Distance Can’t Dim the Light of a Christmas Queen

For as long as I can remember my mom has been the queen of Christmas. Perhaps your family has its own Christmas queen or king? Someone whose love for the holidays is so effervescent that it brings happiness to everyone around them.

Each year well before December, my mom is already thinking about Christmas. Her unbridled joy for the holiday season has her planning new decorations, recipes and special handmade gifts. She spends months on end hand-stitching beautiful needlepoint ornaments as presents for everyone in our family. However, the ornament tradition is only one small part of the Christmas love she shares each year.

The picture at the top of the post is my Mom’s beautiful tree with ornaments she and grandmother made. My Christmas tree is filled with star ornaments including so many pretty needlepoint ornaments that my mom has given me.

A couple of years ago on a November trip to Chicago my mom transformed our kitchen table into a mini-Christmas workshop. She had decided that it was time to share some Christmas creativity and decorating joy with her granddaughters. My mom had come prepared. She had packed an entire suitcase full of crafts supplies. Over the course of a day, she taught her young granddaughters how to create their own tree full of ornaments, angels and paper chains. Starting a new tradition of ornament making.

This year it was my youngest daughter, Alyssa who wanted to make sure that the ornament party continued. Concerned that her Abuela couldn’t travel to Chicago, she suggested that they set a date for a Facetime crafting party. My mom mailed us a big box of art supplies: pinecones, ribbons, wooden beads and colored sequins. They spent a couple of hours on the phone creating ornaments together. This tradition of decorating together felt more important than ever this year, because for the first time we won’t be traveling to Texas to spend Christmas with our family.

Handmade ornaments on my daughters’ Christmas tree. The new additions this year were cotton boll angels and clothes pin people

Right about the time of Abuela’s annual ornament party, Alyssa came to tell me about her “big Christmas problem.” I wondered what my six-year-old could be so concerned about. Could it be Santa or a tradition we couldn’t keep? She then explained, she was worried that with COVID she wouldn’t be able to go to the store. Furthermore, she wasn’t sure her piggy bank had enough money to cover the gifts she wanted to give. I then shared with her my mom’s great Christmas wisdom. Sometimes the best presents aren’t things that come from a store. It’s the gifts that are made and given with great love that people treasure most. So, she colored stained-glass bookmarks with ribbon tassels to share as gifts. She also made special Christmas pictures to help decorate her grandmother’s refrigerator.

The Christmas queens working on building a Lego tower together a few years ago.

As we packed Christmas boxes to mail to our family, there was a familiar twinkle of Christmas joy in my daughter’s eye. One that belongs to a Christmas queen, whose holiday spirit shines so brightly that it touches everyone around them. So, here’s to the Christmas queens and kings who fill our hearts with an extra measure of holiday sparkle, light and love that even distance and a global pandemic can’t dim.

The Sweet Smell of Gingerbread

Homemade Gingerbread Cottage

The smell of ginger, cinnamon and cloves fills the air as I opened the door. My girls quickly drop their school bags and coats as they scrambled in the house. Joyful grins spread across their faces as they get a whiff of the sweet smells from the kitchen. “It’s gingerbread day!” My daughters have been begging to bake our annual gingerbread houses for days.

Homemade gingerbread houses have become quite a tradition in our house, but this year I had thought for a moment that there might not be enough time for it all. Hybrid school lessons and holiday deadlines had me behind and wondering how I was going to get it all done. However, their insistence and enthusiasm made me realize how important this tradition has become to our family. A baking project I took up on a whim when I was in high school has now become one of the things that my daughters look forward to most each year.

So while they were at school I roll and cut the dough. I bake batch after batch of gingerbread. Then when my daughters come home they eagerly watch as my red mixer whirs forming stiff peaks of royal icing. They cut open bags of candy as they excitedly make decorating plans. They can’t wait to get a pastry bag in their hands to start creating their own houses.

Our gingerbread village nestled safely amongst my cookbook collection.

After she finishes hers, my youngest daughter watches as I began to create one of my own. She helps me cut gelatin sheet windows and looks on as the little house begins to come together. This year I decided to create a smaller gardener’s cottage with cereal treat boxwoods and sugar cone Christmas trees.

If you look closely you can see a little Christmas tree inside my gardener’s cottage.

