Making an Evergreen Wreath

November 30 Parkway 005

We are decorating our community center for the holiday season this weekend.  We are making the wreathes ourselves this year with greenery cut from our own gardens.  I volunteered to make one of the three wreathes, and other neighbors will hang the other two tomorrow afternoon.

Magnolia branches, from my friends garden, soaking in a bucket of warm water and floral preservative to condition them before we decorate our community center for the holidays.

Magnolia branches, from my friends garden, soaking in a bucket of warm water and floral preservative to condition them before we decorate our community center for the holidays.

My friend cut  Magnolia from her garden yesterday for our efforts.  Some of the Magnolia became the base for this wreath, and more will be used tomorrow as we decorate the windowsills inside.

Making an evergreen wreath is not only easy, but it allows you to use exactly the greens you want.  Your mailbox is probably as full as mine of catalogs offering wreathes, swags, and centerpieces handcrafted from box, cedar, holly, juniper, and yew.  These beautiful pieces are so expensive.

Fresh cut cedar and Rosemary soak in this job of warm water and floral preservative so they are conditioned for the wreath.

Fresh cut cedar and Rosemary soak in this jug of warm water and floral preservative so they are conditioned for the wreath.

They are lovely gifts for loved ones out of town and for those who have no way to cut or purchase greenery locally.   But for those of us blessed to have gardens full of evergreen shrubs, it is easy to make our own seasonal decorations.

Cut the greens a day ahead of when you plan to make the wreath so they can condition overnight.  Fill your container half full with warm water and any of the many floral preservative products according to the mixing instructions on the package.  Warm water is absorbed more quickly into the cold branches, and helps hydrate the leaves and branches before you use them in your arrangement.

Cut what you have readily available.

This straw wreath form forms the base for the wreath.

This straw wreath form forms the base for the wreath.

Box, yew, cedar, and juniper are good dense, bushy materials to cover the wreath.  Rosemary holds up well as it dries and smells wonderful mixed in with the other greens.  Sage, lavender, and thyme also work well in wreathes, but dry out more quickly than Rosemary.  Sage will visibly wilt, while lavender and thyme will dry in place without wilting.

These floral staples secure everything to the wreath.  Simply push each into the straw from with your thumb.

These floral staples secure everything to the wreath. Simply push each into the straw form with your thumb.

Anything with berries looks lovely mixed in for accent.  Cedar often has powdery blue berries. Holly and Nandina have red berries, and Pyracantha has orange or yellow berries.  Good holly is beautiful made into wreathes when you have it.  Yellowish or bluish evergreen foliage also looks beautiful worked into a wreath.

Secure the first Magnolia leaf with a floral staple.

Secure the first Magnolia leaf with a floral staple.

Your centerpiece will probably be made in a container you can refill as the greens drink.  A wreath or swag made with freshly cut greens must last the season without additional water, so it is important to condition the greens before making the wreath.

This wreath begins with a straw wreath form from the craft store.

Each new leaf hides the previous staple.  The final leaf is secured under the tip of the first leaf so all staples are hidden.

Each new leaf hides the previous staple. The final leaf is secured under the tip of the first leaf so all staples are hidden.

They generally cost between $2 and $3, often cheaper on sale.  The greens are stuck onto the wreath with metal staples, available at craft stores and floral suppliers.  Other materials you might want are wire and floral picks to attach decorations to the wreath.

I like to begin by covering the straw form with Magnolia leaves.  This gives a nice living, green base underneath the other greenery you choose to use.

Now that the form is covered in Magnolia, we can build onto this base.

Now that the form is covered in Magnolia, we can build onto this base.

I cover the inside, outside, and front of the wreath with overlapping leaves.  The staples are hidden by the leaves layered on top.

Decide early on where the “top” of the wreath will be.  Attach a loop of wire for hanging to the wreath form with a floral staple.  Make sure this is secure enough to hold the weight of your finished wreath.

Make bundles of evergreen branches and secure each bundle to the base with a floral staple.

Make bundles of evergreen branches and secure each bundle to the base with a floral staple.

After covering the entire form with Magnolia leaves,  make up a bunch of mixed greens 6″-12″ long and about 5″-7″ wide.  Layer the largest material on the bottom, and shorter accent material on top of the bunch.  Secure the bunch to the form with a floral staple, making sure to catch all of the stems under the staple.

Make  additional bunches, and secure each to the form so that the top of each bunch covers the staple securing the previous bunch.   Make sure the last bunch of greens is secured to the wreath under the tops of the first bunch so its staple is also hidden.

Secure additional bundles so each previous staple is hidden.

Secure additional bundles so each previous staple is hidden.

This forms the main body of the wreath, and can stand alone with no additional decoration, or with a simple ribbon if you wish.

Once the entire wreath is covered, add any decorations.  You can wire on fruit, Christmas ornaments, pine cones, seed pods, ribbons, leaves, flowers, or most anything else with floral wire, floral picks, or floral staples.  Light items can be hot glued onto the greenery.

After securing floral wire to the back of the wreath, begin stringing fruit for the garland.

