Part of the pleasure of flowerto-day is in seeking out containers. A need not be expensive by any means; quite often the bit of junk picked up for a copper or two becomes the most in use and cherished.
I know of one woman who will not use her best container—a little metal dish—at flower shows, in case of loss. She loves it more than all her expensive vases and flower holders. It didn’t cost much, but being old it is practically irreplaceable.
There’s no doubt about it, the old containers are especially fascinating, though many of them were never meant for. An unusual container brings its own charm to an arrangement, and will frequently prove an inspiration in itself to the beginner. Whenever you buy a container, either new or second-hand, the important thing to consider is its basic shape. Has it simplicity, pleasing proportions, and a generally well-balanced appearance? Any fragile lightweight container which looks as though it will fall over as soon as it is filled with must be avoided—it will merely take up valuable space in your store cupboard.
When buying containers choose those which will suit the style of your own home and your personal taste. Even if you have room for only two or threein the whole of the house you will need more than two or three containers. The low copper bowl which looks so well
with a lovely blaze of autumn colour cannot be so attractive for an arrangement of pink apple blossom and violets on a day in spring. When the garden is producing spires of tall gladioli you will need a container which will differ greatly from the kind you will use tothe first shy Christmas roses.
Then, too, the eye tires of seeing the same couple of containers in use year in, year out. Each container tends to look its best with one particular season’s flowers or with one kind of design. New ideas are conceived with a change of container, and the container need not be an expensive one, as you will see. It could be one you have made yourself, or an everyday household dish, or cost just a shilling or two from the white elephant stall at the vicarage garden party. The main object of this post is to show you what to look out for and how to adapt it for flowers.
Making a Start
Get used to the word container. It simply means a thing which will display flowers to the best visual advantage, and which will usually hold water. The novice’s ideas about containers are usually stiff and stereotyped. There are stick-in-the-mud preconceived ideas that flowers go into things called vases, with an occasional venture by the lighthearted to put them into a jug or a tumbler. All this is now changed!
From the Kitchen
You will find that you have many things in your kitchen cupboard, or about the house, which are suitable for flowers—once you start to think about them in this light. Plain ash trays, unpatterned soup bowls, gravy boats, pie dishes, souffle dishes, candlesticks, baking tins, Scandinavian
wood fruit rafts, empty wine bottles, a mustard pot —all can be used for flowers.
A low glass oven dish can look quite different if you stick a piece of silver cooking foil on the outside of the glass. Arrange the flowers at one end, so that the silver shows through the water, and you have a refreshing decoration for a summer table.
Even a large potato can be used as a container! Cut off a slice at the bottom, to make a level base, and add a bit of plastic material to protect the table. Into the potato you can push theof heather or any of the evergreens, which will keep well in the moisture they absorb from the potato.
There are some containers which can be fashioned at home quite quickly and effectively. It’s surprising what you can do even if, like me, you are not veiy dexterous. Things like cocoa tins may be painted with matt paint, or covered with the sticky-backed plastic material sold for covering kitchen shelves. Large round toffee tins, obtained from your local sweet shop, look well when painted or when covered with cork bark or any plain-coloured textured fabric. These big tins will take a flower arrangement for the hearth in summer, and are useful if you are called upon to provide a big arrangement for, say, a school speech day platform.
A tall glue pot can be turned into a Japanese-style container simply by wrapping round it a table mat made from split bamboo or coarse woven straw. An empty beer or soft drink can is transformed into a tall elegant container when given a jacket made from pastel-shaded poster card. And you’d really never guess their humble origins!
Containers from Newspaper and Wire
If I want a very special container, of a shape not easily found, I sometimes design my own. This sounds extremely clever but need not be, as you can discover for yourself. During the past few years I have made classic urns,-shaped dishes, troughs, and numerous other shapes. The cost is negligible. Each container takes only three or four hours in all to complete.
All you need is a piece of half-inch mesh chicken wire, some newspaper sheets, a large carton of Polyfilla, glue-size, paint, and varnish. A fiat dish-type container is the easiest sort with which to begin. Cut the chicken wire to the size and approximate shape you have in mind for the container, and turn up the edges to form the sides. (See fig 9.) Line the whole of the inside with newspaper and, having mixed some Polyfilla in an old basin, smooth this over the newspaper and allow to harden. (Mix only a little Polyfilla at a time, as it dries rather quickly and becomes difficult to work.) Reverse the container and cover the whole of the exterior with Polyfilla, so that all the chicken wire is covered. Leave for at least a day until set.