As I pipe and create each detail a familiar feeling of joy comes rushing back and I remember once again why I love doing this each year.

Even the back of the house gets some piped window details and gingerbread wreaths. You can see the cord from the little battery powered lights that I place inside the house.

Every surface of my kitchen might be dusted with powdered sugar but there is something magical about baking little gingerbread houses that always makes it worth it. The smell, the feel of the piping bag in my hands, and the sweet sounds of my daughters in the kitchen remind me why I love it so.

For Recipes and Tips see my post on Baking Gingerbread Houses with Kids

A Few of My Favorite Things: Bourbon Balls

Bourbon Ball Recipe

This holiday season I have been sharing some of my favorites. The things my family loves to bake and share year after year. These bourbon balls are a holiday classic. Their small size, and delightfully boozy flavor makes them the perfect dessert for a holiday party. They also make a delicious gift for friends and family. However, the best part is they are a simple and fun to make.

This recipe comes from another favorite of mine, Julia Reed in her cookbook Julia Reed’s South: Spirited Entertaining and High Style Fun All Year Long. Reed was a quite the entertainer and writer. I adored her writing on food, old houses, and all things Southern. Reed was a unique storyteller and cook who’s witty writing always had me laughing out loud and savoring every word. She passed away from cancer this past August. As a tribute to her Southern Living featured her gorgeous Mississippi home all decked out for the holidays in the December issue of Southern Living. Reed loved Christmas and over the top entertaining fun. So, here is a Southern classic that is one of my all time favorite ways to celebrate the holiday season.

Julia Reed’s Bourbon Balls -makes 16

  • 1 (12oz) box Nabisco Vanilla Wafers
  • 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 1 cup confectioners’ sugar, plus more for rolling
  • 1 cup fine chopped pecans, plus more for rolling (6oz package is enough)
  • 2 tablespoons light corn syrup
  • 1/2 cup bourbon (I like Maker’s Mark)

Place the vanilla wafers in a food processor. Then pulse the wafers until they become crumbled into to a fine crumb. Then place the crumbs in a large bowl and set aside. Next pulse the pecans in the food processor until they are finely chopped.

Next in a large bowl mix together the wafer crumbs, pecan pieces, cocoa powder, powdered sugar, corn syrup and bourbon. Mix well with a rubber spatula and then form them into 1 inch balls.

I used a 2 tablespoon or 1 ¾ inch cookie scoop to keep the balls even in size.

Roll the ball in powdered sugar or alternatively roll part of the bourbon balls in some finely chopped pecan pieces. This will give you a pretty black and white combination.

Note: the bourbon balls will keep for up to two weeks in airtight container in your fridge.

Bourbon Ball Recipe

Reed was always good at creating her own fun. As she once explained growing up in a small town in Mississippi meant that by necessity you had to learn to entertain and cook because there were “only a handful of places to go out.”  Thus, in a year where we have all had to cook up our own fun at home I am treasuring all the small traditions we can keep and still share with others.

Holiday Chex Mix

Party Chex Mix Recipe

There is nothing like homemade Holiday Chex Mix. That irresistibly crispy and savory mix has over the years become a Christmas tradition. Just after Thanksgiving my mom starts making big batches of her Chex mix to share. It’s what we all love to eat when we watch holiday movies together. My mom always has a fresh batch or two made when we come to visit. Even after the holidays it’s the snack we happily took back with us to college and I still take it home with me when I travel.

This retro favorite first appeared on boxes of Chex cereal in 1952. Curious about the history of this mix, I found that the wife of Chex Cereal Company executive Ralston Purina is the one who is credited with making this holiday party mix. Her “Party Chex Mix” was such a hit that in the late 1980s the company started making and selling the mix. However, if you ask me there is nothing like eating a warm homemade batch.

Over the years my mom has made a few changes to her recipe, including making a quicker version using the microwave. Her traditional mix uses a bugles corn chips which are delicious, but I had a hard time finding them at my local stores. I substituted Gardettos garlic rye bagel bites. You can could also use goldfish crackers as a substitute as well. My mom has added those in years past and it makes a tasty and fun addition too. So here is another one of my holiday favorites:

Holiday Chex Mix

Snack mix

  • 2½ cups corn Chex
  • 2½ cups rice Chex
  • 1½ cups wheat Chex
  • 1½ cups bite sized pretzels
  • 1½ cups garlic bagel chips, broken into bite sized pieces
  • 2 cups of Bugles chips or rye bagel chips
  • ½ cup dry roasted peanuts (optional)

Seasoning mix

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted
  • 3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon Lawry’s seasoned salt
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon onion powder

In a large, microwave safe bowl mix together the snack mix ingredients.

