Constructing The Winter Pots

the winter pots (1)If my last post was convincing enough to make you entertain the notion of filling your pots for the winter, you might appreciate a description of our process. Every pot begins with dry floral foam.  I cannot really explain how liberating it is to have foam, and not soil as a medium, except to say that that a soil base dictates the overall shape. We take the soil down in all of our pots 4 inches, and put a thick layer of foam in top.  In big pots, we may anchor the foam with steel rebar driven down into the soil. A winter pot needs to stand in spite of winter wind and snow. I like greens that are much wider than the pot. That generously sized blanket of greens has warmth written all over it. No soil based construction can deliver much in the way of width.   Constructing a winter pot on site in freezing weather is slow and uncomfortable.  It is just about impossible to clean up.  We make the mess in our garage, and only go on site to install. A garage heated to 50 or 60 degrees means you can concentrate on what looks beautiful, rather than the cold that is making you miserable.

the winter pots (9)We buy the dry floral foam by the case, in big sheets. But craft stores usually carry dry floral foam in bricks. The bricks will need to be glued up with hot melt glue. If you use bricks, floral picks or skewers can be used to further secure all of the pieces.  Wedging the entire assembly into the top of the pot will also help keep it together.We use a giant wood compass to scribe the interior diameter of the pot on the foam.  We glue 2 sheets together. The bottom sheet  goes in the pot.  The top sheet goes above the rim of the pot, and will have evergreens stuck all around the edge into it. The width of those greens all around the edge of the pot will determine the proportions of every other gesture. Ready to stick?

the winter pots (3)We sharpen our greens down to the wood with the blade side of a pair of pruners. Stuffing an evergreen stem with the needles still on it means the hole in the foam will eventually be too large.  As the needles loose moisture, they will shrink. A heavy bough in a hole that is suddenly too large may fall out.  We only insert sharpened wood into the foam. A tight fit is a fit that will last throughout the winter, no matter the weather. When we have a lot of pots to do, we have at least two people who sharpen evergreen stems.  We buy evergreen tips that are 18″ long. Short evergreen stems suitable for wreaths and table arrangements are not long or hefty enough for what we do.

the winter pots (2)Stuffing the stems into the foam is an art. My landscape crew does an incredible job of it-better than I could.  All their years planting means they have a feeling for how the cut stems should look in a winter pot. They need to have a loose and natural look. This is not to say that we do not do more contemporary pots that are more about design generated by the human hand than nature. This client prefers a more natural and traditional look.

the winter pots (6)A bamboo stake marks the approximate location of the center of the form. We leave a big empty space in the middle-that will be cut out to hold the centerpiece. Or perhaps the centerpiece is comprised of twigs or picks set individually. If we set a big centerpiece through the greens foam, we will have to go back and stick individual evergreen branches around that centerpiece to soften the transition from the horizontal plane to the vertical plane.

the winter pots (5)We have 2 very large pots to dress for winter on Monday.  The outer layer is noble fir.  The inner layer is mountain hemlock. What else will go in these greens to to be determined.  It could be the large leaved German boxwood. It could be branchy twigs, or pine cones. It could be mini grapevine garlands.  It could be no end of winter and holiday picks. The greens are the foundation upon which all else will be built.

the winter pots (7)All of the fir family branches hold up and sail through the winter.  Even winters with heavy snow. The mountain hemlock is the toughest green I have ever used.  The stems in my pots on my driveway were as green and lush the end of March as they were in November. For gardeners that live in northern climates, the longevity of cut greens is important. I stay away from cedar and white pine. They dry out and turn brown so fast.

the winter pots (10)Some winter and holiday pots begin with the centerpiece. These are some pots that need something other than a center of interest. They need a wider ranging area of interest.  The floral foam is a perfect medium for this.

the winter pots (4)This arrangement will go in a rectangular pot. That rectangle is a strong geometric shape that asks for an answer that resonates. We set the center in some pots before the edges. Why? The foam will adequately hold a shorter centerpiece.  A very tall centerpiece has a bamboo stake which gets driven down in to the soil for stability. It goes through the foam, it is not supported by the foam.

the winter pots (11)This center is diffuse., but roughly rectangular. The red berry picks and plum eucalyptus make for a mix of reds that is interesting.  The port orford cedar is a strong contrast.  We will finish the edges with mixed evergreens, with lots of port orford cedar in that mix. Anything else? I am not sure yet.

the winter pots (8)Winter and holiday pots are not all that we do.  The place where today’s pots will go have a garland to go over the door.  We buy garland, and then zip tie our evergreen boughs to it. This doubles the heft, and the places where other ornament can be attached. For winter, I like every gesture to be generous and warm. I would not want to be resigned to the coming of the cold and the gray skies. I would rather fend off the dark and dreary in whatever way I could.  This garland gets set on an army of cardboard boxes, so the work is at a convenient height. Convenient to see and think over, and convenient to work on. I will so enjoy all the making that lies ahead.

