Because the temperatures have been so mild over the last few weeks, many people have been able to put up their holiday lights and other decorations well before Thanksgiving. I’m resisting the urge, even though the temperatures are ideal to be outside, because it just doesn’t feel right unless my fingers are cold and I need hot chocolate when I’m through stringing lights and hanging wreaths.
I have taken advantage of the comfortable weather to gather the supplies for my fresh outdoor arrangements, which I like to put together over Thanksgiving weekend. Our yard has an ample supply of evergreen and deciduous hollies with plenty of branches to spare for use in outdoor arrangements. Evergreen hollies keep their dark green leaves in winter, but the leaves of deciduous hollies drop, leaving only bright red, striking berries that cluster tightly around the stem.
With or without the benefit of a glimmer of sun, winterberries scream for attention, and receive plenty.
Fresh-cut winterberry stems retain their shape and color even when partially dry, and are quite cold tolerant, making them perfect additions to winter arrangements, especially outdoor ones. The branches make an ideal focal point, adding a bright red accent that no other plant can duplicate. They mix well with other cut branches in wreaths, or can be wired alone onto 8- or 10-inch wire rings to create beautiful holly wreaths.
Branches from nearly every kind of evergreen tree or shrub can be added to winterberry in pots to create holiday decorations, including pine (a favorite of mine is white pine with its soft, delicate needles), Colorado blue or Norway spruce, juniper and arborvitae. Spruce and hemlock branches are perfect for outdoor use, but shouldn’t be used indoors because they tend to drop their needles as they dry out.
Use pots that held annuals this summer to create displays by pushing stems into moist soil. In my largest pots, I like to use cut stems of blood-twig dogwood for an interesting vertical accent. The velvety red seed heads of sumac will also brighten up a mostly-green container arrangement.
To create holiday wreaths, fasten evergreen branches onto a wire frame with thin wire. For a wreath with plenty of color and texture, alternate evergreen holly branches with juniper or pine branches, wintercreeper euonymus stems, and sprigs of crab apple stems with bright yellow berries. Winterberry or other berry-producing plants can be used in wreaths, such as cotoneaster, hawthorn, or mountain-ash. Branches of Pieris japonica add hues of muted red and orange, and rhododendron stems lend deep green color and special interest if they happen to hold next spring’s large flower buds.
Add pine cones and a colorful holiday bow to your baskets or pots, or, better yet, a velvet bow in silver or gold, for a winter-ready arrangement set to last through the coldest days of February. A friend of mine makes her outdoor holiday arrangements bird-friendly by stringing cranberries and popcorn, then adding suet ornaments made by mixing suet and birdfeed, cut out into fanciful shapes with cookie cutters. What bird could resist?
An evergreen ball is a creative way to use smaller evergreen branches, and is particularly effective with boxwood cuttings. To make the ball, press moistened sphagnum moss into a 4- to 6-inch ball, then hold it in shape with wire or string. Add an extra wire to hang the ball when finished. Next, insert cut stems of boxwood or other evergreen branches into the ball close together, much like adding cloves to an orange to make a pomander ball. Attach some small gold balls or small fruits like limes or kumquats by securing them to a stick, then inserting the stick, and you’ll have a truly unique decoration you can hang either inside or out.
A miniature tree can be made in a similar fashion by forming a cone with chicken wire, then filling the cone with moss and inserting branches. To make the branches easier to insert, cut them at an angle with pruners or a sharp knife.
It’s best to use gloves when handling cut branches — evergreen holly leaves are sharp, blue spruce needles are truly needle-like, and some people break out in a rash after handling juniper stems.
An anti-desiccant can be sprayed on evergreen branches to keep them fresher longer, but isn’t a necessity. For indoor arrangements in water, be sure to check the water daily and refresh as needed. Change the water once a week to keep arrangements looking their best.
For no-fuss indoor arrangements in a hurry, submerge a few cut conifer stems into a transparent cylindrical vase filled with water, then add a small pine cone and a few red cranberries; top off the vase with a floating candle. With an occasional change of water, this arrangement will last for weeks.
If your yard has a limited selection of plants to cut for decorations, make it your New Year’s resolution to add some plants — a few deciduous hollies, some boxwood and a conifer or two to start — to next year’s garden. In a few short years, you’ll be able to cut branches for your own decorations by walking out the front door.
Denise Ellsworth directs the honeybee and native pollinator education program for Ohio State University. If you have questions about caring for your garden, contact her at 330-263-3700 or click on the Ask Denise link on her blog at www.osugarden.com.