Wreaths take over my life every winter. It’s a big and arduous change. Instead of delicate stems of flowers in buckets, I order hearty, bushy branches in bulky cardboard boxes. I start my annual scavenge for pinecones – the only foraging I do. Berries are constantly rolling around the studio evading my broom and getting squashed underfoot. My hands are sticky from sap and sting from a thousand tiny scratches when using alcohol-based sanitizer as an antidote. I switch from fragile vases to metal frames. Wreaths are built rather than designed. I chop, bundle, wire, and clamp. My shoulders and neck are fatigued and tight. There is a high demand, and I need wreath sales to sustain my local-only business when flower options are limited. Don’t get me wrong, I love making wreaths. And, I love how they turn out, but they can be a lot in a busy and stressful season.
Wreath season isn’t just tough on me. My suppliers have their own trials each winter. The harvest is a bear. At least 82-year-old Bob at Wollam Gardens was banned from the cherry picker for the first time this season. He did, however, take his yearly trip to a hidden spot in the Shenandoah foothills (his friend’s private land) to fill multiple rented cargo vans with foraged wild coralberry. Michelle at Roots Cut Flower Farm has mastered the logistics of prepping wreath greens for sale. After harvest she lays the branches on a large grassy pasture where the morning dew keeps them hydrated. This year, however, it was so warm and dry the branches started to brown in just one day. She lost 50 trees worth of branches. Fortunately, she has a husband who owns a landscaping company and a large network of land-owning friends with trees that need pruning.
I make the most of my growers’ efforts. There are multiple business opportunities and products I can optimize with evergreens. Wreath making classes are very popular, plus they give me a break on my labor. Classes can account for nearly 100 wreaths sold each season that I didn’t have to make. I get the same customers returning every year who make it a tradition. There’s even a husband and wife who compete with Instagram Likes on who’s wreath is better. (The winner gets displayed on the front door while the loser is relegated to a back door). Mini-wreaths are popular with younger customers. (Why do millennials like small things?) The minis are quick, easy, don’t need to be ordered in advance and are priced low enough to be an impulse purchase in my shop. My favorite by-product of wreaths is Winter in a Jar. It is so cute and festive plus it’s made with all of the leftover scraps from the wreaths. That doesn’t mean it’s junky, I regularly demolish a Whole Foods cake/mousse/whipped cream cup that I bet is made from the extra cake carvings in their bakery. Just like my Winter in a Jar, it’s the bomb!
A Premium Product
My wreaths aren’t cheap, and they’re not for everybody. My customers value the source of the greens, the numerous varieties I procure, their unique and various textures, and my (or their) craftsmanship. There are cheaper and even (gasp!) artificial options, but are you really going to enjoy the holidays with an uninspired, foreign-made and mass-produced plastic POS hanging on your door from the home improvement store? Don’t even bother posting – nobody is getting a Like on such a weak effort. How will you become the envy of the neighborhood? Imagine your fall down the social ladder. Will you even be inviting guests over? Would anybody want to pass through that door? So Grinchy!
This year I increased my price to $150 per wreath. I know that’s high. My margin is still only about 25%. Anything less wouldn’t be worth it. It takes me or one of my wreath wizards a little over an hour to complete a custom order. I budget labor at $30 for the job. Materials cost break down: $50-$60 for the greens; $5 for the frame and wire; $10 for ribbon, bells and any other ornamentation. After adding in overhead for running the shop, there is not a lot of profit. Nobody becomes a florist to get rich.
One reason, though, to become a florist is working with all the wonderful beauty nature produces. I ordered 13 types of evergreens this year: boxwood, blueberry juniper, blue ice cedar, blue atlas cedar, atlantic white cedar, false cyprus, arborvitae, white pine, loblolly pine, norway spruce, hemlock, holly, and magnolia. They are all magnificent. When you combine and layer the ingredients like a chef, you get something greater than the individual components. (Gestalt!) It is always interesting to see what variety of evergreen is most popular each year and sometimes even between classes. I held back-to-back sessions on one Saturday this past December. The participants in the early class used so much magnolia, I thought I was going to run out. In the later class, nobody touched the magnolia.
With the price, comes value. When you hang our wreath on your door, you can see the quality. It has depth – both from the thick lushness of the evergreens and from the variety of texture. Afar, it looks full and fancy. Close up, the details emerge in the layers. There are tiny blue berries on the juniper providing a hint of seasonal contrast against the forest green. The thin, spikey needles from the pine oppose the large, leathery leaves from the magnolia. Boxwood dots the wreath with its small round cups. Holly sharpens. Arborvitae softens. Together they have movement. The completed wreath is warm and alive in the cold. It conveys spirit. It is vital.