Comments

  1. Rebecca Gross says:

    Oh my goodness, what beautiful arrangements! I am a groundskeeper at a historic hotel and have just found your blog. I’m looking to amp up our winter arrangements next year and you have seriously inspired me! Thank you! Quick question- does the Port Orford Cedar hold up well for a whole season? I know you mentioned you avoid cedar and white pine, but I love the aesthetic of the Port Orford Cedar. It reminds me of fiber optics. Thanks again!

    • Deborah Silver says:

      Dear Rebecca, Port Orford cedar does well for us, but you will have to test it to see if it does well for you. Best, Deborah

  2. Tom Baldinette says:

    Deborah. Winter never looked so good. Merry Christmas. Tom in NC.

  3. I love your garlands and pot arrangements but just wondering if the green floral foam you are using is non-toxic? I am concerned to use anything that may harm the environment and looking for alternatives. At a recent floral design class, I learned about a natural product that is safe and can be recycled; http://www.floralsoilsolutions.com/#about. Since you do so many installations, wondering if you’ve heard of this product.

    • Deborah Silver says:

      Dear Heidi, we do not use foam that absorbs water. That is fine for arranging flowers, but it does not have any strength. We use dry floral foam, and we do recycle it.best, Deborah

  4. What a generous post. Thank you for teaching us some of your successful techniques. I’m also just a little intimidated. No: a LOT intimidated. But I’m inspired to attempt a small-scale outdoor pot, thanks to you and your artisans.

    • Deborah Silver says:

      Dear CDB, just going ahead will give you confidence. The more you do, the better the work will be. best, Deborah

  5. Fabulous article, Deborah! I love seeing your work in progress. Very informative!

  6. Deborah,

    I’ve been following your work for a while now and I have to say, this article is fantastic! Annual planters are so bland during the winter, and I’m glad you’ve really honed in your practice of creating interest in a needed area. Keep up the good work, and thanks for having and sharing your teaching spirit. (Give a shout out to your team for me! Their dedication to quality really shows in the photos you post here.)

    -April

    • Deborah Silver says:

      Thanks April. Annual planters not done for winter are a constant reminder that the gardening season is over. It just needn’t be over. best, Deborah

  7. These turned out beautiful! You make an excellent point about making sure you structure your pots to withstand the snow and wind. And there are so many options you could take on these, depending on what’s available and suited for your area. Throughout reading this article, I kept imagining the smell of evergreen and pine. It’s hard to believe this season is upon us, but things like this make me excited for the transition!

  8. Thank you for being so willing to help and share with your incredible ideas! Maybe this will be the first year my pots and vases won’t fall apart the minute my holiday guests leave!

  9. Once again, an inspiring post!
    Deborah, are the red berry picks faux berries? I think real berries won’t last the winter, is that correct? I am hoping to buy my supplies this week and may try something similar to your plum eucalyptus with red berries. I don’t want to be disappointed in January!
    Happy Thanksgiving and thank YOU for great inspiration!

  10. I get so excited when you show us how you arrive at and create these beautiful arranged floral pots. Am I understanding correctly that you don’t need to water these outdoor winter pots…I want to put them on either side of my front door which has an overhang so the pots will not be directly
    out in the weather….

  11. marie tulin says:

    Woops….I didn’t read the preceding post which is full of pictures of my favorite winter pots!

  12. marie tulin says:

    Deborah, I love what you do with lights in pots. Might I suggest you do another post about those techniques or give the link to a post you did a few years ago about that? I think you had strands of lights uplighting vertical branches….probably red or yellow twig dogwoods. I’ve only had time and energy to do it one season, but even my amateur effort looked pretty spectacular (at least compared to the store bought wreaths in my neighborhood)
    My challenge was getting the electric connections from the inside to the outside. We don’t all have GFC outlets in reach of the front door!

  13. cynthia woodyard says:

    You and yours have a real efficient process going here! I’m so impressed as one who does winter pots! Cudos!