Next, in a glass measuring cup or small bowl melt the butter in the microwave. Whisk in the seasoned salt, garlic powder and onion powder.

Pour 1/4 cup of the seasoned butter over the Chex mix and mix well. Then pour another 1/4 cup of the seasoned butter and mix. Then do same with the remaining 1/4 cup of the butter. Adding it in thirds helps make sure that the Chex mix gets evenly coated and seasoned.

Next, microwave the mix for 2 minutes. Let it cool for a minute or two and then mix it and microwave it for another 2 minutes. Cool the Chex mix again and then stir. Then microwave it one last time for 2 minutes. The cooling time keeps it from over cooking and makes it easier to stir.

Finally place the Chex mix on a large cookie sheet lined with paper towels to allow it to cool before serving or storing it in an airtight container.

So make a bowl of my mom’s Holiday Chex Mix. Gather around the fireplace and turn on a Christmas movie or two. My daughters and I watched a double feature of Home Alone and Home Alone 2. Those movies still make me laugh. Or if you are like my husband cue up a few classic James Bond movies for some movie night fun. Holiday Chex mix its definitely one of my favorite recipes this time of year.

Another tradition that we love in our house is holiday music. My husband and I both love to sing and normally the holidays are happily filled with rehearsals and concerts. However, this year through the magic of technology one of the Christmas concert has gone virtual. My husband is part of a group called The Tower Chorale which is sharing their holiday concert online beginning this Sunday December 6th at 3pm. The concert will be available for free for the month of December. So if you are looking for some beautiful and uplifting music then here is a link to the Tower Chorale Virtual Christmas.

 

A Few of My Favorite Things: Chocolate Cake Truffles

Cinnamon Chocolate Cake Ball

It’s my favorite time of year so I wanted to share the recipes and traditions that my family loves most. This year more than ever I have been looking forward to seeing all the twinkly lights and enjoying the small things that make this season so special.

So let the holiday baking season begin. This week my daughters and I decided to turn on some holiday music and have a little fun in the kitchen. We made a batch of our favorite holiday treat-chocolate cake truffles. These gorgeous bite sized chocolates are filled with cinnamon chocolate cake and a touch of buttercream. They are so irresistibly good that they make wonderful gift make to share.

Chocolate Cake Truffles -makes 40

  • 1 9×13 chocolate sheet cake (recipe follows)
  • chocolate icing (recipe follows)
  • 4 (12oz) bags dark or milk chocolate candy melts (I use Wilton brand)
  • 1 (12oz) bag of chocolate for the piped chocolate zigzags on top
  • 1 bag or bottle of holiday sprinkles
  • 40 colorful cupcake liners (optional)

Chocolate Sheet Cake

  • 1 stick of butter
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup canola oil
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare your cake pan by lining it in parchment paper and greasing and flouring the sides or spraying them with Baker’s Joy.

Then in a heavy saucepan combine the butter, water and canola oil and set over medium heat until the butter is just melted. Meanwhile in a large bowl of your mixer add together the sugar, cocoa and flour. Then pour the butter mixture into the sugar and flour mixture and beat until smooth. Mix in the eggs one at a time then mix in the buttermilk. Next add the baking soda, salt and vanilla all at once and mix one final time.

Pour your cake batter into your prepared pan and bake for approximately 30 to 35 minutes. Let the cake cool and prepare the chocolate frosting.

Chocolate Icing

  • 4 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

Place the softened butter in the bowl of a mixer. Beat it for 30 seconds on medium speed. Then add in the cocoa powder, powdered sugar, salt, milk, vanilla. Continue to beat on medium speed until light and well mixed.

Next create the chocolate cake ball center.

In a large mixing bowl crumble the chocolate cake. Then mix in all of the chocolate icing until the icing is evenly incorporated and it sticks together well.

Then use a small cookie scoop (1¾ inch diameter or 2 tablespoon size) to make even sized balls. Roll the scoop in your hands to make sure that it is smooth and round. Then chill the cake balls in the fridge for a least an hour or if you are in a hurry you can also chill them in the freezer for 30 minutes.

