Bring the Outside In

A guide to creating a more natural habitat.

Basket of daisies

We all know that our rooms are places of escape, places where we can revel in the wide, weird range of our subconscious and surround ourselves with all of our favorite things. When seeking to decorate your space to your heart’s delight, you can troll for tsotchkes at thrift stores and dollar stores, or pillage the boxes in your grandmother’s basement. (Seriously, if you haven’t done that, ask to. You have no idea what treasures may be collecting dust.) But it’s also important to remember, especially during this season of growth and transformation and blossoming and all those other processes that are both invigorating and sometimes embarrassing to talk about, that treasures are not only static objects with sticker prices. There’s a whole world out there to draw from. Think about being in the woods or at a lake or in the park or even your own backyard, about the textures and smells and all that sweet oxygen filling your tired little lungs, and then think about bringing some of that inside. Weaving nature into your space and blurring the lines between indoors and outdoors is the holy trifecta when it comes to décor: it’s cheap, it’s pretty, and it transports you away from all the junk that’s bringing you down. There are all kinds of ways to do this. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Flowers, flowers, (dried) flowers

Fresh tulips

This might seem obvious, but flowers make everything better. Carnations are my favorite budget option—you can usually get a good-sized bouquet for five dollars or less—and if you feel like splurging, you can go for the pricier, more exotic varieties. Even better, you can plant a flower bed and supply your own bouquets. The added color and aroma can do wonders for a room, though watch out for the more pungent sorts, like Stargazer lilies, whose stench can draw tears. You’d be hard-pressed to find anything synthetic that rivals the delicacy of a fresh flower.

Daisies, roses, lilies, button poms and baby's breath

The mortality of flowers hurts their reputation. They die relatively quickly, so why spend money on something you have to throw in the trash after a week? (Another vote in favor of carnations: they last forever. Daisies are pretty hardy, too, especially if they’re not coated in that weird neon-colored dye.) But here’s the thing: just because a flower is dead doesn’t mean you can’t decorate with it!

Dried flowers, leaves, and baby's breath

Dead flowers lose their smell, but often take on a new kind of elegance. Careful handling is a must as they’re very fragile. If you leave them in water, they’ll dry gradually and have a nice droopy look. This is the lazy person’s method. More official methods include hanging the flowers upside down in the dark and/or treating them with sand, glycerine, or hairspray. There are plenty of internet how-tos on the subject. You can do this with herbs, too, which have lots of practical applications, but which also create a nice witchy look upon expiration.

Drying flowers and rosemary

You can choose from a wide variety of containers—I am always on the lookout for anything from vintage vases to clay pots to old medicine bottles.

Two-year-old flowers in a Magnus, Mabee & Reynard bottle.

Both Etsy and eBay have tons of cool old bottles, and junk and antique shops are great places to check, too. Or you can raid your recycling and pull out…


OK, obviously jars do not constitute nature, but they play an important role in your décor for a few reasons: (1) they can be used to display attractive items such as shells, rocks, bark, etc. (2) They help keep your things organized and accessible. Need a nail to hang something? Go to the nail jar! Need a bobby pin? Pull one from the bobby pin jar! (3) You can use them during their second life, meaning you’re being both economical and ecologically responsible. (4) Perhaps most important: jars allow you to escape the awfulness of logo-saturated modern life, the hideous parade of advertisements and taglines and empty promises. (Ask yourself: has any product that screamed it would “zap all your zits!” ever actually zapped all your zits? Wouldn’t a nice-looking product that zapped as many zits as possible without bragging about it in neon letters be preferable?) Even a small sampling of relatively restrained beauty and hygiene products quickly becomes a banal barrage of branding:

Putting your products in unmarked containers can turn your bathroom or bedroom into a calm, peaceful, vaguely science-y sanctuary.

Left to right: mouthwash in a Smucker’s jelly jar; lavender-infused extra virgin olive oil (remarkably effective on skin) in an old spice jar; jojoba oil and lavender body lotion in jelly jars; hand soap in a plastic dispenser with the label removed

Plus, there’s all sorts of fun, arty things you can do with jars as evidenced by these delightful variations, all found on Etsy. Just search “upcycled glass,” and away you go.

Candle jars are also a great resource, and can be reused for all sorts of purposes. After the wick has died, just run a butter knife along the outside edges of the candle, and pull out the remaining wax. There’s one product you’ll want around for this process—it manages to remove wax residue AND dissolve the nasty adhesive on jars that once contained jelly, applesauce, or anything else with a label. Meet Goo Gone, aka miracle in a bottle. Squirt this in or on the surface of the jar, let it soak for 10 minutes, and run under hot water. Repeat if necessary. It’ll make all traces of the wax or adhesive disappear.

