conifer, cone and holly berries

How To Grow Your Own Christmas Decorations

Decorating for Christmas on a budget is easy from your own garden

Decorating your home at Christmas can cost a fortune but if you grow your decorations you can achieve a stunning natural style for practically nothing. Not only do you get free decorations but you will be creating winter interest in the garden. Try combinations of conifer branches, evergreen leaves, twigs, cones, nuts, Chinese lanterns, sprayed leaves and seed heads, berries and crab apples. Add some sparkle with a set a battery operated lights or a soft glow with candles in glasses, interspersed amongst the foliage. Some combinations to try are twigs and cones with white candles or cool white lights; traditional green foliage and red berries and candles; green foliage with snow sprayed cones and white candles; twigs and Chinese lanterns with amber lights in glasses; citrus slices, cinnamon sticks, green foliage and amber candles.

A lot of the berries and foliage you use at Christmas can easily be grown at home; you don’t even need a large garden as a lot of them can be grown in containers. If you are short on growing space and you have foliage and twigs available nearby then just grow something that can’t be found by going for a walk in the country, such as Chinese Lanterns and crab apples.

Plants to grow for berries and fruit

The only downside of decorating with fresh berries is if they are used in the home and it is fairly warm they soon go over, so try and leave decorating the house until the last minute. Crab apples and rose hips, being harder than berries, will last a lot longer indoors.

Chillies
These need as long a growing season as possible so sow the seed at the end of January and keep on a warm sunny windowsill. You don’t need a garden for these as they can be grown on the windowsill. For more information read the blog ‘Cracking Chillies’.

Chinese Lanterns (Physalis alkekengi)
Chinese lanterns are so versatile when it comes to decorating at Christmas, they can inject a shot of orange into a large decoration or they can simply be put into a vase with some amber lights, which will make the lanterns glow. They are easy to grow either from seed or as a plant bought in autumn. To grow them from seed just sow on the surface of good quality seed compost and cover with Vermiculite. Place in a heated propagator on a gentle heat and keep just damp. Take out of the propagator when they are about 2.5cm (1”) tall otherwise they will become weak and leggy. Prick out into individual pots using John Innes Potting Compost, keep somewhere warm and light until April when they can go into a frost free greenhouse or cold frame. Plant out after all danger of frost has passed, usually by the end of May. They are a bit of a thug so either plant in a large container, such as half a barrel, or sink a large pot into the garden. They are a hardy perennial but need a well-drained soil and young plants will need some protection for the first couple of winters. Give them a handful of blood, fish and bone in spring and they should be relatively trouble free. To dry the lanterns cut the stems to the ground, take off the leaves then hang them upside down. They need to hang somewhere cool, dark and dry  for about 2 – 3 weeks, after which they should be ready to use in your decorations.

Physallis alkekengi (Chinese Lantern) plant in flower

Cotoneaster hybrid pendula
This lovely semi-evergreen weeping tree produces absolutely masses of gorgeous deep red berries; an added bonus is the stacks of small white flowers in June. It makes a spectacular specimen tree, only growing to a height of 1.8 – 2.4m (6 – 8’), so needs planting somewhere where it shows off. It is easy to grow being tolerant of most growing conditions.

Crab apples (Malus)
These tiny apples come in a huge range of colours from pale yellow to deepest burgundy, and as an added bonus have gorgeous blossom in spring and quite often good autumn colour. Not only do they make fantastic Christmas decorations but they are loved by birds and make delicious crab apple jelly. They are easy to grow in most situations except deep shade and dry or waterlogged soils. They are better planted away from other trees as the competition for nutrients can reduce the apple crop. They can reach an eventual height of 6m (20’). Try ‘Golden Hornet’ (bright yellow fruit), ‘Profusion’ (small dark red) and ‘Red Sentinel’ (small dark red).

Red crab apples (Malus) growing on tree

Guelder Rose (Viburnum opulus)
This large native deciduous shrub, up to 3m (10’), produces clusters of bright red berries in winter which are ideal for decorating a wreath. If you want yellow berries try growing ‘Xanthocarpus’; they have maple-like leaves which turn red in autumn and also make fantastic decorations. They are really easy to grow being tolerant of most situations, except heavy shade, just requiring moist but well-drained soil. They are a valuable addition to any native, wildlife-friendly hedge.

Guelder Rose (Vibernum opulis) showing autumn leaf colour and red berries

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)
This native British deciduous tree has masses of red berries borne in clusters which are ideal for decorating. They are easy to grow only requiring a site in full sun on well-drained soil. They are an invaluable wildlife resource; supporting more than 300 species of insects and providing an ideal nesting site. Plant them as part of a mixed native hedge or a stand-alone specimen where they will reach a height of 4.5 – 9m (15 – 30’).

