Holiday Decorating with Fresh Greenery

Holiday Decorating with Fresh Greenery

  • By Nancy Bolton
  • /
  • December 2015-Vol.1 No.12
  • /

For many families, selecting a Christmas tree is an annual tradition enjoyed by children and adults alike. Although artificial trees can certainly look real and beautiful, a live tree brings a feel and fragrance associated with the holidays. They are readily available at local garden centers, or in parking lots by the Boy Scouts, Kiwanis, school groups and owners of local Christmas tree farms.

Today, over 32 million Christmas trees are sold each year. The total area of tree farms in the United States has been estimated at over 1 million acres, and about 100,000 people are employed in the live Christmas tree industry. According to a Virginia Tech survey of retail lots in Virginia, only 29% of the trees for sale were grown in Virginia, but this depends on your location. Just because a tree is not grown in Virginia does not necessarily mean that it is not fresh and fragrant. Trees for sale that carry the logo, Virginia Fresh, are certified to be grown in Virginia and meet the highest standards for Christmas tree quality. If this logo is displayed where you purchase your trees, you can be assured you are buying a locally grown, high-quality tree.

Choose-and-Cut Farms provide much more than just a Christmas tree. It can be a great outdoor family adventure with a local farmer who often provides a saw for cutting and even hot chocolate for cold hands. This is usually a less expensive choice than going to a retail lot. The freshness of the tree cannot be denied. To find a choose-and-cut tree farm, check your local newspaper usually right after Thanksgiving.

Others prefer buying a living, balled-and-burlapped tree which can then be planted in their landscape and enjoyed for years to come. These can be very heavy though and cannot be kept inside for too long without drying out.

Important Points to Consider When Selecting a Christmas Tree


There are many different species of Christmas trees normally sold in Virginia, but the most popular are the eastern white pine, Fraser fir, Scotch pine, and Norway spruce. The table below provides some useful information for these species. Fraser fir emerges as one of the best species in terms of needle retention and fragrance, while the Norway spruce has the least desirable characteristics.

Table 1. Characteristics of common Christmas tree species under room conditions. (1 = most desirable; 4 = least desirable)
  Fraser Fir White Pine Scotch Pine Norway Spruce
Needle retention without water 1 1 1 4
Needle retention with water 1 1 1 3
Firmness of branches 2 3 1 2
Fragrance 1 2 2 2
Resistance to ignition 2 3 3 2
Adapted from: Winch, F. E., and G. R. Cunningham. 1969. Selection, identification, and care of Christmas trees and greens. Cornell Univ. Cooperative Extension Service Bulletin 983.


Most rooms will easily accommodate a 7-foot tree but rooms with cathedral ceilings can accommodate a much larger tree. Expect to pay more for oversized trees. On many lots and farms, trees are priced according to height, so it becomes especially important to buy a tree that is the right size for your home. Leave room for a topper on the tree as well as the height of the bottom of the stand from the floor.


To be able to tell whether or not a tree is fresh is very important. The length of time since cutting and the way the trees have been handled can greatly influence how well they will hold their needles and fragrance once they are put up. In general, each tree should have a healthy, green appearance without a large number of dead or browning needles. Needles should appear fresh and flexible and should not come off in your hand if you gently stroke a branch. A useful trick is to lift a cut tree a couple of inches off the ground and let it drop on the cut butt. Green needles should not drop off the tree. A few dried, inner needles may fall, but certainly the outer, green needles should not be affected.

Care of Christmas Trees


Once you have returned safely home with your Christmas tree, its continued freshness depends upon the type of care you provide. You should make a fresh cut across the bottom, about 1 inch above the old base. This removes any clogged wood that may not readily absorb water.  After finding just the right spot, the tree should be placed in a stand with a large reservoir of water.  Depending upon the size, species, and location of the tree, it may absorb a gallon of water in the first day, so it should be checked frequently and re-watered as necessary.

Although some people advocate placing various substances in the water to preserve freshness, we recommend that you simply keep the tree well-watered with pure tap water. As long as the tree is able to absorb and transpire water, it is reasonably fire-resistant. It is important that the tree always be kept watered and not allowed to dry out. If the tree does become dried out, it may not be able to adequately absorb moisture once it is re-watered, and it will shed its needles prematurely. Taking the tree down and cutting about a 1-inch slice off the bottom of the trunk, then replacing the tree in the stand and re-watering, is the only remedy for this problem.  Wow! That would be a big job if it was already decorated.


The Christmas tree should be located in a safe, low traffic place, preferably near a wall or corner where it is not likely to be knocked over. It may be necessary to anchor the tree with nylon thread tied around the trunk and through screw hooks fastened to the doorway or window trim. This particularly helps if young children and pets have access to the tree.

Keeping the tree away from heat sources such as hot air ducts, wood stoves, and fireplaces will help to preserve freshness and lessen fire danger. Similarly, light cords and connections used in decorating the tree should be in good working condition. Lights should always be turned off at bedtime or when leaving for an extended period of time. Fresh, well-watered Christmas trees do not represent a fire hazard. Trees that are dried out, however, do.