Plants, pinecones, and bark

Adding a little botanical magic to your space is another way of making it feel extra-vibrant and alive. In addition to their aesthetic appeal, houseplants often have air-purifying qualities. And, if you’re into cooking, growing herbs can add a practical element to your décor. Basil is pretty easy to grow and is great for summer cooking, as is sage, which has a divine, earthy smell. With some mint plants, you can snip off stems and put them in water and they’ll start to grow roots, so you can start a little family of lovely-scented plants! With all herbs, you’ll need to do some tending—watering, pruning, that kind of thing—but that part isn’t super time-consuming, and it’s fun! You can freeze the leaves or dry them, and there are 101 internet tutorials like this one, so you’ll always have plenty of resources available to guide you.

Clockwise from top left: dried baby’s breath and lavender in a Perrier bottle; mint in a recycled novelty popcorn bucket; sage; houseplant; cement frog

A good way to add texture to your space is to incorporate various parts of trees, like leaves, pinecones, and bark. Leaves look lovely on the wall, and pinecones make a nice addition to a dresser or shelf. Their hard-edges compliment the softer lines of my jewelry, lotions, and ribbons. Or, if you want more of a cozy “cabin in the woods” kind of feel, you can string a few along fishing line and hang them over a closet, say, or your bedroom door.

There’s also a wide range of art that relies on natural elements, so you can collect others’ works or, if you’re feeling really ambitious, try it yourself. Check out this seed art Dolly Parton—her hair is made of corn husks:

And this one, made by Ray Koshy using differently-colored leaves from a rice plant, is for sale!

Sprucing up your indoors with stuff that can only be found outside can do wonders for your state of mind. It makes you feel healthy and happy, not just in a hippie-dippy “nurturing something else is good for you” kind of way (though I think that’s true), but because nature connects us to something larger than ourselves. ♦


  • Fortune_Goddess April 2nd, 2012 7:07 PM

    Is that… Is that Dolly Parton made out of corn husks?

  • Annepoppy April 2nd, 2012 7:13 PM

    I’m from England so I’m stayed up until 12 O’clock to read this, I’m waiting until tomorrow to read the sweet dreams…..

  • Yasmin April 2nd, 2012 7:19 PM

    Tie flowers or vines to a clothes-hanger, and stick it in your closet. Works like a charm. c:

  • Marguerite April 2nd, 2012 7:47 PM

    i never new hanging flowers upside-down helped to dry them out…

    • MaggietheCat April 3rd, 2012 9:06 PM

      It helps them keep their shape so the petals don’t crumple as they dry.

  • Gretchyn April 2nd, 2012 8:11 PM

    Omg I agree with everything this post has to offer. This made me really happy + assured me I’m not a weirdo for having a collection of old jars/containers/bottles to put pieces of nature in under my bed. Lol right?

  • Abby April 2nd, 2012 8:18 PM

    How do you make lavender infused evoo?? I really want some to try now.

    • Emily Condon April 2nd, 2012 8:42 PM

      Here’s a video and text tutorial that shows you how to do it! You’ll need a big bunch of fresh lavender, which may be easier to find in the summer, but once you have that, you can start the process, and it takes around a week or so to have a finished product…

  • Abby April 2nd, 2012 8:18 PM

    Also, I have a bobby pin jar :)

  • taste test April 2nd, 2012 8:41 PM

    this article makes me feel less weird for having a chunk of wood on my dresser! I took it while it was still wet with sap from around the stump of a nice old tree my school unnecessarily cut down.

    I really like the way the beauty products in unmarked jars look. however, I am such a ditz that I know if I did that, I would end up putting moisturizer in my hair or attempting to wash my mouth with eye makeup remover many times. :P maybe I could use one of those impact labelmakers to give them little, sedate labels? oooh, idea.

  • filmfatale April 2nd, 2012 8:59 PM

    The headline for this piece reminded me of the song “Ron Klaus Wrecked His House” by Big Dipper.

  • KinuKinu April 2nd, 2012 9:19 PM

    i LOVE this.Using alllllllll of the ideas :)

  • Tyknos93 April 2nd, 2012 9:48 PM

    I do the jar thing and the dead flowers but it’s mostly because of laziness :( Also filing cabinets are GREAT for new apartments/dorms. Consignment shops have sturdier old looking ones, but I think Office Depot has great ones as well.

