Have the presence of mind to get ready for Christmas

You want to update your Christmas decorations but it sure would be nice to have cash left over for presents. Don't you just know I'm going to say you should start working on this project now?

Stores already are showcasing their holiday decorations, the piles haven't been picked over yet and the prices are pretty good to boot. But there are other advantages to starting early.

Here are a few tips to get you going.

That's simple enough. The prices are particularly low at the moment because merchants want to get you in the habit of visiting their websites. They hope you'll find their products, prices, service and Christmas decorations free shipping offers irresistible and stick with them throughout the holiday season.

Hit the hiking trails while it's still beautiful out to gather pine cones and other materials for wreaths. If you want such elements to last, arrange them as you'd like and spray with a fixative. You won't have the benefit of their natural smell, but you can add a touch of essential odor or toss in sticks of cinnamon come the holidays.

You can purchase a mini Christmas tree now and schedule it for shipping sometime between Nov. 15 and Dec. 13. Order now, however, as they run out fast.

If you were smart, you kept last year's poinsettia and it's ready for forcing. To make it bloom once again, place the plant in total darkness for 12 to 14 hours each night for approximately 10 weeks. That means now if you want it blooming in time for Christmas. Be sure and bring it out during the day and place it in a bright, sunny spot.

After the poinsettia flowers, gradually decrease the water until the bracts all drop, then allow the plant to dry out completely. Store after the holidays in a cool location (around 50 degrees) until the weather warms up. Check your state's Extension website for complete directions.

Take advantage of fall harvest prices to create your edible gifts in October and store or freeze them for December. Buy your tins, cookie trays and bags and other gift-giving paraphernalia in bulk quantities. While you can't store your goodies in these containers, these items are priced right for early buyers and you'll have your pick of the litter.

If you're like me, there were some cards last year just too pretty to toss. Now's the time to unearth them — not when you're frantic with other holiday preparations. After you find the old cards, here are a few ways to use pieces of the cards after cutting them into paper stars, angels or other holiday shapes.

  • Attach shapes to magnets (like the ones always clinging to useless phone books) and hang on your refrigerator.
  • String them together and hang from the stairs, fireplace or other suitable space.
  • Create homemade gift tags.
  • Turn them into tree ornaments by pasting on cardboard backings.

A wood fire says welcome better than all the tinsel and Christmas lights you can muster. The crackling wood, blazing reds and oranges and that smoky warmth are the very essence of home and hearth. If you're blessed with a true fireplace, order your wood early so it can cure in time for holiday use. Closer to Christmas you'll pay a premium price and get stuck with less-than-perfect tinder.

You can add to that fabulous blaze with a really cool rainbow of colors created by specialty pinecones. Toss one in and enjoy the rich blues and greens dancing with the natural colors of the flames. They're available year round, but you might be wise to order now while they're still available for the holidays.

Before Halloween sets in, begin checking thrift shops for items you can repurpose. A teddy bear becomes a decoration when you give him a tiny present or ornament to hold. Look for small wood toys — like trains, puppets and cars — to string together as a creative garland. If you're accomplished with needle and thread, scour for fabrics you can upcycle into Christmas stockings, a tree skirt or decorative bunting.

Home-grown plants and flowers last longer, freshen the air and add a special zest to the home. Start forcing winter flower bulbs now so they'll bloom from November to December.

Paperwhites are easy to force and have a strong perfume while Amaryllis are big, brassy and well suited for holiday colors.

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