The surface may now be rubbed down with the blunt end of a nail file or a round-ended knife to take off any
humps and ridges. To get a smooth finish a final rubbing over with sandpaper or glasspaper is required. A pleasing effect is achieved if the inside of the dish is made smooth and the outside allowed to retain its rough texture. Give the whole thing a coat of glue-size, and when dry paint the container grey, white, duck egg blue, French grey, or what you will. Finally, apply a coat of clear varnish for a really waterproof seal. If you can get marine varnish, so much the better.
Plaster of Paris
1 have made similar containers, using plaster of Paris instead of Polyfilla, but it is necessary to work very quickly as the plaster becomes hard and unworkable within a minute or two of mixing. Plaster of Paris also takes longer to dry out. However, it is inexpensive and very easily sanded down to quite fine shapes.
The more complicated kinds of containers, such as urn shapes, may need a fair amount of shaping and finishing work before being painted. For instance, anything with a foot or aneeds careful filing to get the form absolutely right.
Pieces of ‘ modern sculpture ‘ to support small flower bowls can be made from strong fencing wire bound round with strips of newspaper and covered with Polyfilla or plaster of Paris.
Forwhere the flowers, or fruits are used so low in the design that the container itself does not show, all that is necessary is something to hold the water and pinholder. Empty shallow tins, such as those in which sardines, pilchards and herrings are sold, or even a small-size catmeat tin, are ideal. The cut edges must be care-
fully hammered down, and the tin can be painted black, grey, or white so that it will unobtrusively blend with flowers, foliage, etc.
These tins, which will take a pinholder or chicken wire in the usual way, have many uses and I find them just the thing whenflowers on a plate, a flat piece of wood or marble, or behind a figurine, and when using a container which is itself insufficiently deep. Some salmon tins reveal a bright golden-coloured metal when the labels are removed. I use these for Christmas table decorations; they look surprisingly expensive with a candle in the centre and flowers arranged so that the gold gleams through.
Both sardine and salmon tins can be used on top of a candlestick, though they are not so secure as a candle cup, a specially-made metal container which fits on to the top of any candlestick. The makeshift sardine tin has to be stuck to the candlestick with modelling clay or Plasticine, with a couple of stout rubber bands as an extra precaution. (See fig 10.)
White plastic boxes in which dessert dates are sold are valuable as containers for horizontal table arrangements, and will take surprisingly large designs. They should be filled with Florapak or Oasis, wire netting, or a pinholder. If you find yourself having to do flower arrangements on the long tables at, say, a wedding reception, when all the containers must be alike, I can recommend date boxes. Incidentally, my flower club finds that when made up with gay arrangements of small spring flowers these boxes sell well at bazaars.
So far as containers are concerned it is a good thing to begin the hobby of flower arranging by utilising household utensils and other bits and pieces. But soon you will want to branch out, to try new shapes. After your initial experiments with theand pans you will grow quite knowledgeable about what shapes and sizes of containers to use, but when you decide to try something new don’t go first to the department store with its rows of ordinary, mass produced pottery containers. Try the local junk shop instead where you should find a wide selection of suitable containers.
I try not to buy containers just for the sake of buying them (though my family and friends will laugh at this statement, for I am a constant collector of more and more containers). The fact is that after a time, even though one buys more containers, one becomes ultra-selective when choosing them. It is silly to duplicate similar shapes unless they are of different materials. To give an example: You may possess a pottery urn, so you don’t want another —but don’t pass over a bronze or glass urn if one appears in the junk shop. The flower designs which your pottery
urn inspires will be quite different from those evoked by a metal or glass one.
A new container is to the flower arranger what a new canvas is to the artist—it stimulates and delights. This is not an expensive hobby, and a second-hand container will probably cost only a fraction of the price an amateur artist will pay for a canvas. And, unlike the canvas, the container can be used with pleasure over and over again.
Junk shops are my happy hunting ground, for this is where one can buy the unusual for very little outlay. ‘But you’ll never find anything interesting—those shops have been rummaged through and cleaned out of containers years ago,’ people say.
That just isn’t true, you know. You can still find bargains, especially if you buy slightly damaged or otherwise imperfect items. A little bit broken off a piece of china doesn’t matter so long as it still holds water and has a ‘good’ side.
