Wreath-incarnation: One wreath. Two lives. All it takes is a few tweaks.

A holiday wreath crafted for use through the winter and even after the holidays.
Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune/MCT
Story by Barbara Mahany
(Chicago Tribune/MCT)
Fri, Dec 9, 2011
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The idea here is pure and simple:

Start with a plain pine wreath, the kind you would pick up at the supermarket or a big-box store (certainly not one you would trek to the woods to haul home on the back of your sleigh).

Dress that green ring up for the cheer that stretches straight through December. Then, the very instant you hit Holiday Overload, when you cannot abide one more minute of fa-la-la, give that door hanger a new lease on life. With a few tweaks, a bit of subtraction, a dash of addition — poof! — you’ve extended its lease through, oh, Groundhog Day.

Ah, but can it be done?

Lest you waste one breath worrying, the answer is: but of course! We turned to a wizard of natural wonder, a woman who wields a mean glue gun. Her name is Nancy Clifton, and she plies her magic as a horticulturist at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Clifton more than hit the gong, with two breathtaking renditions of au naturel wreaths. The one that’ll work now through the new year has a bit of Colonial Williamsburg deep in its DNA, with apples, nuts and rose hips so zaftig they threatened to burst. For a post-holiday cleansing breath, Clifton borrows from the herbarium and nods toward the kitchen. She plucks off the apples and nuts, and tucks in bouquets of rosemary, thyme and sage.

And, psst, here’s the big secret: These beauties would be right at home in the bargain basement. In fact, Clifton, who fashioned these wreaths in October, picked the apples off her backyard tree, scooped up the walnuts and pecans from a bin at the grocery, and clipped the rose hips from her garden. The herbs, she snipped from her kitchen window box. Even if you don’t have these botanic offerings at your fingertips, the most this wreath would cost is somewhere south of $50 — and that includes figuring about $25 for the wreath itself.

So, if you’re in the mood to stir up some wintry charm, to invite in the garden, pick up a wreath and, please, play along in the comfort of your own home sweet home.

Note: Feel free to fashion your wreath with similar sized but different elements — say, citrus fruit instead of apples, cinnamon sticks instead of the nuts. Whatever you choose, use an odd number of elements, and limit your palette to no more than five.

What you’ll need:

  • 1 (24-inch) wreath, with or without pine cones
  • 5 small apples (lady apples are ideal but can be pricey)
  • 6 whole nuts
  • 12 clumps rose hips (available at many florist shops, craft stores and supermarkets)
  • Wired floral picks (online or florist shops, floral supply and craft stores)
  • Glue gun (sold at craft and department stores)
  • Herb bundles (see related story)

Directions:

Prep first: Assemble all your materials on a large, uncluttered work space. Holiday music in the background is recommended but not essential. Now you’re ready to go.

1. Apples: Poke a floral pick into each apple, inserting it at an angle, not straight into the apple’s bottom. Attaching the fruit into the wreath at an angle will help anchor it firmly against the wreath’s underwire. Also, you don’t want the floral stick poking straight through the wreath because it won’t be secure enough, nor will it hang flush against the flat surface (door or wall) where you’ll hang it.

2. Nuts: Here’s where we pull out the glue gun. Trust us, it’s not nearly as scary as it looks. Just plug that pistol in, let the glue stick get hot and ready, then give the trigger a wee tug to produce one fat glue blob on a nut. Now, stop; that’s all you need. Give it a second to set, then insert the floral stick into the glue, pressing against the nutshell; hold tight a minute or two until the glue is dry and the stick is affixed to the nut. Repeat with remaining nuts. (Clifton calls this “the most tedious part of the whole job”; it’s downhill from here, friend.)

3. Rose hips need no prep. Just be sure to leave a few inches of bare stem to poke into the wreath. If you don’t trust that stem to stick where it belongs, stiffen its spine with yet another floral stick wrap.

The artsy part:

1. Examine the wreath and decide which is the bottom; if a hanger already is attached, the deciding has been done for you. You want the bottom more heavily fruited — as Clifton wisely put it: “In nature, you’ll find tips at the top and larger, more fully opened flowers and fruits at the bottom, so we’re just following nature here.”

2. Starting with the larger materials, place the apples where you think they look best. Just avoid what Clifton calls the “eye effect,” meaning two apples plopped directly across from each other on the ring, at 10 and 2 o’clock on its face. If you fall into that trap, your wreath will look like it’s staring at you. Remember to slide the floral pick into the wreath at an angle, so the pick catches in the wire underpinning, into the thick of all the greens, where it won’t slide right out.

3. Move on to the nuts, following the same principles and clustering them with the apples. Don’t forget the magic of tucking in a nut so it’s partially hidden; it’s a design trick that pulls the eye in, adding depth to your wreath.

4. The rose hips will be used as filler; this is your lightest material, and adds a lacier dimension. (If your wreath came with pine cones, note how the bright orange or red of the rose hips play off the cones’ dull brown color.) Clifton uses larger clumps of rose hips at the bottom, where she wants most of her wreath weight, and “onesies” and “twosies” up top, where she wants a lighter feel.

5. Step back from your wreath and take an overall look. (Remember, you are likely your wreath’s toughest critic.) Stop short of wreath overload. Remember, less is more.

Wreath for a new year:

Yuletide is over. Take a deep breath, and launch the new year. You still need a flat surface, but because your wreath might be a tad dry, covering it with newspaper isn’t a bad idea. Carefully remove the apples and nuts, making way for the herbs. You’ll need 1 handful each of sage, rosemary and thyme — enough for three mixed bouquets, as well as additional single sprigs, as needed.

1. Prep the herb bundles: Clip a sprig about 6 inches long (about as long as your outstretched hand, wrist to tip of your middle finger); if you cut longer than that, your herbs will flop forward; cut shorter and they’ll get buried.

2. Now, bundle, starting with one fat sprig of sage at the back of the bunch. Layer a sprig of rosemary, then the thyme with its itty-bitty leaves. Hold by the stems and, with your free hand, wrap the floral pick wire around the stems to hold the bouquet tight. Set aside; repeat two more times. (You’ll want three herb bundles for a 24-inch wreath.) For single herb sprigs, follow the same routine; you’ll need eight of these or whatever fancies your eye. Attach the herbs to the wreath, following earlier instructions, putting them wherever you subtracted the apples.

3. A final thought: If you think you might snip away at those herbs through the winter months, adding them to soups, stews or even desserts, simply rehang the wreath. If you intend to keep this as a thing of year-round beauty, spritz with an anti-desiccant (a fancy word for stuff that keeps greenery from drying out too quickly).

4. Now relish that wreath for all seasons, from straight through the holidays and on into the depths of bleak February.

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