Dazzle With Winter Containers

September 28, 2011
Written by Brian Minter
I always appreciate innovation in our industry, and last fall Sheridan Nurseries made a great presentation on Christmas baskets and containers at their meeting in Toronto. We’ve been dabbling in this for years, but they took it to a whole new level, creating not only a new seasonal business opportunity but also one with a potential for strong growth.

Their concept was to introduce a new Christmas line of business, one that was well planned out and executed. I was very impressed that they created their containers off site in one of their divisions that had the skilled labour to create a top-end product during one of their slower times. They also planned to use, where possible, containers from their spring inventory. Realizing that many companies create and sell Christmas greens, they planned early on to bring in exotic dried tropical products that not only created a new look but also differentiated their creations from others. The folks who planned this new line also created price points to suit varying customer demographics in each of their store locations. They broadened the range to include both indoors and out, as well as corporate opportunities.

We’re all looking for new business lines, and outdoor seasonal and holiday planters present a unique opportunity. It’s a relatively low-cost business line, providing labour activities during a slower time and a chance to use up some sitting inventory. The products Sheridan’s designed were distinctly different from the existing marketplace and created a sense of something new. If you decide that a seasonal line of winter containers might work for your store, like the folks at Sheridan’s you need to embrace it fully, not just dabble. As Warren Haskins of English garden centre fame once told me, “dominate a category or get out!”

First you need to secure your greens. Cut stems that have a long life span and stand up well in the cold are ideal. For real artistic flair, and great perfume, you’ll want balsam, noble and silver fir. Pine is, by far, the most resilient, but cut branches of blue scotch, lodgepole and new golden cultvars, like ‘Swanes Golden’ are also excellent. The soft, flowing texture of white pine is ideal, but it needs to be out of the rain. West Coast cedar is valued for its texture and flowing habit, but it tends to desiccate a little more quickly. The related incense cedar, with its tiny yellow “cone” tips, is one of the most beautiful cut greens. Golden or yellow foliaged cedar varieties are particularly nice for a spark of colour. Juniper tips in blue, green and gold are essential, especially with their berries. I’m very impressed with obtusa cypress, particularly the slender ‘Hinoki’ both in green and gold. The swirling nature of their branches and their colour shading mark them as standouts. Blue spruce is great looking, but prickly to work with. Blue abies concolor, with its soft, long, distinctive needles, is one of the most impressive blues out there. White spruce is also a delight to use, with its varying shades of blue. Mountain hemlock (mertensiana) is another must-have, with its stiff silver grey needles and unique texturing. Using this cast of cut greens, you can easily differentiate from the competition.

Winter stems are also a must, and shrub dogwoods lead the way. The deep red or yellow stems of twig varieties are essential. My favourites are the tricolour yellow, red and orange shading of ‘Midwinter Fire’ and ‘Midwinter Flame’ – they’re stunners in any arrangement. Contorted willows in three colours and twisted filberts are keystone products. Flat, twisted ‘Sekka’ willow branches offer a special look. White painted and glittered branches are important staples.

Cones are nice seasonal additions, but they need to be unique. Long curving white pine cones, long pointed Norway spruce cones and the giant cones of the Arizona pine are perhaps the most distinctive. Dried tropical cones, leaves and flowers add a unique touch as well, pulling this style of seasonal décor to a new exotic level that is very much the trend today.

Of all the berries out there, the very best belong to deciduous holly (Ilex verticillata). Its long branches, loaded with red or gold berries, add a stunning look to any container, and the berries tolerate the cold.

All this material is natural and environmentally friendly, a great selling feature, but the younger X’s and Y’s love bling. Glittering the finished product adds a sparkle effect that stands out, especially under night lights. With 16 hours of darkness each day, adding mini or LED lights will make these products appealing to lots of people.

You need a little skill to create these planters and containers, and if you don’t have it, hire a professional to train your future creators – often staff members will surprise you with their talent. Your containers have to be first class and clearly differentiated from everything out there, including box stores, other garden stores and florists.

If you were wondering which type of floral foam to use, don’t use any. In the often challenging conditions of winter, we use wet, heavy, blended soil in our containers. It stays wet with little watering; it stays heavy so the wind won’t blow them over, and it’s cheap and easy. It’s important to keep the foliage moist with a daily misting of water in the morning. All the greens should be pre-sprayed with Wiltpruf, an antidesiccant, to keep them fresh.

Once temperatures drop below between -8 C and -10 C, the containers should be wrapped with one of the new insulating cloths from the DeWitt Company. This cloth will provide upwards of 10 C difference in protection. The cloth looks like white row covers, and it’s fast and easy to apply.

I was inspired by Sheridan Nurseries to take these seasonal planters to the next level. With the sale of fresh trees in decline because of all the restrictions, consider this opportunity to create wonderful, “wow,” seasonal containers for balconies, patios and front doorways.

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