Next it’s time to cover the cake truffles in chocolate.

I find it is easier to work in small batches of 10. One 12 oz bag of chocolate candy melts is enough to cover about 10 cake truffles. So take one bag of the chocolate melts and microwave them in a a medium sized bowl for 1 minute. Then stir well. Microwave them for 30 seconds more stirring again until the chocolate is melted and smooth.

If you would like to add a drizzle of chocolate on top then you can melt 3 oz of  additional chocolate in a small bowl and then pour that melted chocolate into a small pastry bag and have it ready to decorate the truffle.

Now it’s time to create and decorate the truffles. Carefully place one cake ball at a time into to chocolate bowl and spoon the melted chocolate over it until the cake ball is evenly coated. Place the chocolate cake truffle on a silicone mat or a piece of parchment paper.

Finally, before the chocolate hardens decorate the cake truffle with a drizzle of chocolate and some holiday sprinkles.

Then once you make the first batch repeat the same processes with a second bag of chocolate candy melts. Working in smaller batches ensures that the chocolate stays warm and easy to work with.

Want to see how to make these chocolate cake truffles? I had my daughters help me make a short video clip that gives you easy step by step instructions.

Note: these cake balls freeze well so if you don’t want to make all 40 of these chocolate truffles at once you can store the cake balls without the chocolate coating in the freezer for up to three weeks. Just seal them well in a freezer safe zip top bag and pull them out to make small batches to share with family and friends this holiday season.

Chocolate cake truffles are a delightfully delicious holiday treat. So let the sprinkles fly and have a little fun in your kitchen.

Chocolate Cream Pie Saves the Day

Gourmet Magazine Chocolate Cream Pie

“I love that after a day when nothing is sure, and when I say ‘nothing’ I mean nothing, you can come home and absolutely know that if you add egg yolks to chocolate and sugar and milk, it will get thick. It’s such a comfort.”

Julie and Julia

The happy frenzy of the holiday cooking season is here. It would seem that Thanksgiving is all about the traditional turkey, but in our house I know better. Everything I make is just a lead-in to arguably the best part of our holiday meal… pie! Every year I make multiple pies for just four people, because choosing one pie is far too difficult. It’s a delicious dilemma because there are so many wonderful possibilities: pumpkin, pecan, apple, berry, cherry and chocolate.

Last year, our usual holiday plans were suddenly upended by a pre-Thanksgiving windstorm. The wind knocked over a tree near our house which caused the electricity to go out for the day. I had just begun the marathon of holiday cooking when it happened. Thankfully, I had started making dessert first so in my mind Thanksgiving was saved. Sometimes a slice of pie and a good laugh are all you really need to celebrate.

This year as luck would have it, I am facing a new kitchen challenge, my two large stovetop burners suddenly went out this week. Unfortunately, the repair service can’t get to me until December. So I am planning ahead and making a few changes to my holiday meal. However, my husband’s beloved chocolate cream pie will still get the top spot on my list.

Chocolate Cream Pie (adapted from Gourmet Magazine)

Chocolate Filling

  • 9 ounces good quality unsweetened chocolate, chopped (I like to use Scharffen Berger or Ghirardelli)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup cornstarch
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 6 large egg yolks
  • 4 1/2 cups whole milk, room temperature or slightly warmed
  • 3 tablespoons of butter, cut in small pieces
  • 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla

Topping

  • 1 cup well chilled heavy cream
  • 2 tablespoons powdered sugar, or to taste
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 pint raspberries
  • 1 pint blackberries
  • fresh mint sprigs

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees

Then make and blind bake the crust.

The key to blind baking a crust is to make the outside edge of your crust thick so it sticks well to the side of the pie plate.

Cut a large circle out of parchment paper. Then place it inside of the pie plate and fill it with pie weights or dried beans. Bake the crust for 15 minutes.

Take it out of the oven and remove the parchment paper and pie weights. Dock or prick the bottom of the pie crust with a fork to keep it from puffing up.

Finally put the crust back in the oven for about 15 minutes or until the crust is golden and cooked through. Set the pie crust aside to cool.

Now make the chocolate filling.

