Foraging for Winter Décor

By Marilyn Homewood, Master Gardener

As we enter the holiday season, the time has come to start collecting some of nature’s bounty to create seasonal trimmings for your home.  Much of this bounty is right under our noses and can be gathered easily. Foraging should begin at home on your own property.  It is surprising at what you can find in your own garden not just in terms of evergreens but also dried material such as seed pods.  For those items not immediately on your doorstep, look elsewhere where you have the permission (I visit friends for a few snips of things from their gardens) or forage on public spaces such as roadsides.  Remember to harvest sustainably taking only what you will use and take minimum amounts from each plant.  When harvesting boughs, only use trees larger than 6 feet and cut your boughs 2-4 feet from the tip of a branch and above a node to encourage regeneration. Make it look like you were never there.

Swag on potting shed

Cedar, white pine, white spruce and scotch pine can be found in abundance locally but don’t overlook the junipers (I like to use wild junipers), yews and euonymus.  Fir is really nice but more difficult to source in my area but it is available for purchase.

Boughs can be used as garlands or in planters.  The soil in the planter acts as a source of moisture until freeze up and also stabilizes the display.  Conifer branches can also be cut down to be used in table arrangements or in wreaths.  For arrangements kept indoors, fill the container with a mixture of potting mix and vermiculite and keep damp to prevent needle drop. 

Winter wreath

Woodies: Two species that are used extensively in this area are white birch and red osier dogwood.  Both provide colour contrast and add a structural element.  I keep my birch from year to year so only had to source once. Birch is available for purchase at many stores.  Dogwood is available anywhere it is moist so remember to be mindful of your footwear when foraging.

This arrangement lasted 6 weeks before the needles began to drop

What says the holidays better than pinecones?  They come in many different sizes and shapes depending on their species.  Closed cones can be opened by placing on a cookie sheet and baking at 250 degrees for 1 hour.  Cones can be used as accents in planters/arrangements/wreaths or by filling bowls full of them.  I have dipped the edges of my pinecones in white craft paint so they appear to be snowtipped.

Other additions to my gatherings include seedpods from Siberian iris and oriental poppy, seedheads from coneflowers and penstemon and dried allium heads.  Some types of perennial foliage such as that from Heuchera “Palace Purple” and the Penstemon “Dark Towers” is long lasting and adds interesting contrast to an arrangement. I also used some of my dried hydrangea in the planters.

Coneflower in planter helps to provide winter interest

Berries add a nice pop of colour and it is hard to beat those from the winterberry bush (Ontario’s native holly, Ilex verticulata) but these are not commonly found wild in this area due to our higher soil pH. Some of the local nurseries and florists have it available for sale however.  I do purchase some for my planters, for my wreath, I use the berries from the choke cherry bush (Prunus virginiana).  The bright red berries retain their colour throughout the entire winter and are not eaten by the birds (unlike the berries from the grey dogwood that were eaten after the first cold night).

When you’re done, if you still crave more variety, local nurseries have greens and other decorations available for sale.  For ideas on how to use what you collected, go no further than YouTube and Instagram.  One of my personal favorites are the Instagram live sessions done by Claus Dalby (Denmark’s version of Monty Don). They are posted to his IG page (clausdalby) as “Master Classes in Nordic Christmas”. It is a great source of inspiration and puts one in the holiday mood.

Not into foraging? Visit your local nursery. The offerings are astonishing!

Winter planter after a snowstorm

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