In these last days of the year, as darkness falls earlier and earlier, we try to lighten our spirits by festooning our homes with sparkling lights and evergreen boughs. We gardeners scour our gardens for natural decorations, and trade with our gardening friends for those special beauties not found in our own yards.
I am lucky to live on a wooded lot replete with rhododendron, mahonia, juniper, eastern white pines and a magnificent magnolia. I have a number of large rosemary bushes and two lavender bushes that can easily yield up some fragrant boughs.
I trade cut branches of these evergreens with my even luckier gardening friends whose lots have evergreen hollies bursting with berries and deciduous hollies like winterberry holly whose fat red berries burst with color on bare branches. Golden colored cypress such as cedrus ‘Aurea’ or cupressus macrocarpa ‘Goldcrest’ can add a touch of richness to a mantel or wreath. Hinoki cypress provides a deep green hue. One year a dear friend gave me armfuls of large dried hydrangea blossoms that I wound into my swags.
One year I attempted a Colonial Williamsburg variation in the garlands on my front porch and discovered an unanticipated aspect to decorating with live material. The night I finished attaching Gala and Granny Smith apples to my exterior swags, I found myself sharing the porch with the largest opossum I have ever seen. He crawled along the porch rail devouring the apples. The next year I substituted plastic apples and came out one morning to find a large bite taken out of one of them. I can only imagine the stomach ache that must have caused my disappointed scavenger visitor.
This year I varied the Colonial approach by using oranges studded with cloves. I love the scent on the approach to my front door. I have also incorporated branches of rosemary, boxwood, and eucalyptus (admittedly I cheated on using this bought material) and, most unexpectedly, cuttings of salvia blossoms still blooming in the garden thanks to our warmer than usual weather. So far, at least, no predators have come to dine.
Taking cuttings from your rosemary bushes this time of year will not hurt the plants. The same is true of a judicious use of rhododendron and magnolia branches. Boxwood actually can benefit from a pruning in which the gardener goes deep into the bush to take out some of the tangled branches. Removing entire branches around the circumference of a boxwood bush can allow light to reach the interior of the bush, leading to renewed growth.
Incorporating bare branches from woody shrubs such as the red osier dogwood or willows also can enliven your holiday decorations. Removing invasive English ivy to twine in wreaths will benefit us all, and this year the number of pine cones and acorns that have fallen has made decorating easy.
If you plan to use pine cones in decorating your tree, mantel or wreaths, you will need to remove the sticky sap. This can be done by spreading pine cones on tin foil in an oven set to 200 degrees and baking them15 to 20 minutes. Be warned: your house will smell like pine trees—so if allergies are an issue it’s best to set them in a warm room overnight and forgo the baking.
I have squirreled away hundreds of acorns that fell from white oak trees in my back yard—I plan to spray them with gold paint and make strands to string along with the roping on the front porch next year.
If your garden does not have a wealth of material, you can find all of the items mentioned in this article and more at garden centers throughout Northern Virginia. I have seen lovely containers at Holly, Woods and Vines on Route 1 in Alexandria and at all of the Merrifield Garden Centers.
Alternatively, you may want to try what I have done and swap cuttings with your gardening friends and neighbors. Let me know if you could use any acorns.
Eleni Silverman is a Master Gardener, President of the Belle Haven Garden Club, Chair of the Landscape Committee at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and author of the garden blog "Belle Haven Garden Maven." She is sole proprietor of The Well Tended Garden, providing garden grooming, coaching and design. She admits to a fascination with all things gardening, believes even compost is engaging, and will eagerly discuss the relative merits of leaf mold versus hardwood mulch.