COMPLEAT HOME GARDENER: Get snippy, decorate for season with fresh boughs

The end of November is the perfect time to get snippy with your evergreens and get thrifty with your holiday decorating. Go natural this year and instead of climbing the ladder to string Christmas lights, get out the pruning shears and climb into the trees or invest in a pole pruner to collect evergreen boughs.

How to prune for Christmas greens

When pruning trees and shrubs try to follow a branch all the way to the trunk or source. Then remove the entire branch. Remove the lowest branches first to retain the shape.

If you’re snipping bits of evergreens from shrubby plants like holly, euonymus or juniper, reach into the body of the shrub to prune the branch inside where the cut end will be hidden from view.

Clip sappy branches from fir and cedar last as they tend to gum up the pruning tools

Pole pruners allow you to stand safely on the ground and reach high into a tree to harvest boughs. They make great early Christmas gifts.

The best greens for outdoor decorations

Cedar, fir, pine and other needled plants are traditional greens to use but don’t forget that many broad leaf evergreens also hold up for months after pruning.

Variegated and colorful foliage snipped from shrubs like Pieris japonica, Lecouthoe or Rainbow bush, camellias, rhododendrons and of course holly, all add to the colors and textures of the season. If you string together cedar tips to make a traditional swag around the doorframe, add smaller snippings of golden euonymus, variegated Pieris and bits of holly, pinecones and pine.

Beginners can start with a simple door swag. All you need is a piece of wire to hold together a few evergreen branches.

• Lay a large piece of freshly cut fir or cedar onto your work space. I like to work outdoors for easy clean up and because keeping the cut greens cool and moist is the secret to keeping them looking fresh.

• Select a medium-sized branch of evergreen to layer on top. If you are short on variety, offer to prune some of the neighbor’s hedges, take a walk in the forest or just use a second smaller branch from the first plant you pruned.

• Add a third, even smaller piece of accent green, making sure the stem is long enough to reach the top of the swag where you will wire together all three stems. Here is where a variegated evergreen like holly comes in handy.

Now all you need to do is wire together the three stems and you have the most simple swag design. If you’ve recycled a bit of plastic-coated wire and used plant clippings from the garden you’ll enjoy a dirt-cheap, home-grown, all-green, recycled Christmas.

Now let’s jazz it up a bit.

To make a larger swag, add a top piece pointing in the opposite direction, so the cut ends of the two pieces of cedar or fir meet where the wire will connect them.

• Add extra layers of greens, building a swag that become thicker but no larger than the first layer.

• Hide the wire that secures it all with a large bow that can take the winter weather.

• Accent with weather-resistant plastic ornaments, cones or even shiny greens made from evergreen bits you’ve painted yourself.

Evergreen swags aren’t just for the front door. Hang them on fence posts, the front of the car, on either side of the garage door or any outdoor space in need of holiday cheer.

Cut greens will last outdoors for months but if you want to decorate your interior with freshly cut evergreens you‘ll need to wait until the last minute. Once you bring greens indoors they will wilt and dry within 48 hours. The good news is you can cut your greens now and store them in a cold garage or shed inside a plastic bag. A cold, moist environment is all they need to stay looking fresh for weeks.

• • •

Marianne Binetti has a degree in horticulture from Washington State University and is the author of “Easy Answers for Great Gardens” and several other books. For book requests or answers to gardening questions, write to her at: P.O. Box 872, Enumclaw, 98022. Send a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a personal reply.

For more gardening information, she can be reached at her Web site,

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