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.

At A Glance: Evergreen Branches

concolor-fir.jpgconcolor fir, and coned spruce branches

coned-spruce-boughs.jpgconed spruce boughs

German-boxwood.jpgGerman boxwood in a 25 pound case

long-needled-pine.jpgLong needled pine

Magnolia-grandiflora.jpgmagnolia grandiflora

incense-cedar.jpgincense cedar

English-variegated-boxwood.jpgEnglish variegated boxwood

silver-fir-boughs.jpgSilver fir

small-leaved-magnolia wreath.jpgLittle leaved magnolia wreath

30-inch-tall-Brown-Bracken-magnolia-stems.jpg30″ tall Little leaved magnolia bunches

Port-Orford-cedar-branches.jpgPort Orford cedar

white-pine.jpgwhite pine, and coned spruce

Douglas-fir.jpgDouglas Fir

berried-juniper.jpgberried juniper

evergreen-boughs.jpgI would guess that I prune the evergreens in my yard back 6 inches in the spring.  A long and wild stem on a yew, I may prune back 16 inches. Do I prune in November?  Never.  But there are those farmers out there that grow evergreens with the idea to cut for the holiday season. Long trimmings grace no end of winter pots and garlands.   Our premium greens come 25 pounds to a case.  Each bough averages 18 inches in length.  We appreciate an emphasis on long and green for our  winter and holiday projects.  Greens of lesser quality are more about the woody trimmings, than the greens.

Florists greens are really short.  A centerpiece on a table needs much less in the way of length and volume than a winter container.  My advice- go for the long boughs.  I am appreciative of how many materials are available to me.  Any creative expression friendly to the garden begins and ends with what nature provides.   The evergreen boughs that will bring your holiday to life are brought to you by the farming community.  Do what you can to support them.

All Mixed Up


Gardeners routinely mix plants and design elements up in the landscape.  They favor this soil mix over that one.  They mix all kinds of fertilizer from manure tea to fish emulsion.  Hybrid plants suggest a mix of that gene pool with another.  A mixer suggests a party attended by people from very different points of view.  This guarantees that a mixer will be lively and entertaining.  Mixed reviews on a film suggests there are ups and downs-will you take a chance, and go watch it for yourself?  A mix can suggest a special brew, an individual take on a theme.  A mix of perennials in a garden can help keep that garden interesting throughout the season.


A mix of evergreen trees on the lot line is less formal, more natural, than a mass planting of a single species.  A mix of bird seed will attract more than one species of bird to your feeder.  The process of mixing up a scheme is a creative process.  Mixing colors results in a visual display that has depth.  Mixing a plant with big texture with another plant of a smaller texture can be striking. Adding another or an unexpected element to the mix-glorious.


Oil and water do not mix without enormous effort.  A color mix from opposing sides of the color wheel can catch the eye.  Side by side color mixes are harmonious.  Certain mixes are bound to produce conflict.  Thus the art of a seating arrangement at a dinner party or wedding.  It is astonishing to think that every color imaginable comes from a mix of the three primary colors.  Primary colors mixed together may make for mud.  Colors mixed together in other proportions can produce colors of astonishing beauty.


Mix a violin with a voice-revel in the result.  Mix a black eyed Susan with a liatris-glaring this.   Mix a Sum and Substance hosta with Russian sage-this is horticultural discord for all to see.  Creating a successful mix of anything is an art.   By this I mean that no college offers courses in how to mix one material with another.  Were I to follow a recipe for a cake to the letter, it still might look and taste bad.


For certain clients, we elect to fill their pots with mixed greens.  The airy and contrasting textures seem appropriate, for whatever reason.  A mix of evergreen boughs can produce lots of volume  But just like imagining a mix of greens in the landscape, mixing greens in a winter container takes great skill.  The mix involves cuttings from evergreen shrubs  that have very different growth habits.  How to make those cuttings work together to form a strong and cohesive statement-beyond me.  My landscape crews have a hand.  What do I mean by this?  They have so many years behind them-planting.  They have a feel for the natural shape of a bough, and they know how to work with it.  Even more amazing is their ability to make evergreens of all types work together in a container arrangement.


