Creating Festive Containers for the Holidays

Nov27th 20121 comment

Creating an outdoor arrangement of greens in an urn or other container is a wonderful way to add greenery and life to your front steps, porch or walk while combatting the drab grey of winter. Even if you’re not putting out other outdoor holiday decorations, a festive container arrangement, or a pair of them on either side of your front entrance, is a beautiful way to greet guests and yourself every time you come home. Of course Mahoney’s and other local garden centers will have very attractive ready-made decorated greens that you can simply “drop into” a container, but I like to make my own.

Classic black wrought iron urns, barrel halves or more contemporary containers can all be dressed up for the holidays and the winter. You may already have containers in place for flowers in the growing season, but if you don’t, you can still find them at Mahoney’s. Metal, stone, and fiberglass/resin containers can stay out all winter without fear of damage. Plastic containers are safe if under a porch, but they can crack if they don’t have proper drainage, and water is allowed to collect and freeze. Terra cotta/clay and ceramic containers will likely break in our climate due to freeze and thaw conditions. If getting new containers, choose something that is appropriate to the style of your house, and the scale of the environment they are being placed in.

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To create an arrangement of greens, I like the containers to be filled with soil. This gives them weight to keep from blowing over, and provides a base allowing you to easily stick in branches in positions that will stay in place. Remove any dead plants remaining from the growing season. If the soil is frozen, you won't be able to stick in greens so you'll need to thaw it out before starting. You can do this by heating up water in a tea kettle, pouring it on top of the soil, and letting it sit for a while.

If your containers already have permanent shrubs or trees planted in them, you'll want to create a design around them. Add lights and decorations to the shrub or tree and consider adding greens around the base to complete the design. If your containers are empty but you want permanent greens, dwarf Alberta spruce and various types of junipers are readily available. If you plant these now, make sure they are well watered and continue to get water occasionally throughout the winter to help them get established. Their access to moisture is much more limited in a container than if planted in the ground, and the conditions are more stressful. It is likely they will not get enough water from rain or snow alone, so an occasional drink will help them make it through the winter. Another way to help keep living greens from drying out in the winter is to spray them with Wilt-Stop or other anti-transpirant / anti-desiccant. It’s easy to use and greatly reduces the plant’s loss of moisture.

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If you are creating a seasonal arrangement, you need to decide what you want to put in the containers and the overall desired size and shape. If you have tall containers or a large vertical space, you may want to create a taller arrangement. If your containers are already sitting on stone posts or pedestals, shorter arrangements may be more appropriate for the space.

When gathering greens for filling urns, containers or even window boxes, I like to use a variety of textures, colors and sizes. This is easier to do than it once was, as there are so many beautiful greens available to us coming from all over the country and Canada. Some of my favorites include the many varieties of Cedar (Incense, Golden, Port Orford), most any kind of Pine, Spruce or Fir, and Blue Berried Juniper. For variety, I also like German Boxwood, Canella and Variegated Oregonia.

When ready to get started, lay out the available greens to review the size, shape and thickness of the various branches. I always start by putting in the largest branches first. These go in the center of the container if it will be viewed from all sides, but if not, push the tallest branches to the back to leave more room in front for shorter items of interest. Depending on the size of your container you may only need three to six of these. The tallest branches typically available may be firs, White Pine or Port Orford Cedar. Put in a few branches to establish the height and basic shape. Position these very securely (deep into the soil) so they provide a good foundation for the overall arrangement. Then mix in a second or third variety of greens around the initial branches to fill it out. Next, you might add some medium length branches fanning out on either side, or you can go with a tall central core to the arrangement with a short border all around.

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Step back once in a while to make sure you like the shape and size of the arrangement, particularly if you’re making a pair of arrangements for either side of a door or walkway that should look somewhat symmetrical. You don't want to have one arrangement largely put together only to realize that you have used all the tallest branches in one container. If I am doing a pair of arrangements, I always build them at the same time to ensure I achieve similar size, shape and mix of materials.

Even with a variety of greens, the arrangement may seem a bit dull unless some other color elements are added. There are, of course, an almost limitless number of decorations, from ornaments and picks to "iced" twigs and berry branches. Many of the theme ideas mentioned in my previous blog post on creating a customized holiday wreath can be applied to container arrangements as well. See Carey's Wreath Blog Here

If you want to add color but keep a more natural look to the arrangement, you can add birch branches, red or green twig dogwood, or branches of brilliant red ilex berries (also called winterberry). Next, add shorter greens to the front of the arrangement. How you fill in the front will depend on if you plan to add any other decorative elements such as a bow, giant pinecones, or a burst of weatherproof ornaments. These may be wired onto sturdy greens that are well secured, or can be wired onto a thin wooden stake (a pick), and stuck into the soil just like any other branch. Fill in greens around these taking care not to cover up the main focal point.

Next, decide if you want to add lights. Now that it’s getting dark around 4:30, lights are a particularly lovely addition, especially when seen from a distance. Strings of lights wrap around some kinds of greens better than others. You don't want the greens to look "tied up." If there are cross braches to weave into, this will help keep the lights in place. In a worst case situation, you can use twist ties to secure the lights in a few spots so that your arrangement is not undone by winter winds. Make sure you plan for the plug to end up near the base and the back so it is more easily concealed. Hide the wires of the lights as much as possible and then add any final greens to fill out the arrangement. Greens such as white pine and cedar can conceal wires without adding a lot of additional bulk to the arrangement. If an outlet is not available, the new weatherproof battery-powered LED lights are an excellent alternative.

A final step is to water your container. The moisture will help keep the greens fresh, and if it’s cold out and the soil freezes, it will keep all your branches in place.

There, you’ve done it! All that’s left is for you, friends, family and guests to enjoy your customized arrangements for the rest of the season. Happy holidays!

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Carey Erdman, Erdman Design
Interior and Exterior Landscape and Holiday Design for Greater Boston

Carey Erdman is president of Erdman Design, a firm dedicated to enhancing homes and gardens through interior design, urban gardening, flowers for special occasions and holiday decorating. Examples of their work can be found at

Prior to officially getting into the design business seven years ago, Carey worked with satellite imagery and aerial photography, primarily for the defense and intelligence communities. He also served as CEO of a high-tech software company for ten years before making this rather drastic career shift.

In his spare time, Carey volunteers with Community Servings, Boston Natural Areas Network, and the Claremont Neighborhood Association. He also sings with the Cantata Singers, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops. You can reach Carey at (617) 816-6467 or at

Please note: Not all wreath decorations are available at all 8 stores.

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My Lemon Tree

I transplanted my lemon tree (from Mahoney's) and now all the leaves are turning yellow and falling off. The new pot is a bit larger, I use miracle-gro indoor plant soil. What should I do?

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