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Going Green
Buy One, Make One, Or Add to One You've Bought

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 23, 2006

Forgive us for talking holiday wreaths before you get that first mouthful of turkey, but we're trying to do you a favor. Honest.

Wreaths and, for do-it-yourselfers, the makings of wreaths are everywhere already. Fancy greens and embellishments arrived this week at garden centers and florists, and even earlier at mass merchandisers. Christmas tree lots, where wreath greens are a thriving sideline, are setting up, and soon every supermarket in the land will offer greenery of some stripe. For much of November, Santa's helpers in Maine and the Pacific Northwest have been fashioning wreaths of balsam fir, incense cedar and spruce and other northerly evergreens, filling orders taken by Scout troops, churches and schools looking to raise a buck or two.

For some, late November is too soon to hang the fragrant and abundant boughs so evocative of the holiday season. But even for those purists, now is the time to at least gather the greenery.

Concerning Christmas trees, the experts offer this advice: Buy one now, make a fresh cut when you get it home and place it in a large container of water in a cool area. Then bring it in a couple of weeks later. If you wait until mid-December to buy it, that same tree will have been in a cold, windy lot, out of water and getting drier by the day.

The same counsel goes for wreath greens. Cut greens can be re-cut and kept in pails of water for a couple of weeks. Although it is impractical to re-cut the stems of ready-made wreaths, soaking the wreaths in water and keeping them in a cool area until ready for use will extend their life as well. See our sidebar on conditioning greens and decorations.

The wreath world falls into two camps. One of them sees the crafting of wreaths as a creative release from the humdrum of daily life, a way to embrace the holiday spirit. The other group sees it as just one more burden of perfection in a harried existence.

The wreath rebels have a couple of choices (three if you include a boycott): Get an artificial wreath (from the tacky at $3.99 to the marvelous at $399) or buy a simple fresh wreath and add the finishing touches yourself.

We asked Don Haynie, a herbalist and former florist in Raphine, Va., what he might do to personalize a basic wreath, and suddenly the phone interview morphed into a virtual workshop. One thing he advised -- on which, perhaps, we can all agree -- is to cut off that garish red velvet bow and throw the nasty thing away.

To a basic wreath of white pine, boxwood or yew, Haynie suggests adding dried and fresh herbs and some nandina berries. Or adding Spanish moss, sheet moss or a lichen called reindeer moss, with some rose hips "and even some pieces of curly willow."

And he suggests a way of gilding the wreath: Take some dried yellow yarrow, a summer perennial, and combine it with pine cones and oak leaves that have been pressed and lightly sprayed with gold paint.

He dashed off two wreaths for us, one a spruce wreath decorated with the seed pods of trumpet creeper and okra as well as white pine cones, dried canella berries, sweetgum balls, Spanish moss and a lotus seedpod at the top. The second wreath, of boxwood, is embellished with artificial pears, cinnamon sticks, dried artichokes, a lotus pod and a bow.

His point -- our point -- is that you can personalize a wreath any way you want. Feel free to forage from your own yard or, with permission, a neighbor's. What's more, no one is stopping you from adding artificial material to the mix. In fact it might be prudent, because live fruit and berries can be notoriously difficult to keep from falling, especially if the wreath is displayed indoors. But do pick good fakes; there is a distinct difference in the look between cheap "berries" and more expensive ones.

"I always stress good quality," said Haynie, who owns the Buffalo Springs Herb Farm. "There's some very good man-made product out there."

Indeed, there seems to be little or no stigma left to buying whole wreaths (or Christmas trees for that matter) that started life in an oil refinery.

Some artificial wreaths are still indescribably cheap looking, but in general the makers of faux wreaths, which invariably are made in China, have raised the standard in the past three years. "The quality has improved. It has really changed," said Peggy Bier, showing off a wall of artificial wreaths at Merrifield Garden Center's Fair Oaks nursery.

The faux offerings included a spruce wreath that had subtle differences in tones of green and a white pine wreath that included the brown needles one associates with pines at this time of year.

A fresh, conditioned wreath may remain that way for two to three weeks indoors; its decline is hastened in hot, dry rooms and near fireplaces or heating registers and by a lack of sealant. As long as an aging live wreath is not shedding badly or posing a fire hazard, it is something people live with. If you want a fresh wreath for a party in early December, consider replacing it near Christmas with another you have purchased early and kept cool.

You can find wreath frames that will keep live greens watered, but generally those are not found in ready-made wreaths. Another kind of form consists of wrapped straw; Haynie dislikes that type, saying that pushing a stem into it may "break your thumb." Florists used to use sphagnum peat moss, but that has fallen from favor (and availability) for a number of reasons, including the risk of contracting a skin disease from handling it. Haynie says one of the most effective forms is a ring of Oasis foam that is moistened and then wrapped.

Incidentally, evergreen leaves and needles do not take up moisture easily, and the practice of spritzing daily won't make much difference to the wreaths. "If it makes you feel good, by all means do it," Bier said.

It is also worth noting that a fresh wreath sandwiched between a door and a glazed storm door will cook in its own greenhouse. Bier says to put it on the outer door or to the side of the portal.

The easiest indoor wreaths, thus, are fake ones. Plausible, in this day and age, but missing the essential ingredient: the piney fragrance of freshly cut boughs. Enter Toni Moriarty, Bier's colleague, bearing a bottle of Thymes Frasier Fir oil. Just stick it in the diffuser, let it waft, and prepare yourself for that real phony-wreath experience.

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