Decorating your Christmas tree can be the highlight of the holiday season. For some people, it’s a family celebration, where everyone gathers to add their favorite ornaments to the mosaic of memories that covers the pine. For others, trimming the tree is like creating artwork, with each ornament carefully chosen and strategically placed. However you go about it, here are six simple steps for trimming a tree that is as glorious as the season: 

When it comes to creating an awe-inspiring Christmas tree, my friend Kelly is a master. A floral designer who is also part of the visual team at Nell Hill’s, Kelly has been busy this year designing trees at Nell Hill’s, each one unique, each one stunning. Our customers always ask us how to make their trees as beautiful as the ones in our stores. We can’t clone Kelly and send her to everyone’s home to help with their trees, but we can share her secrets for the perfect six-layer tree.


4 Tips to Get You Started

Before we launch into Kelly’s tree decorating secrets, I want to share the guidelines she follows when she approaches any tree she’s decorating (or, as Kelly terms it, “tree stuffing” because she packs so much into the pine).

  1. Make sure you have enough lights to make the tree brilliant. She uses 100 lights per foot of the tree’s height.
  2. Don’t shove the tree into a corner. This is a masterpiece, so make sure it’s in a highly visible spot.
  3. Use a tablecloth to conceal the tree stand instead of a tree skirt. Tablecloths drape nicely and are easily laundered.
  4. Pick a theme and color palette to bring alive. Use up to three colors on your tree, no more.


Layer 1: The Top. Lights and Garland First, from the Top Down

For a rich, full-looking tree, you must create a great base. Start by using plenty of lights, making sure they are evenly distributed throughout the tree. I’m partial to small, white lights for their sophisticated simplicity. Next, pick a great topper, the crowned jewel of your tree. When we decorated for the Nell Hill’s Holiday Open House this year, I knew I had to top my tree with a metal monogram, my newest heartthrob. The wonderful “G” at the top of my tree set the tone.

Check out this adorable topper from the tree that stood in my dining room during last year’s Holiday Open House. My entire dining room had a woodland bird theme, which was brought to life on the tree, starting with this great top treatment.

Layer 1 of your tree should also include the bedrock elements of your design, like the garland or ribbon that will thread through the tree. The photo above is of the plucky garland that bisected the tree in my foyer this year.

So you can see how Kelly works her magic, I’m sharing a series of snapshots showing how she decorated a display tree at Nell Hill’s Briarcliff. After she placed the lights, she wove in twists of honeysuckle vine and plaid ribbon, starting top down. Another strategy for making run-of-the-mill artificial trees seem fuller and multi-dimensional is to tuck picks into a few empty spots between branches. They can be complementary evergreen sprigs, perhaps sporting pinecones or berries. Or they can be something very different, like faux flowers or whimsical curlicues.


Layer 2: The Middle. Place Big Theme Items

A great tree includes a mixture of large, medium and smaller ornaments. We like to add our largest, high-impact ornaments at the center of the tree.

Pick a few that grab your heart. It could be your grandmother’s china doll, an interesting figurine, a few huge pinecones, or some large wicker or glass balls.

I often use large cherubs when I decorate my own Christmas tree. The photo above is a close up of the cherub that graced the tree in my dining room a few years ago.

This year, I tried something new. Instead of nestling a cherub into the branches of the tree, I suspended two from my banisters so they hung down next to the tree, as if they were flying around it.

Layer two of Kelly’s tree at Nell Hill’s Briarcliff included a few interesting honeysuckle vine wreaths, hung vertically and horizontally.


Layer 3: The Bottom. Take it to New Heights

Make sure your tree doesn’t fizzle out at the bottom. For a fuller, more intricate look, insert a few fallen sticks, stems of flowers or shafts covered with berries into the widely spaced limbs at the bottom of the tree.

On the tree she decorated at Nell Hill’s Briarcliff, Kelly let large ornaments dangle from the tree’s very lowest limbs. With nothing to obscure them from view or fight with them for attention, these descending ornaments really stand out.


Layer 4: Inside the Tree Branches. Create a Conversation Piece

To make your tree more personal, be sure to add at least one ornament that is a bit out of the ordinary or very special to you and your family. In the photo above, Kelly used one of the honeysuckle wreaths as a frame for her favorite ornament, an owl encased in a clear glass orb.

I love lanterns, so we hung a small version of one of my favorite lantern styles in this tree at Nell Hill’s Briarcliff. While store-bought ornaments are wonderful, they aren’t the only thing you can showcase on your tree. Why not hang tiny framed photos of your family members or ancestors from the inner branches? Hang a few teacups or small plates of your china. Or showcase a few pieces from one of your favorite collections.


Layer 5: Edge of the Branches. Create Depth and Dimension

To give our tree at Nell Hill’s Briarcliff some sizzle, Kelly wove in picks of bright red berries. That’s the secret of layer five: giving your tree a bit more depth and color by placing intriguing elements in the middle of the tree branches. At this point, hang the ornaments that you like but don’t love toward the middle of the tree branches, where they bring dimension but don’t stand out.


Layer 6: Outside of the Tree. The Fun Finish

Finish your tree with an exclamation point by hanging dramatic ornaments or trims on the outer tips of the tree branches. On the tree Kelly decorated at Nell Hill’s, she accomplished this fabulous finale by blanketing the tree in interesting ornaments that brought to life the outdoorsy theme.

Clear glass ornaments holding wild bird feathers, bird figurines clipped to the branches and vintage wood ornaments cut in the shape of a bird were all perfect picks.


