It is delightful that an ancient winter tradition is now recurring in a significant manner. Right across our country, more and more folks are decorating their homes and patios, and even their dining room tables, with fresh-cut outdoor greens.
Whether it is a porch pot of cut evergreens (complemented by birch branches, cones and red-berried deciduous holly), a cedar garland, a stunning wreath or a winter hanging basket created with soft, flowing boughs, outdoor green décor is very much here to stay. Indoors, too, we’re seeing cut greens adorning everything from mantels to the latest trend of having a long, woven garland wind its way down a dining table. Cut greens add a sense of warmth and a dash of fragrance for our families and guests to enjoy.
Where do all these branches of cut greens come from? Recently, I spoke with three major B.C. suppliers, and in terms of the ethical harvesting of Christmas greens from our forests, they all had similar responses. They all buy from greens harvesters who have permits to cut branches from trees that logging companies have the rights to harvest. In some cases, pickers must take pruning courses on how to harvest without compromising the trees’ growth. Ironically, the thinning they do sometimes saves logging companies from having to do it themselves.
Many pickers have been doing this work for many years and expect to do so for many more because the manner in which they pick allows for new growth to harvest in future years. Some even have portfolios of their work, complete with images of trees formerly harvested for cut greens and their subsequent growth habits. Unfortunately, all the suppliers mentioned that there are those pickers who go into the forests without permits or permission and harvest with little care for the trees.
For years, I’ve been clipping greens off larger trees in our nursery. When pruned lightly around and up the tree, it barely makes any difference to the shape and growth of the tree, other than to improve it. Of course, pruning too much and too hard will set next year’s growth back, but before too long even these trees will rebound nicely. Selective pruning is a sustainable practice.
The most popular cut branches are harvested from western red cedar, soft needled white pine, beautiful blue-green noble fir and silver fir with its dark green needles that have a silver underside. Some hemlock, douglas fir and higher elevation blue juniper are pruned as well.
I always encourage folks who have a garden to grow some unusual conifers because they will take the mix of greens to the next level. Some of my favourites are the dark green, twisted Hinoki cypress, Chamaecyparis obtusa “Gracilis”, the narrow, upright Juniperus virginiana “Blue Arrow” or “Skyrocket” and the rich golden cedar, Thuja occidentalis “Yellow Ribbon”.
If you have a little more room, the contorted tips of the Cryptomeria japonica “Cristata” (Japanese cypress) and the yellow Cryptomeria japonica “Sekkan-Sugi” will really add some pizzazz to your selection of cut greens.
The branches of Picea orientalis “Skylands” (golden spruce), Pinus contorta “Chief Joseph” (a golden pine) or Pinus strobus “Louie” (white pine with soft golden needles) will not only make your garden glow in winter, but their branch tips will also make your arrangements of cut greens shine.
Among the most under-used sources of colour from a winter garden are the stems of the shrub dogwoods, such as the pure red stems of Cornus sibirica, the vibrant yellow branches of C. stolonifera “Flaviramea” and my favourite, the orange and red stems of C. “Midwinter Fire.”
Keeping your greens fresh looking all through the winter season is far easier when they’re outside on the porch. On the Coast, with the high levels of humidity and plentiful rainfall, it’s quite easy. For the best results, all your stems need to be in water or in consistently wet soil.
Once the annuals in our summer patio pots and window boxes have finished, cut them off at the soil line. The leftover soil, including the old annuals’ roots to hold the stems, makes a good base for creating arrangements of winter greens. On dry, windy or sunny days, mist the greens with water to keep them hydrated.
In colder zones, you need to choose branches from native trees, like the many varieties of pine, spruce, juniper and true fir. They, too, should be kept moist by spritzing with water. Native greens will also tolerate quite cold frosts.
For cut greens used indoors the rules are quite different. The stems of all greens need to be cut on a long, thin angle and then kept in water, using florist oasis, to enhance their lasting quality. I like to lightly spray the foliage with an old nursery product called “Wilt Pruf,” which is simply an anti-desiccant that will prevent the warm air inside from drying out the foliage.
In terms of which cut branches last the longest, I think pine, noble fir and silver fir are among the best. Cedar, hemlock and douglas fir are the most likely to dry out. All cut branches must be hydrated regularly and kept as cool as possible.
Today, decorating our homes with fresh greens is commonly recognized as a Christmas event, however, this practice has long been a winter tradition to add fragrance, colour and beauty to both interiors and outdoor spaces.
By adding LED lights into your outdoor arrangements of cut greens, they will beautifully illuminate the long winter evenings. I also like to incorporate colourful birdfeeders and suet into my arrangements of greens to help sustain our winter bird populations.
Most garden stores now have a large and diverse selection of winter branches for folks to create their own Christmas décor. You’ll be amazed with the selection of cut greens available and with the pre-made porch pots, hanging baskets, garlands and wreaths.
“Greening” our homes and patios is not only fun, it’s an easy and inexpensive way to celebrate the season!