After securing floral wire to the back of the wreath, begin stringing fruit for the garland.

I chose to make a garland of cranberries, kumquats, and hot chili peppers for this wreath.  To get this effect, secure one end of a piece of floral wire to the back of the wreath with a floral staple.  Not knowing how long a piece of wire I would need to do the entire wreath, I began with a piece about 4′ long, securing it to the same staple that already holds the loop for hanging.

Cranberries, Kumquats, and dried chillies strung on floral wire garland this wreath.

Cranberries, Kumquats, and dried chilies strung on floral wire garland this wreath.

I put a second staple over the wire where I wanted my first cranberry to lay.  (There is no need to have fruit on the back of the wreath which could get crushed against the door.)

Straighten the wire as much as you can, especially at the very end, and then firmly push the end of the wire through the cranberry from end to end, with the wire exiting where the stem attached.  Push this first cranberry, gently, the length of the wire to rest against the staple.

Secure the wire to the back of the wreath at either end of the strung fruit.

Secure the wire to the back of the wreath at either end of the strung fruit.

String five or six more cranberries to cover the wire as it comes across the top of the wreath.  Use only very firm cranberries, discarding any already soft.  Where your garland comes across the face of the wreath string a Kumquat, followed by chilies, and then resume with the cranberries.  I strung more cranberries until the point where the wire passes to the back of the wreath, and secured the wire with a floral staple just behind the last berry.

Repeat this process, securing the wire at the top of the wreath before the first berry and at the inside bottom just after the last berry as you loop the garland around the wreath.  If you begin to run out of wire, tie the wire off to a staple on the back, and begin a new piece wrapped onto the same staple.  Finally, tie off the end of the final wrap of wire to a floral staple and secure it out of site inside the wreath.

The finished wreath is ready to hang.

The finished wreath is ready to hang.

This wreath will hang outside through the New Year.  I hope the fruit will stand up to such a long display.  It is important to use fresh, firm, fruit to get the longest life from the arrangement you can.

Wreathes are symbols of eternal life, abundance, and the turning year.  They are well loved in our holiday decorations, and so simple to make and personalize for ourselves.

A wreath from our own hand and our own garden reflects our own tastes and interests.  And, this wreath smells wonderful.  The deep spicy aromas of cedar and rosemary  blend beautifully with the citrus kumquats.

What a wonderful gift to make for your own family, or for a special loved one this holiday season.

Nature has many scenes to exhibit, and constantly draws a curtain over this part or that.

She is constantly repainting the landscape and all surfaces, dressing up some scene for our entertainment.

Lately we had a leafy wilderness; now bare twigs begin to prevail, and soon she will surprise us with a mantle of snow.

Some green she thinks so good for our eyes that, like blue, she never banishes it entirely from our eyes, but has created evergreens. 

Henry David Thoreau, Nov. 8, 1858

All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013

Obsession: Botany and Empire, As Seen From Jamestown, Virginia

View towards Jamestown Island from the Colonial Parkway.

View towards Jamestown Island from the Colonial Parkway.

~

Did you know there was a time, not too long ago, when the most prized plants growing on regal British estates were trees imported from, “The Colonies”?  I had no idea how much 18th Century British gardeners coveted North American plants- particularly our trees.

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American Sycamore growing along the Colonial Parkway on the bank of the James River.

American Sycamore growing along the Colonial Parkway on the bank of the James River.

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Isn’t it interesting how things are forgotten over the years, and we assume that how things are in our own experience is how things have always been.  I grew up on the East coast of North America, making annual trips to view the colorful forests cloaking the Blue Ridge Mountains each autumn.  I’ve always had brilliant autumn foliage to enjoy in my own yard, and lining the streets of whatever town I happened to visit.  We in Virginia accept these things as part of the normal progression of the seasons.  We savor them, but don’t take notice of what a rare treat we enjoy.

~

An oak tree growing beside the James River near Jamestown.

An oak tree growing beside the James River near Jamestown.

~

It was the book, Brother Gardeners:  Botany, Empire, and the Birth of an Obsession, by Andrea Wulf, which opened my eyes and my mind to the treasures growing here, as weeds in the woods.

Prior to the 17th century, European, and specifically British gardens, had a limited palette of plants.  The formal geometric schemes of lawn, hedge, topiary evergreen shrubs, roses, and very few summer flowers were the norm.  Green and brown were the main colors found in the garden for most of the year.  Hardscape paths, stairs, fountains, arbors, and structures were the relief from all of this green lawn and green hedge.  Gardeners overcame and reshaped nature when creating a garden.

~

Dogwood in late October

Dogwood in late October

~

The notion of working with nature was born in the colonies, and exported back to England in some measure toward the second half of the 18th century.

As European ships sailed abroad to explore and claim the world, they took as treasure not only gold and silver, but also botanical treasures from all of the lands explored.  Now, very little of the plant material collected actually made it back alive to a gardener in Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, or the Netherlands.  When a voyage lasts many months, things happen.  Things like hungry mice and storms; gnawing insects, pirates, salt spray; and unmitigated heat and cold on the deck of a sailing ship.

