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Don Kinzler, Published December 06 2013

Growing Together: Make Christmas centerpieces from backyard evergreens

Christmas centerpieces made from fresh evergreens are a perfect antidote for the artificial Christmas tree blues. Fresh cut greenery gives our homes the aroma of the real thing. And we don’t need to be a perky home-show media maven to construct a holiday centerpiece.

When I studied horticulture at North Dakota State University, we were trained in all disciplines from forestry to floral design. During the design course taught by Professor Neal Holland, I made my first Christmas centerpiece, and I’ve enjoyed them ever since.

Christmas centerpieces were best-sellers during our greenhouse years. My wife Mary’s experience as a floral designer helped soften the rough edges of my handiwork. The material list is simple and doesn’t include pomegranates, gold filigree, glycerin-soaked magnolia leaves, or any of the other tension-causing items required by centerpieces in national magazines.

Supplies Needed: A block of Oasis floral foam (available at craft stores and florists), a shallow bowl or container, candle, a pruning shears, Christmas decorations and fresh evergreens. A combination of evergreen types is most appealing. Spruce, arborvitae, juniper, and mugho pine can be found in the home yard. It’s fine to do some light selective cutting now. Evergreen branches can be purchased from Christmas tree lots, florists, and other retailers. You’ll find Fraser fir, balsam fir and white pine.


1. Cut the oasis foam block to fit the container. Its height should extend about two inches above the rim of the container.

2. Soak the foam in a bucket of water. When it sinks level with the water’s surface, the block is thoroughly saturated.

3. Cover the work space with newspaper to help catch needles and sap.

4. Place the water-soaked foam block into your container. The weight of the block and greenery will usually hold it in place.

5. Insert the candle an inch into the top center of the block. Repositioning can make the hole in the foam too large, so try for straightness the first time.

6. Decide the shape of the centerpiece. Round circles or oblong ovals are nice.

7. Determine the size. Round centerpieces are commonly 8 to 12 inches in diameter. Oblong examples are often 16 to 24 inches long, and about 8 inches wide.

8. The first branches are inserted horizontally into the lower sides of the foam block just above the container’s rim. These lowest branches determine the length, width and shape. Insert in four opposite directions from the central container.

A circular arrangement will have all four base branches equal in length. Use a pruning shears to cut the branches to necessary size. Strip the needles from the base of each branch before inserting about an inch into the foam.

9. After forming the base skeleton, branches are added to the sides of the foam in stair-step layers becoming shorter as you approach the top surface. Don’t be afraid to cut evergreens into small sections. When you reach the top surface, the branchlets will be only about three or four inches long.

10. Continue inserting evergreens into the foam’s top surface moving toward the central candle. These smaller pieces will be angled increasingly vertical. If you are using primarily one type such as Fraser fir, remember to add a few sprigs of a contrasting green for interest such as longer needled white pine.

11. By now the foam will be concealed with evergreens. Add a few short sprigs if needed. All evergreens should appear to radiate out from the center of the arrangement. Branches can be repositioned, but if done too aggressively the foam will break apart.

12. When you are happy with the appearance of the greenery, it’s time to decorate. Suggestions include candy canes, ribbon ties, small statues, tree ornaments and pine cones. Wire can be wrapped around items or taped and inserted into the foam.

Decorating can make or break the arrangement. Every centerpiece should have a focal point, which is the central eye-catching feature. Rather than polka-dotting ornaments around the arrangement, group them near the candle. Use fewer at extremities and more towards the center.

Now add water to the container. Fresh centerpieces made Dec. 10 can last until New Year’s if kept away from heat. Water the container as needed.

Variations abound. Thirty-some years ago I wrote a Christmas decorations bulletin while with NDSU Extension that described different centerpieces plus how to make door swags and wreaths. Long since out of print, I located it in online archives. If interested, “Google” Donald J. Kinzler Christmas Decorations Made with Fresh Evergreens. Choose the library.ndsu.edu site and click on the bulletin when it appears to view or print.

Ebenezer Scrooge’s mood would have improved quickly if only someone would have suggested he construct a fresh holiday arrangement to brighten his drab quarters.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, worked as an NDSU Extension horticulturist and owned Kinzler’s Greenhouse in Fargo. Readers can reach him at forumgrowingtogether@hotmail.com