Wreath and Garland Industry Report

By Jim Jones, M.A.; B.Sc.

Based on 5 weeks training at Mountain Harvest Botanicals, Britannia Beach, BC, during November and December 2004. This project was made possible through the continuing support of West Coast Learning Network and Bamfield Huu-ay-aht Community Forest Society.


Intention was, to learn as much as possible about every conceivable aspect of the Wreath and Garland business, and bring knowledge, skills, and some work experience back to our community. My method was to work alongside all workers at Mountain Harvest, at first observing, then assisting and eventually performing that job segment on my own at a marketable skill level. Everyone I worked with acted as a tutor in skills and understanding as well as providing insight into the industry from that particular perspective: harvesting, “clipper” (bough processing), “maker” (product fabrication), marketing, or management.Once I began to learn some skills and had acquired some knowledge of how the business ran, I found that by taking the perspective that this was my own business and applying myself in noticing whatever must be done next or attempting to find solutions to day to day challenges or just making things run smoother, gave me a very realistic though vicarious experience of managing this business. While it is impossible to record every nuance of what I learned, I have listed key requirements, objectives and issues related to various primary aspects of the business. HarvestingIdentification is the first aspect of harvesting knowledge that must be acquired. The following species were harvested for listed purposes during the time period.

  • Western red cedar (Thuja plicata): 2 sizes of garland, wreaths, swags, sprays, and bales of 60cm “tips”
  • Yellow cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis): “beaded” boughs used in swags, sprays, and employed in decorating wreaths, when available.
  • Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii): garland, wreaths, swags, sprays, and bales of 60cm “tips”. Late season use only, due to needles being less persistent than other species.
  • Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla): Coned tips are used in swags and as decoration on wreaths. Needles fall very quickly from this species making the boughs undesirable for other purposes.
  • Mountain Hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana): Not seen or harvested during this season but known to have persistent needles making it a good choice for garland, wreaths, swags, sprays, and bales of 60cm “tips”.
  • Amabilis fir; silver fir; noble fir; balsam (Abies amabilis): garland, wreaths, swags, sprays, and bales of 60cm “tips”. This species is used extensively, so much so that some Vancouver Island wreath and garland makers go to mainland BC with large cargo trucks to harvest and transport back to their home base as required for production.
  • Lodgepole pine; shore pine; black pine (Pinus contorta) wreaths, swags, sprays, and bales of 60cm “tips”
  • Western white pine (Pinus monticola): wreaths, swags, sprays, and decoration of other products.
  • Salal (Galtheria shallon): garland, wreaths, swags, sprays, and bales of 45-60cm “tips”
  • oval leaved blueberry; red huck (Vaccinium ovalifolium): wreaths, swags, sprays, and bundled tips as well as decoration of other products. Red twigs add contrast plus a “christmassy” color pattern to products and floral arrangements. Requires frost to turn twigs the desirable red colour.
  • Western red huckleberry; green huck (Vaccinium parvifolium): wreaths, swags, sprays, and bundled tips as well as decoration of other products. Green lacy looking twigs add variety to products and floral arrangements
  • Willow (Salix spp): “pussy willows” used in wreaths, swags, sprays, and bundled tips as well as decoration of other products. Not generally available during the Christmas rush, but very popular in their season.
  • RED OZIER DOGWOOD (Cornus stolonifera): swags, sprays, and bundled tips as well as decoration of other products. Red twigs.
  • Evergreen Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum): This species is not abundant on the east side of Vancouver Island or adjacent areas of mainland BC where many wreath and garland makers currently operate. This shrub, abundant in our area on the west coast of the Island, has the same persistent storage qualities as salal. I believe there is a potential to make this a Bamfield or “West Coast” specialty for garland, wreaths, swags, sprays, and bundled tips as well as decoration of other products.
  • Additional species could be utilized in other seasons: sweet gale (Myrica gale); deer fern; helix ivy; broom; often wreaths and garlands ordered for special events need only last a few days, making imagination the limiting factor in choosing floral greens through the year. Flowering shrubs make dramatic additions to floral arrangements.
  • HORTICULTURAL ORNAMENTALS have their place in the industry too, most notably, plain and variegated holly boughs with red berries. Others include varieties of cypress, juniper and laurel. Any tree or shrub with persistent leaves can make an interesting accent to your wild harvest products. Mountain Harvest had agreements with owners of such choice specimens, whereby they professionally pruned at strategic times in exchange for the clippings.

