December hits and the Christmas decorations appear. Everywhere. Almost as if by magic. Houses and streets are adorned with festive lights, Christmas trees are erected and covered in tinsel and baubles and decorative wreaths are hung on front doors.
This year, more than ever, there is a general push towards creating a more sustainable Christmas. It is all too easy to get carried away by the media hype and succumb to the usual consumerist frenzy, filled with so much unnecessary waste and an almost embarrassing level of decadence. Each year I look at ways to minimise the waste while still enjoying the spirit of the holiday season. I focus on the smaller details, like re-using decorations, using a reburbished wooden Christmas tree (styled a few years ago by my husband out of an old pallet) and trampling through the wilder lanes of Cheltenham pulling off bits of holly and ivy and twining stalks of wild clematis to create a rustic wreath for my front door.
I created the framework for my wreath three or four years ago, using long lengths of willow left over from a willow making course that Paul and I took with the Herefordshire based basket maker Jenny Pearce. Each year I pull the framework of this wreath out of my shed, remove and compost the older pieces of foliage that have started to break down and decay, and spruce up the wreath with new layers of holly (to include berries), strands of ivy, long lengths of bay laurel, perhaps some eucalyptus and maybe a little larch or alder.
As with everything, care needs to be taken when foraging. It is important to respect the area that you are foraging in and and always follow the foragers code (which is very helpfully highlighted by Wild Food UK here). Ensure that the part of the plant you take will not cause any harm to the plant, always seek landowners permission and be especially mindful if the area you are in is protected, in which case you shouldn't remove any foliage at all.
If you have a little bit of time and patience and are happy to plan now for next year's Christmas (and many more Christmas' to come - slow living to the max) then you could take it a step further and plan your own garden to include shrubs and trees that can contribute towards future Christmas wreaths. There is nothing more satisfying than wandering into your garden to forage your own home grown craft materials.
If you want to go down this route then there are a few considerations that need to be taken when choosing what to plant.
1. Size constraints – how big is your garden? Have you got space for any trees? If so, how many? Will a tree change your light levels or affect the light levels of any of your neighbours (it is important to be considerate)? If your garden is not big enough for a tree then think about shrubs and climbers. There are so many to choose from, they come in hundreds of shapes and sizes and there is a huge scope for creativity. Think outside the box.
2. Light levels – this is so important for any planting. Make sure to choose plants that will work with the levels of shade and light you have in your garden. Again, there are so many options here. If you are unsure if a plant will work, seek advice. Websites such as the RHS have huge online plant databases which will tell you what conditions a plant needs to grow well.
3. Soil type and moisture levels. Some plants have very specific growing conditions. I like to pick plants that are happy in a variety of situations and so I usually avoid fussy growers. If, for example, you have a slightly acidic soil, then work with this and choose plants that like these conditions. At the same time, if there are parts of your garden that are particularly damp choose something that likes damp, and if you know your garden bakes dry then choose more drought tolerant plants.
The most important thing to remember (demonstrated so well by the amazing Beth Chatto) is:
Right plant, right place.
I cannot stress how important this is when choosing a plant – for indoor or outdoor use.
If you decide that you have a little bit of space available, or want to spruce up and update an existing part of your garden or incorporate a shrub border into a previously unplanted area, what plants can you plant that will work well in a Christmas wreath? I've listed a few key plants below with a brief note on what conditions they like. I like unfussy, multifunctional plants and so, wherever possible, I've chosen plants that have additional benefits:
Salix purpurea (purple osier willow)
There are up to 400 species of willow that grow throughout the world and it is vital to choose the right type of willow for your garden – particularly if you only have a small amount of space to play with. Willows are very fast growing and some species can grow huge, so choosing correctly is key.
S. purpurea is native to the UK and grows into a small tree or shrub (up to 5 metres) but can be coppiced (cut down to the ground each year) to keep small and to encourage new growth. This is particularly useful if using for basket weaving or other crafts (such as wreath making). S. purpurea is happy in full sun and unfussy about soil type, although does do particularly well in damp or coastal situations. If grown as a tree minimal pruning is required, although to encourage the best stem colour, cut down a third of the plant each year.
Willows also have a huge value to wildlife – they provide forage and habitat to a number of birds, moths, butterflies and other insects. The long, often colourful shoots are useful for basket making and other crafts and they provide year round interest in the garden with their smooth, reddish purple bark, soft, silvery yellow catkins and gorgeous foliage. Additionally, willow bark contains salisylic acid - the original source of aspirin. So a really good all rounder (although I would advise not using any plants for medicinal purposes without first speaking to a trained medical herbalist).
Cornus sericea 'Flaviramea' and C. sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire' (dogwood)
Two beautiful shrubs which hold their own throughout the year. Both of these species of Cornus display pretty clusters of white flowers throughout May and June and have attractive foliage which turns from green to red in the Autumn months before the leaves fall to reveal gorgeous winter stems – yellow for C. sericea 'Flaviramea' and a bright red for C. sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire'. The stems can be included in a Christmas wreath to add a contrasting colour and texture to the willow frame.
Easy to grow and forming a compact and upright shrub (the Flaviramea slightly smaller than the Midwinter Fire which grows up to 2 metres tall by 2 metres wide) both of these species of Cornus grow well in full sun or part shade and are unfussy about soil type. For the best stem colour, leave the plant unpruned for the first year of planting and then cut back hard to within 5 to 10 cm from the ground.
All types of dogwood provide value for our garden wildlife.
The bright yellow flowers on this Clematis appear late in the year and eventually fade to leave gorgeously fluffy seedheads of the same type that the wild clematis exhibits in countryside hedgerows. Strands of the climber (to include the fluffy seedheads) can be removed in the winter and added to your winter wreath to add a lovely fluffy burst to your display.
This type of Clematis is easy to grow and is happy in full sun or partial shade. It should be grown against a wall or fence and will require support and a little bit of help with tying in wayward stems. Pruning is minimal and maintenance needs are low. In February each year cut back the previous year's growth to a pair of healthy buds (about 20cm from the ground).
Hedera helix 'Glacier' (Ivy)
Ivy has a bad rap, but if sited carefully and kept under control it shouldn't cause you any problems. It can be useful as ground cover, to scramble up a wall or fence or used as part of your outdoor pot displays – looking lovely when cascading down the side of a pot. It also makes a lovely indoor plant too.
As an added bonus, the variegated white/green foliage of Hedera helix 'Glacier will look gorgeous when added to a Christmas wreath and ivy is also incredibly useful for garden wildlife. It is an excellent source of late forage for many of our important pollinators and provides habitat for birds and insects.
Rosa canina (dog rose)
Even though this rose is super prickly and grows to quite a large height it is quite a useful garden plant not only because the gorgeous winter hips look very pretty when used as part of a wreath, but also because of how useful for garden wildlife this particular rose is. It provides habitat for many of our garden birds and mammals (including hedgehogs) and is also brilliant for all our useful insects. The hips are very high in antioxidants and, if processed correctly, are good for humans too.
If the dog rose is a little too prickly for you, there are lots of cultivated varieties that also produce lovely hips that you can choose from instead. David Austin's website has lots of helpful information when it comes to choosing the perfect rose for your garden.
The above is just a small selection of some of the useful plants you can grow in your garden which can be used to create your very own, unique, low impact Christmas wreath. If you plan ahead and get planting now you can look forward to years of bespoke, Christmas wreaths that cost nothing but a little time and effort. Any excuse to spend time in the garden is always a bonus to me.