A Gardener’s Guide to Holiday Greens

Simple ways to bring the festive bounty inside.

(All photos by Adam Ewing)

It happens every year. We get big, crafty ideas about homemade wreaths and fresh-cut garlands gracing mantels and winding up staircases, just like the pictures in decorating magazines.

But when the pine boughs zag where they should zig, leaving fingers sticky with sap—or worse, singed by glue guns—we throw up our hands and ask what went wrong? As a lifelong gardener, I know it takes a team of design pros to pull off these ambitious projects. But there’s an easier approach that’s every bit as stunning and stylish. With a few tricks of the gardening trade, anyone can achieve the inspired holiday looks we’ve outlined here.


BEYOND PINE

For gardeners like me, it’s a joy to bring the bounty of the garden inside. I’m always scouring the landscape, on the lookout for greens that transcend the ordinary. In Virginia, garlands that are typically available are made from Eastern white pine or Fraser, balsam, or (sometimes) noble fir. But look past these usual suspects to the stunning blue-gray-silver needles of a Cunninghamia, (also called Chinese fir), prized for its graceful movement and unusual color.

Another favorite, Cryptomeria (sometimes called Japanese cedar) is both delicate and substantial. And good old Southern magnolia is especially beautiful when you flip some of the leaves to reveal the luscious, velvety brown underside. These less-traditional greens bring unexpected color, texture, and scale to wreaths and garlands—and they look wonderful as simple bunches tied up in ribbon.


GATHER & CONDITION

Plant material is best harvested either early in the morning or later in the afternoon. Head out armed with sharp, clean clippers and gather an armload or two. Before launching into any greens project, don’t skip the important step of conditioning your cuttings. Fill clean 5-gallon buckets with fresh room-temperature water, then make diagonal cuts at the bottom of the stem to allow greens to have a good drink overnight before working with them. Once they’re on display, use a fine mister to prolong freshness.


THE BOXWOOD BAN

As much as we love it, heed this word of warning about fresh boxwood greens: steer clear of them this season. The current boxwood blight, which is devastating and highly transmissible, can take out well-established plants within days. And it moves easily from landscape to landscape; shoe soles have reputedly been carriers. It’s especially destructive to the beloved English box and, with no effective treatment, it’s best to leave the boxwood wreaths sold at roadside displays, no matter how tempting.


CREATIVE EMBELLISHMENTS

Ribbons, cones, seed pods, berries, even vegetables and fruit—like pomegranate slices—dress up wreaths and greens in delightful ways. Tomatillos, chilis, Thai eggplant, rambutan, bitter melon, and sliced lotus root, found in Asian and Latin markets, can trick up a garland or wreath in seconds.

Instead of the cones of the ubiquitous loblolly pine, look for cones from deodar cedars or a bald cypress, especially pretty when they’re still green. I also prefer green berries: hypericum, nandina, and holly look festive. A guaranteed show-stopper are the tiny purple berries from a beautyberry;

make sure to strip the foliage first. And yes, your fruit- and berry-filled wreath will attract a bird or two when hung on an outside door, but that’s part of the pleasure.

Ribbon makes the perfect finishing touch, so don’t skimp on quality or quantity. Wired ribbon is easiest to shape into lush bows. Consider skipping the red and green ribbons and going for non-traditional colors. This season, I’m mixing blues with chartreuse. Don’t be shy about experimenting; if bright pink polka dots strike your fancy, or you’re gravitating toward turquoise, give yourself permission to think outside the box.


To make a wreath from scratch, you’ll want to start with a wire or grapevine wreath form from the craft store. But if you’re looking for a shortcut, you can purchase a ready-made evergreen wreath, made of cedar or fir, and customize it, attaching embellishments with floral wire, floral picks, or even pipe cleaners.

Start by adding small evergreen branchlets. Cones, seed pods, berries, and nuts can be secured in the same way, although smaller items might call for glue dots or a glue gun. Nestle a craft-store bird’s nest in among the greenery or wire pomegranate slices to the wreath form.

Chicken wire makes a wonderful foundation for building a garland to decorate a mantel. Shape it into a sleeve, and adjust the width and length to suit your space. Secure it in place with glue dots or weights (a must). Then begin tucking branchlets in the wire layers to build out the garland. When filled with your favorite combination of greens, embellish it with spikey chestnut pods, berries, cones, fresh blooms in floral picks, even ribbons or twinkle lights.

Moss is invaluable for hiding mechanics. Forest moss—sold in sheets or loose—is one of my staples and can hide just about anything. It’s perfect for spot-camouflaging a mantel garland. Once you’ve got the shape going—and the garland is firmly secured—you can nestle bulbs, like narcissus and amaryllis, among the greens and the chicken wire frame. Tuck in a little moss as needed.


SIMPLY STUNNING: NO ARRANGING REQUIRED

Even simpler, an armload of greens stashed in a decorative bucket can look wonderful near an exterior door or on the hearth. And it takes no skill to gather a bundle of branchlets, tie them up with a beautiful ribbon, and hang from a doorknob or wall hook. For a simple but effective centerpiece, fill a low, long container (I’m partial to dough bowls) and heap with osage oranges, limes, and magnolia. Scatter a few tiny cones, and voila, a perfect holiday statement, no green thumb required.

Indoors or out, I’m not one for rules on decorating with greenery. So go ahead and hang stockings from a staircase garland or build a wreath that’s square-shaped, instead of round. It’s all about what brings a smile to your face this holiday season.


TRADE SECRETS: A DESIGNER’S TOOLKIT

The right tools and supplies make holiday decorating easier.

  • Sharp, clean clippers are essential for cutting plant material.
  • Clean, 5-gallon buckets for conditioning green after harvesting.
  • Floral wire helps secure embellishments onto wreaths and garlands. Use wire-cutters to avoid ruining a favorite pair of scissors.
  • Floral picks can be used to showcase fresh blooms on a wreath or garland.
  • Glue dots and a glue gun come in handy, too. Just keep fingers safely out of the way.
  • Chicken wire makes a wonderful framework for a mantel garland. Shape it into a sleeve that suits the length and width of your space. Then secure it in place before adding greens and embellishments.
  • Moss is wonderful for filling in gaps, hiding mechanics, and adding a lush look to garlands. Look for sheets of forest or reindeer moss in craft stores or sold online.

This article originally appeared in the December 2021issue.

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