Story and photos by K.C. Fahy-Harvick
If you were not convinced about the length and severity of the Finger Lakes Region’s winters, the winter of 2014 should have sealed the deal. Don’t get me wrong, I love winter here, and I believe this to be one of the most beautiful areas of our country during all four seasons, but even a mild winter can give us brown, leafless vistas outside our windows. Snow provides a beautiful cover for the brown landscapes around our homes, but there’s nothing like a container with a punch of green and sparkly color to greet you and lift your spirits when coming in the door.
I have found that decorations on the porch or entrance in winter can provide a welcoming lift of the heart, even when those days in January and February get you down. Many of us have containers teeming with flowers in the summer, so rather than putting them away for the winter, why not let them continue to teem with evergreens and sparklies?
While working at garden centers, I noticed customers would haul their containers to the store and have them filled with winter arrangements. The problems involved with this are the expense and the return trip home. Having your containers done for you this way is always an option, but I would like to share some tips on how best to make beautiful winter containers yourself. Like most things, it is all about knowing the secrets that change the process from being a big messy, disappointing DIY project, to being a beautiful, gratifying exercise in creativity.
Use frost-free containers
You don’t want them to crack or break when they freeze. Plastic containers will break, but they are inexpensive, so they’re not as much of a financial consideration. Some containers are labeled “frost free,” and I have used many different kinds of these for years. There are also pots made out of “high-fired clay” that are expensive, but do not break when frozen. You don’t have to move them inside for the winter – a great attribute for a heavy container.
The large dark urn in picture #1 is cast iron. The light-colored urn in picture #2 is a fiberglass composite material and it sells for $90. The tall square container in picture #3 and the low round in #4 are each made from a high-quality composite material that is very durable year-round. They sell for between $110 and $180.
If you use your existing pots, clean them out before the soil gets too cold and frozen. Allowing the soil to freeze in the container will make it impossible to work with when the time comes. Discard the spent plants and roots, and save enough soil to refill the pot about 8 to 10-inches in depth. Save the soil in a warm place, like your garage, where it won’t freeze.
Holiday decorations are festive
Colored decorations can be used to match your front door color or accent the house color, but for a really festive arrangement most people use holiday decorations. The holiday accents can be removed afterward, but I almost always put something sparkly in my containers. (Picture #5). The porch light or even the street light can pick up the sparkle and give the arrangement a lot more life. You can sprinkle glitter on the branches directly, or even string battery operated lights in the arrangement for extra glow.
Include natural materials from your garden
Using items from your garden can really personalize your arrangements; these can include rose hips, ornamental grasses, bitter sweet, winterberry, holly, juniper, gold mop false cypress, yellow flag iris seed pods, dogwood branches, pussy willow branches, curly willow branches, and pine cones. I use a lot of dogwood shrub branches in my arrangements. I wait until the yellow-twig and red-twig dogwoods turn color in late fall, and then cut them nice and tall. Some branches I leave natural, and some I spray-paint silver, gold, white or copper colored. (Picture #4)
Note: If you are cutting twigs or gathering dried flowers from the roadside, be sure to ask the landowner’s permission first wherever possible.
Many locations that sell Christmas trees also sell bundled branches. This is where I get the Fraser fir, white pine, Douglas fir and noble fir for my arrangements. You may also purchase greens from a florist supply house. If you can’t use cases of greens, maybe share with a friend or neighbor.
How to put it all together
In mid-November, I begin constructing my containers in the garage, refilling with the reserved soil that’s been set aside, being sure that it is well moistened. Moistening the soil makes it easier to work with, and it holds better.
I always make a fresh cut to the end of the live evergreen branches to help them stay fresher longer. I begin with the white pine around the edges, then the stiffer Fraser fir for the tall center pieces and longer accents on each side.
Once you have that done as your base, fill in with whatever greens seem right.
When you put the container out in the cold, the frosts will freeze the soil and this holds the branches in. If the container is in a windy spot, I use metal ground staples to secure the main branches to the soil. One last trick: stick a red pipe cleaner in the front of the container. When I place the container in its winter location, it reminds me which side of the arrangement was planned to be the front.
If your container is too heavy to bring into the garage for construction, and the weather is too cold for you to work outside, you can try another trick I use: get a plastic pot sized to slip down inside the heavy pot. Construct the arrangement in the lighter, plastic pot and take it out to the heavy pot outside. It’s faster, easier and much warmer.
There is still time to gather all of your supplies – you might even find some great containers on sale at your local garden center. Whether your taste is boisterous bling, subdued elegance or natural beauty, you can express your creativity and contain your enthusiasm this winter. A beautifully decorated front entrance to your home always says
“Welcome Friends.” (Picture #6)