Decorating with holiday greens

By Dawn Pettinelli - UConn Home & Garden Education Center
- posted Wed., Nov. 16, 2011
- Contributed Photo

With the holiday season upon us, many choose to decorate their homes – both inside and out – with freshly-cut greens. A gaily-decorated tree, garlands of laurel, richly-scented wreaths and holiday centerpieces bring a touch of nature’s beauty, even in this darkest month.

You may wonder how this custom came to be. Bringing in branches of evergreens during the short, dark days of December was practiced in pre-Christian days by inhabitants of northern European countries. This was done to ward off evil spirits. Trees that held their needles throughout the cold winters symbolized the earth’s fertility and eternal life. They served as a reminder that the earth would become green again.

The tradition of bringing a live tree inside and decorating it most likely was started by German settlers. Scandinavians had long decorated trees in the winter with food for the birds. When a Christmas tree was set up in the royal palace by Queen Victoria’s consort, the English joined in the tradition which continues today.

While we generally do need to purchase a tree, many lovely creations can be made from evergreen plants growing in your own yard. Embellish them with natural or man-made decorations.

Evergreens are a staple in foundation plantings. You may even have an evergreen hedge, mixed shrub border or a few specimen shrubs or trees. I always like to plant with dual purposes in mind. Of course, if you want to have greens for the holidays, it makes sense to wait until December before pruning them. While this may not be the optimal time of year, my plants seem to do quite well if a few branches are judiciously removed for decorative purposes.

Whether planning a new planting, renovating an old one or deciding on a shade tree or specimen shrub, consider varieties suitable for holiday use. If it is scent you are after, balsam fir is hard to beat, but most evergreens emit a fresh, woodsy aroma. Balsam fir will grow into a good-sized tree, unless you decide to use it for your Christmas tree. Fraser and white firs are also excellent candidates for a tree or greens.

The Douglas fir, while not a true fir, has soft, more delicate needles that are much easier to work with but not heavily scented. It holds its needles well indoors and makes excellent wreath material.

Almost any species of pine is suitable for decorative use, especially if you choose the young growth. Hemlock is very attractive, but loses its needles quite rapidly if placed in warm temperatures. Spruces are lovely, but prickly to work with. A speaker at our garden club suggested that putting on a pair of those disposable gloves will enable you to handle the spruce without getting stuck by the needles.

A good number of yards are home to yews, junipers and arborvitae. Some varieties are better for decorative purposes than others. Leave the ground-hugging junipers alone. Also, if buying any yews in the future, select dense, compact forms like ‘Densa’ or ‘Nana.’ These have many side branches, perfect for full wreaths.

Use other evergreen plants in mixed arrangements. Look for wayward branches of boxwoods, hollies, andromeda, mountain laurel, euonymus (especially the variegated types) and evergreen azaleas. Staghorn sumac berries, rosehips and winterberry fruits, as well as pine cones and other seed pods, can be used to accent your decorations.

The quantity of evergreen material right in your own yard may surprise you. Just remember to prune wisely. Add another evergreen or two each year for fuller and more varied arrangements.

For help with gardening questions, call toll-free 877-486-6271, visit the website, or contact your local Cooperative Extension Center.

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