Holiday Containers by the Numbers, Part 1

I wish this was my pot. This one was designed by the folks at Gertens in Inver Grove Heights.

I’ve always been in awe of people who are just naturally visual, who can pick the perfect color for an outfit or a room or place a knock-out plant in just the right spot in the garden. I need more guidance than that, so when I was interviewing floral designers about holiday containers for a recent issue of Northern Gardener, I fished around for some math to make the art work. Happily, Ardith Beveridge, director of Koehler & Dramm’s Institute of Floristry and an internationally known floral designer, and Corinnne du Preez, annual and perennial manager at Gertens in Inver Grove Heights, suggested a few proportions and other specific ideas for making holiday containers.

Yesterday, I put those ideas to work on a container for my front porch. But first, the theory. The first step in any container project is to find the container and what to put in it.  Last year, I made a holiday-themed container so I reused that pot. Then, following the guides from Ardith and Corinne, I gathered my materials. A well-balanced container typically has 4 to 5 kinds of greens and 3 or 4 extras, like flowers, twigs or berries. Any less than that and it may look plain (although I’ve seen some very nice plain ones this year); any more and it will look chaotic.

I didn’t want to spend too much so I did a combination buy and scrounge for the materials for the pot. I bought a pack of spruce tips and a small bundle of fragrant cedar.  I cut greens from a large white pine in our yard and a mugo pine. For extras, I cut red-twig dogwood branches from the garden and found some fake poinsettia flowers and red berries that I picked up at a dollar store last summer for 50 cents each.

OK, now here comes the helpful math. First, think geometry — how will people look at your pot. Mine stands in the corner near our front door, so it has a definite front, and really only needs to look good for about 120 degrees. If people will look at it from all sides, you have to decorate 360 degrees.

Second, think proportions. For a pot to look “full enough,” the top of the display should be at least 1.5 times the height of the pot. But it can be more, and Beveridge suggests the top of the display be two times the height of the pot, plus the width of the pot (2H + W = Pretty). My pot is 15 inches across and 12 inches high, so [ (2×12) + 15 = 39]. The top point on the container should be about 39 inches above the container.

That’s enough math to get me started.

Christmas Container, Part 2: Boughs and Bilbo Baggins

img_0668.jpgSaturday, I began putting together my holiday-themed container. Since it was very cold outside, I put some newspapers on the floor in our mudroom and worked there. Before starting, I brought in all the things I thought I’d put in the container. Potting soil, two bunches of spruce branches bought for $1 each at Lansing Hardware, a $20 bunch of curly willow from Squire House Gardens (my splurge on this pot), and some pine branches, red-twig dogwood sticks, and sumac fruit from my back yard.

img_0674.jpgAs instructed by Kathy Oss of Squire House Gardens, I filled the bottom of the container with a mixture of potting soil and compost. I started working around the edges with the spruce boughs, cutting each branch at an angle and jamming it into the dirt. I packed them in tightly, and then inserted the pine boughs among the spruce for textural contrast. With the greenery set, I added the curly willow and my red-twig in the center, again trimming the branches before putting them in.

img_0678.jpgAt this point, my husband looked into the room and commented that, “it looks like something out of The Hobbit.” It did have that mystical forest look–not exactly what I was aiming for. I inserted the sumac, which gave it more of a holiday feel, but still didn’t pull it together.

When in doubt, take a break. So, I put the pot outside to freeze and cleaned up the mudroom.

img_0698.jpgSunday afternoon, I considered the options. I did not want to spend any more money on the project. We have some left over lights, but that seemed like too much bother. We also have a fairly large collection of ornaments, so I started looking for something there. My mother recently gave me a bag of her old ornaments and that’s where I found this Santa figure. Shades of Bilbo Baggins! My mom had four of the ornaments, which have that 70s retro thing going for them. The bag also contained two strands of wooden beads that matched the Santas. I hung the Santas on the curly willow and dogwood and strung the beads through the greenery.

img_0710.jpgSince the pot is on our porch, I hope the weather won’t be too hard on it. It’s, as Minnesotans say, “interesting,” and I think it will make a great addition to our holiday decorations.

Christmas Container, Part 1

I’ve been planning to put a holiday-themed container on our front porch for awhile, and decided I’d better get to the job before New Year’s arrives. The first step was to make a pot with a holiday look.

I’m not particularly artistic, which is why I love decoupage. For a couple of years now, I’ve been making plain plastic pots look more interesting by surrounding them in colorful papers. The process is messy but fun and requires almost no artistic talent.

img_0490.jpgYou start with a pot. In this case, it’s one I picked up free on the side of the road. (I will not dumpster dive, but I’ll stop to look at free stuff anytime.) You also need a decorative paper. Since Northfield’s Art Store was going out of business, I stopped there and picked up several sheets of decorative paper. For the Christmas pot, I used a red paper that had a texture like alligator skin and a sparkling gold paper on top. You also need the amateur artist’s best friend: Mod-Podge, a thin glue that leaves a shiny finish.

To begin, use a large pan (I used the utility sink in my basement) and fill it with a small amount of water and some Mod-Podge to make a thin sludge. Also paint full-strength Mod-Podge on the pot. Then, cut the paper into pieces that will wrap easily around the pot, dip them in the sludge water, and stick them on the pot. Your hands will get wet and messy, but there is something very satisfying about this process. Make sure there are no air bubbles under the paper. Once the paper is on the pot, let it sit for about 15 minutes to set up, then paint a layer of Mod-Podge over it. Wait another 15 minutes, and continue this process until you have about 5 layers of Mod-Podge.

img_0667.jpgWhen you are done, let it dry thoroughly, probably overnight, before you fill the pot with greenery or plants. What surprises me about these pots, is how well they hold up. I’ve had a couple of pots done this way for two years, and though they look a trifle dirty on the bottom, the paper is still attached and they are reasonably attractive.

