Are you ready to scream when someone in your household suggests you bake yet another batch of Christmas cookies or put up one more string of lights? For a holiday project that’s a bit different, how about a fresh wreath?
Assembling your own wreath is relatively easy, extremely rewarding and strangely addictive. You save money compared with a ready-made or custom wreath, although less than you might think. What you really gain is having a wreath you know is fresh and will last until Christmas and beyond. Most of all, making a wreath immerses you in the comforting rituals of the season.
I’ve long had a hankering to make a Christmas wreath, and for me the material of choice had to be boxwood. I like its simple elegance, its fine texture and its longevity. I have grown to like its bitter scent.
Here’s the rub: My experience in making wreaths was nonexistent. So I asked veteran wreathmaker Peggy Bier, of Merrifield Garden Center in Fair Oaks, Va., to show me how to make a boxwood wreath, and she duly obliged. The wreath pictured here was only my second complete effort, and although it was not as polished as later wreaths I made, I’d venture that it looks pretty handsome — proving that with method and care, anyone can make a wreath and have a lot of fun in the process. I discovered this as well: If you are dissatisfied with your effort, turn the wreath over, cut the wire and start again.
Boxwood: English boxwood is bright green and densely foliated with rounded leaves. American boxwood is darker, with more pointed leaves and looser in its growth habit. I picked English boxwood for a tighter look. The fresher the better; the greenery should be lush, fragrant and pliable. Ask when the batch was delivered. You will need 2½ -to-three pounds of boxwood for a wreath this size, at about $9 per pound.
Frame: I chose a 16-inch metal frame for $7, which resulted in a finished wreath that was 20 inches across. Other frame materials are available, including foam, but the metal frame permits tight, secure wiring and can be used for years.
The metal frame is bowed — I made my wreath on the raised side. (The frame is designed to take an inner core of saturated moss, wrapped as you add the greenery, but this method is not necessary if the greens are fresh and conditioned).
Wire and wire cutters: Use 22-gauge florist’s wire. A thinner wire will not hold the boxwood as well. Three yards will run you about $3.
Pruners: Use either garden hand pruners or florist’s snips to cut the stems. Scissors are not strong enough and will crush them. A side note: One of the key objects here is to keep all of your fingers. This is not a project to undertake with a mug of eggnog at your side. If kids are helping, keep the pruners in the hands of the supervising adult.
Scissors: Scissors are used to trim and groom the finished wreath.
Anti-desiccant: This is optional and used to coat the foliage with resin to slow moisture loss. I used a concentrate ($22) mixed with water as a dip. It can also be used in a garden sprayer. More conveniently, it is available in a ready-mixed spray bottle. A popular brand is Wilt-Pruf. I had plenty left over, which can be used for spraying outdoor evergreens.
Ribbon: Ribbon can be bought in rolls or by the yard and is used to enliven the wreath, provide a means of hanging it and to fashion a bow, if you want one. You will need three yards for a ribbon and a basic bow with eight-inch tails (mine was about $5).
Well-hydrated boxwood will make a longer-lasting wreath. I re-cut the ends of the sprigs and soaked them in a tub of water overnight.
Attach and loop the wire around the bottom of the frame to get it anchored and started. The whole wreath is made with one continuous line of wire.
Each bundle is made of approximately four to six sprigs that have been gathered to form a compact bunch that will extend beyond the inner and outer circles of the frame. This step is crucial in achieving a professional look. Bundling takes practice and an eye to get the right mass of foliage — too narrow and the bundle will look thin, too thick and it will mess up the uniformity of the circle. Use stems of differing lengths to get a full look. Larger stems with multiple branches may need to be cut into several sprigs.
At Ladew, the historic house and gardens in Monkton, Md., the wreathmakers take an extra step: They wire the boxwood bundles before wiring them to the frame. “It comes out better shaped, and with all the wiring it’s very secure,” lead gardener Sarah Oktavec said.
Start at the base of the frame and assemble the wreath clockwise, with the stem ends leading the way. The bundle is about nine inches long, with the stems trimmed to form one point. Bending the bundle a little in the direction of the circle will help center the stems in the frame. Hold the bundle with one hand and wire it with the other. The wire should wrap around the lower half of the bundle, with the majority of the loops at the base.
Each new bundle covers about four inches of the bottom of the one before it. Repeat all the way around the frame. The whole wreath will consume at least a dozen bundles.
On the last bundle, lift the foliage of the first bundle and slip the stems of the last underneath. Once they are wrapped, cut the wire and tie it off. The bundles can be teased and adjusted to create a uniform circle.
The wreath is trimmed and groomed with scissors to give it a neater look. If you want to use anti-desiccant, now is the time to dip or spray the wreath. Allow it to dry for an hour or two before hanging.
The ribbon allows the wreath to be hung and completes the look. You can use a needle and strong thread to sew the two ends together. The length depends on its placement over a door, window, wall or mirror, but you will need about a yard for the hanging ribbon and another yard for the bow (more if the bow has multiple loops). Give the bow tails of eight inches and, as a finishing touch, cut a V into the bottom of the tails. A wreath can be wired onto the knocker or hung from a longer ribbon so that the wreath encircles the knocker. In this version, the end of the ribbon can be secured to the top edge of the door with thumbtacks or heavy-duty staples. The wreath will last longer as an outdoor decoration. If hung indoors, keep a close eye on it and discard it once it dries out and sheds.
Boxwood is a mainstay of holiday decorations, but using this traditional greenery comes with a complication these days.
A new and seriously damaging disease named boxwood blight can be brought to a property unwittingly.
Although symptoms of the disease are clear and devastating — in the growing season, it is manifest as brown leaf spots, black streaks on stems and defoliation — its presence on holiday greenery may not be evident.
If you or your immediate neighbors have old and irreplaceable boxwood shrubbery in the garden, avoid bringing boxwood greenery to your home. Use other seasonal greens or harvest boxwood from your own plantings.
Even if you don’t have boxwood in the garden (or sweetbox and pachysandra, which can also become infected), it’s a good idea to treat your boxwood greenery with care. When the holidays are over, double-bag the greenery and put it in the trash for removal. Don’t compost it.
Surfaces in contact with the boxwood should be disinfected with rubbing alcohol. Pruners should be disinfected in a solution of bleach: Dry and oil them after cleaning. Further details are available from the Virginia Cooperative Extension.