Though some elements of winter encourage comfort and happiness, the dormant season still brings its share of problems. Cold weather kills more people annually than extreme heat, and it provides ideal conditions for colds and flu. For those far north of the equator, brief days incite seasonal affective disorder. Finally, excess carbon dioxide floods the atmosphere after deciduous plants drop their leaves.
Happily, studies suggest that cheer and optimism lower the risk of winter illness. One of the most time-tested hacks for embracing winter requires lots of evergreens — transforming the indoors into a garden-like stage for celebration, a tradition seen in both past and present cultures around the world. The ancient and widespread practice of turning spaces into greenery spas demonstrates the therapeutic power of plants, scents, and folk art.
When to Bring Greenery Indoors
Evergreens star in winter decor, but they can also support cut flowers all year. Sprigs of Thuja may last a month and a half in a vase, serving as a pre-made foundation for six changes of fresh flowers.
Make evergreens progressively more prominent in vase arrangements as fall leaf color fades. They should become the focus in late November, or when hard frosts cut off the last garden blooms, and they can be enjoyed all winter.
If leaving holiday-specific greenery up until spring flowers appear seems stifling, taper it back to subtler table and desk arrangements. Let the greenery take a supporting role again when daffodils and hyacinths begin to bloom.
With some planning throughout the growing season (saving seedpods, drying summer flowers, and timing pruning), gardeners with choice evergreens can involve friends and family without draining the holiday budget. The basics of wreath-making apply to garlands, swags, plaques, kissing balls, table runners, and fans.
Tools and Materials
- Wire cutters
- Pruning clippers
- 5-to-8-inch evergreen sprigs, about 10 gallons per medium-sized wreath
- 16-to-22-gauge dark-green paddle or spool wire
- Wreath form (see note below)
- Hammer, nails, and staple gun for plywood form
- Floral preservatives
- Ornaments, such as fruits, dried flowers, bows, seashells, or miniature blackboards
- 6-inch wired floral picks or barbecue skewers
- Wilt Pruf spray
Note: Choose a strong material for your wreath form, such as metal, vine, or straw, to support heavy embellishments. Plywood forms will support large decorations, anchored with nails. Select a straw form to skewer small fruits. Build homemade rustic forms with twisted honeysuckle vines or thornless rambling rose limbs. Sometimes, wreath workshops sell professional wreath forms available only through floral wholesalers. Welders may also fashion wreath forms in more complex shapes.
1. Condition the cut greenery by soaking it in floral preservatives or plain water overnight. Greenery may also be conditioned by storing it in a dark, moist garbage bag in a cool place for several days before use (optional).
2. Wrap wire tightly around the form, and tie or twist it firmly into place. Wrap three more times. Insert the wire end into the form to prevent it from scratching walls or doors. Don’t cut the wire from the paddle until all the greenery is secure.
3. Design an evergreen bundle and make two or three copies. Loosely secure them on the form with the wire so they overlap each other at the base. Adjust the bundle design until you’re satisfied with coverage and texture. Remove the bundles from the form, and fashion several more.
4. Attach the bundles securely, wrapping the wire tightly 3 to 4 times around the bases. Bundles are usually arranged with the exposed ends facing clockwise, but they also work well arranged symmetrically like a traditional laurel crown, meeting in the middle at the bottom and top. If you’re planning to do a symmetrical layout with a space at the top, opt for an unobtrusive wire form.
5. When the first and last bundles meet 360 degrees later, insert extra greenery if there’s a sparse spot, wrap the wire several times, tie it off, and cut it.
6. Ornaments can be added in any pattern, but symmetry is the simplest formula. Add embellishments in 3 to 5 identical segments. For example, if using small pomegranates, place four of them at even intervals. Fill out the remainder of the quadrants identically. Attach embellishments, such as pine cones, by concealing wire through the base of the cone and securing the wire to the form or greenery. Embellishments such as ‘Lady’ apples don’t have a base to secure with wire and must be skewered.
7. Spray the wreath with Wilt Pruf to slow drying and keep the greenery looking fresh, and hang as desired using wire hooks or special wreath hangers. Additionally, place your wreath, once complete, in a cold location, and mist it daily. Indoors, a humidifier can extend wreath life. Adventurous wreath-makers can add fresh flowers with hidden water tubes.
The best way to decorate with greenery is to frame your home and landscape with the best evergreens. The following 10 types of greenery are top choices for both garden and living room.
Fir (Abies spp.)
Firs are among the best trees for indoor decoration thanks to their long cut life and sweet scents that mix hints of citrus and spice. Under ideal conditions, white fir (A. concolor) lasts as a cut tree from Thanksgiving to spring. Fraser fir (A. fraseri) holds its looks for up to two months. Most Abies species make good greenery, but aside from the Fraser and white firs, growers select one species over another based on what’s native to the region.
Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus)
Perennial rosemary selections grow from the Deep South to Zone 6; and in colder places, potted specimens invite topiary training, ornaments, and a spot by the fireplace. Rosemary can be temperamental to grow and difficult to start from seed, but it roots readily. Plant where it’ll get maximum sun exposure, some protection from winter wind, and excellent drainage. Try growing ‘Arp’ or ‘Madeline Hill.’ It’s reliably hardy to Zone 7, reportedly hardy to Zone 6 or 5 in protected areas, and very drought- and heat-tolerant.
Arborvitae (Thuja spp.)
A single arborvitae twig with one choice flower is lovely — though arborvitae also adds texture to wreaths and plaques, and it’s soft and doesn’t exude sap. The ground foliage secretes an enticing perfume of musk, strawberry, cedar, and pine. Unfortunately, arborvitae is poisonous, so avoid the temptation to taste it.
