Greens are everywhere right now – pine, spruce, cypress, juniper and boxwood – but nothing much that’s edible. It’s the urban forager’s mid-winter lament. I see these pretty branches in holiday wreaths, centerpieces, candle-bases, “ropings” and “swags” on dining room tables and front doors all around town. Still, they get my foraging juices flowing.
In my north Baltimore neighborhood, there’s plenty of this greenery to buy: Schneider’s Hardware has plain and lightly decorated pine wreaths and 25-75 ft. long Oregon spruce roping. Eddie’s on Roland has similar products. Mille Fleur’s selection includes swags made from large southern magnolia leaves.
Green Fields nursery offers, along with finished products, ample supplies for do-it-yourselfers, including simple wreath bases and a supply of clippings for raw materials.
But how about foraging your own holiday greens this year instead?
Pruning and Foraging
I had the chance recently to learn foraged wreath-making from Janet Bardzik, one of the wholesalers who supplies greens and wreaths to Green Fields and Mille Fleurs. Bardzik, of BeeTree Design, is an experienced landscaper, expert pruner, amateur botanist, beekeeper, and, as it turns out, talented foraged wreath maker.
She forages for raw material mostly in her clients’ gardens, but also cultivates friendships with “hortophiles.” This is her term for area horticulture lovers who have rare plants on their property and allow her to prune in exchange for hauling away the trimmings. They’re getting a good deal because Bardzik is sort of the Michaelangelo of pruning.
“The difference between sculpting stone and pruning trees is that trees are living and growing, so I not only prune for immediate effect, but even more so for future growth,” she told me. “This is why one shouldn’t just go out and cut, especially unusual, and often, slow-growing ornamental plants.”
Holiday Greens Foraging Expedition
I recently joined Janet in her pickup and went on a foraging tour along the woodsy paths around Stony Run and the Guilford reservoir. (If you follow suit, there or elsewhere, foragers’ ethics, of course, apply: stick to untamed, rambling public lands, snip moderately and respectfully and leave the place looking as beautiful as you found it.)
Janet loves her perennials, evergreens and trees about as much as her yellow English lab, Gizmo, who goes with her everywhere. As we walked, she rattled off the botanical name of most everything we encountered: southern magnolia leaves with their coveted amber-brown colored felt undercoat, deodara cedar, Arizona “blue ice” cypress and chamaecyparis, hoopsii spruce, a cultivar of Colorado blue spruce selected for its bright powder blue needles.
We saw Japanese black pine, juniper, and cedar-like arborvitae. For color, there were red twig dogwood branches along the creek; the bright red berries of Nellie Stevens, American, and deciduous holly (only the females produce berries); sprays of orange-berried bittersweet; and sprigs of the purple-to- magenta-colored berries of callicarpa (or beautyberry). In fact, American and deciduous holly as well as Red Twig Dogwood are all Maryland natives, though they are hard to find beyond private property.
Janet suggests stream-bed corridors where all three species tolerate the wet. Although pinecones are abundant, spruce cones are harder to acquire. They are often beyond reach but we nonetheless spotted more than expected along Stony Creek Run and Wyndhurst Road.
“I soak cones in water, cram them into gaps in the wreath, and as they dry they expand and wedge in there forever,” she said. Hearing this “trick of the trade” led me to ask her if she would pass on anymore of her wreath-making secrets.
Wreath-making on the Back of a Pickup
The following Saturday Janet called to ask if I had any free time that afternoon. Soon afterwards she pulled up in her big blue truck, now filled to the brim with a treasure trove of cuttings. Brew editor Fern Shen was just then in my front yard taking pictures of burdock flower-burrs and photographed the entire process.
A bonus how-to: My Grandpa Art’s special reconstructed Christmas tree technique, using foraged branches – and a power drill!
1. Start with a “soft-clamped “ wreath frame. These have pliable wires protruding every few inches that can be pinched down to secure the greens. Janet prefers them to the hard-clamped wreath frames that require wire. (Check Michael’s crafts stores or order online).
2. Boxwood is used as the foundation green. Trim it down to basic twigs. Layer three twigs along each other in the frame. Although Janet considers boxwood the easiest to work with, she also uses cedar, southern magnolia, and cryptomeria for base material. Baltimore does not have the type of balsam fir native to higher elevations and colder climates that are commonly found in wreath bases at greenhouses. She also informed me that although American holly and most spruces are too prickly to work with by hand as a base material, the Nellie Stevens holly that “is planted ad nauseum in the residential landscape” in Baltimore has smooth leaves and so could also be a good alternative base material.
3. With each set of three or four bushy boxwood or other sprigs, add some color, texture, and shape. Blue-needled Hoopsii spruce, yellow-tipped or deodara cedar, grey-owl and Oregon junipers, and chamaecyparis provide all three elements.
4. Build the wreath like this all the way around the circle, paying attention to providing sufficient boxwood foundation to better show off the decorative elements of the other greens. Also pay attention to balance, spacing and alternation.
5. Only once this foundation is built does the wreath maker attend to the “reds.” “Red pops out at you,” Janet instructed, “so you need to use it sparingly and evenly dispersed.” Make sure the stems of whatever you are using—holly berries, bittersweet, pepper-berries, winterberry, or callicarpa—are still long enough so you can easily secure them within the branches of the base greens.
6. Then turn the wreath to the backside and make sure all the stems are neatly “tucked in” the foundation and the clamps.
7. Return it to the front, stand back, and ask yourself, “does it need anything else?” Our high-school exchange student Benoit suggested adding the large Southern magnolia leaves that impressed him in the back of Janet’s truck. He helped with the final touch of alternating the shiny deep green side with its brown felted backside until they gave the final wreath a fan-like look we both appreciated.
8. Where to put it? I recommend hanging yours outside where the winter coolness and current moisture will allow you and your neighbors to appreciate it longer.
If you want to learn what to forage, where, and how to make your own wreaths, sign up for Janet Bardzyk’s “Foraged wreath making” workshop. She will hold one this season, Sat. Dec. 22 from 1pm – 3pm.
While learning to make a Christmas wreath, you may well also acquire knowledge of the wide range of wintergreens and berries that can be foraged this season. Janet will provide the soft wreath frames, the full-range of decorative greens and berries, and considerable expertise. She charges $60 for 1 person, $100 when you bring a friend. Those interested may contact her directly via email: