In the hectic weeks before Christmas, the Sanderson family “elves” rev into overdrive to fill orders for wreaths of all shapes and sizes. Mom, Vickey, arranges greenery and handles the business end of things. Dad, Kenneth, gathers magnolia branches and other natural items from the property.
Their son, Josh, rolls long stretches of garland, while his sister, Kari, creates bows, mantelpieces and other specialty items. Together, the siblings handle the website and online requests. On weekends, Kari’s twin sister Nicki, an attorney, helps sell the wares at the State Farmers Market in Raleigh, and her brother Matt, who helps Kenneth run the 100-year-old family farm, assists where needed. A dozen employees join them in peak season.
“We all kind of have our own thing that we do well,” Kari says. “It’s teamwork that allows us to do it.”
Adds her mom, “It’s a lot of fun to work together, the whole family.”
Sanderson Wreaths & Garland is an outgrowth of Swingepig Christmas Trees, a small choose-and-cut business started by Kenneth and Vickey in 1983 and named for the tiny, rural area where they live near Four Oaks. They quickly discovered that other vendors at the farmers market were selling handmade evergreen wreaths, so the couple made some too and sold them alongside their red cedars and Virginia pines. Eventually, they phased out the tree sales altogether – “this was just easier,” Vickey says – and instead, gathered the needled branches for wreaths. They now use a variety of plant materials, from Frasier fir and boxwood to eucalyptus, cypress and nandina, cut daily and sprayed with a safe preservative to keep them fresh for wreaths, mantel decorations, and window and mailbox swags. Trees from the original Swingepig Christmas farm still yield cuttings for the wreath-making operation.
About five years ago, the Sandersons added cotton burr, cotton boll and lightweight corn shuck variations, which they sell year round. The snow-white cotton boll wreaths range in size from 20 inches to several feet in diameter. The family also makes cotton mantel items, centerpieces and bouquets.
“They’re really pretty,” Vickey says of the burrs, the pods that remain on the stalks after the cotton is picked. “They’re tan and they look almost like little stars. We just gather ’em, bundle ’em and make wreaths out of them. We’re using the whole plant.”
In the years they don’t grow cotton in their own fields, the Sandersons ask neighbors if they can clean up the burrs in theirs when the harvest is done. “Of course they’re glad for us to do that,” Kari jokes.
In addition to cotton, the close-knit family grows tobacco, corn, soybeans, wheat and muscadine grapes. Most of the wreath preparation comes in the down season, when there’s not much for the farmers to do in the field. Because cotton lasts a long time, the Sandersons can save some from a bumper year for one when the crop isn’t as plentiful due to weather fluctuations.
Kari and Josh, who oversee the wreath workshop, have other jobs, too. A new mom, Kari is an instructor at the School of Education at Barton College in Wilson. Josh teaches Spanish at Johnston Community College in Smithfield.
The Sandersons sell most of their items locally, but also market through Facebook and maintain an Etsy page for online shoppers. One customer shipped a cotton burr wreath to her daughter in London. “Most people usually see us in person at the market, and some find us while searching for cotton wreaths online,” Kari says. “We definitely have a lot of repeat customers at the farmers market.”
In 2014, the Sandersons outgrew their 75-year-old, cramped farmhouse with no insulation and built a new, bigger shop across the field, where they have more room to work and can store their cotton wreaths, which they sell throughout the year.
“I like the fact that it makes people happy,” Kari says of the family’s popular side venture. “But I also like the creative outlet. Especially with the fresh greenery, it just gets you in the Christmas spirit.”