Worth looking out for are old black lacquered glove boxes, Victorian shell trinket boxes, small figurines (broken arms and similar damage can be repaired with barbola paste), old vegetable dishes, plain white or simply-coloured sauce boats, plated entree dishes, jugs, salt cellars, bon-bon bowls, pretty cups and saucers, or any decorative metal object. Even things which leak can be given an inner dish or cup for the water.
You can buy all sorts of pots with the lids missing or broken—after all, you don’t need the lid for flowers. I once bought for five shillings a fine old Derby tureen which is now one of my most treasured possessions. The lid was missing—and some weeks later I came across it elsewhere in the same shop, and bought it for twopence!
Candlesticks can be turned to good account, whether made of brass, pewter, glass, wood, or pottery, always making the basis of a good design. Tall candlesticks are particularly pleasing, enabling graceful downward-flowing designs to be achieved.
Glass is rather out of favour with flower arrangers nowadays and is rarely used, but personally I believe the next few years may well see a swing to glass containers, so buy one or two old pieces now while plenty are available inexpensively.
In selecting a glass container, put it to the same stringent test you would apply to pottery or metal. Are its proportions pleasing? Does it have a satisfying shape? Which flowers might be used in it? Although a glass container doesn’t need to be of the best crystal or cut-glass it should have an agreeable fineness; cheap, coarse glass never looks right with flowers.
Clear glass containers reveal the chicken wire, stems, and water. A good way round this problem is to line the container with a broad leaf before the pinholder or netting is put in. The lining leaf will last for three or four days before it begins to decay, after which it must be changed.
A Place for Victoriana
Keep an eye open for Victorian mantelpiece decorations, such as bronze (or its good imitation) figures of shepherdesses beckoning to their swains, or warriors rushing into battle. They make original flower containers. The figures should not be much more than a foot in height; anything taller is too big for the average modern home when used as a flower container. Bronze figures with one arm held high are speedily fitted up with a flattish plastic
or metal dish to hold water; any handyman can glue or solder the dish to the upraised hand. Five minutes with a paintbrush and a tin of gold paint will turn a discoloured figurine into a passable imitation of ormolu.
Old shop fittings sometimes turn up. A pair of old brass scales make twin containers for autumn’s bounty of flowers, berries, and fruits. I have a deep copper sugar scoop with a wooden handle, which I dote on when arranged with fruit, berries and bright flowers. The copper kettle has been rather overdone in recent years and is no longer a novelty, but some silver, porcelain or earthenware teapots make equally attractive settings for flowers.
For a Guy Fawkes night design I once arranged rocketing red hot poker flowers, brilliant flame and yellow dahlias, and the swirling ‘smoke’ of old man’s beard (wild clematis) seedheads on an ancient iron fire trivet, using the trivet as a base for a hidden dish. After the show for which the design had been made 1 took it home and, as the weather was mild and we had no coal fire, stood it in the hearth. A favourite arrangement of mine, using similar flowers, is one I often make up with my kitchen griddle (intended for making Scotch pancakes!) as a container.
Flower arrangers often see possibilities in a white elephant which other people would pass over as being quite unsuitable for flowers. I recollect a friend of mine buying a dull brass Victorian dinner gong; I was among those who thought her quite mad until I saw the gong when she had cleaned it and used it as a container, reflecting a lazy curve of crimson nasturtiums in its highly-burnished metal.
Victorian soap dishes left over from the wash-stand sets of long ago, have become so popular with flower arrangers over the years that in some districts they fetch prices
which would surely have given our grannies the vapours. I recently saw one in an antique shop, marked 12s. 6d.
Hunt Out Antiques
Antique shops differ from junk shops. One expects to pay more, particularly if the desired article is in perfect condition. But it is always worth asking whether they have anything inexpensive yet suitable for flowers.
All these shops get quite a lot of rubbish in the mixed lots they buy at auction sales; they often have to buy a lot of inferior items in order to secure the one perfect piece they really want. In many shops, the bits and pieces go into a special drawer or cupboard which is well worth hunting through for cheap bargains.
In the Tobacco Shops
Tobacconist’s shops often carry stocks of articles which could just as well be on sale in the florist’s as containers for flowers. I am thinking of ash trays, cigarette and cigar boxes, and metal containers for holding snuff and matches. My local shop has some shallow onyx ash trays of great beauty, and I can imagine them arranged with small designs of flowers and leaves.
Use a Base
Many an arrangement is improved in appearance if placed on a base of some kind. A design which looks top-heavy can be improved by having a base beneath the container. The base may be a suitable teapot stand, an upturned plate, a block of wood (either polished or covered with fabric), a flat piece of stone or marble, a tile, a tray, a child’s wooden building brick painted black or some colour to go with the flowers, or even a book with a drape of fabric over it.