  14. Debrorah great site love your postings. I am from the Windsor area and now live in Toronto I will make a point to visit your shop next time I am down that way. Keep up the great work happy wintertime !! Best Michael

  15. Susan Molina says:

    Deborah,
    Once again I am blown away by your blog post…your descriptions are so concise and well-written, and your work SO artistic and beautiful – you are a treasure to all gardeners, through the internet, and those of us who are fortunate to live close to Detroit Garden Works (I was just in the store, like a kid in a candy shop with your gorgeous holiday wares!) have access to a truly world-class resource. Thank you and happy holidays!

    • Deborah Silver says:

      Thank you for your letter, Susan. If anything I write encourages a gardener to get out there and create something for their winter garden, then writing an explanatory essay about our process is well worth it. Thank you for coming by the shop. You, and people like you, have kept us in business almost 20 years. best, Deborah

  16. This is the first year I have used your technique to creating “hand tied bouquet” centrepieces for large outdoor arrangements, using bamboo poles and electrical ties for stability. Worked like a charm and yes, I appreciated being able to do much of the work indoors instead of outside in the increasingly chilly weather. Thank you so much. Your photos and your writing are a source of ongoing inspiration.

    • Deborah Silver says:

      Jill, when you do hundreds of winter pots every year, there is a good reason to pursue time and comfort saving techniques. But even if I were to only do my own pots, I would still want to be in my garage for the construction. I want a work space at the right height, good light, and 60 degrees. Then I can concentrate on the making. Thanks for your letter, best, Deborah

  17. Stunning! Thanks so much for sharing this knowledge!

  18. Deborah, the generosity you show with the gift of this tutorial certainly exemplifies the upcoming holiday season. It’s wonderful not to have to reinvent the wheel, and your use of a foam base is simply brilliant! Thank you!!!

    • Deborah Silver says:

      Dear Sheila, I learned all about the importance of a successful approach to the work from Buck. I also learned from him that from the very start, everything sahoud work towards a finish. What has gone on at Branch has been a course in proper construction. best, Deborah

  19. Been using this technique of yours for years now. But in the interest of budget, I use blue rigid insulation foam board. Comes in 2 ft x 8 ft sheets that are easy to saw. I can hot glue layers together, and also use landscape pins. I spray paint the whole finished shape black, and start decorating away! You’ve been an inspiration always.

    • Deborah Silver says:

      Dear Melissa, I have never tried insulation board-I should. I have always worried that styrofoam sheets would melt from hot glue. Our foam is 2 inches thick-so I only need to glue up 2 layers. We use boughs that are so long that a generous thickness is a must. Our foam sheets are 23.00 each for a 24 by 36 inch sheet-pricey. But there is a labor savings that makes up for that cost. When we are doing multiple pots for a client, I have to get things going on fast. Thanks for your letter, and your ideas. Deborah

  20. The berry and eucalyptus surrounded by cedar is absolutely gorgeous.

    Thanks for this great tutorial.

    • Deborah Silver says:

      Dear Terry, I know this was a tutorial, but I hope it is a call to action too! Pots being stuffed for the winter gardening season all over the country is an idea I really like. best to you, Deborah

  21. Thank you so much for this post. I bought floral foam yesterday and am hoping to “up my game” this year!

    • Deborah Silver says:

      Dear Jan, bravo! You will like that foam. It is very forgiving of 4 stabs before you get to that 5th spot that is just right. all the best, Deborah

  22. michaele anderson says:

    There is so much visual beauty that exists because of your vision and the efforts of you and your talented team. You have inspired your clients to want and need what they didn’t even know could exist. It’s gotta’ be such a great and satisfying feeling to make this kind of difference. I love these posts when you so generously describe in detail how you make the magic happen.

    • Deborah Silver says:

      Dear Michaele, making a difference in any situation is a lot of work. I have never been afraid of the work of it. Does everything work out the first go around? No. Some things don’t work for a long time. As for the magic-I believe in it. all the best to you, Deborah

  23. Leah Henderson says:

    I can’t wait to see what you create this year for my pots!!! It’s like an early Christmas present.

    • Deborah Silver says:

      Dear Leah, your pots are on my mind. I think for a long time before I put my hands to a project. You are client from heaven. A strong aesthetic, patience, trust, and loads of good will means your pots, and your landscape, will shine. We have a collaborative relationship. Collaboration represents the process of design at its best. all my thanks to you, Deborah

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