Living Christmas Trees

Living Christmas trees are unique and should definitely receive special care. Since the root balls are often heavy and cumbersome, it is important that they are not mistreated or dropped. Once the tree is home, it should be conditioned before being brought into a heated room. Leaving the tree upright in an unheated barn or garage for a couple of days should be sufficient. After the conditioning, the tree can be brought indoors and placed in a cool location away from direct sunlight. It is even more important with living trees that the location is away from heat sources such as wood stoves, fireplaces, and heater vents. Living Christmas trees will also need water, although not nearly as much as cut trees.

Prior to moving the tree inside, the root ball should be moistened and kept in a moist condition while the tree is displayed. The root ball should be placed in a bucket or a large pan to prevent soil and water from staining the floor. Living Christmas trees are fairly sensitive and should not be kept inside for more than 10 days.

Before removing the tree directly outside, it should be allowed to recondition in the same manner as when it was brought inside. After a couple of days, it should be ready to plant. If the ground is frozen or if the tree cannot be planted immediately, it should be placed in a sheltered area and the root ball heavily mulched. When planting, the hole should be dug about the depth of the root ball and 1.5 to 2 times the diameter. The tree should be placed in the hole, back-filled with the soil removed from the hole, watered, and mulched with straw, bark, or sawdust. The tree will remain dormant for the rest of the winter and then will start to grow normally with other vegetation in the spring.

Disposal of Trees after Christmas

A Christmas tree is a source of organic waste. Try not to put the tree out with the rest of the household garbage to be carted off to a landfill. There are other alternatives to disposing of your tree. It could be placed in the backyard, adorned with bits of bread and suet, and used as a bird feeder during the winter. In the spring, the tree could be chipped for mulch or burned for fuel. Those with ponds have found that a couple of Christmas trees, properly weighted down, provide a good habitat for fish. In Charlottesville, the recycling center provides a place each year to dispose of your tree. They are then chipped into mulch.

Decorating with greenery

When I think of the person most knowledgeable about Christmas decorations and wreath making in the Charlottesville area, the name Janet Miller immediately comes to mind. Janet is a former flower arranger who decorated Monticello for 20 years and one of the main teachers of wreath making there as well. In a recent interview with Janet, she had several suggestions for mantles, dining tables and your front door. This is not a “How to” article but hopefully it will provide you with some pointers about materials, ideas and safety issues that will get you started on your own special creations. For a good “How to” article to make a wreath go to HGIC EC696

Wreath     Wreath4

A bold wreath on your front door during the holidays is the quintessential Christmas decoration. The wreath making class at Monticello is a great way for friends to join together and all come out with a unique wreath designed by you with the guidance of experienced teachers. They provide all materials (and I mean a lot of varied, beautiful materials). Sign up early as it fills quickly.

Of course doing it yourself at home is the most common and least expensive option. Janet suggests the easiest way is to start with a plain purchased wreath on which you add additional greenery and decorations. Boxwood will last the longest (note: to prevent spreading boxwood blight unintentionally, either burn or send to the landfill all boxwood trimmings).  Magnolia is popular but a wreath made totally of magnolia will not last as long. It can be added as accents but be prepared to replace it as it browns and becomes dry. Wreath2

The first and often the best place to look for holiday greenery may be in your own landscape. Greenery gathered from your own garden will be far fresher than any that you can buy. When gathering live greenery from your shrubs and trees, remember that you are actually pruning the plants. Distribute the cuts evenly around the plant in order to preserve its natural form. As you gather the material, place the stems in room temperature water to condition them prior to their use.

Add any gathered materials and attach to the wreath by using a glue gun and wire. Below are some suggested accents:

  • Pine cones (sprayed gold or silver is an option)
  • Apples
  • Hydrangea(Best if picked before it turns brown)
  • Cinnamon sticks
  • Lemons or Limes
  • Lotus seed pods
  • Nuts
  • Sweet gum balls
  • Berries (Holly looks good but does not last) Try Nandina
  • Cedar
  • Pine
  • Pomegranates
  • Purchased wired bows
  • Pyracantha

Dining Table Arrangement

Dining table 2

Use any container that you like with or without oasis (the green foam). Bowls and trays are especially easy. Add greenery, pine cones, magnolia leaves spray painted, faux votive candles, apples or other fruit. Even some Christmas tree bulbs can be attractive. Avoid candles that may create a fire hazard if lit or cover with a hurricane lamp shade.



Garland, purchased as fresh or artificial is perfect for a mantel. I have often just used cuttings left over from trimming the bottom of the tree. Intermingle Santas, artificial candles, faux berries, apples or other fruit. Even paperwhites and poinsettias look great.Mantle close up

Be creative, enjoy the process especially if done with the entire family and most of all have a wonderful holiday.


“Selecting and Caring for Christmas Trees,”  Va. Coop. Ext.,

” Holiday Decorating with Fresh Greenery,”   Clemson Cooperative Extension Publication,

Selection, Identification and Care of Christmas Trees and Greens, Cornell University Cooperative Extension Service Bulletin 983. 1969.

“Making Wreaths.”   Clemson Cooperative Extension Publication, EC696. November 1997.

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