At this time of year there is much advice floating around to “use natural materials” to create amazing holiday decorations cheaply.

Indeed I’ve floated much of it myself.  However, for the average suburban or urban dweller with little land at his or her disposal, it might not be second nature to make the most of what you have – both because you feel there isn’t much; and because of the vast plethora of cinnamon-scented whatsits greeting you at the big box stores.

Yet the more we hand over the plastic card, the more hours we have to work to pay off the contents of those inconvenient statements that appear with teeth-grinding regularity every month.

Wouldn’t it be better to shave off a little here, a little there, and grind the teeth less fiercely?

And, since the children are always needing shoes and there seems to be no limit to the amount of insurance we are supposed to carry these days, why not start with holiday decorations – something whose usefulness is fleeting, that cost far too much money, and which look best in rustic, handmade form?

Resources are everywhere – really.

In many ways, our tunnel vision can be laid squarely at the feet of marketing teams who have showed us how we need to decorate and what decorations need to look like. For far too long.

Trained thus, it’s hard to look at a hand painted Happy Holidays sign on aged barn wood and make the connection between that and the half gallon of remnant paint you have propping up a couple of pieces of scrap wood in the cellar.  Somehow we categorize the former as “magic” and the latter as “mess.”

Believe me, that rustic barn wood is not kissed by the breath of angels, nor is it in all probability, barn wood. (How many old farmers laugh at this barn wood obsession these days I wonder?)  In fact, it’s probably not as rustic as the pieces you found next to the paint can.

rustic cocktails sign

Your handwriting doesn’t need to be this flourished. Most of my signs are in Block Caps.


Sand the wood a bit, grab a pencil, map out your letters, and start painting.  Remember, your bad handwriting is someone else’s ‘boutique country.’  Drill a couple holes, attach some wire (found in the bottom of the bottom of the junk drawer), and hang it.

You just saved yourself $29.99.

Many of you don’t want a sign.  That’s okay – I use the sign merely as an example of something you can create once you pull that silk curtain away from the wizard and realize that you can create it. It’s a symbol of looking at things differently.

So with that in mind, let’s look at an average small yard and use it to decorate the front door step.

First, our resources

And they’re not inspiring. There’s a naked dogwood and a solitary overgrown boxwood in a corner. The vegetable bed is asleep. So is the prized hydrangea on the side of the house. In the back, the chain link fence is absolutely covered in wild grape tendrils and invasive bittersweet.

From berries to seed heads to the foliage of plants still vibrant – this colorful arrangement is a wealth of texture and color and was put together within ten minutes of collecting the materials.

Now our tools: A pair of pruners, a glue gun, a strand of white lights (you know you’ve got an extra), and a spool of florists’ wire (you have my permission to pay good money for that one).

Then, a wreath.

Cut down the vines (you need to anyway, they’re taking over). Put the ends of three or four in your hand and wrap them like a hose to make a circle.  Keep going until it’s the thickness you want and use your wire and/or another vine to roughly hold it together.  That’s your base.  Most stores would charge you $9.99 for this alone, and you’re not even finished.

Remove the awkward dogwood branch you’ve been meaning to prune all summer and cut off the small sprays of berries on the end.  Insert them throughout the framework of the wreath.  Your wreath is now worth $13.99, and when you glue-gun small pieces of dried hydrangea onto it, you can add another three bucks.

natural decoration with hydrangea

I’ve put three wreaths together for this arrangement on my potting shed.

For the pièce de résistance, the boxwood gets a light haircut and offers a bit of greenery to balance all those tawny colors.  Put two or three sprigs together with wire, then insert them deeply into the base.  Boxwood isn’t cheap and elevates your wreath into the realm of ‘boutique-worthy.’ If you’re not satisfied, fiddle with it until you are.

Next, a miniature ‘tree.’

Go out to the vegetable garden and grab one of those rusting tomato cages.  Turn it upside down and wire the three spiky legs together to form a cone at the top.  Use a few more of those vines to wrap it like a spiral, using wire to hold it to the cone.  Follow up with the lights, and don’t get precious about it – remember, we’re working towards ‘rustic.’

Now put the base inside an unused pot, plug in the lights, hang your wreath on the door and stand back and see what you just created from what you had.  If you really want to get fancy, pick up some pinecones or Osage oranges from the side of the road, and fill the pot with same.  Fill another couple while you’re at it – groupings look best in threes.

You just saved yourself a lot of money.  If you involved your kids, you can count this as “instructional bonding time.” If you involved a bottle of wine and your spouse, you can count this as “couples skill building.”  Whatever you call it, call it good.

Look around you.  Find your resources.  There is another way.