Foraged Winter Greens for Seasonal Outdoor Arrangements

Outdoor seasonal arrangement, done by Gretchen Schmidl (materials: nandina, privet berries, thujopsis, magnolia, chamaecyparis, grass plumes, red twig dogwood, and hydrangea)

What do you do with containers on your front porch or deck once you have yanked out those sorry-looking frost-killed petunias?

Segue into the holiday season with beautiful fall/winter containers using “yard” material. Forage for material from your property on or around your home. Snips in hand, I venture into roadside edges and woods and gather lichen covered branches, fall colored foliage, pine cones, and seed heads for amazing accents for my arrangements. Be sure to get permission from the landowner if you are roaming around to avoid anyone chasing you off their property! I ask neighbors permission to browse on their property promising them a beautiful arrangement in return.

Winter Gold winterberry holly at McLean Nurseries

For my own property, as a landscape designer, my first consideration in planting any tree or shrub is – Can I use it in my outdoor seasonal containers? Yellow, red, orange twig dogwoods, curly willow, hydrangeas, foliage with variegated foliage, evergreen magnolias, winterberry, red-berried viburnums, and ruby rose hips, are planted on my property with one motive in mind; Are they useful in arrangements inside and outside?

Lay out your materials so you can easily pull your arrangement together; foraged from your yard or a neighbor’s, you can make a big impact for little cost

Using the existing potting medium in your old containers is a sustainable way of reusing the substrate as a quick and easy substitute for floral oasis. Large branches will break up oasis and will fall apart with the freezing and thawing cycle. Inserted branches in soil will freeze in place to keep your arrangement in place.

Start with a soil filled container; Cut back any old frost-killed plants
Start by sticking your branches into the soil, emerging from a central point
Continue adding material, starting with the largest first; Drape berries (Privet) along the edges
Finish off with some fun accents; here is I used pumpkin on a stick and foraged lichen branches
Carex grass in front, magnolia, hydrangea, chamaecyparis, abelia, nandina

Make it Simple Directions

  1. Keep the old soil in place and cut off at soil line old plants. You have an instant blank palette to play with that can take you into the holidays and beyond. The trick is to complete your masterpiece before the ground freezes as you can’t stick anything into a frozen pot. Though, don’t despair if you are presented with frozen clods. I have used a propane torch to defrost the soil enough to insert my branches!
  2. Place a preformed fresh wreath two inches wider than the pot diameter on top of the soil. An evergreen wreath will save you some steps in the process of creating an outdoor arrangement. With the addition of a pre-formed wreath, you have instant soil coverage and a beautiful base to start with, and the edges are covered. If you don’t use a wreath, you just need to drape more foliage around the base and edges.
  3. Insert your thriller sticks or uprights (like Birch logs) in the center of the wreath. I love using yellow twig dogwood and pick up the yellow color with gold evergreens. Curly willow is also excellent.
  4. Start inserting your largest leaves/branches first. Bracken’s Brown Beauty Magnolia is a favorite because of the lovely brown felted reverse. But any large-leaved evergreen, like Rhododendron or Aucuba will work. Insert your branches directly through the base wreath angling the branches outwards.
  5. Add other contrasting foliage, some variegated white pine and yellow tinged false cypress to pick up the yellow twigs or feathery false cypress. Stay away from Hemlock and Holly foliage as these will dry quickly and brown out. Chunky birch logs, winter berry sticks, rose hips, and large pods are added last for color and interest. Over-sized plastic Christmas balls, jumbo pine cones, hydrangea heads, grass plumes, big colorful bows can all be added at this point.
Arrangement done by Amy Sparwasser (Materials: Camellia, Cedar, Arborvitae, Magnolia, fake berries, White Pine)

If the soil is dry, water the arrangement to keep everything hydrated and to settle the branches into place. Your beautiful container will last 6-8 weeks, more if you keep it in a shady area of your porch. If some material starts to look tired, you can always replace with fresh branches to keep it going.

The accent I used here was seeded Eucalyptus, but everything else was cut from my property


Hydrangea, nandina berries and foliage, and orange fothergillia foliage
Winterberry, birch logs, magnolia, white pine
Fall colored oakleaf hydrangea is a wonderful addition to seasonal arrangements



Lemon Cypress Christmas Tree

Outdoor arrangement with lemon cypress
Outdoor arrangement with lemon cypress

Dressing up a lemon cypress tree with a beautiful birch bark container is a simple but amazing decoration that anyone can do. You don’t need any flower arranging experience at all, but just need to find the right materials and slap them together.

Pick up a lemon Cypress at a nursery or even a grocery store
Pick up a lemon Cypress at a nursery or even a grocery store

Lemon Cypress is known scientifically as Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Goldcrest’. Native to California,  Lemon Cypress thrives in USDA hardiness zones 7 through 10. Fragrant lemon scented foliage sets this evergreen apart from other evergreens and I love to rub the foliage to get a whiff of it. Dwarf varieties do great as an ornamental in small pots. Larger trees are an interesting alternative to the traditional Christmas tree. Thriving best in an indoor location that gets at least five hours of full sun per day, be sure to keep them in a sunny window.

Keep the soil moist but not soaking wet. Feeding on a regular basis with something acidic like Miracid, used for acid loving plants, will keep them happy. Do not over feed them. Especially susceptible to aphids, Lemon Cypress should be sprayed at the first sight of these pests which leave a black, sooty substance on the tree which can occur almost overnight.
Pruning on a regular basis is essential to keep a Lemon Cypress in maintaining their natural pyramidal shape. Pruning is so important, that if the cypress is not pruned it will go brittle quickly and die.

I use Lemon Cypress in Christmas arrangements often as they are a pretty gold color and a beautiful shape. One variation is below. The Cypress tree lends itself to almost anything you want to add from your garden. My Nandina foliage turned an especially pretty red this year and I added this along with the berries. Above, I used Winter Berries, red seeded Eucalyptus, and tiny Alder cones.

Cypress with nandina
Cypress with Nandina
Add some blue star juniper along with the nandina
Add some blue star juniper along with the Nandina


Tiny star or snowflake battery-powered lights are easy to add to the tree, fastening the black control box to the back of the birch bark with glue dots. Once finished with your creation, you can place it on a mantle or table top for instant glamour.

Birch bark container with controller glued to the back
Birch bark container with controller glued to the back
The control box is hidden on the back
The control box is hidden on the back

Using Poinsettia as Cut Flowers


Picking up an inexpensive Poinsettia from the grocery store and taking them apart to use as cut flowers is a great way to use these long-lasting flowers. Read about them at Poinsettia-History and Legends  for a fascinating account of how they have become the worlds most popular flower. To use them, cut the branch off the plant, and sear the cut end with a candle flame, until the milky sap stops flowing. Once seared, place the flower into a water tube or vase, where they last up to two weeks.

Lemon Cypress tree