University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Winter News Article


Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

Natural holiday decorations such as roping, swags, wreaths, and table arrangements are not hard to make. You will catch on to the simple principles quickly, and in a short time your results may surprise everyone, including yourself.  You can be proud of the decorations you made, giving your home a truly festive spirit and even involving various family or friends too.
Most of the materials you need are inexpensive, or free for the asking, in many locales. But remember to get permission before cutting branches or fruits on someone else's land! Your local florist also should have natural materials, both local and from warmer climates.  Tree farms are a good source of greenery, or even undecorated products you can then decorate yourself.  Check local newspapers for such farms, or check online (
For plant materials, evergreen twigs and boughs are the most important. You may be surprised at how much material goes into even small decorations. If you have a cool, moist spot free of drafts for storage, you can start gathering greens as early as Thanksgiving. For longest life,  keep them away from heat, wind, and sun.
The most common evergreens include balsam fir (the most common), spruce (needles don't last as long as fir and are pricky), white pine, and hemlock (needles will drop in dry air). Other less commonly used evergreens are white cedar or arborvitae (foliage fades to yellow in a few weeks), red cedar and other wild junipers (sharp needles, so use sparingly to add variety, color, texture, and form), and broad-leaved evergreens like rhododendrons. One caution about using yew (or taxus) is that all plant parts are poisonous, especially the attractive seeds.  Look for a few branches of yellow-leaved evergreens for some color, such as certain variegated yews, gold-thread false cypress, old-gold juniper, or one of the gold arborvitae.
Other plant parts you can use for interest, and to give arrangements a New England "country" appearance include cones, grasses, pods, and berries. The latter can be found in many colors. For red or orange, try winterberry, sumac, crabapples, hawthorn, and mountain ash. For a touch of blue, use nannyberry, arrowwood, or junipers, and for yellow, crabapples. Florist shops may carry more exotic plant parts such as lotus pods (which can be sprayed colors), holly (both for berries and leaves), mistletoe, and various greens (such as boxwood or western cedar).
Some people like to add artificial decorations like bells, balls, and fake berries to their natural arrangements. Red ribbons also are popular, although hundreds of other styles and color combinations of ribbons are available. If using outdoors, make sure you select a ribbon rated for that use. Keep the width in proportion to the size of the arrangement.
In addition to plants and other decorative materials, you will need something for a base for most decorations if starting from scratch. Wreaths require a wire, foam, or straw wreath form or a coat hanger bent into a circle. Rope or thick, coarse twine makes a good base for garlands or roping. Florist foam, which comes in "bricks" that can be cut to fit any container, may be purchased at florist or craft shops.
Other essentials include a pair of clippers or utility scissors, florist picks (to hold greens to straw bases), and florist wire. The latter is a thin green wire, available in several widths, that is used to hold everything together, such as cones to wreaths, greens to frames or rope, and decorations to walls.
The range of decorations you can make reaches far beyond what you may think is possible. Arrangements for sale in florist shops may give you ideas, as can browsing through holiday magazines and online sites.  So, don't hesitate to try out new ideas. Just keep in mind that whatever you make should be in proportion to, and harmonize with, the surroundings.
To make wreaths or ropings, you will need individual branchlets or bundles of them. Simply cut small branch pieces four to six inches in length from main branches, and wire or pin them directly to the frames. Or you can wire several together into a bundle, then wire the bundle to the base.
Overlap one branchlet or bundle over the cut ends of the last to hide them and the wire or rope base. Proceed down the rope or around the frame in this manner. Finally, once the greens are secured, add a bow and a few ornaments of interest, such as cones, berries, or artificial decorations.
To make a table arrangement, start with a wet block of florist foam, either free standing or cut to fit a basket or other decorative container. Use a saucer under the wet foam, unless the container is water tight. Place sprigs of green in the foam, followed by natural ornaments such as berries and artificial ornaments. Berries can be wired to a florist pick, then stuck in the foam. Follow the same design principles as you would if arranging flowers.
A door swag is simple.  Take several branches of a desired length, usually 2 feet or so, and tie together to hang upside down.  Then tie a shorter branch or two on top, upright.  Where these all tie together, place a bow, group or cones, or other ornamentation.
If you want to use candles, use decorative lanterns to keep candles away from the greens (which, when dry, can be quite flammable), then decorate around these with greenery and color.  Get a mold for making a luminary of ice, and place greens and berries in the water before freezing.  These, with a candle inside, make an elegant table decoration for a special dinner.
If you have a stairway and banister, hang a grouping or two of greens and berries from the upright supports.  Create a winter or holiday scene in a terrarium, glass bowl, or empty fish tank.  Make a fairy garden with a holiday theme.  Fill a wooden bowl or basket with an assortment of cones and nuts, perhaps with some bright balls for color. 
If you have large containers that remain outside over winter, such as whisky barrel halves or even a raised bed near a walk or porch, decorate these too.  If you can do so prior to the soil freezing solid, insert branches of greenery, red-twig dogwood branches, or glittery decorations available from craft and home supply stores.  If the soil in these has frozen, you make need to get out a power drill to make the holes, as I’ve had to do some years!
Many other decorations are possible using wire or Styrofoam bases in the shapes of candy canes, cones, or balls, among others. You’ll find these online or at local craft stores. Simply follow the above procedures and your own creativity!

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