Pick-up Sticks

January 2019

Looking out the window in winter, we see bare limbs that only recently were covered in leaves gleaming like jewels.

Nature rests in January to gather energy for the next cycle of exuberant growth and color. This downtime invites close observation; a fresh look at disrobed trees with a new appreciation for their linear beauty. Distinctive branching patterns are now visible — the forking bough, the kink in a limb, the corkscrew curl of thickened vines provide visual interest.

Subtle differences in the colors and textures of bark from smooth gray to scaly brown, blistered copper to peeling white are now apparent and appealing. As we go about the tasks of cutting back shrubs and perennials, putting the garden to bed, examine the sticks you collect and consider ways they can be reused practically and decoratively in the garden and in the home.

Out in the perennial garden or vegetable patch, sticks can be shaped into natural plant supports, providing a pleasing design for the bare space before their very practical structure is needed to hold up the growing plants. Teepees are traditional supports for pole beans and are simple to form: Just place the ends of the sticks into the ground in a circle and secure the top tightly with twine.

Sticks woven into a simple grid and tied off by twine in the corners can form an attractive vertical divider in the garden that can function as a trellis for tomato plants or flowering vines; the grid can also be placed horizontally on top of limb standards in four corners of a rectangle to support rows of plants that might otherwise flop in wind or rain at their maturity.

Peonies look much more beautiful with natural supports than with plastic or metal ones. Just save pliable twigs or thick vines and cut them into 1-yard segments. Bend each length into a U-shape, and push the ends into the ground to secure. Place several of these in a circle, overlapping to form a half-dome support about a foot off the ground above the tender peony shoots.

Bending twigs in a semi-circle and stretching them out in a line where each curved section slightly overlaps the next forms a pleasing scalloped low fence or divider in the perennial bed. Are you good at weaving? Try a wattle fence. Use two sizes of sticks, thicker ones for vertical supports and long, thin ones to weave in and out of the uprights. Weave the first row in and out of the vertical sticks, then alternate the pattern outside to inside on the next row.

Hanover County woodturning artist Barbara Dill operates Two Sisters Studio and Gallery, a sylvan haven in Rockville, Virginia, that is full of inspirational ways to use natural woods. Her specialty is multi-axis spindle-turning, but her artful eye for branches has resulted in countless ways to incorporate them distinctively in natural decor. Bundle thick branches and tie them with leather straps to become a base of a side table whose top is a 2-inch thick round, sawed from a fallen tree trunk. Salvage limbs with personality to make them the crossbars on your porch, or place a branch on brackets (or on forked sections of limbs) to serve as a curtain rod or banister inside.

If you make a trip up north, bring back stunning white birch branches; or if you have local river birch, sycamore or crepe myrtle limbs, mount them on the wall as a decorative feature or just stand them in a corner grouping so their chalky exfoliating bark can be admired up close. If certain sticks speak to you, place them in a shadowbox frame to enjoy year-round.

A bunch of curly willow placed in a large glass vase makes an instant arrangement that captures the mood of the winter landscape. Add craft crystals or just glue on rock salt to simulate a brittle, icy tableau. The Daily Kitchen and Bar in Richmond’s Carytown neighborhood has as its front partition a row of large, fanning limbs, uplit from spotlights below. Using light this way in conjunction with branch displays adds interior drama.

Line a lampshade frame so that the sticks are backlit, creating a striking silhouette for your reading corner. Line a mirror with sticks in a sunburst effect or break sticks into shorter segments and place them artfully around the center of the frame. Dried grapevine, kiwi vine and honeysuckle vines are lovely wound through chandeliers or shaped into spheres interspersed with white lights for a striking luminary effect. Or swoop them around a door frame, mantel or interior column with twinkle lights for a warm touch until spring.

Of course, vines form the base of any number of wreaths and garlands that can be added to throughout the year, but try your hand at other natural designs, too. When I cut my straight, tall, hardy hibiscus stems, I line them up and cut them off the same length for my grandchildren to weave with brightly colored yarns to use as rustic placemats or hot mats. Even the tiniest twigs can get this treatment to find a place as a doormat for a garden fairy cottage.

One of my favorite ways to combine twigs with brightly colored threads is to let the birds do the decorating by placing lengths of embroidery thread in the trees in winter for feathered friends to discover and use to soften and brighten their nests.

Wherever you nest, picking up sticks for it can be infinitely satisfying.