Dreaming of a green Christmas?

Try traditional: Deck the halls with boughs of fresh conifers, Christmas trees from Florida farms, or backyard cuttings.

By YVONNE SWANSON, Special to the Times
Published December 2, 2006

Floridians love Christmas, especially those spirited people whose outdoor holiday decorations have been in place since before Thanksgiving. You know them: the neighbors with the giant plastic snowglobe on the lawn, the holographic nativity set ablaze in color and the synchronized light display on the rooftop.

You could do the same, but perhaps this is the year to forgo the yuletide extravaganza and decorate as they did in the old days, with traditional holiday greenery.

A time-honored winter tradition, decking the halls with fresh greens, was thought to bring good luck and ensure the return of spring. Since Colonial times, Americans have decorated with evergreens: conifers, holly, ivy, mistletoe and other greens, mixed with lavender, rose petals, rosemary and bay leaf for scent.

There's an enormous variety of fresh and artificial greenery for garlands, wreaths and centerpieces. If you're a pragmatist, using artificial greens is the way to go. They can be used year after year, won't wilt in the Florida heat and sun and they're easy to shape and position. Plus, they leave no needles to clean up.

But purists insist there's nothing like the real thing: fresh fir, pine or spruce with the evergreen scent associated with the holidays. You can buy fresh greenery at local Christmas tree stands and florist shops or direct from mail-order suppliers and growers. Another option is visiting a Christmas tree farm, where you'll typically find red cedar, Virginia pine, sand pine, spruce pine or Leyland cypress, according to the Florida Christmas Tree Association. (Visit www.flchristmastrees.com for locations of member farms.)

Nothing beats the fragrance of the Northern conifers, however, including Fraser and balsam firs and blue and white spruce. They like cooler temperatures than our mild winter, especially after being cut. So unless you're planning to use your live greens indoors (with the air conditioning going full blast), you'll need to take some precautions when using fresh holiday greenery in Florida.

Best where it's warm

For long-lasting freshness and strongest scent, firs - especially the Fraser - are the best choice for warm climates, says Jason Plesscher, a fourth-generation Christmas tree grower for Christmas Tree Express in McMillan, Mich. "Fraser fir is the Cadillac of Christmas trees. It's almost like its needles are on with glue," he says.

The Plesscher family, whose 1,000-acre nursery is planted with 500,000 fir and spruce trees, sold trees and greenery in Bradenton for 20 years before converting the business to mail-order trees, wreaths and garlands five years ago (www. freshcutchristmastree.com).They found that the Fraser fir can last up to a month with proper care, says Plesscher. Whether it's indoors or out, lightly mist with water each morning to keep it hydrated. A wreath can also be immersed in lukewarm water, dried and then returned to its spot, he recommends.

Your live wreath should be hung outdoors in a protected spot without direct sun exposure, says Julia Herbert, owner of Moondust Mountain in Crumpler, N.C., where she grows Fraser fir trees and sells wreaths year-round. The same goes for live garlands and swags.

Frequent misting also will help the greenery retain its scent, says Annie Ingraham, manager of the balsam fir holiday line at L.L. Bean in Freeport, Maine. The company has been shipping hand-harvested fresh balsam fir wreaths grown in Maine for 24 years, and its traditional wreath with a red bow continues to be its most requested item. L.L. Bean also offers garlands, tabletop trees and fresh greenery strung with tiny white lights (visit www.llbean.com).

Decor from outdoors

Whether you use artificial or live greens, you can add a fresh touch of Florida to your decorations with cuttings from your yard of such plants as camellia, magnolia, nandina, holly, arborvitae, ligustrum, pittosporum, podocarpus and viburnum. Use sharp pruners to cut branches or stems, being careful to make cuts evenly around the plant to preserve its natural form. Immerse the cuttings in lukewarm water overnight or until you are ready to use them. Spray foliage with a leaf shine or hydrating spray to seal in moisture (see sidebar).

You can attach fresh or dried fruits, vegetables, herbs, pine cones, seed pods, acorns or berries to wreaths, garlands and centerpieces for a special touch. Choose from a wide variety of items, including lemons, limes, small oranges, tangerines, pears, kumquats, small pineapples, small apples, pomegranates, artichokes, okra pods, fresh sage and rosemary and eucalyptus. Most can be attached with floral wire and wood picks. If needed, you can carve a little hole in the item, add some glue and insert a pipe cleaner. Let it dry, then securely position into the wreath or garland. You may need to replace fresh items during the season, so be sure to check them periodically.

Add a bow or two in any festive color you wish, and your house will be decked for the season. This year's popular colors include deep pink, white with burnished gold or silver, red with gold or bronze, blue, and even bright citrus colors of orange and lime green mixed with hot pink and teal. How Florida!

Yvonne Swanson is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg and a master gardener for Pinellas County.



Keeping it fresh

Keep your greens fresher and more beautiful with these products:

Wreaths and garlands (Christmas trees, too):

- Spray greens with an anti-transpirant to seal in moisture. Several spray products are available, including Wilt Pruf (about $12 for a 32-ounce bottle) and No Wilt Plant Shield (about $6 for a 32-ounce bottle), at Tampa-based The Gardener's Branch (www.gardeners branch.com or toll-free 1-877-871-1151).

- Sprays should be applied outdoors on dry greenery and allowed to dry in daylight. Do not use on blue spruce, cedar or juniper berries; it affects color.

- Liquid and granule preservatives can be added to water for Christmas trees and soaking wreaths. The Gardener's Branch sells Tree Moist Christmas Tree Granules ($2.99 for 1 ounce) and Prolong liquid ($3.99 for 8 ounces).

- Fresh cuttings from the garden: Spray-on leaf polish will seal, protect and beautify leaves. Cut and soak leaves, wipe clean and dry, apply spray. Look for sprays at grocery, home improvement and craft stores. A trip to Albertsons in St. Petersburg found a 3-ounce can of Pokon Leaf Shine for $2.99 and a 12-ounce bottle of Shultz Plant Shine for $3.99.

- Or raid your cleaning supplies for acrylic floor finish, such as Mop-n-Glo. Dip leaves in a bowl of it.

- Artificial greens: For the scent of live greens, make a pine- or holiday-scented spray with this recipe from The Old Farmer's Almanac: Add 8 drops each of juniper berry essential oil and pine essential oil to 12/3 ounces of distilled water. Pour into a spray bottle, shake well, mist.

Yvonne Swanson