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From My Home to Yours: Making the Arrangements

Martha Stewart Living, August 2007

At the beginning of every summer, in mid-May or thereabouts, I dedicate two weekends to planting containersto decorate the terraces and stone walls at my home in Bedford, where I reside full time; to enhance the entrances and terraces of Skylands, my beautiful Duncan Candler house in Seal Harbor, Maine; and to accentuate the landscape, pool, and porches of my home on Lily Pond Lane in East Hampton.

This is a task I really look forward to: challenging myself to come up with slightly different ideas each season. I like finding plants ahead of time that will create a different look and feeling from the years before and mixing in some old favorites or recently grown specimens from my greenhouse in Bedford with new selections.

I also spend a good deal of time planning what to grow at each property to ensure a sufficient number and variety of flowers to fill vases and vessels. Guests appreciate a charming bedside arrangement, and a dining or coffee table should always have something from nature on it.

In Maine, because the scale of the place is so large, I can go a bit overboard with container planting. Years ago I discovered kalanchoe, a fast-growing plant with large, heavy grayish-greenish-brown leaves that feel like deer antlers. From a single plant, I have propagated many treelike offspring that have reached four feet. I plant these in large lead boxes and urns on the southern terrace. When they are underplanted with dichondra or creeping golden moneywort, the effect is different, to say the least!

Great moss-planted bowls are another favorite. I like to place these on the piers of the great stone balustrade that surrounds the terrace. Fortunately, the deep woods on the property are verdant with carpets of many types of mosses. Carefully lifted from behind trees and ledges, pincushions and tuffets of haircap, rock cap, and cushion moss create a landscape in a bowl that is fascinating and very long lasting. (Of course, the mosses are replanted each fall in the woodland.)

Finding unusual plants is one thing; locating the right containers is an entirely different matter. I am always on the lookout. I find most of them at antiques shows or consignment and antiques shops. I receive regular e-mails from Inner Gardens in California, Blue Hill Antiques in Maine, and from dealers in Hudson, New York, and even in Palm Beach, Florida, when they find something they think I might like.

The great bronze bowl I am planting with a moss garden is an early Chinese bowl I discovered at a Greenwich, Connecticut, consignment shop years ago. It was outside, filled with old leaves and rainwater, so obscured that it had escaped the attention of treasure seekers. When I found it, several years before I bought Skylands, I had no idea how I would use it or where. In winter, it is perfect on a table in the hall, but in summer it is invariably planted.

For arrangements, I assess what is blooming in the garden or the shrub border and go from there. When hydrangeas are in bloom, I can easily make several large, showy arrangements that, with a few changes of water, will last five or six days. Because panicle hydrangea stems are on the thin side, I carefully insert a crumpled ball of chicken wire into the neck of the vase. This holds the stems upright and makes it easy to arrange a bouquet.

Garden flowers can be supplemented with cuttings of ferns, evergreens, hosta leaves, blueberry or crab apple branches, or cotinusthese unique cuttings are far more interesting than standard fillers or leaves.

When I bought Skylands, it was filled with lovely porcelain, and I often use gravy boats, sugar bowls, or tureens for arrangements. Always place metal frogs on top of a bit of plastic, or use floral clay, to prevent the frogs from scratching the container's delicate surfaces. If the container is porous, place a saucer beneath it. Over the years, I've picked up silver-plated saucers and plates at tag sales, and these look great under containers.

When using a glass vase, it is imperative to keep the water crystal clear. To prolong freshness, use a teaspoon of chlorine bleach, add a dose of Floralife or other flower food, and change the water daily.

For favorite vessels, such as my faux-bois bowls or Staffordshire punch bowls, I find or fabricate liners so that water and wire never touch their surfaces. Dave Bowden, a sheet-metal fabricator in Maine, has made me many liners, and they make the art of flower arranging so much easier.I hope some of my ideas find their way to your terrace, deck, or table. If you have other suggestions or tips, please e-mail us at

A Container in Process
1. Always line your container with a large sheet of plastic (be sure to cut drainage holes). I like to fill heavy containers three-quarters or more with recycled Styrofoam and cushioned packaging material. This saves on potting mediums and reduces the weight.

2. I generally place a piece of landscape cloth (a porous fabric that allows water through) over the top of the packaging material, and then add whatever planting medium is required-for woodland plants, such as moss, a porous, sandy mixture of composted material; for ferns, a richer, moisture-retentive soil mix; and for geraniums, something even more dense.

This moss had such thick soil attached that I didn't need to add more. I always try to plant almost to the top of the container. For moss, it is not necessary to mulch, but for succulents or cactus, I cover the soil with a layer of gravel or stone to keep it down when watering and to give a finished appearance. Moss is very slow-growing, so I packed the hillocks and tuffets tightly, inserting a small hemlock tree as my "ode" to bonsai. Carefully watered, this planting thrives for three months.

3. All container plantings are like gardens in miniature-they need to be weeded, watered, fed, and groomed. Soil can be brushed off mosses with a soft brush, and a spritzer bottle will keep the surface moist and glowing.

4. I like to visit them every morning, watering with a sprinkler or watering can, careful not to disturb the soil. Some plants, such as palms, tree ferns, and cycads, always like a gentle leaf misting.

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