The fragrance of fresh-cut evergreens in December reminds me of the Christmas trees we had as a kid, purchased by Dad from the corner Texaco station that sold fresh firs. The trees weren’t always classically beautiful, but oh the scent!

That same fragrance can be captured in a table centerpiece made from evergreens located in our own backyards. It’s a fun and easy project that makes a great holiday decoration for the center of the dinner table or any other surface.

Evergreens commonly found in our home landscapes include pine, spruce, arborvitae, yew and juniper. Any can be used, and combinations of two or more types create interest.

Pruning a few sprigs in December is harmless, and the most useful parts are the outer 6 to 12-inch tip segments.

Materials include florist foam, evergreens and decorations. David Samson / The Forum
Materials include florist foam, evergreens and decorations. David Samson / The Forum

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If you don’t have landscape evergreens, boughs can be purchased at garden centers and Christmas tree lots. Centerpieces made in early December will stay fresh until New Year’s Day if water is supplied as needed.

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The centerpiece is constructed in a shallow bowl, and the mechanism that holds all the branches together is a block of water-absorbing floral foam, available at florist shops and craft stores, with Oasis being the most common brand. Although it resembles Styrofoam, floral foam absorbs water, keeping evergreen branches fresh, which Styrofoam doesn’t.

Required materials: A block of water-absorbing floral foam; shallow bowl or low-sided container; taper-type candle, if desired; several types of evergreens; pruning shears; and Christmas decorations, such as ornaments, pine cones, candy canes and ribbon.

Step-by-step instructions

  1. Cover the workspace with newspaper or plastic to catch needles and sap.
  2. Cut the foam block to fit the container so the block extends about 2 inches above the container’s rim. Corners of the square foam can be shaved with a knife to fit round containers, if needed.
  3. Thoroughly soak the foam in water until completely saturated.
  4. Place the foam block into the container.
  5. If you’ve chosen a taper-type candle, insert it into the foam’s surface about an inch.
  6. Decide the desired shape of the centerpiece, whether round or oblong-oval.
  7. Determine the desired size, both width and length. Round centerpieces are commonly 8 to 12 inches in diameter. Oblong table centerpieces might be 12 to 24 inches long and 8 to 12 inches wide.
  8. With the pruning shears, cut two evergreen branches to equal the centerpiece’s length, and two to make the width. These four branches will be the lowest and longest used in the centerpiece.
  9. Before any branches are inserted into the foam in the following steps, first strip needles from the end, so the branch will hold more securely when inserted.
  10. Begin by inserting the four evergreen branches you selected in Step 8 horizontally into the foam block just above the container’s rim, radiating out in four directions to establish the centerpiece’s length and width.
    Insert evergreens in the foam above the container's rim. David Samson / The Forum
    Insert evergreens in the foam above the container's rim. David Samson / The Forum
  11. After installing the lowest, longest branches, add increasingly shorter branches to the foam in stair-step layers as you reach the foam’s top surface.
  12. Continue inserting evergreens into the foam’s top surface, moving toward the center. Angle the small pieces increasingly vertical. The small branchlets at the top center will be only 3 or 4 inches long.
  13. If you’ve used mostly one type of evergreen so far, tuck a few sprigs of an evergreen with contrasting color, needle length or texture between the others.
  14. The foam should now be concealed, and all evergreens should appear to radiate out from the center of the arrangement. Branches can be repositioned slightly, but if done too aggressively the foam might break apart.
  15. The most common mistakes are not cutting the branches into small, usable pieces, and not visually radiating everything from the center focal point.
  16. When you’re pleased with the appearance of the evergreens, it’s time to add decorations. Instead of polka-dotting ornaments around the arrangement, create an eye-catching focal point by grouping most toward the center.
  17. Add water to the container, always maintaining a reservoir of plentiful moisture to keep evergreens fresh.
  18. Candles used in evergreen centerpieces should not be lit for fire safety.
  19. Enjoy the centerpiece, and Happy Holidays!

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at donald.kinzler@ndsu.edu.