Having Fun in Wreath Class
Wreath class is a festive social event – more DIY than instructive. We provide the materials, equipment and the space to make a mess. I introduce each variety of evergreen and get the wreathers started with their first bunch and a few pro tips. That’s about it. I, and my team, help them get through a few tricky parts – the last bunch can be tough to shimmy in. We troubleshoot, critique and provide encouragement. Like I tell the class attendees, wreaths are forgiving – you can’t really mess it up. We’ve even set up the shop for one of our long-time customers to run a private wreath class for her coworkers. The most common issue I find in class is the occasional unintentional giant wreath. Noobs don’t picture the final product and will want to attach huge bunches at a wide angle to the frame. Despite warnings, and a cardboard size template on each worktable, we still sometimes end up with wreaths comically too big to fit on any door.
Most of my work for wreath classes is prepping and cleaning. Branches arrive three feet or longer with side shoots big enough for a single wreath bunch. We need to clip each of these down to a usable size for the class and display them in bulb crates. We can cut each branch up to five times to get to a workable size. Even after hours of clipping and filling crates with each variety, plus back-up crates of materials, we are still clipping during class to keep the supplies steady. (Particularly when there is an unexpected run on a single variety such as the magnolia mania of December 17). The wreathers further clip their bunches into shape, resulting in a lot of detritus on the tables and floors – some even makes it into the compost buckets. Everyone moves around a lot – back and forth to retrieve materials and hang wreaths to check for symmetry – so cleaning during class isn’t feasible. But, brushing off the tables, sweeping the floor and organizing the materials between classes is a quick job.
I teach the hand wired technique for wreath classes. The overall objective is to make twelve bunches of greens and wire them to the frame. Each bunch is a mini evergreen bouquet made with 5-7 branches about 8-12 inches long. This is where the look of the wreath is decided. The primary factors to consider are color, texture and symmetry. Obvi, the wreath is green but there is a spectrum in the hue: the arborvitae has yellow and the cedar has blue. The color of the door, or other background, needs to be considered as well. There are wide differences in texture. My advice is to not overthink the variety selection. Pick what you like and make twelve of the same bunch. Alternating patterns can also look nice, but it is a lot to do in a class with time and space constraints. Asymmetrical bunches can result in an unruly wreath. I recommend adding elements, such as willow, after completing the evergreen base to achieve a less uniform appearance.
Each bunch is wired to a metal frame. We use a pliable, light gage wire (22 or 24) for maneuverability – there is a lot of unwrapping and repositioning of bunches. A single wire is first attached to the frame, then entwined around the wrapped bunch of evergreens, and then attached back to the frame. Layer the next bunch and repeat. We use a twelve inch metal frame that is adequate for a standard size door. Students use our regular class clippers for small stems and heavy duty clippers for bulkier evergreen stems to shape the bunches. When the evergreen base is done, we wire the ornaments: pinecones, bells, berries or bows (or whatever else they want to add). Hang and enjoy! (Don’t forget to tag us in the gram.)
TCB With My Wreath Machine
While the class is all about having fun and being creative, I need to expedite wreath orders for pick up and delivery. For these production wreaths, I have a machine. We built it from a kit from Mitchell Metal Products. They shipped the metal components and blueprints for us to erect a sturdy 2×4 and plywood structure to support a powerful crab-like pincher activated by spring-loaded foot pedal. This wasn’t Ikea, but it was doable after a trip to the lumber yard and plugging in some power tools. Mitchell is also my supplier for the frames. These are much stronger than my art supply store bought frames used in class. The machine frames have 10 pairs of open tines between which I place the bunch. I position the frame on the machine so the tines fit into the pinchers. A quick step on the pedal closes the pincher and bends the tines to securely clamp the bunch to the frame. This machine is a time-saver and ergonomic. The hand wired wreaths can take over two hours. With an assembly line and the wreath machine, it cuts the time in half.
Orders for wreaths come in earlier and earlier each year. It started during the pandemic when customers wanted to get a jump on the holidays and get into the spirit earlier. We now have people picking up evergreen wreaths before Thanksgiving – overlapping with the end of fall wreaths (dried flowers on grapevine). But, 99% of our winter wreath orders are between Thanksgiving and the first weekend in December. It’s a two-and-half week sprint. I can then try to eke out some holiday gifts sales in the shop before the end of the year while my hands heal and finally get some rest before Valentine’s day.