Holiday Pot Advice from a Pro

img_0553.jpgYesterday I visited Squire House Gardens in Afton, a wonderful garden and gift shop. The shop is dressed for the holidays, with container plantings, lots of greenery, and an arbor decked with ornaments–well worth a visit on a sunny, winter day. During the gardening season, Squire House, which is owned by Martin Stern and Richard Meacock, has a large garden where customers can see the plants they might want to grow used in a real garden. Martin studied in England and his garden style might be described as “semi-formal.” Snow covers the garden now, although you can still see its basic architecture.

img_0583.jpgWhile I was there, Kathy Oss, a Squire House employee, put together a holiday-themed container planting, which will eventually be displayed in front of a house on Summit Avenue in St. Paul. I’ve got a similar project on the to-do list at home and was thrilled to get some advice from a pro.

img_0587.jpgThe urn Kathy used is cast cement, so she inserted a large plastic pot to hold the greenery and protect the urn. She fills the bottom of the insert pot with natural, fast-draining material, such as bark, sand, or gravel, then adds compost. Kathy used a variety of greens for the basic structure of the container: red pine, cedar, and spruce. The contrasting colors and shapes of the greenery provide interest and a substantial backdrop for the contrasting elements to come. Once she’s satisfied with the scale, size, and texture of the base, img_0640.jpgKathy adds the exciting elements. In this case, several red-twig dogwood branches for height and color contrast, gorgeous red silk flowers, a red ribbon wound through the greenery, and large pinecones. In other pots, Kathy and Martin will use elements such as willow branches, large woven or metal/glass ornaments, or berries. The only limits are your taste, your budget, and your creativity.

Once she had the pot completed, Kathy watered it thoroughly and set it outside to freeze. This keeps the elements in the pot healthy and prevents them from blowing away. A container planting like this one can still look vibrant and attractive in March, depending on its location and the weather.

If you are interested in more information on planting containers, check out the Squire House web site for a video of Martin designing a container.

Lighting the Garden

img_0477.jpgThe activity level in my neighborhood was high this past weekend as everyone put up their holiday decorations. We take a subtle approach–which in my youngest daughter’s opinion is just plain boring. My husband hung our lighted Christmas wreath and wrapped lights around a metal sculpture in our front bed, which looks like a tree when lit up. I circled a pillar at the front door with pine garland and put some boughs in a decorative pot. In a moment of inspiration, we also added lights to the pergola.

We don’t put lights on outdoor trees–mostly because it’s a lot of work–but I found out recently that our laziness is good for the trees, too. In a recent column in Northern Gardener, Stefan Fediuk and Jim Kohut, who oversee the huge Canadian gardening web site, argue that the heat from light bulbs, followed by rapid cooling when the bulbs are turned off, promotes breakage and other damage to evergreens. The danger is greatest with young trees because evergreens grow fastest when they are young.

img_0479.jpgThey recommend lighting the house instead of trees. If you want to light trees, they suggest you pick a large, more mature specimen and use the new low-wattage LED lights. My next-door neighbors put lights on their trees, and these large evergreens are very healthy. (I couldn’t resist taking a picture because we had such a pretty sunset this evening.) However, my neighbors light the trees only during the holiday season, which is another way to minimize damage.

Update on the Pumpkin Planters

pumpkin-pots-part-2.jpgI had hoped my pumpkin planters would last until Halloween, but Mother Nature had other ideas. The heavy rains we’ve had since I put the pumpkins out more than two weeks ago has taken a toll, and one of the pumpkins is rotting at the bottom. Yesterday we experienced what felt like gale-force winds; I had to move our grill into the porch to keep it from blowing around the deck. So it’s no surprise the tallest pumpkin fell over. Today I’ll be planting the grass and mum and tossing the pumpkins on the compost pile. It’s too bad, because I really liked how the pumpkins drew attention to the orange flowers of the nasturtium planted nearby.

How Cute Is This?

100_1630.jpgI stole this fall decorating idea from an item I saw in the most recent Gardener’s Supply catalog. The catalog was selling a ceramic, pumpkin-shaped pot to display fall-blooming plants. Very cute, but why not use a real pumpkin? The pots start at $19.95 (not bad, considering how expensive pots are) but my three pumpkins each cost $3 at the Bridgewater Produce stand outside of Northfield. I’ve been wanting to add some grasses to the area near my wildflowers, so I bought this nice grass at Knechts. I picked up an inexpensive mum at the farmer’s market and dug up a pretty purple petunia from my front bed.

I cut the tops off the pumpkins and slashed a couple of cuts in the bottom for drainage, cleaned out the seeds, added a little potting soil, and pushed the plants into their new home. I’ll find a place for the grass and mum in my gardens in a few weeks, and the petunias will go in the compost pile. My only concern for the planters is that the pumpkins will rot and cause some damage to the roots of the plants. We’ll see. For even better fall decorating suggestions, consider taking a class at MSHS. There’s one tomorrow on Winning Combinations with Ornamental Grasses, taught by the U’s grass guru, Mary Meyer, and one this Saturday on Gourd Crafts for Kids, taught by Marty Bergland of Heirloom House MN. The grass class is at the Bachman’s store on Lyndale Avenue and the gourd class is at Nathes 101 Market in Otsego.