How to choose and care for live holiday greenery


Perhaps you aren’t prepared to go all-out decking the halls with boughs of holly. Still, ’tis the season to bring outdoor freshness in with holiday greenery such as wreaths, garlands and centerpieces. Here are some tips for finding what works for you and your home, and for ensuring that whatever greenery you buy stays green for as long as possible.

Start local. Farmers markets, pop-up tree lots, garden centers, tree farms and even home improvement stores are the best places to begin your search for premade garlands and wreaths. You’ll probably have the option of products made with classic needle evergreens, such as fir, spruce, juniper and cedar, and with broad-leaved evergreens, such as eucalyptus and magnolia, says Viveka Neveln, garden editor for

If you prefer to DIY, ask whether your local tree lot is willing to sell you the branches of trimmed trees. Some will even give you the smaller cuttings for free. You can also try a florist for the basic materials.

Can’t find anything that jingles your bells? Online options for premade garlands and wreaths abound on Etsy, Amazon and more.

Let your senses guide you. Buying greenery is similar to purchasing a live Christmas tree. Examine the product. Is it lush or droopy? Is the color bright? Anything faded or gray indicates stress. Touch the needles. Fresh, moist ones are pliable and soft. “If they snap or break, they are already dried out,” says Jenny Hughes, an editor for the Spruce. And use your nose. Fresh-cut evergreens will exude a distinctive scent.

It’s all about moisture. Once you bring fresh greenery home, its greatest enemy is dryness. Though you can’t do much with a premade piece, if you’ve purchased plain greenery, you should hydrate it before decorating. Depending on how large your piece, curl it up into a bucket or a bathtub and soak it in tepid water for 24 hours before you shape it, Hughes says. Then spray it with an anti-desiccant. That’s a clear, waxy coating that seals in moisture. Once your wreath or garland is dry, you can add ornaments or lights.

Experts are divided on misting; some say it gives a helpful boost of moisture, especially in dry climates, while others say it doesn’t do much to prolong the life of a piece. You may want to give it a try if the surface underneath is water-resistant.

Time it correctly. Unlike the lush holiday decor in those made-for-TV movies, live greenery won’t last from Thanksgiving through New Year’s (with some exceptions). In general, plants with longer needles (pine or cedar) last longer: about two weeks indoors, and maybe three outdoors if the temperature gets no higher than 40 degrees, Neveln says. A spruce or hemlock will lose needles or leaves after just a few days.

Hughes says one solution is to keep some artificial greenery on hand for the start of the holiday season. “Then buy the real deal to display and enjoy when the most family and friends are around. Then, when it starts to dry out, fill in with the faux again.”

Try a Southern touch. As a Coloradan living among a forest of blue spruce, I admit that I never knew that Christmas wreaths and garlands made from American-grown Southern evergreens, such as magnolia and varieties of cedar, pine and cypress, will last eight to 10 weeks.

“Southern greenery is popular, not only for its farmhouse, country feel, but because it lasts longer and doesn’t dry out as fast as traditional conifers,” says Abby Marion, marketing manager for Albin Hagstrom & Son, which grows and ships foliage and greenery. “The leaves don’t fall off, because they come from a shrub, not a tree, and, unlike traditional evergreens, you don’t deal with needles or sticky sap.” Southern holiday greenery is available in garden centers, at florists and online.

Avoid heat sources. To maximize the longevity of greenery, avoid placing it in direct sunlight, near radiators or floor vents, or on the mantel of a fireplace you plan to use. If your front door faces south and the door isn’t shaded, bring your wreath indoors during prime daylight hours. Because LED lights radiate little heat, they are the best choice to use in live greenery.

Don’t burn candles in your greenery. “Nothing ruins the holidays like a house fire,” Hughes says.

Measure carefully. When buying garland, it’s better to overestimate how much greenery you’ll need. Marion says her rule of thumb for banisters or stairs is to measure the length, then add 50 percent; so, if your banister is 12 feet long, add six and order 18 feet of garland. If you are draping a window or door, add 25 percent to the measurements.

Handle with care. Whether you are assembling a wreath, cutting a stem or hanging live greenery, consider wearing garden gloves to protect your hands from juniper or pine sap, which can irritate the skin, and from holly leaves, which can be prickly, Neveln says. Sap is also, by nature, sticky and hard to get off, so cover surfaces with paper to catch any drips from fresh-cut branches. (Once the cut seals, you can toss the paper.)

Safely dispose of it. When needles start to drop and your greenery becomes dry, it is essentially kindling, so throw it away. (The exception to this is decor made of magnolia, which can be used as a dried ornamental accessory.) Check with your local waste management program about tree-cycling or yard-waste locations and days of operation. As with a Christmas tree, remove any ornaments and wires before disposal. Enterprising gardeners may want to use old greenery as compost.

Denver-based writer Laura Daily specializes in consumer advocacy and travel strategies. Find her at

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