A fresh look at an outdoor holiday classic

Christmas outdoor containers are not new, but wow have they ever changed, writes Brian Minter.

The new concept is to take cut boughs

Now that the weather has turned milder, after the windy chilly spell we had last week, let’s dress up the outside and inside of our homes and add some beautiful colour and fragrance to enjoy through the holiday season. Christmas outdoor containers are not new, but wow have they ever changed! The new concept is to take cut boughs, branches, twigs, cones, drieds, tropical pods and bling to create a beautiful artistic arrangement that will lift and brighten not only Christmas spirits but also those long cold dreary days of winter.

Where to begin?  Well it starts with the right containers. Clay and traditional ceramics could possibly crack and break in lower temperatures, so you need to use the new classy looking plastics and resin pots that stand up to severe cold and frost. A tall thin styled container or low bowl that can be set on a pedestal are the most pleasing. Window boxes too can look amazing, as well as wall pockets.

All green branches do better if their stems can access some moisture, and they also need stability in winter winds. Rather than use florist oasis, which works well indoors, I love using heavy wet blended soils as a base. It’s important to line your pots with thick plastic to hold in the moisture. Wet, soggy topsoil or blended bagged soils are the easiest to work with. When you put the soil into your container, pack it tightly and keep it wet. The weight of the soil helps prevent any blow overs and creates a solid base in which to place your stems.

Next, the materials. Depending on where you live in the country, the selection of greens will vary. Hardy greens, like pine, white and blue spruce, balsam and juniper, would be the best to use. Incidentally, virtually all the cut branches available in garden stores are simply prunings done on larger trees or on tree farms where they would cut branches from #2 cultivated trees. Sometimes branches on Christmas trees are more valuable than the tree itself! In zone 5 and above, a far wider range of greens can be used to create beautiful colour blends and textures. Among the favourites, softly textured noble fir is the most popular, followed by soft white pine, cedar, incense cedar, blue berried juniper, golden cedars and Japanese cryptomerias. Each of these greens have such wonderful fragrances, it just lifts our spirits every time we pass near them.

Twigs create wonderful height and contrast. The shrub dogwood that shines in winter with vibrant stems of brilliant red, yellow or unique combinations of both, as in the case of ‘Midwinter Fire’, really brings greens alive.  The twisted stems of contorted willows, now in colours of green, red and yellow, add a unique flavour to any arrangement, especially with their height and flair.  Although a little more stiff, contorted filbert branches create quite an impact as well. The strength of these branches offer a nice place to hang cones and other décor. The rising star, however, in all outdoor natural arrangements are pure white birch stems used in varying heights. The brilliance of these stems creates a striking contrast element, as do the unique peeled stems of contorted willows. Bits of uniquely shaped driftwood can also enhance a different artistic look.

Berries pack an amazing punch, and nothing does it better than the deciduous holly, Ilex verticillata,  They make any arrangement pop – indoors or out.  Usually three to four stems are needed to create a real impact.

Tropical drieds create the most eye-popping finishing touches. From dyed lotus pods, mahogany bell cups, and all sizes of lata balls to dried grasses, twigs, cane circles made from stiff grasses, dried sun palm leaves (either black or coloured) and twisted ting ting, all have a natural fit and make fantastic finishing touches.

With all these ingredients, you can’t help but create some pretty unique displays outside your home or for that matter inside. Over the holiday season, many florists and garden centers offer ‘how to’ classes with great instructors – so take advantage of them. You’ll pick up some amazing tips on creative designing. Remember, this is ‘art’ and your artistic expression is the main point. As in our gardens, this is an issue of personal taste, so go ahead and create without any explanation or apology.