As in any business, high quality products are necessary for success. Quality starts with harvesting prime boughs of appropriate size, quality and growth pattern. Without this, the “clipper” will work longer hours to provide the “maker” with “clippings” that are harder to work with. In the end, everyone will have spent too much time in turning out marginally saleable products that they are not proud of. Each person in the production line depends upon the person doing the previous step to give them what they need to do a good and efficient job. Knowledgeable selective harvesting with respect to current product orders is key.Training and experience, specific to each species is required in harvesting. Cedar, for example – probably the most important species to the business, requires careful selective harvesting and stewardship. Garland requires branchlets 45cm to 75cm in length. They must be thickly sub-branched, heavily leaved and limber for a good showy product. They must also be free of road dirt (dirt “grows in” so you can never harvest along a dirt road that was ever traveled regularly during the summer). Fleck (a scattering of dead, dried, graying leaves on otherwise lush green boughs) is often rampant in some areas making it difficult to get prime boughs for garland. Molt (small contiguous bits of brown dead leaves), though, is usually not a problem and falls away with handling leaving a high proportion of the leaves intact for production purposes. Cedar and other species should not be harvested until they have had 20 consecutive days of near freezing temperature to insure dormancy and the best trees seem to be on reforested cutblocks between 20 and 30 years since planting. Often altitude and slope aspect will be key in locating harvestable boughs. Fleck is often rampant at lower elevations while trees at higher elevations on a west facing slope where the whole tree gets full sun in the afternoons can be ideal. But, watch the color: too much sun can bring out a golden hue that will not mix well with the mostly dark greens previously harvested.Wreaths have different requirements: wreath pieces must be stiff but need not be densely foliated since the number of pieces per wreath is easily adjustable. Tips are bough tips that are choice, densely foliated and well coned if possible. Because harvesting has such specific requirements, good harvestable trees are not found in great abundance. Stewardship becomes very important. If you look after your trees and shrubs, you will be able to return in a few years to harvest again. This is really important on the mainland where roads with suitable harvesting areas are few and often access is difficult, requiring 4 wheel drive to get in and out. The best way to harvest boughs is to go by International Society of Arborculturists (ISA) * standards. As I understand:

  • Never take more than 2/3 of the foliage from any given bough.
  • Never harvest boughs from more than 2/3 of the tree ( Tips only after 1/3 of tree).
  • Cut boughs just outside the last branchlet that you are leaving (i.e. don’t leave little stumps that will not heal over with bark right away.

