How to Make Christmas Decor with Fresh Greenery
It was my friend Becca that first showed me how to make Christmas wreaths with live greenery. Standing at her picnic table, we snipped foliage from limbs we had robbed from the eastern red cedars that line fencerows on many country roads. Sticking each twig at an angle into the Styrofoam forms from the craft store, soon we had formed feathery circles of fragrant green.
This was certainly satisfying, but then the real fun began. Pruners in hand, we strolled around Becca’s yard with a couple of buckets, snipping some white pine, a few clusters of holly berries and the lacy leaves of nandina. We picked up some pinecones and a few rose hips. Back at the table, we arranged these new textures and colors onto the wreath, creating a spot designated as the “top,” and rigged some hidden wires there to serve as a loop for hanging the wreath.
We made several, some with ribbons, others with bells and candy canes. It was addictive, and I couldn’t wait to buy more supplies and get together with my sisters and mother to show them how easy and fun it was to make our own fresh Christmas floral designs.
Soon we were improvising mantel swags, candle skirts and table centerpieces, and once our houses were filled, we began taking them to neighbors and friends.
The trouble was that we had clipped from our own landscape plants just about all we could without ruining them entirely. Of course, the supply of roadside eastern red cedar was seemingly infinite, and as we drove about to gather more, we spied the more colorful landscape plants at overgrown cemeteries, abandoned churches and bordering the sagging porches of empty old houses. Surely, we rationalized, no one would begrudge us trimming these old plants to spread holiday cheer!
Memories like these are better than any Christmas gift, and I still smile today at the thought of my mother somewhat nervously “driving the getaway car” as we plundered the back roads. I wish she were still here for many reasons, but during the holiday season, I think of how she would appreciate the wide range of exciting plants I continue to discover that make lovely components of Christmas greenery.
That said, I must include a disclaimer: Please don’t take any plants, even just a few trimmings, without permission from the property owner. Do as I say, not as I once did!
And anyway, our common eastern red cedar (which is actually a juniper) has rather prickly foliage, and the color found in the wild is fairly uniform. I have found that there are many other plants that loan themselves to making a soft uniform base with less irritation to my hands. It’s not difficult to find junipers, arborvitae, and both true and false cypress that cover the wreath well with golden or bluish foliage. On the other hand, it can be very effective to form a foliage foundation of deep green and cluster the brighter tones for contrast.
Don’t forget the beauty of textural contrasts. I use broadleaf evergreens (holly, boxwood, laurel) against the soft textures of the needled evergreens (conifers). Southern magnolia is outstanding, though the size of the leaves can be out of scale and make them tricky to secure. You can seek out “dwarf” selections with smaller leaves, such as magnolia grandiflora ‘Little Gem.’ Green wire and wooden floral picks may be necessary to help secure larger leaves or sprays of berries. With a little practice, you can incorporate fruit such as apples, oranges, kumquats and cranberries into the designs as well, being cognizant of the shorter life of these components as it is usually necessary to pierce them. You can also hot-glue them onto something that can be secured.
Gorgeous evergreen foliage can be supplied by man other landscape plants, such as aucuba, silverberry, osmanthus, leucothoe, rhododendron, hardy camellias and evergreen forms of viburnum. Nandina now come in a range of colors, from wine red to lime green, and while the classic American holly leaf may come to mind when speaking of Christmas, there are many dozens of species and cultivars of holly in the green trade. Some have leaves as large as the human hand, while others may be the size of a child’s fingernail.
Holly isn’t the only plant that provides berries for holiday cheer. Many viburnums supply them in red, blue or black, and some crabapples can retain colorful fruit into the winter months. Pyracantha, chokeberry and cotoneaster are other options.
Many of these plants are common in the nursery trade and can play important landscape roles such as creating privacy while providing wildlife habitat, so why not devote some space to a planting that is multipurpose? The perimeter of your lawn might be transformed into a bountiful boundary, screening the street or neighbors, attracting birds and supplying cut branches for holiday use.
As you design, contemplate the edge of a woodland or stream bank to create a relaxed, meandering border. Use pyramidal plants behind a group of spiky spreading forms, with the occasional rounded or mounding plants. Allow room to get behind them so you can cut what you want for decorating the house without leaving gaping holes. Ignore the rules about spacing a certain number of feet apart. The last thing you want is a symmetrical planting that reveals your foliage forays.
While waiting for your cache of holiday greenery to reach its potential, befriend those neighbors and family members with shrubbery that could stand a little cutting back. Not only might it become a family or neighborhood tradition, but they might have some beautiful plants you hadn’t considered, or some innovations on the mechanics and design. Creating beauty together not only shares the holiday cheer but also eliminates the need for someone to drive the getaway car!