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GOING GREEN - MARK, BEN CULLEN: Christmas au naturel with holly, ivy decorations

Holly bush.  ©THE GUARDIAN
Holly bush. ©THE GUARDIAN - Submitted

Christmas is a couple of weeks away and it is highly likely that you are decorating out of doors for the season. If you like the natural look, versus icicle lights or blown up Santa and reindeer, we have some advice for you that will look great and save you money.

There are many natural items in your garden that lend them to a seasonal ‘look’ that can be very attractive. Check this out:


GOING GREEN - By Mark and Ben Cullen. © THE GUARDIAN -
GOING GREEN - By Mark and Ben Cullen. © THE GUARDIAN - Submitted


1. Holly. ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ are not figments of some songwriter’s imagination, they actually exist. Winter hardy (to zone 4), blue holly has been around for a generation now and is a staple in many Canadian gardens. Don’t be afraid to cut stems this time of year as no harm will be done.

Ivy needs to be evergreen to be useful and it is generally less hardy than Blue Holly. However, if you are lucky enough to have some, feel free to cut it down and use it around door frames and wind it up railings. We will just cut it down from our office window where it has blocked our view since July.

2. Evergreen branches. This is big business. You can go to your local retailer and buy pine, fir, cedar and spruce branches at considerable expense or you can cut your own. There is no magic in this, just cut with a sharp pair of pruners and get creative with the use of the stems inside and out.

3. Berries. Many plants produce berries or ‘berry-like’ fruit in late fall. For the most part, they remain on the plant until late winter, when foraging birds clean them off come February and March. Crabapples, Mountain Ash, Bittersweet Vine [Celastrus scandens], euonymus and even roses can produce great looking fruit that is useful outdoors in containers and as decoration on the Christmas table.

4. Dogwood. The red twig dogwood is a weed plant to many farmers as it grows almost anywhere that you find lingering moisture, especially in low land. When you cut native dogwood down by a metre or so, it grows back up aggressively in a year. The bright red bark of dogwood stands out in an outdoor arrangement, will not wither and stands up to any amount of frost. It is one versatile decorating accessory.

Where do you get this stuff?

Neither of us are proponents of foraging for decorating materials in the wild. Conservation areas and public forests have enough problems with humans taking liberties with their assets. However, you may have a neighbour with some of these plants on their property that would be pleased if you did some free pruning of their mature landscape. Or, you may know a farmer who would welcome your interest in controlling their dogwood ‘problem’.

Always with permission from the landowner.

There is a hedge of Rosa multiflora at our neighbourhood golf course, and they have given us permission to cut all the rose hips that we want.

Final word

Let’s reflect for a moment on the meaning of all of this. Berries, nuts, cones and rose hips are the fruit of plants that are attempting to reproduce. The message here is connected directly to that of ‘new beginnings’.

The holly, ivy and evergreen boughs (not to mention live Christmas trees) are evergreen. The message here? That the message of Christmas does not die. It will not go away. We celebrate the season year after year for personal reasons that come back to one thing. Peace.

Peace to you.

Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author, broadcaster, tree advocate and holds the Order of Canada. His son Ben is a fourth-generation urban gardener and graduate of University of Guelph and Dalhousie University in Halifax. Follow them at, @MarkCullen4, on Facebook and bi-weekly on Global TV’s National Morning Show.

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