Yule Bocks)– a Finnish custom

If you want to add to this list, speak up in the comments and I’ll move your suggestions into the list.

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.

xmastree3

*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.