No natural evergreen in the landscape has a mix of different types of branches, unless it is a grafted form from the Jean Iseli Nursery.  Each evergreen has an identity all its own.  Mixing the cut branches to harmonious effect, and a beautiful overall shape, is not so easy.

mixed-greens.jpgMost cut evergreens have a signature swoop.  White pine and incense have very flexible stems.  This means they can be flattened by a snow storm.  We either support the weak stemmed evergreens with a neighbor that has a stiff and stout habit, or we stick the branch so they curve up.  Gravity will have its say soon enough.  Fresh branches have plenty of spring, but as they dry, they will droop. If you are a fan of weeping branches, then perhaps this is the route to take.

window-box-for-winter.jpgIf your idea of celebratory is more along the lines of upswept, then stick arrange your branches so they all appear to curve up towards the sky.  Before I hang a mixed evergreen garland, I cut in in half, and rotate one side, and reattach it.  I hang the garland so the branches face up.  As the branches succumb to gravity, the garland looks full. Garlands hung with the branches down look skimpy .  Garlands hung with the branches facing up on one side, and facing down on the other will always look lopsided.

cut-evergreen-branches.jpgSticking greens both up and down can be a lively choice.  These pots are in a very protected location, meaning they will be shielded from bad winter weather. It takes a good eye and a better hand to spot how much liveliness is just enough, and not visually confusing and chaotic.  But do not be discouraged in any way.  It takes lots of practice to get good at anything.  I have no idea how many winter and holiday arrangements we have done in the past 20 years, but a lot is a reasonable number.

mixed-greens.jpg There’s plenty of satisfaction to be had from learning how to do.


Holiday Garden

holiday-decoration.jpgIt is no secret that I enjoy decorating the garden for the holidays.  The gardening season has come to a close-there are reasons to celebrate.  I am not watering,  grooming, transplanting, replacing, pruning or fertilizing.  This is a long way of saying I have respite from the chores that make the idea of a good garden a reality.  Though I was content to haul the hose around, I am equally pleased that it has been put away.

holiday-garland.jpgA lot of the work that goes into a landscape is as much fun as a dose of cod liver oil.  I have never been invited to a party to celebrate a grading project that eliminated a swampy spot in the yard.  Nor has any friend invited me to admire their new drain field.  A diehard gardening friend did invite me to admire the pruning on her front yard full of old oak trees-I don’t blame her.  I might not have noticed, had she not drawn my attention to it.   There is some sunlight in the yard now, and the work was very expensive-she wanted me to see.  The pruning was in her mind, just cause for celebration.

holiday-garland.jpgA garden decorated for the holidays is a whole other experience.  There is the opportunity to add some color to a landscape which has gone as gray as the winter skies.  Materials from the garden can be arranged in any configuration or shape without regard to lighting or growing conditions.  There is no planting, nor is there any watering.    Only at the winter holidays can I have a perfectly lush evergreen and perfectly spiralling grapevine growing over the doorway.  There are lots of things not available to me in the garden, but I can have whatever look I want for the winter.

holiday-decoration.jpgThe illusion of the decorated winter garden doesn’t ask for a skilled gardener.  A holiday display is not limited to the realm of possibility.  It is the one time of year I can have magnolia grandiflora, and sugar pine cones, red bud pussy willow,  and winterberry-each stem at their peak.  Each positioned in a display, just so.  All this garland requires is the support of the light fixture, and strategically placed masonry screws, and enough 22 gauge paddle wire to keep every element securely attached.

holiday-decoration.jpgFrost proof pots that had summer flowers are an obliging vehicle for an arrangement celebrating the season.  There are so many beautiful fresh cut materials available-twigs, berries, branches and greens.  The variegated boxwood I grew in a pot over the summer has gone into storage.  I worry it is not hardy in my zone, so I will protect it from my winter in an unheated but enclosed space.  I don’t have to worry about cut variegated boxwood in a winter arrangement.  The understanding is that this material has a shelf life.

Growing a garden is one part skill, 3 parts hard work, 3 parts endurance and patience, and 3 parts luck. Sometimes even that is not enough. Plants routinely refuse to perform, even when given the best and most thoughtful care. The winter garden has no dead branches, or insect ravaged leaves.  A boxwood or lavender hedge with a dead plant right in the middle is an ordinary sight in a landscape.  No gardener has to put up with that in their winter arrangements.

holiday.jpgI have read the predictions that we will have a very cold, snowy, and lengthy winter.  That season usually begins in January.  I may take the holiday ornaments, picks and bows off after New Years, but my winter pots will keep visual company during those lengthy and dreary months.

holiday-lighting.jpgMy summer garden has little need for lighting beyond what the sun provides.  In the winter, every gardener has to fend for themselves.