Deck the halls with boughs from your own yard

Story by Ross Howell Jr.

As a boy, I enjoyed bringing the outside inside for the holidays.

On our mountain farm, I’d cut a white pine tree, gather running cedar, snip hemlock and rhododendron boughs, and harvest black pinecones and spicewood.

Nowadays, these native wild plants aren’t readily available to most of us. But we can cultivate our gardens and yards for holiday decorations.

My go-to person on this subject is Shirley Broome of Farmland Flowers in McLeansville. Shirley started selling plant sundries at the Greensboro Farmers Curb Market as a little girl alongside her mother, Margaret Rumley, fondly remembered to this day by marketgoers and vendors as “Mom.”

Shirley mulls my question about growing plants for Christmas.

“Well, back in the day I worked a lot with holly and pyracantha,” she says.

“But those stickers and thorns,” Shirley adds. “They just got to be too much for my fingers.”

These days a favorite of Shirley’s is black cryptomeria, a compact evergreen tree. New foliage emerges in bright green shades and gradually darkens until it’s nearly black. The dark needles and layered branches provide attractive landscape contrast, and cuttings are great for your holiday table or mantel.

There are the old standbys, of course — boxwood, red cedar and juniper. These plants are available in a wide variety of sizes and shapes to fit the design of your garden. And regular winter pruning for a wreath or an arrangement can help them stay healthy and happy.

And I love using magnolia branches and leaves for decoration. Their litter can be too much for some gardeners, but, for me, their beauty and wildlife value are well worth the work.

Magnolia grandiflora is a big tree that needs lots of room, but the little gem varietal is a compact tree that can even be planted as a border.

Both provide heavenly white blossoms in spring, glistening, dark foliage year-round, and, if you beat the squirrels and birds to their fruit, velvety, brown,
cucumber-shaped pods sparkling with red berries.

And who hasn’t marveled at the spectacular scarlet berries of nandina shrubs?

“My favorite is the dwarf nandina,” says Shirley. “It keeps its foliage year-round and changes color with the seasons.”

She cautions that while dwarf nandina is pretty in the garden, it doesn’t grow as symmetrically as its larger relative.

“Sometimes it will sort of clump here and there,” she adds.

I mention aucuba, since my wife, Mary Leigh, has fond memories of her mother arranging its shiny and speckled foliage to decorate the fireplace mantel for Christmas.

“It wants to spread,” Shirley answers. “I just didn’t seem to have the space for it in my garden.”

Shirley likes working with American beautyberry, a fully deciduous shrub that sheds bright yellow fall-like foliage completely in winter. But its gorgeous purple berry clusters remain well into the colder winter days. There’s also a white variety that produces pearl-like berries.

A floral favorite of Shirley’s is the single or signet marigold, Tagetes tenuifolia.

“I really like its pungent fragrance,” she says. These small, delicate flowers can also be eaten, so you can use them to garnish a holiday plate.

Sedum, along with Christmas or Lenten roses, are other late plants Shirley likes for the holidays. In addition to their blossoms, the stiff foliage of the roses provides excellent foundation in arrangements.

“For support and contrast,” Shirley continues, “I like adding bare branches from dogwood or river birch.”

Another tree Shirley uses in her arrangements is eucalyptus. If you plant it in your landscape, put it in a sunny spot, and select a cold-hardy variety.

But the most overlooked Christmas plant?

“I’d say moss,” Shirley answers. If you have a shady, moist spot in your landscape, try propagating it. “Moss is wonderful for covering your potted Christmas bulbs, like amaryllis and narcissus,” she adds.

Year-round for Christmas, think outside inside, gardeners!  OH

Ross Howell Jr. is a contributing writer. Contact him at

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