The do's and don'ts of holiday decorating with plants
Keep holiday greenery fresh and pets safe from toxic plant material by following a Virginia Cooperative Extension master gardener’s expert tips
“Holiday wreaths are a traditional symbol of eternity, and they stand for hope, peace, and joy,” said Johanna Perakes, Portsmouth Virginia Cooperative Extension master gardener and expert wreath maker.
“It’s easy to make holiday wreaths and other decorations yourself using material from your garden and/or that of a friend,” Perakes said. “You just have to make sure you condition any plant material in warm water for 24 hours.”
Plant material can be “conditioned” by submerging in a tub of warm water that is about the temperature of a bathtub for 24 hours to harden the greenery so it doesn’t dry out.
When conditioned properly, wreaths will last all season. Magnolia and boxwood wreaths dry well and can be kept from year to year in dried form.
Perakes offers these tips for new wreath-makers:
- Find your inspiration. For example, keep a folder with pictures of wreaths that you like.
- Use material from your garden and/or that of a friend. Purchased greenery can be very expensive.
- It will always take more greens than you think, so don’t be stingy in cutting.
- Greenery should overlap by at least a third.
- Dried material enhances a wreath. Dry hydrangea, okra, wheat, and cotton make good additions.
- Wreaths can be used both vertically, such as on doors, windows, and walls; and horizontally, such as on tables.
- When adding greenery to your wreath form, work in a counterclockwise direction — don’t stick pieces in randomly.
Plant material can be attached to a store-bought wreath form made from wire, straw, or grapevines using a spool of 22-gauge paddle wire or fern pins for straw forms.
Many types of greenery can be used in holiday decorations. Perakes recommends magnolia and boxwood cedar and spruce.
If using boxwood, be aware of boxwood blight, a fungal disease of boxwood harmful to English and American boxwood populations. Inspect any boxwood greenery for symptoms of the disease, including leaf spots, leaf browning, black streaks on stems, and leaf drop. Boxwood greenery should be disposed of in the garbage, rather than compost, after the holiday season.
In addition to traditional wreaths, greenery and other plant material can be used to decorate window sills, mantles, and doorways.
The biggest mistake people make when creating their own wreaths or other holiday decorations is overthinking it, according to Perakes.
Keep pets safe
When decorating with live plant material, always consider the safety of pets by making holiday plants, greenery, and Christmas tree water difficult to reach.
“We often see pet toxicosis around the holidays, both with plants and more food toxicosis from things like chocolate,” said Marion Ehrich, professor emerita of pharmacology and toxicology at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech.
“Most holiday plants cause irritation of the mouth area,” Ehrich said. “Drinking Christmas tree water, especially pine Christmas trees, is not good for cats. Christmas tree water contains oils that can cause damage to organs if they drink too much. You might not notice symptoms for days.”
If your pet has been eating or chewing on decorative holiday plant material, you should know within an hour if they are suffering from mouth irritation. Pets may also experience GI symptoms within hours. If your cat or dog appears to be in pain, a veterinarian may be able to help by washing the mouth area to remove any irritating plant residues.
You can help your pets by making plant material difficult to reach and by making sure Christmas tree water is covered well by a tree skirt so your pets can’t reach it.
“Pets are less likely to chew on these materials if they are difficult to reach,” said Ehrich. “Make sure cats always have a supply of fresh water to help prevent them from going to the Christmas tree.”
Written by Devon Johnson