~

Sapling Tulip Poplar trees growing along the Colonial Parkway.

Sapling Tulip Poplar trees growing along the Colonial Parkway.

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But whatever seeds, bulbs, cuttings, roots, and even live plants did miraculously make it home and into the hands of a skilled gardener, were loving tended and coaxed into growing in specially built hot houses and garden plots.

Plants were grown out for seed, sold, traded, and propagated in great botanical gardens across Europe.  Botanists befriended ships’ captains and crews in hopes of bribing them to bring home new specimens.  And, as colonies were established, relationships sprang up between the colonists and avid collectors “back home” in Europe.

~

Red Cedar growing in Colonial Williamsburg.

Red Cedar, Juniperus virginiana growing in Colonial Williamsburg.

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The fledgling scientists of the Enlightenment realized that every new species of plant contains tremendous gifts.  Aside from their beauty and use in an ornamental garden, plants contain useful chemical compounds to heal, create new products, nourish, and enlighten.  Some of this research continues today in the Amazon Rain Forest of Brazil and other inaccessible and remote corners of the world

~

Catalpa, or Monkey Cigar tree, on the Palace Green at Colonial Williamsburg.  The lawn is lined with Catalpa trees of various ages, and they are absolutely stunning when in bloom.

Catalpa, or Monkey Cigar tree, on the Palace Green at Colonial Williamsburg. The lawn is lined with Catalpa trees of various ages, and they are absolutely stunning when in bloom.  Enlarge the photo and you’ll see the long seed pods growing in early August.

~

The colonial era was an exciting time for discovering countless new species of plants. The gardens of Great Britain and Europe reflected the explosion of diversity by welcoming previously unknown flowers, trees, shrubs, herbs, and vegetables into their evolving and increasingly naturalistic garden schemes.

Remember, the great forests of Britain were decimated long before this era.  When Maple, Tulip Poplar, Pine, Sycamore, Cedar, Dogwood, Sassafras, Magnolia and other colorful tress and shrubs from America grew in the first garden plots of importers, they were a novelty.  The aristocracy quickly fell in love with these new plants, and clamored for a seed or a cutting to grow on their home estates.

~

Beauty Berry shrub in my garden.

Beauty Berry shrub in my garden.  The small green berries will turn bright lilac in a few more weeks.

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Benjamin Franklin helped build the relationships that enabled this trade between his amateur botanist friends in the American colonies and his contacts in Britain.  The story told in Andrea Wulf’s book unfolds with the drama and personality of a good novel, and I recommend it to every like minded gardener, no matter which side of the pond you call your present home.

~

American Holly growing in my garden.

American Holly growing in my garden.

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For the purposes of this post, let me just mention a few of the trees growing wild right here around Jamestown, which were collected in the Colonial era and sent back to England.  These trees, common to us, opened up a whole new way to design and enjoy gardens.  They were grown for their beautiful form, fall color, interesting bark, and some for their flowers.

Eventually, gardening became a passionate pursuit not only of the aristocracy, but of all Britons.  As we admire their beautifully tended gardens of trees, shrubs, and flowers today, so they admired the wild and beautiful plants we sent back to them from, “The Colonies”.

~

Magnolia grandiflora growing along the Colonial Parkway near Jametown, VA.

Magnolia grandiflora growing along the Colonial Parkway near Jametown, VA.

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Here is a partial list of trees and shrubs introduced to Britain from the American colonies:

Acer saccharum, Sugar Maple, 1725

Aesculus pavia, Red Buckeye, 1711

Colorful fall leaves were almost unknown in Britain before American specieis of trees were introduced n the 17th and 18th centuries.

Colorful fall leaves were almost unknown in Britain before American species of trees were introduced n the 17th and 18th centuries.

Betula nigra, River Birch, 1736

Callicarpa americana, Beauty Berry, 1724

Catalpa bignonioides, Southern Catalpa, 1722

Chamaecyparis thyoides, White Cedar, 1736

Chionanthus virginicus, Fringe Tree, 1736

Cornus florida, Flowering Dogwood, 1722

Diospyros virginiana, Persimmon, 1629

Euonymus atropurpurea, Burning Bush, 1744-6

Fraxinus americana, White Ash, 1724

Hydrangea arborescens, Wild Hydrangea, 1736

Pines along the Colonial Parkway in early October

Pines along the Colonial Parkway in early October

Juglans nigra, Black Walnut, 1629

Juniperus virginiana, Red Cedar, 1664

Kalmia latifolia, Mountain Laurel, 1734

Liriodendron tulipifera, Tulip Poplar, 1638

Magnolia grandiflora, Southern Magnolia, 1734

Magnolia virginiana, Sweet Bay, 1688

A mature American Holly on the Colonial Parkway.

A mature American Holly on the Colonial Parkway.  These evergreen trees shine in winter when deciduous trees are bare.

Pinus strobus, White Pine, 1705

Platanus occidentalis, American Sycamore, 1638

Sassafras albidum, Sassafrass, 1630

All photos by Woodland Gnome

The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession

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