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Wreath Making: Capturing the Magic of the Season

Homemade holiday wreath hanging on a front door
Making your own holiday wreath is a great way to bring bits of your garden inside during the cold holiday months.

Once winter arrives in Virginia, plant lovers may need to work a little harder to find the botanical beauty that comes so naturally in the warm months. But with a little effort, we can bring that plant pizzazz back into our lives and homes—and one great way to do this is by making fabulous winter wreaths.

Wreath making is a great excuse to venture outside into the fresh air even when the cold is deterring. So grab a pair of sharp pruning shears and a large basket or durable bag and head out on a winter foray!

When it comes to wreath-making, there really are no rules, but a few basic construction concepts will be helpful to those who have yet to do this fun winter craft themselves.

First, you will need a wreath frame. You’ll want to look for vines and tree branches that are both strong and flexible, so you can bend them into a circle without breakage. Some good candidates for a wreath frame are wild or domesticated grapevines (Vitis spp.), wisteria (Wisteria spp.), and pussy willow (Salix caprea). Use green floral wire to securely attach the two ends of your chosen vine or branch (this is a step where you can err on the side of using extra, as you don’t want your wreath to come apart). At this point, you can also fashion a simple loop for hanging. If you want to make this step even easier, you can buy a reusable wreath frame from a craft store, or repurpose an old wire coat hanger. Simply stretch the hanger by hand from its triangular form into a vaguely circular shape (don’t worry about getting it perfect—the foliage will round it out).

Next, you will need to collect some good base greenery for your wreath. These are typically hardy evergreens with dense leaves which will add volume and a rich verdant background to your circle of winter glory. If you have access to boxwood (Buxus sempervirens), it makes a classic and elegant base whose bushy texture facilitates attaching additional accouterments. Other contenders include white pine (Pinus strobus), blue spruce (Picea pungens), magnolia (Magnolia spp.), and Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana).

As you meander, you will also want to collect specimens of visual interest which will make your wreath pop. Think color, texture, novelty. Some examples include American holly and winterberry fruits (Ilex opaca, verticillata), the burgundy leaves of Nandina (Nandina domestica), and dwarf golden arborvitae’s green-yellow ombre (Thuja orientalis ‘Aurea Nana’). I love incorporating the flaxen iridescence of dried split milkweed pods and the silvery shimmer of the underside of autumn olive leaves (Elaeagnus umbellata). The invasive oriental bittersweet vine (Celastrus orbiculatus) produces quite beautiful red and orange berries, and like the autumn olive, it’s one you don’t need to feel bad about hacking away at. American beautyberry is nonpareil when it comes to adding vibrant winter color, its violet berry clusters offering summery reminiscences. Don’t forget to glean from your dormant summer gardens as well—you may find some dried straw flowers (Xerochrysum bracteatum), globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa), or Celosia sp. (incl. cock’s comb) to add a dash of color to your creation. While you’re in there, go ahead and cleave some of your culinary herbs, such as rosemary, which will impart a welcoming fragrance to your wreath (as well as some unique light-colored downy foliage if you use lavender or sage, which will contrast becomingly with the deep evergreens).

One upside to winter’s stripped-down, austere aesthetic is that it allows us to see details that might otherwise go unnoticed, and such gems make perfect additions to a wreath. A fallen bird’s nest, moss and lichen, a pine cone covered in amber sap, prismatic beetle wings, and magenta black raspberry (Rubus occidentalis) stems are unique items you’d be hard-pressed to find in a store-bought wreath. Woody tree bark and branches are quite interesting this time of year without our attention diverted by dazzling leaves and flowers, and spray painting them silver makes them look absolutely regal. (If you want an eco-friendly alternative, there are now natural mica-based metallic paints available.) Also keep an eye out for colorful bird feathers from our overwintering feathered friends like the blue jay, cardinal, wild turkey, and American crow.

Once you’re content with your foliar finds, get back into the warmth of your home and organize your specimens, like with like. Now, here is the most crucial tip for winning at wreath making: dig the sprig. If you were to attach your boughs and leaves flush to your wreath frame, the result would be quite two dimensional. To make your wreath full and varied, gather clusters of approximately 6-8” plant material and make a mini bouquet, bundle, or sprig. Place your ‘base’ or filler greenery, such as boxwood, in the background of your bundle, and your plants of interest in the foreground. Use the florist’s wire to securely attach the bundle at the base of the stems. Then, use another piece of wire to attach the bundle to your wreath frame. Layer bundle over bundle, so that the each bundle covers the wire and stem base of the one laid before it. Orient your springs at a 45 degree angle from the wreath frame in a pinwheel-like formation so that they fill out the form while flowing together. Save your delicate and special additions until the end—you may opt for glue instead of wire for items that are more brittle.

As a reminder, make sure you follow the number one cardinal rule of gardening—have fun! Winter can be a challenge to the body and spirit, but all the more reason to get creative, especially with some friends over a warm beverage or near a fire. Wreaths are joy-inducing gifts, and it’s not much extra effort to clip a little more greenery and make a few to share!

We would love to see photos of your homemade wreaths! Please share them to our Virginia Home Grown Facebook page for all to enjoy.

Sending the warmest of season’s greetings, Pat.