Place the chopped chocolate pieces in a medium sized glass or microwave safe bowl. Heat the chocolate for 1 minute then stir and continue to microwave it for 20 second intervals stirring in-between, until the chocolate is just melted. Set the melted chocolate aside.

Next in a heavy medium sized sauce pan whisk together the sugar, cornstarch, salt, and egg yolks.

Heat the mixture over medium heat and slowly stream in the milk while whisking. Then bring the mixture to a boil over moderate heat. Keep whisking until the mixture in thick enough to coat the back of the spoon and has a custard or pastry cream like consistency.

It took me about 6 minutes of whisking between the time when I poured in the last of the milk and when it thickened.

Then take the custard off the heat and force it through a fine metal sieve into a medium sized bowl.

The sieve will give it a smooth consistency so don’t skip this step.

Whisk in the melted chocolate, butter pieces and vanilla. The chocolate pastry cream filling is divinely good! Put plastic wrap over the top of filling surface to keep the top from from setting and refrigerate it for about 30 minutes to let it cool down. Then pour your cooled chocolate cream into the baked pie crust. Let your pie set and chill for at least 4 hours or overnight

Finally, time to decorate the pie.

Make the sweetened whipped cream. In a bowl with an electric mixer beat the cream on high speed till it just begins to form soft peaks then add in the powdered sugar and vanilla and beat until it forms stiff peaks. Pipe or spoon on the whipped cream on top. Then for a pretty finish, decorate it with clusters of raspberries, blackberries and mint springs.

“I love that after a day when nothing is sure, and when I say “nothing” I mean nothing, you can come home and absolutely know that if you add egg yolks to chocolate and sugar and milk, it will get thick. It’s such a comfort.” This bit of brilliant dialog by Nora Ephron in the movie Julie and Julia describes it perfectly.

Chocolate cream pie is so unbelievably delicious that making and sharing it is such a joy. In a season where the world feels a bit upside down there is nothing like chocolate cream pie to save the day.

Christmas Cranberry Margaritas

Christmas Cocktail

“Haul out the holly. Put up the tree before my spirit falls again….For we need a little Christmas right this very minute.”

This year more than ever I am channeling the classic song from the musical Mame. Tired of the stuck at home blahs, our family decided  that we all needed a little Christmas. So this weekend we decorated our Christmas tree and began hanging up the garlands and twinkly lights. I also decided amongst all the decorating zaniness that it might be time for a holiday cocktail too. So I whipped up a round of  my favorite holiday drink, cranberry margaritas.

Cranberry Margaritas – makes 2 margaritas

  • 3/4 cup good quality limeade
  • 1 cup cranberry juice
  • 1/3 cup silver tequila
  • 3 tablespoons triple sec or another orange liquor like cintronage or grand marnier 
  • fresh lime wedges
  • 1/4 granulated sugar or coarse salt if you prefer for rimming the glasses
  • fresh cranberry as a garnish

First mix the drinks. In a small pitcher or large glass measuring cup mix together the limeade, cranberry juice, tequila and triple sec.

Next for a festive touch rim your glasses. Take a lime wedge and run in across the top of the glasses so the juice sticks to the rim. Then have a shallow dish or plate with the sugar or salt. Turn the glass over and dip it in the sugar or salt until the rim is well coated. The cranberry juice makes the margaritas a little sweet so I used sugar, but I could also see how the traditional salt rim would be good too.

Then it’s time to serve them. Pour your drinks and add a lime wedge and a fresh cranberry or two.

Note: for a mocktail version leave out the tequila and increase the limeade amount to 1 cup. Then replace the orange liquor with 3 tablespoons fresh squeezed orange juice. 

These cranberry margaritas are a fun holiday cocktail. The combination of the cranberry, lime and tequila is always a hit. It may be a bit early but sometimes there is just nothing like a little holiday cheer!

Tortellini and Sun-dried Tomato Salad

Tortellini Pasta Salad

“Nothing is better than a picnic.” – Zooey Deschanel

Picnics have have become quite a frequent event in our house this year. A moment to get outdoors for a lunch date together or dinner with our family beneath the trees.  Dining at park or just a pretty spot on the lawn makes me forget about the worries of the world.

