Forget the Christmas tree, here's how to decorate with festive foliage

Fill your home with fragrant festive foliage – with a little help from innovative floral designer Katie Isitt

Take a bough: Katie and Alice create a gentle tumble over the edge of the mantle

Call it Covid, call it Cop26, call it general exhaustion with the year that has been 2021, but I just couldn’t face a Christmas tree this December. I didn’t share last year’s enthusiasm either, which saw trees going up as early as late November, and there was something deeply miserable about putting away baubles and fairy lights in a locked-down new year. So in this house, at least, we’re on a Christmas tree hiatus.

However, I am no Scrooge. Nothing beats the smell of fresh pine and spruce in the house. The innate cosiness of twinkling lights is unbeatable when the sun sets before 4pm and I’m always a fan of bringing the outdoors in, whatever the time of year. Which is why I enlisted the help of Katie Isitt, florist and founder of Kidge Flowers, to help me dress my home for festivities without relying on a tree.

Christmas trees aren’t as bad for the planet as some might think, but they’re still not great. According to the Carbon Trust, a real 6ft tree will have a carbon footprint of 35lb if you send it to landfill, where it decomposes into methane. Burn, chip or – best of all – plant it, and you’ll shrink that by over 75 per cent. If you have a plastic tree, you’re looking at a 88lb carbon footprint, meaning you’ve got to get the old thing out of the attic for at least 10 years to make it environmentally worthwhile.

‘Try to have lots of different foliage – it draws your eye round nicely’: Alice tweaks a gorgeous tablescape

There are some companies with greener solutions: Green Elf Trees, for instance, plant two trees for every one they cut down and take the one they’ve carbon-neutral delivered to recycle properly. You can also rent a tree or buy one in a pot to live outside all year round. But at a time when I’ve been thinking a lot about how to live more lightly on our besieged planet, bringing in a dead tree to cover with bits of (admittedly, 1970s) plastic feels a little against the spirit of things.

Katie founded Kidge three years ago, after taking a bouquet-making course to create the flowers for herself and her bridesmaids at her wedding, and realising she rather liked it. She now runs the floral design company with her husband Dan, naming it after their initials. A former employee at the Royal Academy of Art, the 30-year-old “takes inspiration from the changing seasons and what’s happening around us” to make her installations and wedding arrangements, using seasonal and British flowers. I said she could have the run of my living room and kitchen to fill with festive flowers, as long as she was happy to have a rather hapless assistant asking her questions.

We start in the kitchen, where Katie talks me through a beautifully untamed wreath she’s hanging on the wall. Made entirely from dried flowers, it has an undeniably celebratory air suitable for Christmas, but wouldn’t look out of place if you fancied leaving it up till gone February.

For Christmas and beyond: Katie’s eco-friendly designs are made to last

“I quite like making wreaths that aren’t particularly festive, particularly dried ones, because it means you can hang them in your home all year,” Katie says. “I started with a metal wreath base,” she continues, “and built up the layers of dried foliage and flowers by wiring them on to the wreath base.”

There’s a beautiful mix here of dried British hydrangeas and curled miscanthus stems, which spiral like ribbons on a present. Feathery grass heads and the otherworldly tassels of dried amaranthus punctuate a denser, lower layer of clutches of dried thyme. With the hydrangeas, dainty flowerheads have been picked out from a larger bloom and wired individually to make sure they don’t dominate.

“I think the nice thing with wreaths is that you can do any style you want,” Katie says. “You could do a really lush foliage one, with eucalyptus and pine; you can add traditional things such as pine cones or berries; or fold in some seasonal flowers. Generally, try to have a balance of lots of different things. Even if you’re just doing foliage, try to have lots of different foliage – it draws your eye round nicely.”

In either case, start by thinking about where you want your wreath.

“Inside, the fresh ones won’t last as long,” Katie points out. Command hooks (an adhesive brand, no tools required) are a great, non-permanent option to hang wreaths indoors without reaching for a hammer.

Alice Vincent and florist Katie Isitt from Kidge Flowers are seen creating eco-friendly Christmas decorations

Wreath hoisted, we move on to the table, where a dozen spiked flower pins sit. With an increasing shift away from floral foam, which is created using formaldehyde, carbon black and phenolic foam to create a marine-savaging non-recyclable plastic, these old-school flower frogs, or kenzan, are making a comeback. “It’s kind of going back to how people used to arrange flowers,” says Katie, “it’s really nice to use a more traditional method and it allows the stems to fall more naturally.”

Flower pins can be used in water, in the base of a vase, but here we’re propping the dried stems of sea lavender (limonium), straw flowers and honesty (lunaria) – “it has a pearly, Christmassy feeling” – between the spikes. Katie says the star-shaped flowers of giant hogweed and ammi can also work well.

Here, Katie uses wired hydrangea flowers as a focus with the smaller blooms to complement. She adds white peppercorns to hint at berries and reindeer moss to partially cover the pins. Grouped together, they make a pretty tablescape beneath a couple of brass junk shop candlesticks that I whipped off the mantelpiece. Thanks to the pins, they can be easily shuffled about for serving plates and glassware.

An eco-friendly Christmas tablescape made by florist Katie Isitt from Kidge Flowers

If you didn’t want to invest in flower pins (although I have a set from Niwaki, and love them), small bud vases or jars would work too.

Next door, Katie is making a long, thin sausage out of chicken wire – the humble beginnings of 2021’s hottest festive accessory: the mantelscape. You can barely log into Instagram these days without seeing a green fire hazard swagged across your screen. I am, of course, desperate for one, having limply strewn ivy across my mantelpiece last year. The sausage is the architecture of any good floral scape; Katie fills it with moss and then threads twine through it and tapes it underneath either end of the mantelpiece. The moss helps to weigh down the arrangement and keep fresh foliage moist.

We start with lengthy pine branches and lichen-covered sticks – snipping bits off large boughs, that can be ordered from the florist or foraged responsibly – and then fold in dried hydrangea blooms on long stems, which tie in with the table arrangement and wreath. Cuttings of conifer and flowering ivy are layered up alongside handfuls of twiggy thyme.

Behold the mantlescape: held together by a long, thin sausage made of chicken wire Credit: Clara Molden

“It’s important to consider depth with a mantel,” advises Katie, “so it doesn’t look like a flat picture.” Just as blooms look more natural flopping over a vase, a gentle tumble over the edge of a mantel breaks up straight lines.

She smuggles small glass vases into the foliage as a final touch, and fills them with cut hellebores. We step back, and it is gorgeous. Who needs a tree when you’ve got a yuletide forest growing magically out of the wall?

Katie’s top tips

Don’t be a fashion slave

It’s Christmas! Dust off the family decorations and incorporate them into something new: strung into a mantlescape or attached to foliage wrapped around a bannister. Bringing your own style to it will make it fun.

Rummage around for what you’ve got

Look around in the garden for dried grass heads, structural perennial growth and straggly herbs. Take the secateurs to the laurel, ivy, bay and conifers for fresh foliage that will make the house smell great. Pots of forced bulbs can be brought inside to form focal points of arrangements.

Don’t be afraid to let the mechanics show

A glint of chicken wire here or a brass flower pin and copper wreath ring there won’t do anyone any harm: you’re better off concentrating on the bigger picture of the arrangement.

Speak to a florist

If you’re not able to pinch from the garden, see what foliage your local florist can order in for you. If it feels rash, think about how much you’re saving by not buying a tree.

Compost or keep it afterwards

Dried flowers will last forever, so can be carefully boxed up and stored for another year. Everything else can go in the compost bin.