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Dreaming of a green Christmas: make the garden the centrepiece of your festive table

Set the table for Christmas with a mix of foraged twigs, berried branches, faded seedheads and evergreen foliage

From when I was a child, I’ve always loved gussying up the table for Christmas. Lots of candles are a must, in order to give that necessary festive twinkle, ideally placed at different heights (nightlights, low candlesticks, tall candelabras), to really make it sparkle. Nice table linen and glassware are important too. But the table arrangements really wave the magic Christmas wand, providing that all-important bit of theatre to memorably mark this special day of the year.

There was a time when I thought that this inevitably involved flowers. Not any more. Instead, I’ve learned that very beautiful, seasonal arrangements can be made from a thoughtful mix of twigs, berried branches, faded seedheads and evergreen foliage foraged from the garden and the hedgerow to create a mood that immediately says “Irish Christmas” in a way that no poinsettia ever will.

Once upon a time I thought that floral oasis, the green foam used by florists to hold arrangements in place, was also a given. But that was before someone explained to me that not only does this nonbiodegradable plastic product’s use comes with a heavy environmental price that contaminates soil and water and is a danger to human health, but that there are other, far more planet-friendly ways to keep stems in position.

As for suitable seasonal material, the very best way to choose this is by going for a nice Christmassy stroll through your garden or allotment

You can, for example, simply use some scrunched-up chicken wire squished in place at the base of the vase or container, where it will act as a sturdy, lightweight, reusable scaffold. Just slip the stems into the voids. Not only is this method far better for the environment, but it’s also much better for the longevity of any arrangement, allowing the stems to easily drink up water so they stay fresh for far longer. Another plus is that delicate stems don’t get bruised or broken.


Floral frogs, or “kenzans”, are another marvellous little tool that makes the use of floral foam obsolete. These small, typically metal structures – widely used for centuries until the introduction of floral foam in the 1950s – are also placed at the bottom of the vase or container, ideally firmly secured in position with a little floral putty (the florist’s equivalent of Blu Tack), although this isn’t strictly necessary. Although they were inexplicably hard to get in shops until quite recently, you can now find them for sale online, as well as in select shops including Howbert & Mays ( and Killruddery Farm Shop ( The metal kinds come in different sizes (bigger is almost always better) and are covered with a tightly grouped series of sharp, short metal pins (the higher the pin count, the more effective the frog will be). Imagine a metal pin cushion. Again, the stems are simply placed firmly on to the pins as you make your arrangement. Variations on this theme include glass and ceramic flower frogs (small, low containers with holes in them into which to place the stems), flower hair pins (small structures made from twisted wire) and small plastic or metal flower cages, all of which are similarly used to hold stems firmly in place.

As for suitable seasonal material, the very best way to choose this is by going for a nice Christmassy stroll through your garden or allotment. Evergreen trees or shrubs such as pittosporum, Portuguese laurel, Viburnum tinus, seeded ivy, eucalyptus and most kinds of conifers offer rich pickings. Alder, with its clusters of small dark brown cones and smoky-purple catkins, also looks beautiful. So does larch, especially if you use the slenderest branches festooned with cones. Birch works well also, as do the berried branches of trees and shrubs. Examples include our own native hawthorn, whose spectacularly beautiful, blood-red berries can be used to wonderful effect. The same goes for rosehips, including those of the native dog rose or Rosa canina, whose brilliant scarlet berries drape the branches of many roadside hedgerows at this time of year. If you’re lucky, you may also find some stems of the native spindle bush, Euonymus europaeus, whose bright lipstick-pink and orange berries persist on the plant’s bare branches long after its leaves have fallen. The berried branches of cotoneaster, skimmia, holly, symphoricarpos, viburnum and callicarpa can also be used to add vivid flashes of colour.

Faded seedheads give another layer of subtle texture and form, from the fluffy, silvery, dainty seedheads of Clematis tangutica to the slender verticals of verbascum and salvia and the sculptural umbellifers of fennel and ammi. Dried flowers and grasses can also be used in this way.

If that all sounds just a little too pared-back for your tastes, then consider using containers to add some further bright pops of colour. Ikea, for example, offer a wide and affordable range of small, colourful glass bud vases that would look wonderful arranged along the centre of a Christmas table, simply but impactfully filled with some berried branches and twigs (many of their glass tumblers can also easily double up as small table vases). Importantly, these sorts of arrangements are very versatile too, and can be easily moved around to make space for glassware, wine bottles, candles etc as required. Ikea’s shallow table bowls are also just the thing for creating an Ikebana-inspired Christmas table arrangement using a floral frog.

You can, of course also use candles to give some extra pops of colour, even placing them in among your table centrepiece. The best are by Ester & Erik, which are highly regarded for their gorgeous range of subtle colours, elegant silhouettes, long burning time and low-drip qualities (see, but come with a hefty price tag. For something more affordable, check out Sostrene Grene’s lovely range ( which includes everything from classic pillar candles in shades of forest green, dark red and cream (perfect for that traditional look) to twisted and taper candles in a wide variety of pretty shades. They also offer a range of very affordable bud vases that will provide the perfect foil for showing off all that home-grown and foraged beauty.

This week in the garden

Keep an eye on glasshouse and polytunnels at this time of year, where temperatures can fluctuate wildly on bright sunny days followed by clear, frosty nights. Leave doors ajar or open vents during the day, but make sure to close them again as night falls to protect plants from frost.

Bare-root season is in full swing but the wet weather has made it difficult to find a suitable window of opportunity to get plants into the ground. If that sounds all too familiar, then make sure to protect their vulnerable root systems from harsh frosts as well as from drying out before you can plant them. This can be done in a number of ways, including placing the plants’ rootballs in a plastic bag, spraying them down with water, sealing the bag with string and then storing it in a garden shed, or temporarily “planting” them into a bag of garden compost and placing them in a sheltered part of the garden.

Dates for your diary

Saturday, December 14th, National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin on December 14th (7pm-9pm): Flower Arranging: Christmas Florals from the Winter Garden, a practical demonstration by the horticulturist and florist Aiva Veinberga. for booking details.