This fall my husband and I have enjoyed getting out together for a picnic lunch date when my girls are at afternoon school. We love to pick up lunch and at a local restaurant then find a beautiful spot. There is a local family owned cafe called The Village Gourmet that makes the best sandwiches and salads that are perfect for a picnic. One of the dishes on their menu that caught my eye was a colorful tortellini and sun-dried tomato salad. So, I decided to create my own version of this pasta salad.

My tortellini and sun-dried tomato salad is a quick lunch or dinner that takes just ten minutes to pull together. The flavors in the sun-dried tomato pesto are delicious and it can be made ahead of time. It’s wonderful served either hot or cold which makes it a great picnic dish. It is hearty enough to make a quick weeknight meal. But it also wonderful as a side dish with a parmesan breaded chicken, a grilled fish or even burgers. Everyone needs a quick and delicious pasta salad recipe like this one.

Tortellini and Sun-dried Tomato Salad

Serves 4 as dinner or 6 as a side 

  • 1 large (20 oz) container of fresh cheese tortellini (I like Giovani Rana pasta)
  • 1 1/2 cups cherry or heirloom tomatoes chopped
  • 1 cup (8oz) fresh mozzarella pearls
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
  • 8 basil leaves, julienned

Sun-dried Tomato Pesto

  • 6 sun-dried tomatoes in oil, drained
  • 1 clove garlic, roughly chopped
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoons capers, drained
  • 1 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground pepper

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cook the cheese tortellini according to the pasta’s instructions, about 3 to 4 minutes. Then drain the pasta and place in a large mixing bowl.

Next make the sun-dried tomato pesto. In the bowl of a food processor combine the sun-dried tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, garlic, capers, salt and pepper. Blend them together until almost smooth.

Finally, chop the tomatoes and cut the basil into thin ribbon like strips. Then add the tomatoes and mozzarella pearls to the tortellini. Next pour on the sun-dried tomato pesto to taste and then sprinkle on the parmesan cheese and the basil.

Serve it immediately or refrigerate it and have it ready for your picnic or dinner.

It has been an extraordinarily beautiful fall week here in Chicago. So as I was outside planting tulip bulbs my daughters were busy setting up their own picnic snack. It seems like we just can’t get enough picnics in our house. We are taking in all the sunshine and good weather while we can. However, as the saying goes sometimes picnicking is a state of mind. So even as the air turns chilly next week, I know we will continue to picnic indoors with all of our favorite dishes like my tortellini and sun-dried tomato salad.

Planting Tulips and Hope for Spring

I have always found gardening to be an act of great hope, because planting requires a gardener to believe that in time beautiful things will grow.

Every gardener has their favorite plants and seasons. I happen love spring and tulips. I think one of the keys to gardening is knowing your yard’s best seasons and then investing and planting around them. The truth is spring is my garden’s small chance to shine. My yard has lots of mature trees and spring gives me an opportunity to plant flowers in parts of my garden that normally get heavy shade. So when fall comes I look forward to planning for spring.

This past April, I was especially grateful to see all the beautiful flowers begin to appear. There is something so hopeful about all those bright green leaves and colorful blooms. May in Chicago is an amazing time. The parks and the downtown streets are overflowing with tulips and spring plantings. This year since the gardens and parks were all closed I really loved and appreciated all the homegrown flowers in my neighbors’ gardens.

Late October and early November is bulb planting season in the Midwest. We have already had a couple of snow flurries, so I have been clearing out my flowerbeds and getting ready for spring. This year one of my plans is to create more bulb planters. I love how a flowerpot or two can brighten my front door or back porch.  The thing I like about container planting is that it doesn’t take many bulbs to create something beautiful. Three bulbs in a small pot and five to seven bulbs in a medium sized pot are enough to make a statement.

Chicago winters get cold, so winter container gardening can have its challenges. A few years ago I was determined to find a way to create my own spring planters without a greenhouse. So I began planting some of my bulbs in recycled plastic nursery pots that I bury in the ground. The ground keeps my bulbs insulated from the cold and safe from squirrels. It also takes very little maintenance once you get them planted and covered with soil and mulch. Mother Nature keeps them protected so I don’t have to worry about them. Then in spring when they grow and flower buds appear I dig the containers up and transfer them to my more decorative pots.

The key thing when planting bulbs is to make sure that they are planted to the correct depth. Generally speaking tulips and daffodils can be grouped close together in a pot but the depth is what keeps them happy. They need to be planted six to eight inches deep depending on the bulb size. I plant to the deeper end of the range here in Chicago so that when the temperature plunges my bulbs will be safe.