Following these rules will benefit the tree and eventually, your next harvest. In some areas, TFL holders require “collar cuts” (cut to the bump that surrounds the base of the bough next to the tree trunk) up to a maximum of half the tree height to insure high quality lumber in the future. While we would prefer to cooperate as much as possible, it is not always within the ability of a pole pruner to collar cut some of the heftier branches. Also, it is just not feasible, in terms of labor, to cut whole branches when often you are just harvesting the tips. Each species has its own way of growing and requires its own specific harvest practices. Harvesting tools:Hand pruners, two handed “loppers”, and pole pruners with 1.5 inch minimum throat size are a must. Pruners of the side cutting or shear type are best. High quality will pay off in reduced down time, ease of use and ultimately in cost because of enhanced durability. Also desirable are: a large watershedding hat for rain and snow-fall from boughs; durable warm waterproof gloves; a fanny pack for elastic bands – bundling; snow chains. Transport and storage:Boughs are loaded with butts facing the rear of the vehicle or first rear, then side door in the case of using a cargo van. This facilitates unloading and minimizes bruising. Some species, particularly balsam (Abies amabilis) and red huck (Vaccinium ovalifolium) may only be available during the early season. Snowfall can put them out of reach, so these must be harvested early in the season and stored until use. Some boughs may spend up to a month in a stack, so it was felt that storage off the ground on wooden pallets is prudent. Quality and persistence of needles on boughs is excellent if kept out of constant sunlight and wet. Maintaining moisture in a dry year can be challenging since chlorinated tap water is known to have negative impact on quality.CLIPPINGProcessing the boughs into pieces that are ready to be made into products is done by the clipper. The clipper must understand sizes and growth patterns required for garland making as well as for wreath making. For wreath making, the sub branches or branchlets must be within the length range (45-75cm), free of dirt and fleck, thin enough to be limber, and thick enough to feed efficiently into the machine without bending. Wreaths are generally made on crimped wire rings that range, in 2 inch diameter increments, from 8 to 18 inches. For the clipper, this means producing wreath pieces of appropriate size for incoming orders. A typical cedar bough is from 4 to 10 feet long and up to 6 feet wide at the base. The clipper needs ample room to move and a sturdy table large enough to lay out the bough to be cut. Larger boughs are usually cut in two with big loppers and big branches cut off the butt segment for easier processing. With the bough laid out on the table, the clipper must immediately know and identify all available clippings to be made and imperfections to be discarded. On a single cedar bough, a clipper may cut: a tip for swag use; sub branch tips for wreath pieces; garland pieces for production in two sizes; waste pieces for wreath base production (dirty or flecky); and stiff little “insider” branchlets that grow in a row next to the main stem of the bough, again for wreath pieces. Like most of the tasks in the industry, concepts are actually quite simple, but experience is required to generate speed and efficiency. Each species has its own way of growing and requires its own specific clipping strategies depending on its end use in product fabrication. Clipping tools:Clippers require good quality raingear as the boughs are invariably very wet. Warm, close fitting, flexible, gloves with “grippy” palms work best. Pruners must be sharp and of highest quality available – clippers will make thousands of cuts per day with this tool, so it should fit comfortably in the hand and require little effort in shearing up to 1 inch diameter branches. Solid warm footwear and a well padded mat to stand on help keep the clipper fresh, efficient and happy. Storage:Clippings of various sizes and species are placed in plastic baskets and passed on to the makers. Many species are used mainly as decoration and are seldom processed in quantity. It was helpful at Mountain Harvest to have large open spaces below cutting tables for stacked storage of these specialized “goodies” (holly, white pine, beaded cedar, ornamental horticultural bits, and so on,) as well as for other temporary storage such as tips for swags and sprays – often made up on the cutting table after the cutter had left for the day.Generally, cut pieces are stacked in baskets close to the maker and utilized in fabrication almost immediately, however, occasionally storage may be required. The primary problem that may develop is desiccation due to sun and wind. Set the baskets out in a sheltered shady spot where the rain can help keep them wet or even just set things like the “goody” collection in the rain when opportunity allows. Pine cones collected during the off season, on the other hand, must be kept dry; otherwise they will close up and lose their decorative appeal. Making Makers use their skill, experience and creativity to fabricate and decorate wreaths, garlands and swags. If the harvester and clipper have provided high quality raw materials, the maker can proceed quickly, efficiently and happily with minimal difficulty to produce beautiful, high quality items for market. The requirement for a consistent flow of high quality materials cannot be overstressed. Wreaths are fabricated on welded crimped wire rings. Then, using cedar clippings that are below market quality for other use, the wire ring is built up to about 1.5 inches in diameter. As the clippings are properly placed along the wire ring, the machine, under appropriate tension, wraps wire around the cedar, holding it firmly in place (these “bases” can be made up in quantity and in advance of the busy season). The maker can then continue on to place wreath pieces in the manner