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) branch with berries in the rain

Holly (Ilex aquifolia)
This is the quintessential Christmas favourite and a native evergreen found almost everywhere in the UK. The native variety has glossy green leaves and red berries but there are many different varieties with silver and gold variegated leaves and yellow berries. The birds absolutely love the berries; especially field fares, thrushes and redwings. You will need both a male and female in order to produce berries; the variety ‘JC van Tol’ is self-fertile so you only need one plant, but it has smooth leaves not the usual prickly ones. They are fairly slow growing and need a good free draining soil. They need plenty of sun and rain in the summer to produce a decent crop of berries. There are standards available which can be grown in containers in John Innes No3 compost; these look great when grown as a matching pair either side of the front door. The native holly can eventually reach a height of 15m (50’).

Mistletoe (Viscum album)
Christmas just isn’t complete without a bunch of mistletoe. It is an evergreen parasite which draws water and nutrients off its host tree; it doesn’t kill the tree but it can severely weaken it if it grows to a substantial size. It prefers to grow on apple, hawthorn, poplar, lime and some conifers. It is possible to grow your own from seed; you will stand a better chance of success if you try and grow it on the same tree as it is already growing on. Don’t use crushed seed or any from Christmas mistletoe as it isn’t ripe. Collect fresh berries in late March/early April from the same tree as the one on which you want to sow the seed. Choose a branch to impregnate with the seed which has a girth of at least 10cm (4”) and is fairly high up on a tree which is at least 15 years old. Make a shallow cut in the bark to create a flap, remove the seeds from the berries and push several under the flap. Only about one in ten germinate so make sure you sow plenty. Wrap a piece of loose weave hessian around the branch to stop the birds taking the seeds. You need both male and female plants in order to produce berries so make sure you sow enough seeds to stand a chance of getting one of each plant. They can take over 5 years to reach a size where they can produce berries.

Rose hips
There are several varieties of rose which produce hips of varying size from the native Dog Rose (Rosa canina), which produces the small familiar red hips to the rambler ‘Wedding Day’ which produces huge sprays of small scarlet hips and ‘Madame Gregoire Staechelin’ which produces unusual orange pear-shaped hips.

Rose hips

Spindle (Euonymus europaeus)
Red Cascade’ is a garden variety of this native tree which is slow growing and eventually produces a small tree; 3m (10’) in height. It has brilliant cherry pink and orange fruits which are fantastic for decorations; if you can get to them before the birds! An added bonus is the outstanding autumn leaf colour; it requires an alkaline soil in order for it to produce its best colour.

Wintergreen (Ilex verticillata)
This holly has branches which are smothered in berries once the leaves have dropped. ‘Winter Red’ is a good variety but needs a fairly large garden as it can reach 10m x 10m (33’ x 33’). ‘Nana’ is a dwarf variety suitable for a container or small garden, only growing to a height of 90cm (3’); this is also known as ‘Red Sprite’. Both these varieties are female so will need a male pollinator in order to produce berries. They are fairly tolerant of most garden conditions including wet soils.

Plants to grow for foliage

Foliage is the backbone for most Christmas decorations and comes in lots of shades of green, which go with almost every Christmas colour scheme. If you go for a cold, frosty palette try decorating with eucalyptus.

Conifers
There is a huge choice of colours of conifers: silver/blue, various shades of green and green tinged with rusty red. Fir and spruce have the shortest needles whereas pine needles tend to be quite long and are quite difficult to work with if you want to hang baubles from the branches. There is also an enormous range of sizes from huge tall trees to small prostrate shrubs. Not only do you get the lovely aromatic foliage but also cones which can look fantastic sprayed with metallic paint or  snow.

Spruce branch with cone

Eucalyptus
This silvery blue foliage is really useful if you want to decorate in a cool palette of colours. The leaf shape can vary from small heart-shaped leaves to long spears. Some species are not hardy in parts of the UK so make sure the species you choose is suitable for your garden. They can be grown in containers and kept pruned to keep them small; plant in a 3:1 mix; John Innes No 3 and coarse grit. If planting them in the garden don’t incorporate any manure otherwise it will just encourage soft leafy growth which may not survive the winter. Make sure the soil is well-drained as they definitely won’t survive winter if the ground is waterlogged. Some species can grow up to 30m (100’) but they can be kept in check by coppicing; this will result in a multi-stemmed more shrub-like plant which produces a lot of foliage. 

Eucalyptus branch

Holly: see the Plants for Berries

Ivy (Hedera helix)
This dark green evergreen climber is an absolute staple for Christmas decorations; it looks great decorating cornices, plate racks or the edges of shelves. It also makes a fantastic garland for winding around the bannister; just wire some lengths together with green clip tie garden wire. It will grow quite easily up trees or along a fence and is useful for screening off wheelie bins, sheds or garages.