In warmer climates, garden zones 7 to 10, you may need to refrigerate your bulbs before planting them in December or early January. Colorblends, a bulb wholesaler that I like has lots specific information about planting times for each part of the country.

I love looking to other gardens for ideas. This cluster of light pink tulips with a few pansies and violas is a simple but pretty spring flowerpot. Add some willow branches to a similar arrangement and you have what looks like a beautiful spring basket.

This blue flowerpot is from my front walk this past spring. I loved the botanical gardens tulip pots so much that I created by own using a blend of pink and red tulips. Bedding plants were hard to find this past spring due to all the pandemic shutdowns so I was happy to have a few extra pots that I had grown.

This gorgeous planter at a historic home in my neighborhood is overflowing with spring bulbs. I love their mix of daffodils, early blooming tulips and hyacinths. It’s like a whole miniature spring garden in a flowerpot.

Eight months into this pandemic I think I understand why so many people have begun to garden: planting a garden is an act of great hope. Hope and believing that beautiful things will grow again is more important than ever. It may be fall, but I am already thinking about spring. This year I have big garden plans I am planting bulbs in both my yard and at my daughters’ school so I have a busy week or two ahead of me. Even if you don’t have time to plant an entire flower bed of tulips or daffodils, planting a few bulbs in pots is a simple way to add some flowers to your garden this spring. So here’s to a more hopeful and colorful spring! Happy planting!

Pretty Pumpkins, Porches and Planters

There’s a chill in the air, the fall gardening season is in its full glory here in the Midwest. As the summer leaves and plants are starting to fade, the trees are putting on quite a show. I love seeing the vibrant ochre, orange, crimson and gold leaves. Porches and gardens are overflowing with pretty pumpkins, mums, cabbages and kale. So this week I am sharing a few of my favorite fall garden ideas.

Grouping Small Pots Can Make a Dramatic Statement

This house is one of my fall favorites. Look at those urns overflowing with color and trailing grasses. I love how the clusters of small terra-cotta pots and pumpkins below create such a dramatic impact and the small pots make it easy to plant and arrange. This reminds me of a beautiful European styled potted garden.

A large grouping of mum and kale create a colorful border that adds a pretty accent to this front stoop. The staggered stages of chrysanthemum blooms will make this fall color last longer.

Think About Adding Texture

Bittersweet branches, ruffled cabbages, feathery grasses and red missile peppers add layers of texture and interest in this autumn planter.

A trio of purple, red and orange mums brighten a perennial bed of peonies and ornamental grasses.

Asymmetrical Arrangements and Trailing Vines Add Interest

This garden gate planter creates quite the impact. I like how the asymmetrical planter arrangement has trailing ivy and creeping Jenny. The planter draws you into garden and the boxwood hedge.

A Few Fall Plants Can Anchor and Add Color to Your Garden Beds

A cluster of fall flowers mixed in with some vibrant summer flowers creates a pretty mix for the short midwest fall season.

This garden arbor is simply stunningly the fall colors and overflowing beds welcome you inside.

Pumpkins and Gourds Are Pretty in Pots and Planters Too

This small pumpkin adds a pop of pretty orange color to this arrangement.

This window box has a few of my personal fall favorites, pumpkins, purple heuchera and pansies which add lasting color.

A quick pumpkin tip: I have found that the squirrels tend to leave my orange pumpkins alone when I spray them well with acrylic spray. Then before the spray fully drys I sprinkle on some chili powder on so it sticks. However, if your squirrels and chipmunks are especially cheeky then stick with white pumpkins they have a bitter taste that keeps them away.

Add Height and Interest With Branches and Berries

The English styled home above has one of my favorite planters. This year I happened to be passing by when the gardener was out planting. Although dried bittersweet is pretty it can be brittle. So in this planters they cleverly used very realistic faux branches. The wired branches allowed them to get his curved crown like shape.

The willow branches and small pumpkins become the stars of these planters adding fall color and interest.

As my gardening year in Chicago comes to a close, I am savoring this blissful, but short autumn season. I love seeing all the pumpkins and planters. I particularly like all the fall flower pots and container gardens. They are like gorgeous little fall bouquets for your garden and front door.