required by that particular species and fabricate the wreath. The heavy base holds moisture well, adding to the longevity of the wreath.The wreath maker must be able to create wreaths of uniform width and density in any required size and from any number of floral materials having diverse morphology (growth patterns) that each requires specific fabrication strategies in placement and feeding into the wreath-making machine. Wreaths are often made of mixed greens and may require the insertion of decorative species at strategic intervals. Once the basic wreath is completed, wreaths are often tastefully decorated with additional items (ribbons/bows, pine cones, ornaments) wired into place by hand. “Making” tools:The maker will be familiar with adjusting and maintaining the wreath making or garland making machines, with appropriate tools to each machine. Wreath making machines were originally made in the US and could be used to make either wreaths or garlands. This machine has been in production for many years with few, if any design upgrades ever made. The old machine has a number of problems. The tension adjustment is time consuming requiring good light and both hands. The bushings that guide the rotating hub are prone to wear out once and sometimes twice per season. Knee switches require shifting the maker’s body weight to one side for a good deal of the time. And, the work surface is too small, requiring the maker to awkwardly support one side of wreaths with 16 inch or larger diameter bases as they advance production through the machine. Until now, these have been the industry standard and the best available. Dwight Thornton has re-designed the machine, eliminating these problems, and is currently moving beyond prototypes to professional quality, permanently lubricated, variable speed machines with DC motors. With the footswitch on the floor, even people with disabilities such as back problems can use them as it is possible to sit while making wreaths or garland. Also, with variable speed control, this makes a desirable training machine since you can adjust the speed to accommodate level of experience. These machines are competitively priced at $2175 Cdn. I have worked with both machines and examined the design closely. My choice is decidedly the new machine. Both new and old machines make either wreaths or garlands. Dwight has streamlined the garland making by creating a garland only machine that is simpler, narrower –allowing clipping trays to be more conveniently at hand; and a speed control provides faster wire wrapping. This machine gives the maker the capability of fabricating at double the rate of the dual purpose machine. Given the demand for garland, this machine would be a welcome addition to any wreath and garland business. Dwight said he expects his garland machine will sell for around $1750 In addition to the machines, the Maker will need hand pruners, wire cutters, as well as warm, waterproof, close-fitting gloves, solid footwear, and a comfortable mat under foot. Storage of finished products:It can take time to produce all items in an order and it may not be convenient for the order to be delivered for a day or two. If indoor space is at a premium, plain, undecorated items are best stacked on pallets outdoors where the rain will keep them fresh. Wreaths are best stored hung on lengths of pole or pipe suspended horizontally. Decorated wreaths will have to be covered, to keep bows and cones in good condition. The most efficient storage, whenever feasible, is inside the delivery vehicle, minimizing handling. MarketingMountain Harvest sells their products primarily to florists, nurseries and garden centres in the Vancouver area, delivering directly to customers with a cargo van. Vehicle access is over paved highways and streets with destinations somewhat clustered within 1 to 1.5 hours drive in ¾ ton cargo vans. Selling to retailers certainly provides a higher return than selling to wholesalers. Discussions with Dwight indicate that there is a high demand from this type of client. Another option may be to export products to Europe for sale there, assumably at higher prices than would be garnered from wholesalers. The internet provides yet another alternative. More and more consumers are turning to their computers when shopping for specialty items. The internet offers an opportunity to sell at retail prices. Here, the challenge will be in minimizing mail and packaging costs. The problem in Bamfield and other west coast Vancouver Island communities is in delivering to markets in an efficient and cost effective manner. This is our major challenge. Considering the long shelf-life characteristics of these products (wreaths made in November have been known to last until spring if kept moist and away from sun, it may be advisable to work out delivery dates for orders going to the lower mainland area that will work well with a bigger transport/delivery vehicle i.e.: a large capacity cargo van (5 ton) takes time to fill with product but, once full of product orders, can make a trip out to market that might otherwise require several smaller van-loads with attendant fuel and driver costs. Retail point of sale venues such as farmers markets may also be considered. Clearly, markets do exist and by all indications, they are hungry. ManagementI found the peak Christmas season to be a time of incredible activity that must be properly orchestrated starting with prudent pre-season preparations, foresight and intuition. Through the off season, cones from various conifers are collected and, ideally, fitted with a tie wire to save time later in the production process. Samples of products need to be exhibited to buyers and orders negotiated. Vehicle maintenance needs to be solid – there is no room for down time in this kind of high intensity work season. Worksite, buildings and all equipment must be in order and ready for high volume and inclement weather. Stock of hardware component materials, enough to fill a maximum of orders, must be laid in.

