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(Photo credit: David Benthal)

David Benthal is a commercial, portrait, and wedding photographer working in the New York area.

For centuries across the globe during the winter holidays, homes have been adorned with freshly cut evergreens and holly branches.

Beyond the often transformative scent they offer, evergreens symbolize peace, longevity and the reminder that spring will return. In the modern world, bringing the outdoors in and celebrating our natural surroundings has an even more important meaning. Considering the impact our celebrations can have on our environment, the need for a more sustainable holiday season becomes apparent.

Long before Christmas tree farms began to spread across the North Fork, the region was home to Puritans who didn’t celebrate winter Yuletide at all. “All of our traditions of celebrating the holiday with greenery comes from the Victorian era and the German traditions that Prince Albert, who married Queen Victoria, brought from his homeland,” said Amy Folk, manager of collections at the Southold Historical Museum.

Like most New Yorkers at the time, the first North Forkers fashioned their home decorating and holiday traditions after British royalty. “Early Long Islanders tended to use tabletop cedar trees instead of pine trees,” Folk said. In the 1860s, people began making cranberry and popcorn garlands to decorate their homes as well.

Judy Dart selects some special greenery for a customer. (Photo credit: David Benthal)

In modern times, as society moves away from homespun holiday traditions, an ever-increasing amount of waste in landfills and plastics on local beaches and trails are evidence of an unsustainable world. “I invite people to use this holiday season as a time of reflection and connection to our natural world as well as to each other,” said Taralynn Reynolds, outreach director for the Group for the East End. Hiking and spending time outdoors during the holiday season while the ticks are dormant can be a great way to connect with family and friends. “At the end of the day, humans are nature. Nature is a part of us. We are losing our connection to it,” she said.

While revamping holiday traditions completely can seem daunting, there are simple ways to become more sustainable this holiday season. Purchasing second-hand gifts and decor is an easy option given the abundance of estate sales, local thrift stores and antique shops in the area. Using old newspapers, magazines and children’s artwork as gift wrap is a simple way to cut back on additional household waste. “These are things that should be inherent in what we do in our daily lives but in particular during the holiday season,” Reynolds said.

While cut Christmas trees are a single-use product, many holiday wreaths are created more sustainably. Since 1971, Ed Dart of Dart’s Christmas Tree Farm and his team have been making wreaths with evergreen branches cut from their Southold bough orchard — a plot of land where only the branch tips are harvested each season to create decorations like wreaths and garlands. Visitors can enjoy the enchanting bough orchard of massive thirty-year-old evergreens when visiting the aptly named “Magic Forest” at the farm.

Each season they begin making their wreaths in mid-November and by the end of the season they have made nearly 600 wreaths. Other than the metal frames used for the wreaths, the materials on Dart’s wreaths are sourced entirely from the bough orchard and trimmings from the lower branches of harvested Christmas trees.

There are a variety of plant species in the bough orchard that are used for the wreaths. Each evergreen offers a unique texture and quality that enhances the wreaths. False Cypress boasts tiny pine cones while Concolor Fir adds a citrusy scent. One of Dart’s favorites is the lacy, silvery blue foliage of the Blue Sapphire Cypress. In addition to the various evergreen sprigs, cold hearty suede like Magnolia leaves, glossy Blue Holly branches and deciduous red Winterberry Holly are also harvested for the wreaths.

The farm is home to several peacocks which shed delicate glimmering feathers that adorn a selection of wreaths. Despite it being a very labor-intensive craft, the team continues to create the wreaths because of the tradition that began long ago. While Dart’s has attempted to sell live Christmas trees, both balled and potted options, the logistics have made it too difficult as the root systems in the larger trees are much too heavy to transport and bring indoors.

Judy Dart, Ed’s wife and business partner, has been creating and overseeing the wreath business since the very beginning. While it originally started as a small operation with only she and Ed making custom-order wreaths for local homeowners and a few nearby businesses, they now have five women who return each season to make hundreds of wreaths together. 

“The wreath making goes hand in hand with the tree farm. It’s a tradition for us,” she said. “I’ve always enjoyed the people who I work with for many hours in the wreath shop. The wreath shop in the back of the barn becomes a second home for me for those six weeks out of the year.” 

The barn Judy refers to is the historic two-story barn on the farm that dates back to 1753. The Dart family has handled the barn with care over the many decades they have been stewards of the property, painstakingly restoring it to allow for visitors to delight in its nostalgic character. The wreaths hold a special meaning for the Dart family as they enjoy seeing the same customers who return each year to select a unique wreath as part of their own tradition. “I like that the wreaths are a part of the farm that will continue to grow. The beautiful handmade wreaths are then taken to other people’s homes to hang on doors and welcome visitors,” Judy said. 

Another way to celebrate naturally is by bringing the outdoors in and then returning it to nature when the holiday season is over. Rather than discarding Christmas trees in landfills, trees can be left outdoors in backyards to offer additional dwellings to wildlife or chipped into mulch for home gardens. The simple act of keeping your tree on your own property is an important way to be sustainable after the holiday season is over. 

“Change your mindset about how your yard will look with an old Christmas tree in it — it’s not unkempt, you’re providing a home for wildlife during winter,” Reynolds said. Some folks decorate spent Christmas trees outdoors with bird feeders. Many local farms will take Christmas trees for their livestock to feed on in winter months, as the tree provides a nutrient-dense food source for goats, sheep and chickens. Creating natural garlands of pine cones and dried fruit can be a new traditional holiday activity while also being a way to bring outdoor beauty inside the home. Nature-based decor becomes an offering of sustenance for wildlife once put outdoors. 

Making a foraged garland

Choose the area where you would like to hang your garland. Measure the length and then add an extra 6 to 9 inches to each end to add a trail effect.


David Benthal is a commercial, portrait, and wedding photographer working in the New York area.

Clip 9-to-12-inch branches from evergreens in your yard or request to use spare branch clippings from your local Christmas tree farm. Any evergreens from your property or nearby forest will do. Arborvitae, white pine and juniper with berries are great commonly found options. Clip sprigs of plants with winter berries, spent flowers with seed heads, and dried flowers. Gather pine cones of varying sizes and shapes. Dig into your stash of floral wire or twine — twine is best, as it is compostable. You’ll also need heavy-duty scissors for clipping branches. Cut 4-to-6-inch pieces of twine or wire ahead of time to make assembly easier.


Layer the juniper berries or smaller pieces of evergreen on top of the largest pieces of evergreen to create bunches of two to three branches each. After tying individual bunches together, lay out on the floor in a row until you have the desired length. Once you have enough bunches, connect them with larger pieces of wire and twine until you have a garland. Finish off your garland with pine cones, flowers, seed heads and berries at connecting points to hide the twine/wire.


Hang your garland using reusable hooks. Spritz the garland one to two times per week with a water bottle to keep your evergreens fresh. A fresh garland typically lasts up to 20 days.