More Tree-mendous Christmas Trees from Nell Hill’s

Want some inspiration as you pick a theme and bring it to life on your own Christmas tree? Here are a few trees at Nell Hill’s I think might do the trick!

Christmas Caroling




Woodland Creatures 




Next Week … Everyone will want to sit at the kids’ table when you dress it for fun. I’ll show you how next week.


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21 Responses to “Trim a Tremendous Tree: 6 Simple Steps”

  1. Ramon Says:

    This is the post I been waiting for all year long, thank you for all the inspiration an ideas, I dedicated my tree this year to the nell hills style, come check it out at rowhouseeventsandinteriors.blogspot.com I hope you like it.

  2. Melinda Says:

    Cannot wait to get home and put your tips into effect! Beautiful, just beautiful.

  3. LINDA Says:

    Mary Carol team. You have OUTDONE yourself AGAIN!! What an inspiration you are & I wasn’t going to put a tree up this year HAH. Onward I go. So I’ll just do less baking, Take Mary Carol’s ideas of purchase & present creatively. May your Christmas Season be one of joyful celebration.

  4. Linda, now in AZ Says:

    Biiiiigger, clearer pics, pleeease!!! When I “oversize” them, they just get blurry, and there’s soooo much prettiness to see that we’re all missing!


  5. Mary Carol Says:

    Hmm, thanks for letting me know, Linda!
    Enjoy your tree decorating, everyone!!

  6. Jim Weishaar Says:

    Fabulous ! A return of the glorious trees circa Gourmet Corner and early Nell Hill’s. As you know, my basements and attics (I have 3 of each) are filled with Nell Hill’s Christmas treasures. The wreaths, garlands, ribbons, etc. blend seamlessly year to year because your taste is impeccable; your style timeless; your heart gigantic. I cannot wait to decorate my new old house in KS when I move in Dec.

  7. Christine Says:

    Gorgeous, simply gorgeous trees….definitely inspired me!

  8. Mildred Hoppe Says:

    Okay, a couple of questions.
    1. How do you anchor a tree in those urns, getting them to stand up straight and be secure?

    2. In the last few tree pics of the blog, what is the white stuff that looks like big blobs of snow?
    Is that a flocked stem of some sort?

    This is a beautiful blog. Always love seeing the creativity that comes out of Nell Hill’s. Wish I had been able to attend the Christmas Open House. Next Year!!!

    Merry Christmas to you all.

  9. JoAnn Augspurger Says:

    Love the trees! You spoke of table cloths or other fabrics to be used under the trees but I did not see any. Hope you will show some with quilts, special table skirts, etc.
    Thanks for your blog, I love coming to your stores.

  10. 6 Steps to Trimming a Tremendous Christmas Tree - ThisIsKC Says:

    [...] See the other two tips at Mary Carol’s blog. [...]

  11. Patty W. in Atchison Says:

    Mary Carol…loved this post…it is sooo you! I always enjoy reading your lovely blog. Keep up the good work and have a wonderful Advent season. Patty

  12. franki Says:

    I so agree with your “tablecovering” philosophy…I use white “sparkly sequin fabric” to drape around the bottom and it just looks like “freshly fallen snow.” franki

  13. Bonnie Says:

    Mary Carol, just love everything you do. I was wondering if your store ever got the white lantern with black top back in?
    Thanks for your blog!

  14. Mary Carol Says:

    Hi Everyone! Jim — what a memory!!! Gourmet Corner seems like a million years ago — and yesterday. How does time do that???
    Franki – would love to see your tree skirt idea! Sounds lovely.
    Mildred – yes, you definitely need to surround the tree stem with something that stabilizes it. Perhaps soil left over from your summer plantings? It helps to have a long stem so the tree sits down in. The white picks you saw are a kind of flocking – a new interpretation of an old favorite from my childhood.
    Sorry, JoAnn – no more blogs on Christmas trees slated for this year, but that’s a good idea for next year!
    Bonnie – give us a call to check on the status of the black topped white lanterns (I love this style!!), toll free, 877-746-4320.
    Love to all of you! Happy tree decorating :)

  15. Joni Wilson Says:

    What size are the trees that you are showing in your photos? Are they real or synthetic? If fake, where are they from?

  16. Joni Wilson Says:

    What size are the urns you’re using?

  17. Nancy in Arkansas Says:

    I’ve used urns for years. Take a piece of pvc pipe and secure with quick crete in the middle. The stem of the tree will slide right in. It’s heavy, but beautiful!!

  18. Mary Carol Says:

    Hi Joni, the trees and urns are all different sizes – if you have a specific one you’d like to find out about, just give us a call toll free at 877-746-4320.

  19. Judy Davis Says:

    Love this guide. So helpful. I will print it off and file in my Christmas file to refer to year after year.

  20. Vera (living in Illinois) Says:

    Your tree trimming ideas are wonderful! I hope to visit your store and home next year to see all the wonderful ideas in person.

    In the sixth picture about the first layer, there is a beautiful garland with several sizes and colors of balls. Is this item available in your store? Where would I find it?

    Thank you for sharing your great ideas to make our homes a special place to live and visit!

  21. Sherry In Wichita Says:

    You’ve outdone yourself again!! Thanks for the great guide and the feast for the eyes. God bless all the talented people at Nell Hill who have given us inspiration throughout the year. I hope I’ll be able to visit the store more next year. Until then I will continue to look forward to getting my uplifting and inspiring emails from you. Thank you for taking time to share yourself with us and enrich our lives. All the Best to you and yours.

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