Holiday Décor with Boxwood & More

Posted: November 29, 2011

One of the most enjoyable winter holiday traditions is decorating with fresh greenery. Evergreens, such as cedar, ivy, pine, holly, and boxwood, add a natural look and fresh fragrance to our homes. Traditionally, because evergreens retain their green foliage throughout the cold winter months, they represented life everlasting and the coming renewal of spring.

Your own landscape is a great place to look for holiday greenery and other natural décor materials. You may have a variety of materials in your garden which are unavailable at a store, and what you gather will be fresher as well as free.

 When you trim plants to gather greens, remember that you are actually pruning, so consider carefully which branches you can cut to still preserve the natural form of the tree or shrub. Always prune back to the place where a branch joins a larger branch, so that you don’t leave behind a stub which could result in decay. Use a bypass pruner rather than an anvil pruner to make clean, sharp cuts without crushing the stems.

Boxwood in particular is one evergreen shrub that will benefit from this kind of early winter pruning. The classic English boxwood, Buxus sempervirens, often used for sheared hedges and topiary, grows very slowly and densely, becoming a tightly congested mass of branches and foliage susceptible to disease and breakage. According to the American Boxwood Society, “annual thinning of the foliage…is the single most important method to prevent disease on English boxwood.”

This annual thinning technique, also called “plucking,” involves cutting out small branches, 6 to 8 inches in length, from all around the shrub, spaced so that you can see into the plant from any angle, and should be done yearly in late fall or early winter, when temperatures are above freezing. About 10 to 15% of the branches are trimmed each year.

 The result is that sunlight and air can reach the interior portions of the shrub. This promotes leaf growth along inner branches, which actually strengthens the branches, making them less brittle and less susceptible to snow and ice damage. Those leaves also shed water, allowing more rain to fall through the shrub and moisten the soil below to discourage shallow rooting.

 Improved air circulation and a dry interior also result in much less disease on boxwood. If the foliage is overly thick on the exterior, moisture from rain and dew along with stagnant air in the interior create a perfect environment for fungal diseases which can kill boxwood.

 So, if you have boxwood, now is the time to get out there and pluck it…just in time for holiday decorating. This same technique can be used on other tightly-growing evergreens such as yew, Japanese holly, and arborvitae.

 Once you’ve collected fresh greens, you’ll want to condition them to last longer indoors before you use them for arrangements and decor.

 To do this, first immerse the entire evergreen branch in warm water for 12 hours or overnight; this both prolongs the life of the foliage and cleans it.

 Then remove lower leaves that will be under water in your arrangement, and cut the stems at an angle to provide a large surface area for absorption of water. Stand the branches in water in a cool, dark place until you’re ready to use them.

 Besides boxwood, there are many other evergreens which work very well in holiday decorations. Possibilities include abelia, white pine, juniper, Douglas fir, cedar, fir, spruce, ivy, holly, evergreen magnolia, arborvitae, evergreen viburnums, Leyland cypress, nandina, Cryptomeria, false cypress, vinca, and pachysandra.

To add color and texture to your holiday arrangement, consider using natural materials such as dried flowers (roses, hydrangea, and goldenrod), grass seed heads, magnolia pods, pine cones, sweet gum balls, red twig dogwood stems, osage oranges, rose hips, and berries from plants such as bittersweet, holly, nandina, pyracantha, and beautyberry.


Enjoy your fresh and natural greens, but keep safety in mind. Check your greenery often, keep it hydrated with fresh water, and remove or replace any pieces that become dry or brittle. Keep your arrangement away from heat sources and out of direct sunlight. Some popular decorating materials may be toxic, so keep holiday decorations out of the reach of children and pets. Happy Holidays!

Annette MaCoy is the Consumer Horticulture Educator with Penn State Extension in Cumberland County. If you have gardening questions, you can reach her at 717-240-6500 or by e-mail at