Welcome your holiday guests, delight the neighbors or just cheer yourself up when you come home from running errands on a dark afternoon. Plants, seasonal decorations and lights — especially lights! — can magically transform your damp yard or empty porch into a winter wonderland.
“When it comes to holiday decorations, people are going over the top these days,” says Shirin Sarikhani, owner of the design and staging company Seattle Staged to Sell. “It used to be you had one wreath on the front door with a bow and pine cones. Now we see multiple wreaths on the house, inflatable snowmen and penguins, and music that’s synchronized with the lighting. The attitude is ‘The more the merrier!’ ”
Sarikhani attributes the renewed enthusiasm for outdoor decorations to last year’s lockdowns. While celebrating the 2020 holidays at home, she says, people came up with creative ways to communicate the holiday spirit to their friends and neighbors.
“It’s not just doors and porches and walkways,” Sarikhani says. “Now we’re decorating patios and outdoor fireplaces.”
Work with what you already have
If you’re considering taking your outdoor display to the next level this holiday season, the pros say it’s not necessary to shell out big bucks. In fact, you can often create delightful holiday displays using the plants, ornaments and lights you already have.
“Often your best bet is simply to dress up your existing pots and containers,” says Lisa Freed, co-owner of Wells Medina Nursery in Bellevue. It’s traditional to add color with winter-blooming annuals such as primroses, or the showier red, white or pink cyclamen. But Freed recommends experimenting with subtler greens and silvers by incorporating heather, eucalyptus and pussy willow.
Freed says you can find seasonal plants and greens at the nursery, but you can also take cuttings from your own trees and shrubs, particularly evergreens. The colder temperatures in November and December will keep the cuttings fresh for weeks when they’re tucked into damp soil.
One of Freed’s tricks for dramatic winter containers involves the use of white spray paint. “Get some bare branches, paint them white and add them to existing arrangements to add height.”
Just as you can bring holiday accents to existing planters, you can also enhance a plain evergreen wreath or swag for your door. Freed recommends using florist’s wire from a craft store to attach pine cones, berries or your favorite ornaments to the wreath. Her go-to additions for wreaths and garlands include light-green nandina (false bamboo), shiny magnolia leaves and delicate sprigs of baby’s breath.
“And don’t forget holly,” she says. “It’s great in a garland or wreath.”
In the same DIY vein, Sarikhani suggests checking your attic, basement and garden shed for rustic items that celebrate winter and the outdoor life. These can be used to transform your front porch into a nostalgic winter scene.
“Think of an old wooden sled or skis,” she says, “or maybe a pair of ice skates.”
Sarikhani combs local antiques stores for these objects, also keeping an eye out for weathered baskets to hold logs or pine cones.
Once you have the main items in place, Sarikhani suggests creating a seasonal vibe by incorporating greenery, ribbons and lights. “Gold, white, and silver accents are really popular,” she says.
If your front porch is large enough, Sarikhani says she loves the idea of putting a second Christmas tree there, including lights and weather-hardy ornaments.
Let there be (lots of) lights
The season of lights starts early and ends late in Seattle — and it’s not always tied to holidays such as Diwali, Hanukkah, Solstice or Christmas.
“I have clients who enjoy having lights up in mid-October, especially the warm, white lights that have a nice glow to them,” says Torrin Maynard. A professional photographer, he spends the fall and winter months as the holiday lighting manager for Britescape, a Seattle landscape lighting company.
Maynard says the first — and most essential — step in lighting up your yard is creating a detailed plan. Figure out where you want your lights to go, along with what outlets, extension cords and other equipment you’ll need to power them safely.
When it comes to design, Maynard sticks to the basics. “I like to outline the roof of the house, the peaks and maybe a window or two. Then trees, or a group of trees, in the yard.”
Taking measurements first is critical, Maynard says, so you know how many lights you’ll need for the job and to avoid gaps between strands. The pros at Britescape typically work with 1,000-foot rolls of commercial-grade C9 LEDs and cut them to fit the house or tree exactly, but most homeowners will be working with shorter, store-bought strands.
You’ll also want to decide which type of lights you want (Maynard recommends eco-friendly LEDs). Choices include flame-shaped C9 LEDs, slightly smaller C7 or C6 LEDs and round G30 LEDs — plus several types of LED miniature lights.
(If you hate stringing lights, look for the fool-proof rectangular nets of minilights that you can simply spread over a bush or fence.)
LED lights are available in a variety of colors, as well as in multicolor strings. Maynard says most of his work is with warm, white LEDs, with only a few clients requesting multicolored displays.
Sarikhani also prefers white lights, but she notes that “neon colors,” such as pink and turquoise, work beautifully for modern houses.
Once you’ve measured your house and trees and you’ve selected your lights, make sure you have sturdy extension cords and a way to keep the plugs and connections dry and well-ventilated. Maynard suggests cutting a plastic container to form a “miniature shed” to shelter the connections.
When it comes time to put up the lights, Maynard strongly recommends having two people do the work, and using a sturdy ladder that has been carefully placed on level ground. “Safety is your biggest consideration,” he says.
Another top tip from Maynard: Always test your lights. Run power from the outlet to the string of lights and check each additional string as you go.
“Sometimes you can tighten a string too much and damage the copper wiring,” he says. “Nothing is worse than getting all those lights up, plugging them in and discovering they don’t work.”