How to Decorate for Winter by Bringing Nature In

Forage natural winter decorations for reminders of the outdoors and hope for spring.

By Mazuba Kapambwe

The holiday decorations are down, the lights aren’t twinkling, and the nights feel long and dark. But there’s a surprisingly easy, free way to give yourself a lift: by foraging a bit to bring the outdoors inside.

Foraging is defined as gathering plants, flowers, berries, and other wild food resources. Although people have always foraged, the pandemic drastically increased interest in the practice, with sources like NBC reporting a 500% increase in online searches of how to forage in the United States.

Gathering or foraging bits of nature can bring the joy of nature indoors even in the dead of winter. (Photo: Courtesy Heart and Soil)

For Kelsey Ter Merr, founder of Newburgh floral design company Heart and Soil, foraging and “doing good by the earth and soil that bears these flowers” is an important part of her ethos. She believes winter offers “an opportunity to celebrate and appreciate the seasonality of our landscape. Design ideas are meant to reflect the landscape that surrounds us, because nature is beautiful in its true form — no need for glitter and gilding.”

Gathering bits of nature is a beautiful idea — but if you forage mid-winter, how do you display your finds beautifully, so they don’t just look like a random stick sitting here or there? Scott Zimmer, owner of Zimmer Gardens in Kingston, says for nature-based decorating to look intentional, the key is starting with intention. Pick a vase or bowl before you go out, he suggests, and know where you’ll place it. That’ll help you gather enough material, and of the right size.

“No matter what time of year, to bring the outside in isn’t that complicated and doesn’t have to be a whole big production,” Zimmer says. “What will make something distinctive is your intention before you start. If you want to make it seem like you have intention, think of color — whether you’re going to stick to a single color or mix colors — and of the height. There’s beauty in a mass of one color. If you’re going to mix stuff, I’d mix it up a lot. Don’t go in between — make a commitment.”

Even bare branches add sculptural interest to wintertime arrangements. (Photo: Courtesy Heart and Soil)

One of Ter Merr’s favorite plants to forage is grapevine. The climber plant can be used in a garland, as the base of a wreath, or as a sculptural moment. She notes that poison ivy grows alongside grapevines and in winter months is not as easy to spot due to leaf loss. “Watch out for hairy-looking vines and small white berry clusters,” she says.

Zimmer loves the classic red of winterberry, but also recommends red twig dogwood, whose branches turn bright red in the cold. Clipping and laying out different branches can help reveal the color range, from different tones of browns and grays to silvers and even birch whites. “That alone could be of great interest,” he says.

Approach the gathering thoughtfully and carefully. Zimmer suggests wearing gloves to protect yourself from sap, and carrying a bucket, basket, small tarp, or old pillowcase to carry your finds. Ter Merr also advises being “careful about which species you are clipping, and mindful that you are not decimating a plant. She adds, “Stay away from invasive species with mature seed heads, like bittersweet, so you do not spread seed.”

Be careful of sap as you forage — gloves and a bucket can be helpful for gathering evergreen in winter. (Photo: Courtesy Heart and Soil)

Using pine cones you stumble upon on walks or hikes in the woods is another go-to. Ter Merr likes to surround table taper candles with pine cones. She recommends using them en masse, which creates “an easy, long-lasting, wintry tablescape and is also a fun activity for kids.”

A bowl or tray can be an alternative for pinecones — but no matter what vessel you choose, Zimmer suggests using plenty. “More is more,” he says. “Fill the whole thing like you’re serving a plate of vegetables. Really fill it up.” Another idea: make a garland. Use a ribbon or string, and tie a pinecone along it every 8-10 inches.

Leftover items, like evergreen sprigs, can be spirit-brightening powerhouses when spread throughout the house in little bud vases. “If you put those things all over in unexpected areas, like in your bathroom or by your bed, you’ll feel like you’re in a garden,” Zimmer says. “That can spark that outside-inside feel and create a theme throughout the house.”

Gathering items like moss, nuts, and pinecones can add different textures to your wintertime table. (Photo: Courtesy Heart and Soil)

Another seasonal pick-me-up: getting ready now for blooms that will bring joy soon. Ter Merr recommends using bulbs like amaryllis and paperwhites and growing them indoors. Keeping them away from direct sunlight will keep the blooms lasting longer. They can also be put outside during the summer and will rebloom in the next winter season. “It’s sometimes hard to predict on exactly what day they will bloom, but it’s fulfilling to watch the process,” she says.

Writer Mazuba Kapambwe holds a master’s degree in Africana Studies from SUNY-Albany. She fell in love with the Hudson Valley on countless bus rides between the Capital District and her family’s home in Scarsdale, N.Y. Her work has appeared in Conde Nast Traveler, Culture Trip, CNN Travel, and more.