Holiday wreaths and swags from your yard to your door

By Dawn Pettinelli - UConn Home & Garden Education Center
Featured - posted Wed., Dec. 11, 2013
Contributed
- Contributed Photo

Decorations made from evergreens go hand in hand with the holidays. How many remember Christmases past whenever they encounter the fragrance of fresh-cut balsam fir branches? One beloved and ever-enduring symbol of the holidays is the wreath. The long history of the wreath is not known in its entirety, but it appears that ancient cultures of the Persian empire as well as the Greeks wore wreath-like assemblages on their heads representing status or skills.

Germanic people of eastern Europe gathered wreaths of evergreens and used fires to give them hope during the dark winter days that spring would again return. Christians viewed the circle, or wreath, as a symbol of immortality – no beginning and no end. Probably the widespread use of evergreens, which represent everlasting life, for Christmas and Advent wreaths began in the early 19th century in northern Europe, but also Italy and Spain. Regardless of the details, wreaths have become associated with the holiday season and grace untold numbers of doors and other décor.

This holiday season, why not try your hand at creating an evergreen wreath to decorate your home? Making holiday decorations from fresh greenery can be simple, satisfying and a great way to deal with overgrown evergreens. I generally leave several evergreens partially unpruned until December, when I can make good use of their foliage.

Although the wreaths you find at the store are typically made from balsam fir, almost any kind of evergreen plant material can be used. Some common evergreens that you might find in your yard include pine, hemlock, juniper, arborvitae, yew, false cypress, spruce and fir. Broad-leaved evergreens, such as Andromeda, holly, boxwood, euonymus and mountain laurel are also suitable for holiday decorations. Evergreens with variegated leaves or gold-tipped foliage can add interest to almost any arrangement. ‘Emerald and Green’ euonymus is especially attractive, taking on a soft, pinkish tint in the winter.

When cutting for wreaths, or simpler swags, choose well-formed branches with thick foliage. Rinse the branches to remove any dirt, if low to the ground, and recut the stems. Some experts advise making a 2- to 3-inch slit up each stem, but I find that rather time-consuming. It is a good idea to place the cut evergreen stems in water for several hours before use to keep them fresh.

A swag is probably the easiest and simplest of holiday decorations. Basically, it is a grouping of evergreen branches tied together in a pleasing manner. Although the branches can simply be wired together, often a base such as a coat hanger makes it easier for a beginner to get started. Shape the coat hanger by pulling the bottom down and leaving the hook as the hanger.

For a swag, you would need three pieces of greenery 18 to 24 inches long, with one branch slightly longer than the others plus about a dozen 8- to 16-inch pieces. Attach the three long branches to the coat hanger using florist’s wire, with the longest branch forming the center. Four to six shorter branches can be wired on each side to increase the fullness of the swag. Next, attach several branches of greenery above the longer pieces, with the tips pointing in the opposite direction and cut ends overlapping. Finish the swag with bow, a few sprigs of holly, cones or ornaments wired on top of the overlapping ends.

Holiday wreaths, while slightly more time-consuming, are also quite easy to create and will add a festive touch to your front door. The quickest way is to use a straw wreath form available from most craft stores or florist shops. Wreath forms come in sizes, ranging from 6 to 24 inches. They can be covered with a green florist’s wrap and reused for several years. Before starting any wreath, be sure to attach a wire loop for hanging. Soak the straw wreath form in warm water to make it pliable and also to keep the greens fresher.

Greenery may be either stuck directly into the straw wreath form or secured with fern pins, also known as greening pins. To start the wreath, cut evergreens into 3- to 6-inch pieces depending on the size of the form. If greens are to be pinned, use three or four pieces bunched together. Secure with a fern pin pushed in tightly at an angle. Often, it is helpful to pierce the wreath form with a skewer or dull pencil before inserting each evergreen branch. Begin at the outside edge of the wreath form and work in a circle until a whole row has been completed. Each successive row should be placed close enough to the previous one to hide the wreath form. Finish working rows towards the center using smaller pieces if necessary for the final row.

Candy canes, holly berries, cones, bows or ribbons can be used to decorate the completed wreath. To attach decorations, try wiring them to a pick which can then be inserted into the wreath form.

Be adventurous and make a holiday wreath or swag this year. It may be the beginning of a new tradition at your home. If you have questions about holiday greens or on other indoor or outdoor gardening topics, call the UConn Home & Garden Education Center, toll-free, at 877-486-6271, visit www.ladybug.uconn.edu, or contact your local Cooperative Extension Center.


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