In spring, it’s fun to pick big bouquets of blooming shrubs and flowering bulbs, but winter also has such opportunities. You can go with the same large outdoor containers you used for decorative plantings during the warm months. Fill them with warm, woodsy arrangements of branches and berries. They make a joyful winter addition to the scene—just when we need it the most.
I have a few tips for you if you plan to go this route. First, you want your containers to be durable and frost-proof, as they’ll be outdoors in the worst of winter weather. Wood, fiberglass, cement, metal and plastic are good materials for this purpose. Drainage holes are also good. Using clay pots outdoors is asking for trouble, because freezing and thawing can cause them to crack and be ruined. Some ceramics are more resistant to this than others, but why take a chance?
The size of the container is important. For most locations—like near the front door or on a porch—pots two- to three-feet wide and tall look good. They can be seen from a distance and will hold sizeable branches. Larger branches usually last longer than smaller ones. Of course, there’s a design factor at play and a big home calls for larger sizes and/or more pots.
The next thing is filling the containers. There’s no need to remove the potting soil from the containers when you discard the old annuals—it helps to hold up the branches. If the soil inside the container is already frozen, you might move it indoors to the basement or garage to thaw, while you gather and condition the natural branches for the arrangement. That way you don’t need to drill into the frozen soil. Use more potting soil to add to what’s in the pots, as needed, filling to two inches from the top. For new pots, you can use Styrofoam blocks and rocks in the lower half of the pots to save on potting soil. Moisten the potting soil as needed. You may want to add a grid of wire or tape to the top of the pots to help stabilize the arrangements.
You can make great things from what grows in your garden or can be bought or found. After evergreen plants (including hollies) go dormant, prune them as needed and make use of the branches you cut off. Non-evergreen leafless branches are also good, but branches with leaves don’t last.
You’ll need a surprisingly large amount of material. Six feet of branch length is not excessive in a large pot, because part of it will be concealed by the pot. If you don’t have enough greenery to make what you’re thinking of, perhaps a ride around town on yard-trash day will yield branches that others have pruned and are throwing away.
If it’s put out for disposal, you may take it. But don’t cut material from fields or peoples’ landscapes without permission. Florists, farmers’ markets and Christmas tree farms are great sources of evergreen material, too. Some people even buy growing evergreen plants to chop up for arrangements. After the holidays, you can cut and use boughs from your own real Christmas tree for this decorating purpose.
Before you start arranging, condition your materials. For woody materials, split two to three inches of the bases to help them absorb water. Set them in a cool place in large buckets of lukewarm water. Put live cut branches in for eight to 10 hours of soaking before working with them. For the longest lasting arrangements, spray them with antidesiccant when you remove them. Don’t pre-soak dried items like grasses, pine cones or dried pods.
A typical recipe for an arrangement uses many branches of three or four types, plus decorative elements like berries. For just one arrangement, you could use 10 boughs of hemlock, five branchlets of white pine, three clusters of rhododendron or magnolia leaves, six stems of winterberry, and assorted grasses, pinecones and dried pods.
Begin with the largest evergreen boughs to shape the arrangement. With clippers, trim off the base of the stem and lower side branches, and insert the main stems deeply into the container, one by one. Aim each branch bottom at the center of the pot to create a well-balanced appearance. Then move on to the next largest branches, and then the next. End with the smallest, most decorative and fragile elements. If you don’t like what you see, you can add more items or remove them—or just shorten everything for a more compact look. You’re the designer, so suit yourself.
Ribbons, curly willow branches, brown hydrangea blooms (or gold-sprayed ones) and unusual items are allowed. If fresh, the curly willow or red-twig dogwood stems may root in the pot by spring, Use plenty of everything, because you never know what will happen. One year, designer Michael Bowell gave me some large branches of red winterberries that I used for a showy outdoor arrangement. It all looked great for a month, until hungry birds ate every bright berry. Birds have to live, so I found more plants to prune and then fit the pieces into the empty spaces. My arrangement lasted the rest of the winter.
Evergreens symbolize plant rebirth and, in turn, any rebirth. This year, celebrate the winter solstice with a lovely large arrangement that suits the season.