Staff must be hired and trained in each facet of production. Wreath makers, in particular will get well acquainted with their machines while producing hundreds of bases in quantity and sizes anticipated to be most popular. Kept out of the sun and moist, these bases will easily keep for months. In addition to the physical aspects of management preparation, the mental side must also be in balance. The demands on the energy of key individuals to the business are considerable. Orders in excess of the ability of the operation to produce can easily accrue as customers demand ever more product. Without a doubt, every person at Mountain Harvest could have worked 24 hours per day and still not kept all the customers happy. In fact, 16 hour days were not uncommon for the owners. In my vicarious manager role, I tried to keep up but simply could not work that number of hours. Stress levels are very high, it’s the time to earn money and the window of opportunity is open for a short time. Tempers can flare and sometimes the sheer weight of the vision of the work ahead can just be too much to bear. Other days, everything goes so well that you are on top of the world where anything is do-able. This kind of roller coaster ride inevitably takes its toll on interpersonal relationships. Mangers must find a way to rise above this, and intuitively know when to laugh out loud while refusing an “impossible” order, or come in with coffee and doughnuts or other refreshments for everyone. You have to be taking the “pulse of your people” and show appreciation all the time if you want to successfully hold it together to the end of the season. TRAININGDwight and Debbie Thornton, of Mountain Harvest Botanicals, are planning to offer training in the wreath and garland business starting November 2005. The course will run approximately 6 weeks and the price is expected to be about $2000. They will conduct the course from their new location in Boston Bar, BC. I am pleased to have been the student in this year’s pilot project and cannot imagine mentors who could have taught me more in the time available. This year, Dwight will begin assembly and accepting orders for his newly redesigned machines.His contact information is:Mountain Harvest BotanicalsSS1 Boston Bar, B.C.V0K 1C0Phone: 1 604-867-9381 Toll Free : 1-866-826-1054 for info email wreaths@uniserve.com Discussion I really liked the work. It is hard but truly satisfying – days out in the forest, stewarding it as you harvest provides a feeling of balance or harmony with nature, though the weather makes some days glorious and other days, well, challenging. Making neat Christmas decorations is a fun way to explore your creativity and let loose that certain something in the hands that wants to make stuff. There is money to be made in this business but it is very labor intensive so you can not expect to earn at a high hourly rate. Once you know your job and get good at it, my guess is $12 to $15 per hour. During the busy season though, the market is such that you can probably work as many hours a day as you can stand up! We have most of the shrubs and trees here that are used by Mountain Harvest but we also have some things that are only found in good quality and quantity here on the wet west coast of the Island: deer fern, salal spikes, western red huckleberry, and evergreen huckleberry. Dwight and Deb knew nothing of deer fern except that florists do like to get the fronds. I think that the reproductive stalks could also be of interest: right now they are a very dark brown and when placed in a bunch indoors, they curl down just a bit and have an elegant feathery look. Salal spikes are those straight-up stems that have the leaves growing close together and all around the stem. Last year we were told they were no good for the export business because they don’t work well in the packing cases. But, florists apparently love it. This growth pattern is rare in other areas – common here, so all we have to do is figure out how to get them to market in good condition. The evergreen huckleberry though is something I see as our specialty since it has similar long lasting characteristics as salal yet due to its preference for the wet coast, it is not often harvested The above few paragraphs excerpted from the February 2005 article I wrote for the Bamfield Beacon newspaper presents a summary of the financial and harvest prospects that I believe are realistic. I would like to see the development of a community worker’s cooperative that would run with this business idea and eventually expand into other areas of Non timber forest product (NTFP) business. Timelines though, make the co-op unlikely, at least in the beginning. Funds are needed almost immediately to purchase machines, tools and supplies. A secure, sheltered workspace with material marshalling yard and access to enough electric power to operate strings of incandescent light bulbs, two machines, and a coffee maker must be found at a reasonable price that will only be rented two or three months per year at first. Perhaps a small motivated group jointly investing their time and some financial backing will be the way to get started. I have a tentative agreement with Dwight Thornton to purchase one dual purpose wreath making machine and a prototype garland making machine. I have also taken delivery on 100 plastic baskets @ $0.50 each, in anticipation of the coming season. I believe that we will need to get the machines purchased and over here and start training interested “makers” before the busy summer season so that we will begin to be prepared for this year’s lucrative Christmas season.There is much to do.

Mountain Harvest Botanicals is owned and operated by Dwight and Debbie Thornton. The company is a year-round wholesale producer of floral greens products as well as a supplier of floral greens to the garden and florist industries.

Moisture and needles persist far longer while gummy sap volume is greatly reduced.

Dwight Thornton was formerly a registered ISA arborculturist and remains an advocate of their principles.

Once these rings are made into bases, their diameter grows approximately 2 inches while the greens add another 4 to 10 inches to the diameter of the finished product e.g. a 12 inch ring becomes a 14 inch base, likely measuring 24 inches diameter over all as a cedar wreath.

See Mountain Harvest Botanicals wholesale order form attached for selection of wire, wire rings, bar ties, elastic bands, etc.