Deck the halls with Christmas greens

Susie Hill
Frederick County Master Gardener

(11/28) Of all my family holiday traditions, decorating the house with greens has always been my favorite. As a kid, the first holiday trek we would make was to cut a Christmas tree. The second and most important trip we made was to visit my grandfatherís nursery to collect greens to decorate the hearth and home.

We were spoiled with our selection of greens. My grandfather had a forty-acre nursery where he specialized exotic ornamental plants. We gathered loads of boxwood, cryptomeria, Atlantic and Deodar cedars, junipers, holly, and our favorite, the Japanese umbrella pine. Mom would wait to do the greens until just a few days before Christmas to make sure that they were fresh. The effect was dramatic. Boxwood cupped each window candle. The manger and mantle came to life adorned with umbrella pine and holly. And of course, the table was stunning. There was always a centerpiece that overflowed with a cornucopia of greens and berries.

Once my sisters and I had our own homes, Mom would deliver specially selected bags of greens to each of us to be sure that our homes would also burst to life with the placement of the greens. She was always careful to spread out the favorites among all the children. Obviously, we all followed in her footsteps.

I do not have ready access to the plants from the nursery like I used to so I work with what I have. Currently, I have boxwood, Inkberry hollies, cotoneaster, Southern magnolia, a small Japanese umbrella pine, a tiny American holly, winterberry hollies, and an Atlantic cedar that is only eight inches tall.

The boxwood will go in the windowsills with the candles and will be used as filler for arrangements and swags. Boxwood need thinning so I cut longer branches to try to increase air-flow into the center of the plant.

Like Boxwood, Inkberry holly foliage is good filler for arrangements. Unlike boxwood, they cannot be pruned below the existing foliage so I clip small pieces off the edges. Japanese holly is a common landscape plant that can be used like boxwood and Inkberry hollies in arrangements. Japanese holly should be cut just from the edges, not below the foliage.

Cotoneaster is readily available in the nursery trade. It has red and green winter foliage and it is loaded with orange-red berries. Given the small size of my American holly, I use cotoneaster as a substitute for the holly. I enjoy some holly but I cut it sparingly so it wonít become a misshapen tree when it is older.

The Southern magnolia and Japanese umbrella pine have great texture and make dressing up a Christmas scene a snap. My winterberry hollies have few berries this year so Iíll leave them be. Since my cedar is eight inches tall, I think Iíll let that one go this year too. It isnít quite ready for a haircut, but I am planning ahead for all the Christmas celebrations in my future.

If you do not already do so, try decking your halls with greens. Use anything you can get your paws on, whether it grows in your yard or you have a neighbor who likes to share. Wait to place the greens until the week before Christmas. That way they stay fresh and the impact on the house is dramatic. It makes the house feel exceptionally festive, and if you are lucky, a holiday greens tradition just may be established in your home too. Just be sure to save one sprig of holly for Grandmaís Christmas pudding.

Read other winter related gardening articles

Read other articles by Susie Hill