  • AnguaMarten April 2nd, 2012 10:05 PM

    my decorating strategy is kind of organic. by which i mean any crap i’m intrigued by or sentimental about gets displayed.

    like the purple and white box that’s full of my prettiest seashells, rocks, and old drawings i did when i was in kindergarten.

    or the top of my dresser, where i’ve piled jewelry, candy boxes, broken pottery, dried herbs and orange peel, a turtle shell i found in the woods, and the antique silver box my grandma gave me.

    i don’t like consciously trying to create a feeling or style to my room, i just let it develop organically. i feel like it’s much nicer to have a beautiful room because i’ve thoughtlessly accumulated beautiful things over the years, than because i set out one day to decorate my room and create a certain personality.

  • Mollie April 2nd, 2012 10:30 PM

    put a bird on it

  • DitzyMo April 2nd, 2012 11:27 PM

    Definitely going to do this, literally so amazing! I love the jars idea, and the flowers. But I’ll have some difficulty with my shelf

  • christinachristina April 3rd, 2012 12:39 AM

    my room is full of old branches, pinecones, dried flowers, terrariums (a fun craft!), and feathers, but so is my car dashboard!

    i make it a habit to collect a little something to add to my giant dashboard terrarium from most places i go. it’s good for memories and, even when everything’s dry, makes for an awesome air freshener.

  • Adrienne April 3rd, 2012 12:50 AM

    Oooh I love the jar ideas haha! My bathroom counter currently looks like a mess so that’d be a nice fix to that!

  • ivoire April 3rd, 2012 6:50 AM

    Can’t wait to try this over the break.

  • starcollector April 3rd, 2012 6:58 AM

    I’ve always wanted to grow herbs! Especially mint–fresh mint tea anyone? My grandma had mint in her garden up in New York and that’s what it makes me think of. Ahhh to be young :’)

  • Susann April 3rd, 2012 11:26 AM

    That makes me want to redecorate my room, pick up some flowers and put random stuff in jars :)

  • Krista April 3rd, 2012 11:50 AM

    Ohhh I want to hug you for explaining, so much better than I even could, why Things Look Better in Jars. You’ve just summed up my entire house.

  • I.ila April 3rd, 2012 1:17 PM

    I have a deep love for plants, after being told I could never, ever have another cat. So I grew plants. Right now I have summer squash, some wildflowers and some marjoram growing! I really want some parsley and I had thyme, but I think it died after a storm. :-(

  • anisarose April 3rd, 2012 2:43 PM

    I recently put a vase if dried lavender in my room and I love the effect of it! While it’s a very small and simple ing to do, having something bright and natural makes my room feel happier.

  • neenah April 3rd, 2012 5:53 PM

    Hooray for flowers! As a florist (and secret hippie) I appreciate this article.
    Please support your local flower shops and buy yourself flowers!
    Tip: if you want to get more life out of your cut flowers, clean water is key. Change every 2 days and retrim your stems with every water change. Guaranteed to make your carnations last even longer :)

  • hillary April 3rd, 2012 8:36 PM

    i’ve been thinking about getting a peace lily for a while (apparently people get very attached to them and they can live for like 20 YEARS) and this article has convinced me to do it :)

    also the beauty products in jars thing is an amazing idea!!! definitely doing that

  • Kaleidoscopeeyes April 3rd, 2012 10:10 PM

    When my great grandma passed away, my grandma and I took some roses from the funeral and dried them. I used mine as decoration for a little shrine-area I made in her honor. Also, recently, I took a pink blossom, dried it, and stuck it in a glass coke bottle. Using glass sodas is a cute option for flowers too.

  • violetlilies April 4th, 2012 4:42 PM

    tips for doing this when you have severe hayfever?

    • Emily Condon April 7th, 2012 9:21 AM

      hi violetlilies,

      have you been to an allergist and had a patch test? it’s probably a good idea in any case – they can test different things (by putting small amounts of potential allergens down your back, often, and seeing if you react), to tell you what to steer clear of. I have some pretty serious allergies, but my houseplants and herbs, for instance, have never seemed to irritate them. It’d be good to have a conversation with an allergist about what’s ok for you to be around, and proceed from there. You’ll probably find that a bunch of stuff is still okay for you to have. (And certainly things like shells and rocks won’t make you sneeze!)

  • anton April 5th, 2012 1:39 AM

    these are lovely ideas!

  • pendulous-threads April 6th, 2012 2:06 PM

    This is positively wonderful =)