Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Making a Holiday Swag

The past two years we have passed over the circular evergreen wreathes at the garden center and opted for something home made.  We thought about making our own wreath using a wire form.  But this requires a lot of careful weaving and/or wiring the evergreen boughs to the form.  Instead we have been making swags.

These are essentially a bundle of greens and other decorative items tied together at one end and hung on a door or wall.  The hard work is getting the pieces to stay in place.  The fun part is going out in nature to gather the parts for your swag.  As a matter of courtesy, you should not harvest cuttings from your neighbor's lands without permission.

The composition of the swag is entirely up to you.  I usually make a background of evergreens that are tied together at one end.  Then I tie in other interesting items, singly or in bunches.

Step One:  Get out into Nature.  We actually did not find a lot of interesting flowers in the woods themselves.  Most of the neat things were growing along the edges and in the meadows.  We did find some invasive barberry in the woods.  While I cringed a little when I collected them, I make a point of bagging these and putting in the trash when I 'm done with them.  At least these seeds aren’t being spread around in the woods.

We started in the woods, but found a lot more stuff along the edges.

Step Two:  Pick a variety of interesting things.  This includes dried flowers, seed heads and pods, grasses as well as the obligatory evergreens.  Bags with wide openings and non-snagging insides are easier to fill and empty.    I like to feature native plants, but for this project I look for almost anything interesting.

Some things we collected are  (from left) White Vervain, White Pine, Tree Peony, Sweet Everlasting, Rose of Sharon, Thistle, Foxtails, a Wineberry stem, Oakleaf Hydrangea and Yew branches. 

Some examples of common plants that you can use in a swag are listed below.  I grouped these into
  • Evergreens, like Pine, Spruce, Juniper, Fir, and Thuja
  • Broad Leaf Evergreens, like Rhododendron, Mountain Laurel, Boxwood, Photina, and Hollies
  • Berries such as Hollies, Aronia, Dogwood, Crabapples, Bayberry, Rose hips, and Cotoneasters as well as invasives like Barberry and Bittersweet (unless you have the native one).    
  • Dried flowers/seed heads, like Everlastings (pearly and sweet*), White Vervain, Asters, Goldenrods, Thistles, Agastache, Ironweed, Hydrangea, Dock, Lunaria, Coneflowers, Teasel, Pennyroyal*, and Beebalm.*
  • Seed Pods, like Baptisia, Tree Peony, Lotus pods, Sumac, Pine cones and Milkweeds.
  • Grasses such as Little Blue Stem, Panic grass, Dropseed, Riveroats, and Foxtails.
  • Ferns with interesting winter structures include Ostrich, Sensitive Fern.
  • Interesting stems like Red Raspberry stems, Red Twig Dogwood, grape vines, and crooked branches from Witchhazel and Fothergilla.
You could also use persistent leaves like those of Oaks and Beech trees.  You can get some unusual textures by using interesting stems.  A recent post at 'My Weeds are Very Sorry' shows many of these plants in a well made wildlife garden.

*Some of these have an aromatic aroma that adds another dimension to the swag.

Step Three:  Clear a work Surface.  You will make a mess with seeds and leaves flying around.  Also, all these things will stick together so the more space the better to keep the pieces from snagging.

Cover the work surface with paper.  Besides seeds you will want
to contain any sap from the evergreens.  
Also its handy to have a trash can ready for all the extra stems and what not.  When we were done most of the debris was still on the newspapers so we just folded them carefully and poured the mess into the trash.

Step Four:  Assemble

It's a good idea to wear a glove or two when handling some of these materials.
Even with the gloves we decided the thistle and raspberry stems were too difficult to work with.
We had a lot of other stuff to work with anyway.
Assembly is the creative part.  We usually use steel or copper wire to tie the pieces together. These are stiff enough to push through the bundles of stems.  You could also use fishing line if you need an invisible tie.  Don't use your pruners to cut the wire, you could ruin the edge.  Use wire cutters or pliers instead.

As I mentioned, I usually assemble a bunch of evergreens as a background.  These can be a mixture of textures (e.g. juniper, pine and yew) or all one type.  Then I add layers of of other materials to add color and form.  I finished off with decorative pieces to hide the wire where the bundle is tied together.

Finally, hang it up and admire your work:

This swag features evergreen holly, spruce cones, ostrich fern, barberry,
and oakleaf hydrangea over layers of pine, yew and little bluestem grass.

When its time to take your swag down most of it can be composted or used as a winter mulch.  If you used any invasive plant materials like barberries or bittersweet, separate those out and put them in the trash so they won't end up back in nature.

This swag starts with tree peony pods, evergreen holly, oakleaf hydrangea,
foxtails and sweet everlasting over a spray of Norway Spruce.