‘Emerald Green’ (T. occidentalis) grows from 7 to 15 feet, an ideal size for framing a building or garden, and is a sufficient source for greenery throughout the year for most gardeners. The species form grows twice as large. As with pine and magnolia, smaller dwarf selections make arborvitae suitable for a supporting role as foundation plantings or in mixed borders.
Cedar (Cedrus spp.)
If nothing else, cedar is worth growing just for its cones. When halved, they make a wooden stand-in for a semi-double rose. Deodar cedar (C. deodara) produces the largest cones in the genus. Gardeners in colder Zones should look for ‘Shalimar,’ which thrives in Zone 5. Additionally, Blue Atlas Cedar (C. atlantica ‘Glauca’) sports blue needles and can be grown as a bonsai, a 60-foot tree, or a column (‘Glauca Fastigiata’). Several dwarf and ground cover cedars are commercially available in several colors, but be sure to verify cone production and size.
Holly (Ilex spp.)
When growing your own, English holly (I. aquifolium) is a great choice for gardeners in Zone 7 or warmer. Dwarf versions exist of both American and English holly, and crosses with cold-hardy Asian species have produced refined garden hybrids that grow well across the U.S. The Meserve hollies (I. x meserveae) produce smaller blue-green leaves that integrate more easily into winter arrangements.
Yaupon holly (I. vomitoria), though nontraditional-looking in its foliage, is evergreen, ornamental, and useful for making caffeinated teas. The berries are poisonous.
Hellebore (Helleborus spp.)
Though considered the botanical patron saint of winter greenery, not all hellebores are evergreen or bloom in winter. The main species of interest for winter greenery are H. niger, H. orientalis, H. foetidus, and their hybrids, which now come in many colors and with upward-facing double blooms. Most of them flower later in winter, after the new year, and into spring; but at the warmer end of its range, in Zones 7 and 8, H. niger opens its white blooms in time for the holidays.
Pine (Pinus spp.)
The soft, shaggy needles of pine and its simple brush cones work best for window swags and garlands, or spilling from decorative bowls indoors. Just watch out for the copious sap that pine produces.
Scots pine (P. sylvestris), white pine (P. strobus), and Virginia pine (P. virginiana) have flexible limbs that are easy to twist into decorations, but the species plants are large. ‘Blue Shag’ white pine only reaches 4 by 4 feet, with a dense, woolly look. For a slightly larger option, try a dwarf mountain pine (P. mugo), which can be maintained between 5 by 5 feet and 10 by 10 feet.
Boxwood (Buxus spp.)
Dwarf English boxwood (B. sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’) can anchor whimsical flowers and greenery in arrangements throughout the year. But the density of ‘Suffruticosa’ foliage also harbors fungal disease and boxwood blight. Popular cultivars ‘Winter Gem’ and ‘Sprinter’ shoot up numerous looser branches, but the individual cut branches are less striking.
American boxwood resists disease well and has a history in winter decor, but if you want English boxwood, source it from a florist, neighbor, or wreath workshop.
Magnolia (Magnolia spp.)
Only two magnolia species combine evergreen foliage with the classic perfume: M. grandiflora and M. virginiana. Both have varieties that grow and remain evergreen at least to Zone 5: M. grandiflora ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ and ‘Pendarvis;’ and M. virginiana ‘Satellite,’ ‘Milton,’ and var. australis. M. grandiflora ‘Little Gem’ and other dwarf selections scale down the 90-foot species to a manageable 25 feet or less. Fragrant evergreen species introduced from Asia, such as M. delavayi, round out holiday magnolia options.
Camellia (Camellia spp.)
Camellias can provide long-lasting cut flowers from October to April. C. sasanqua cultivars start in fall, sometimes continuing into winter. Some hybrids of C. japonica bloom as early as January. For more reliable bloom during December and January, try C. x vernalis ‘Yuletide.’
Camellias are low- to no-maintenance plants in locations where they’re reliably cold-hardy and receive ideal sun exposure. In the ground on a protective north wall in Zone 7, they can survive all but the most frigid winters unscathed. Bring in potted plants during minus-30-degree-Fahrenheit temperatures.
Growing Greenery to Sell
There’s consistent demand for greenery, and evergreens tend to grow well in poor soil with less care than other crops. However, it can be difficult to figure out which selections will be trending 3 to 10 years later, when harvest begins; and with 81 percent of households choosing fake greenery, the demand can seem slim.
But many consumers who use imitation may be won back if they believe the benefits of real greenery can’t be replicated, or that buying real evergreens is better for the environment.
Begin with these talking points:
- Fake greenery is more flammable than real greenery.
- Live greenery, such as a fresh tree in a water source, humidifies indoor air.
- Real greenery is 100 percent recyclable.
- Studies argue that caring for live plants is part of what makes them therapeutic.
- If evergreen sales keep increasing, farmers will keep planting more of the only plants that assimilate carbon dioxide during winter.
- Winter greenery is part of world culture.
Additionally, pick plant selections from growers at farmers markets, wholesale or luxury florists, retail nurseries, big-box stores, or their own website or retail locations. To decide what to plant, visit current farmers and sellers, join trade and horticultural associations, visit arboretums, and contact researchers and hybridizers. Select based on your growing site conditions.
Benjamin Whitacre grew up exploring the Blue Ridge Mountains, with a field guide to woody plants in hand. He experiments with different forms of evergreen decor year-round and enjoys sharing techniques and tips during workshops.