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Free Christmas decorations: How to forage for an eco-friendly festive season

DIY Christmas wreath making. (Getty Images)
Make your own Christmas decorations with nature's freebies. (Getty Images)

Christmas isn't cheap – and this year, with the price of food and energy on the rise, coupled with the drop in temperatures, many of us will be feeling the pinch more than ever.

That's why savvy celebrators will be looking for ways to save where they can without missing out. And decorating your home for the season is the perfect way to DIY, with everything you need readily available for nothing.

Re-think endless plastic baubles (that often break anyway), everlasting tinsel and synthetic fake trees – not to mention pollutant 'snow spray', and faux pine and forest scent aerosols – and invest some time rather than money when gathering your decorations.

Read more: How to hang Christmas tree lights like an expert – without just wrapping them around

Rosehips in snowy weather. (Getty Images)
Rosehips are much prettier than plastic. (Getty Images)

To help you put your festive foraging hat on, Burleigh Pottery, a leading craft brand, shares the best natural materials to look out for and what to do with them.

Head for the woods or hedges, but take a guide such as the Plantsnap App with you to make sure the plants and branches you're cutting are safe to have at home – and don't take too much, of course.

What to gather

Evergreen foliage, such as ivy, holly and mistletoe are all classics for Christmas.

Ivy grows on walls, tree trunks and woodland. Snip what you need carefully to avoid damaging walls and tree trunks.

Holly tends to grow in oak or beech woodland, but if you can't locate any, try a local neighbourhood group to ask if anyone has some in their garden that you could swap for homemade cake or other cuttings.

Young girl holding a wicker basket with mistletoe branches with green leaves and white berries. (Getty Images)
Mistletoe is harder to find but a little goes a long way... (Getty Images)

Mistletoe can be tricky to find, and the berries are poisonous to animals and humans, so use very carefully if you have cats, dogs or small children. It's harder to gather as it tends to grow in tree branches, and often looks like a sparse bird's nest.

According to The Woodland Trust, it's commonly found in apple, lime and poplar but has also been recorded on blackthorn, hawthorn, rowan and willow trees. It's less keen on woodland and is more often found in gardens, orchards, parkland and churchyards.

It also depends where you live, with it being most common in "Wales, the West Midlands and the South of England, with particularly large populations in Gwent, Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and Somerset," the Trust explains.

Easier to access are rosehips, rowan berries, and oak, birch and hazel twigs to structure your decorations.

Fir cones, pine cones and acorns are the perfect additions to any piece of festive decoration. Not only do they look beautiful, but they're easy to customise with paint and can also be used to bulk out your decorative wreaths and swags.

And don't forget to check your own garden for materials too. For more advice on sustainable foraging, check out these Woodland Trust guidelines.

Read more: Why a Christmas tree in your bedroom means better sleep

A worker trims a holly tree at a farm. (Getty Images)
Wear gloves if you're picking holly. Sounds obvious but you'd be amazed... (Getty Images)

How to preserve your decorations

The only downside to natural decorations is, of course, they don't last... so to help your creations survive the festive period, you could preserve them first. Start now, as the process can take around two weeks.

To make evergreens and berries last as long as possible, start by leaving them to soak in water overnight so they get as many nutrients as possible. Then, fill a jam jar with a centimetre of glycerine (buy online or at a pharmacy) and two centimetres of hot water. Next, cut the bottom of the stems, gently crush the ends and leave your foliage in the jar with the glycerine mixture until it has evaporated, which usually takes around two weeks.

To preserve pine cones and acorns, start by giving them a good 45-minute soak in a bucket of hot water with two cups of white vinegar to get rid of any bugs, then leave them to air-dry (this can take up to three or four days). Once they're dry, preserve them by applying clear varnish.

Top view of yellow and orange berries in blue jar on rustic wood background with copy space. (Getty Images)
Preserve your branches and berries before you display them. (Getty Images)

How to use your natural decorations

Make a greenery table-runner. Instead of forking out for plastic snowmen and scented candles, create a naturally scented rope of pine branches, ivy and pine cones. You can use florists' wire to help you shape it, or go natural – and there's plenty of Youtube and Tiktok videos that can help after a quick search.

"To make your greenery table runner, simply bunch around five stems of foliage together and tie them with floral wire," suggest the experts at Burleigh. "Then make another five of these bunches and tie them all together in a row with floral wire. Finish off by nestling your extras in the runner, such as pine cones, twigs and berries."

The same techniques work for mantelpiece 'swags' (long displays that run the length of your mantlepiece, see below). You could interweave these with satin ribbon or glass baubles too.

And avoid real candles amongst twigs, however pretty they look – LED fairy lights or battery-powered candles are a lot safer.

Christmas wreath and decorations over fireplace mantel with white brick wall. (Getty Images)
Make a swag for the mantelpiece with your foraged greenery. (Getty Images)

Make a festive wreath

Start with a wire frame to build your wreath around – you can use florists' wire, make one out of a coat hanger, or even use cardboard. Tie your holly, ivy, pine cones and berries together with floral wire and stick them in the frame until it's fully covered. Make sure to overlap the bunches to make it look full.

You can make a rustic, fragrant wreath with dried orange slices and cinnamon sticks, too.

Read more: Should you charge your guests for Christmas dinner? How to handle the festive dilemma

Christmas wreath made of natural fir branches  hanging on a white wall.  Wreath with natural ornaments: bumps, walnuts, cinnamon, cones. (Getty Images)
Add cinnamon sticks and dried flowers to your festive wreath. (Getty Images)

Pine cone bowls

Display cones in a stylish decorative bowl with twigs of winter berries. Or if you're looking for natural ways to incorporate a festive fragrance in your home, you could create a decorative winter potpourri with pine cones, dried orange, cinnamon sticks and nutmegs.

Avoid glitter (micro-plastics are terrible for the environment and can kill sea creatures) — instead, give them a dab of white paint, or dab on glue and dip in table salt or caster sugar instead.

vintage metal kettle with pine cones. Rustic nordic scandinavian country cottage style decor. winter still life. (Getty Images)
Pine cones are nature's baubles. (Getty Images)

Decorate the tree

Unless you grew your tree yourself, or planted last year's, you may have to buy one – decorate it with strings of pine cones, berries, ribbons and even dried flowers. You can make ornaments from salt dough, or even old jewellery, and bake Christmas biscuits to hang from the branches. And of course, try to find one with roots and keep in soil so you can plant it out and re-use it next year, or recycle it via drop-off points arranged by local authorities or through a charity offering the service.

Christmas tree with eco friendly decorations, ornaments and gifts on an old wood background. (Getty Images)
A Christmas tree with eco-friendly decorations, ornaments and gifts is a festive delight. (Getty Images)

Watch: How to make last-minute Christmas decorations