How To Make A Winter Container Garden

December 3, 2012 by Michelle

I like to think that I’m crafty. I enjoy making soap and stamping cards and the like, but as the instructor at The Chalet Nursery in Wilmette explained, I’m really a German rule follower. Creativity scares me because I’m afraid I might do it wrong. But when I was offered the opportunity to take a class at The Chalet to create a winter container garden, I jumped all over it. Even though – shhh – I didn’t really know what a container garden was.

I do now.  I made this.  Me.

Winter Container Garden from Class at The Chalet in WIlmette

It looks sort of pretty, doesn’t it?  I love all the different colors from the blues and greens and yellows in the various greens to the brown of the pine cones and the reds in the twigs and the winter berries.  Best of all, if I water the pot and let it freeze like that (which is will freeze eventually – ignoring the 65 degrees we’re having on December 3), this will stay looking nice until March.  Well, except for the winter berries, which I’m sure the squirrels or birds or chipmunks will come eat soon.

When I started out, I didn’t think it was going to look so nice.  I wish I’d taken pictures of this in process and before I started so you could see exactly what I accomplished.  After watching the demonstration of how to create the container garden by our instructor Jennifer Brennan, I was sure I could do it.  She made it look so easy, and there were steps to follow.

I picked up my spruce top, the first green to go into the pot and the center for the container garden.  I confidently plucked it down into the soil.  Adding three to five Noble Fir tips was next.  I picked up the first tip and stared at it.  I was supposed to cut off the lower branches on one side so that I could fit it tightly against the spruce top.  And my mind rebelled.  I couldn’t make myself cut the beautiful fir.  It seemed a sacrilege and a waste and I didn’t know what to cut or not cut.  Fortunately, Jennifer is an experienced teacher who walked me through it and assured me that I was headed down the right path.  My personal mentor helped me figure out which to cut and how to arrange them best up tight against the spruce tip.

From there it got a little easier.  The White Pine tips were less painful, and the trimmings I cut were then placed around the edge of the polyurethane container to add a pretty skirt for interest.  I liked not wasting them.  By the time I got to the next step of the Port Orford Cedar tips, I felt more confident.  I was finally getting the hang of this, and my container garden was starting to come together nicely.  The best part was that the Port Orford Cedar was pretty on both sides, so I could cut either side and turn it so that it rested nicely against the spruce tip.  I was still a little reluctant to cut as many branches as I needed to off the side, but Jennifer continued to coach me, as necessary.

By the time I added my four Incense Cedar tips – the ones that flop over and have the pretty yellow in them – I was fine with cutting the tips and figuring out where I wanted them to go.  I found the tips that I wanted to use, and I figured out the various heights I wanted them at to provide interest.  That made placing the Blueberry Juniper tips easy.  There weren’t many juniper berries on the tips, so I put in only a little to add some color and texture contrast near the welcoming opening of my container garden that was now my focal point.

The last few steps were easy.  Finding Redtwig Dogwood stems that were the right height – or that I could cut to be the right height (go me) – was simple, and I stuck them in quickly.  The ends I cut from the stems I used to wrap wire from my pine cones so that they could be placed at various heights and locations in the container garden.  And lastly, in went the Winterberry stems, a couple in front at different heights and a taller one in back to make it full and rich and interesting.

I’m so proud of myself, because I did not think I could do this when I first picked up my materials.  Without the kind expertise of Jennifer, I probably wouldn’t have been able to.  Even she was proud of what her “grasshopper” learned in the class.  It was only an hour and a half long, which was perfect – and The Chalet then took my container garden to the delivery area and sprayed it with Wilt-Pruf to keep it looking nice, then loaded it into my car for me – along with a protective sheet of butcher paper so my car stayed clean – when I drove up.

I had never been to The Chalet before this class, though I’ve driven past it constantly.  It’s just at the exit off 94 and Lake in Wilmette, where I drive for every single Northwestern game.  I had no idea how gorgeous it was inside and only wished I had more time to explore the beautiful decorations and plantings they offer.  I will be back, without a doubt.  The class was only one draw.

And they have classes and lectures regularly.  Jennifer is a Horticultural Information Specialist who works in their education center on the second floor of the nursery.  She provides educational gardening lectures that are free of charge on a variety of topics.  And several times a year, she offers the hands on workshops that cost just the materials fees.  This container garden class was $54.99 plus tax (and you do need to pre-register for these), and each workshop covers a topic appropriate for the season.  I cannot wait to go again.

The first thing I did when I got my container garden home was call a friend to come see it.  Little did I know that she was the vice president of our local gardening club for years before she had children.  She actually used to arrange for the educational lectures of the club, and she always made her own container gardens.  It’s amazing what you learn about your friends.  She was convinced that I had bought the container garden.  In fact, I’m still not sure that she believes I made it myself.  So yeah, I’m a little proud of myself.

Best of all, the tips that Jennifer shared in the class included at least two that my friend had never heard before, but they’re both brilliant.

When you’re working in the garden, there’s an easy way to keep the dirt from getting encrusted on your hands and under your nails.  Simply slather yourself with lotion – more than you would normally use – and then gently scrape your fingers along your palms to gather some lotion under your fingernails.  When you finish, simply wash your hands, and it comes off like magic.  We tested this out, and it worked wonderfully.  You can bet that I’ll be using this when I go tackle my weeds next time.

The other tip centered on our container garden.  We are using water to freeze the arrangement in place.  However, if the squirrels eat all my winter berries, or I want to change the dogwood out for another color twig or make other changes, I can.  All I need to do is to pour boiling water over the spot where that item is buried and pull it out.  Replace it with the new item, and the soil is already wet to refreeze and hold the new item in place.  I don’t know that I’ll get that ambitious to change it up, but it’s good to know I can.

Besides, I have Scotch Pines next to my house.  And RedTwig Dogwood on the side of my house.  And some fir in my backyard.  And I’m sure I must have a neighbor who has winter berries, right?  I might have to create another container garden.

In the interest of full disclosure, I received complimentary admission to the workshop.  I was not compensated in any other way, nor was I asked to post this.  All opinions remain my own.


  • Rita

    Looks so festive! I’d love to make one of these…I will have to scope out the neighbors yards LOL!

    • Michelle

      I know! I can’t believe I did it, but you can bet that I’ll be doing it again soon. Best of all, if you have a fancy planter, you just stick the brown one inside it after you’ve emptied it, and it won’t ruin your nice planter with all the melting and freezing we have in Chicago.

  • kim/TheMakerMom

    Success! It looks great and I’m amazed at how many details you recall without taking notes (or did you take them while I wasn’t looking?). The day after our program I was at Costco and noticed they sell little winter container gardens–funny how I’d never noticed–that really paled in comparison to our fab creations.

    • Michelle

      It was awesome. And ummm no I didn’t take any notes. I have an annoyingly good memory. Sometimes. Our creations were beyond awesome – can you imagine what they’d sell for at a nice store?

  • jennifer Brennan

    I just got the time and chance to read your wonderful post. You get 3 Gold Stars for your incredible re-counting of the fun, fun workshop! I am very flattered by your compliments AND very happy that you enjoyed the Chalet Education Center so much. Have a Happy New Year! I will look for you in the upcoming workshops and lectures.
    With my best,
    Jennifer B

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