Deck the halls

  Tracey Adams/Flickr

  Tracey Adams/Flickr

Decorating for the holidays is big – very big in some neighborhoods – but if you plan to keep it simple, hanging a big, cheery wreath on the door is a good way to go.

Festive wreaths date back to the days of the Romans, who hung entwined laurel and flowers at their entries to celebrate Saturnalia, the winter solstice feast. Wreaths made their way to the New World by way of Europe, where the well-off would subtly advertise their status with wreaths of foliage and flowers both pricey and rare.

Today, the simple circle of greens is open to personal interpretation. There are wreaths sophisticated and austerely plain, glitter-struck and weighed down with gilded ornamentia, modestly ribboned and lit up like, well, a Christmas tree.

Instead of blowing your eggnog money on a fully decorated masterpiece, use as your base a ready-made, undecorated wreath of balsam or fir. These are selling at farmers’ markets and Christmas tree stands from about $12 for a 16-inch round to $20 for a 20-inch circle. With a basic wreath in hand, you can go directly to the fun part — the hunting and gathering of decorative embellishments.

For a fresh look, consider going all natural. Even as winter approaches, Mother Nature offers a storehouse of ingredients for wreath-making, from evergreens to berries, seedpods to nuts. Take a pair of pruners in hand and head out to the back yard, and chances are you’ll find more goodies than you imagine.

First, look for evergreen material in variety that will contrast with the wreath’s own boughs. Feathery white pine, lacy arborvitae, shiny holly, small-leafed privet and skimmia, berry-laden juniper and fragrant cedar all work well in small bundles to add texture and color to the basic background.

You don’t need much of any one thing, so don’t go crazy and leave holes in your shrubbery — 6-inch lengths are fine. Also be on the lookout for berried twigs of sumac, seedpods of locust or catalpa, dried hydrangea or echinacea flowers, pine cones and fluffy heads of weeds and grasses.

If you find the pickings slim, or live in an apartment, bear in mind that most places selling Christmas trees also offer bundles of mixed evergreens for holiday decorating. Assembled from tree cuttings, these usually come cheap.

In most craft shops you’ll find fruits and flowers that, when dried, offer intriguing shapes. Small, pale green peppers take on the appearance of fragile flowers, okra becomes an exotic, papery spear, and poppy and lotus pods dry into objects of intricate detail.

If you’re still not satisfied, browse through your supermarket — the produce section will have apples, oranges and clementines that can be sliced and dried, and nuts and herbs for texture and fragrance. Make a quick stop at the spice rack, too. There you’ll find curling sticks of cinnamon that can be bundled and wired to your wreath.

You’ll also need a complementary bow to finish your masterpiece. You can buy a custom-made bow at florists or garden centers, or make your own. Look for ribbon that has thin wires embedded at either edge — it’s far easier to work with, obedient to your commands, and readily takes to tugs and pokes that refresh its good looks.

Add to your gathered materials a roll of thin florist wire, a pair of snips to cut it, pruning shears for your greens and a glue gun for attaching assorted materials to the wreath, and you’re ready to begin assembly. (A cloth or tarp spread on your work surface will make clean-up a snap.)

Begin by bundling collected greens in bunches, binding stems 5 to 6 inches long together with florist wire. Make five to seven of these (or more), depending on the size of your wreath. Leave two lengths of wire free on your binding to attach each bundle to the base of the wreath.

These bundles should be spaced evenly around the wreath — leaving room for your bow — and then attached, once you’re satisfied with their placement. Use the same method in deciding where your other decorative elements should go. First place them loosely, then wire them on or  glue them in place with a hot glue gun.

For the coup de grace, attach your bow and add a wire hanger to the top of the wreath’s metal frame. You’re finished, with nothing more to do than hang your wreath and wait for the compliments.

  Gerald Brazzel/Flickr

  Gerald Brazzel/Flickr

Tips for professional results

You can put a shine on wreath-making materials with ordinary acrylic floor polish. This works to slick up small apples, which you can pierce with a florist’s pick and wire to the wreath, or with broad-leaf evergreens like holly, which are shapely but often have a dull surface.

When you attach bundles of greens, insert them in the same direction as the boughs of the wreath proper. By following the circular pattern, clockwise or counterclockwise, your additions to the greenery will look more natural.

Try drying thin slices of apples, oranges or clementines in a dehydrator. Or, lacking that, dry them in a 200 degree oven until they get leathery — about half an hour. For a different effect, make a series of slices through the rind of citrus fruits from North Pole to South Pole before you dry them; the edges of the cuts will curl, revealing the snowy white rind.

Keep larger objects toward the center of the wreath so they may be firmly attached. If you place them at the outer edges, they may dangle awkwardly once the wreath is hung, or cause the outer boughs to sag. Don’t aim for perfect symmetry, but for a pleasing balance. Odd numbers of key elements work best.

You can spray the wreath before you begin with an anti-desiccant like Wilt-Pruf, which will help keep the greens supple and green. Wreaths tend to hold up well in a protected spot outdoors, as on a covered porch.  Just remember to take yours down before the wrens nest in it next spring.