Ivy (Hedera helix) in winter covered in frost

Laurel, Common or Cherry (Prunus laurocerasus); Prunus lusitanica (Portuguese Laurel)
The foliage of laurel is lovely glossy dark green and beautifully sets off berries and candles. It is fast growing and makes a large dense hedge, with the Portuguese Laurel probably being the better choice as it is not as thuggish as Common Laurel. The Common Laurel is poisonous and won’t allow any other plants to grow anywhere close, so forms a dense thicket which cannot be under-planted. The Portuguese isn’t poisonous and can be cut back easily, unlike the common which may have to be cut back 4 – 5 times a year.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
Incorporating rosemary into a Christmas arrangement signifies ‘everlasting life’; it is also wonderfully aromatic. It originates from the Mediterranean so when growing it make sure you replicate these conditions, either in a container or in a pot. Incorporate plenty of grit into the compost as you will surely lose it if it becomes waterlogged in winter. It is an evergreen shrub but is not overly long-lived.

Yew (Taxus baccata)
This dark green evergreen can be grown as a single specimen tree or as low parterre hedging. With box blight now running rampant it makes a good alternative to Box (Buxus). Although it has a reputation for being slow growing it can grow 20 – 30cm (8 – 12”) in a year, so will make a good parterre within 5 years. It just needs good fertile well-draining soil.

Yew (Taxus baccata) branches with berries

Plants to grow for decorative flower heads

Try and go for large, sculptural heads as small pieces don’t have much impact. They can be left in their natural state or sprayed with metallic paint. A lot of dried heads can be found just by going for a walk in the countryside. Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) is best sourced from the roadside as it is too much of a thug to grow in the garden, although there are better behaved garden varieties available.

Dill (Anethum graveolens)
The florist’s dill makes a fantastic lacy decoration, either left natural or sprayed. ‘Mariska’ is a short, sturdy variety, growing to a height of 60cm (24”). This dill is easy to grow just requiring full sun and well-draining soil, given these conditions it can be hardy in sheltered gardens.

Honesty (Lunaria annua)
These translucent ‘pennies’ look fantastic either left natural or sprayed. They look at home in a naturalistic planting scheme, with the seed pods left in the garden over winter. They will thrive in most well-drained soils but do prefer an alkaline soil and partial shade.

Hydrangea
These large shrubs produce the most fantastic dried heads which come in an assortment of colours from the palest creamy beige to dark burgundy, and of course you can always spray them. They grow almost anywhere and, if you have the space to let them grow to their full potential, will only require deadheading in spring.

Ornamental Onions (Allium)
These spikey, firework heads can look spectacular in a Christmas arrangement especially if they are sprayed. Buy the bulbs in autumn and plant straight away; if you have heavy, wet soils plant them in pots in John Innes No 2 compost mixed 2:1 with horticultural grit. They need full sun and very well-draining soil, add grit before planting. Don’t plant on freshly manured ground. For sheer size try growing Allium christophii.

Purple ornamental onion (Allium) flower

Poppy (Papavar)
There are lots of colours and sizes of poppies, but make sure you get the large varieties which produce the bulbous seed pod. They all need deep, rich, well-drained soil in full sun. Make sure they are well watered and fertilised in order to produce as many blooms as possible. Try the variety ‘Hen and Chicks’ which has unusual seed heads, a large central head surrounded by masses of tiny pods.

Poppy (Papavar) seed pod

Sea Holly (Eryngium giganteum)
The herbaceous perennial Sea Holly is a glorious addition to any Christmas decoration adding a nice spikey contrast to the soft foliage. They come in various sized flower heads from the tiny to ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’ with its large cone-shaped heads; it can be left in its natural silver/blue colour or sprayed. It is fairly easy to grow in well-draining soil in full sun.

Blue Sea Holly (Eryngium)

Teasel (Dipsacus sativus)
This is a great statuesque plant for the back of the border, growing to a height of 180cm (6’). It is easy to grow and is tolerant of most soils; just requiring a sunny, well-drained position. You will find it self-seeds quite readily. Not only do they look great in a Christmas arrangement left natural or sprayed, but they are loved by wildlife especially birds.

Plants to grow for twigs

You can usually source most branches from the hedgerow as you go for a walk. Try and cut the softer more pliable ones as they are easier to work. Make sure you don’t take a huge amount of branches from any one spot.

Contorted (twisted) branches (Hazel, Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’; Willow, Salix matsudana)
These branches are usually hugely expensive so it makes sense to grow your own. If you only have a small garden go for the hazel as it is quite slow growing and can be kept to a manageable size by growing in a large tub. The willow grows fast and will make a huge tree, growing to a height of 9m (30’). If you do plant this tree make sure it isn’t anywhere near the house as the roots are far reaching and can sometimes cause damage. They are both fairly tolerant of soil conditions and will need to be kept moist in summer.

If you would like more information on decorating your home at Christmas on a budget just head to our youtube channel and watch the videos.

Angela Slater
Daughter of a farmer and market gardener so have always had a connection with the outdoors, whether it was keeping animals or producing fruit, vegetables and cut flowers. Along with my work at Hayes Garden World I also have a smallholding, mainly breeding rare breed pigs. I gained an HND and BSc in Conservation and Environmental Land Management, as a result I am an ardent environmentalist and have a keen interest in environmentally friendly gardening. In my time at Hayes I worked for several years in the Outdoor Plant and Houseplant areas