For a real miniature arrangement the base may be a small coin (even a threepenny or sixpenny piece), or a button.
A scallop shell, or indeed any kind of shell, can have a second one stuck under it to form a matching base. (See fig 11). Another idea is to cut a piece of thick cardboard into a wavy shape, cover it with glue, and sprinkle it with coarse sand or granulated cork. This cork, incidentally, comes as packing in casks of grapes, and the greengrocer will probably be only too pleased to give you a bagful for nothing.
I once saw a magnificent base made from an old door mat! It had been standing out in a north-facing porch and had grown a thick felt-green moss all over it, the weave showing faintly through. It was used as a base, in a competition, for an arrangement of brilliantly coloured autumn flowers. The title of the class was ‘An arrangement for a barbecue supper.’
If you have a wooden cheese or bread board this can perfectly well carry an arrangement of late border flowers, grasses, and the full heads of corn, or daffodils in the spring. You only rarely use the board for cheese or bread? Then try staining it with oak floor stain, or polish
it up with dark stain shoe polish, and use it with a small bowl standing upon it.
If you can get hold of the marble top from an old washstand you can have it cut up (at a monumental mason’s yard) into pieces of different shapes and sizes.
Made from Bamboo
Thin bamboo canes, bound or stuck together, make a base with the appearance of an Oriental raft. I grow pampas grass in my garden, and after it has flowered I cut the stems, which resemble bamboo canes but which take on more subtle colourings. 1 make them up into a ‘raft’; it is an ideal base for an arrangement of showy tangerine geraniums, leaves of jade green or sulphur yellow,pods of the lily, or anything of strange and unusual shape. One of those small plaster Chinese figurines, sometimes to be found for a shilling or two, looks well when placed on the raft among the flowers, leaves, and fruit as though sailing off to sell them.
Another type of slatted base can be made with thin wooden dowelling, bought at any do-it-yourself shop. Among container bases I have recently admired was a slate-grey one made from two thin flakes of smooth stone and arranged with woodland flowers and branches. At a show not long ago I saw a wooden base coloured with grey shoe cleaner so that it exactly matched the grey of preserved eucalyptus leaves.
Some flower designs are seen to advantage when placed on a piece of mirror glass. Glaziers will cut coloured and semi-transparent glasses to order. Thick black glass, of the kind usually seen round shop-fronts, is delightful as a base with green, yellow, and pink arrangements.
Copper or brass trays placed beneath autumn-tinted flowerpieces are quite something! Eastern brasses, with their delicate enamels, are even lovelier when the enamel colours are repeated in the flowers.
As you can see, a base must always be chosen with the same care as the flowers and container so that, visually, they all link together contentedly.
One of the pleasures incidental to flower arranging is keeping an eye open for containers wherever one happens to be. Holidays in Britain or abroad usually produce locally-made pottery and other ware, while sea shells and those sea-worn stones picked up onbeaches can be quickly converted into containers or bases. Broken or leaking shells can be made watertight with one of the fillers, such as Alabastine, or even by painting over with colourless nail varnish.
To make a container from shells, take a piece of cardboard or wood for a base and pile on it a mound of Polyfilla. On top, press a shell which is large enough and deep enough to hold a few small flowers. Before the mound of filler has hardened, press other pretty shells and stones into it as attractively as you can. (See fig 12.)
All flower arrangers enjoy doing baskets of flowers, and nowadays baskets come in every shape and size imaginable, from fruit punnets to bicycle baskets, and they can all be used imaginatively for flowers. Just put a tin or dish inside to hold the water and chicken wire.
Shape Is Important
Some containers are difficult to use because their basic design is so frightful that no one could make anything of them, no matter how skilled. Other objects which one
finds tricky to begin with can be mastered in time. The shape is the important thing; even over-decorated containers can be used, painted in a single unobtrusive colour, so long as their general shape is pleasing.
On trying their hand at a miniature arrangement for the first time, many women are surprised to find how clever they can be with the very smallest flowers, leaves, etc. But some container in good proportion to the tiny flowers is the first requirement. Household things like a thimble come to mind; more unusual is an antique patch box; just as charming is the cup of an acorn, stuck to a bit of mossy bark to keep it upright.
I have arranged flowers in a pair of French porcelain shoes measuring under one inch long, and a less exotic but just as original container of which I am fond is a tiny wheelbarrow, constructed by my husband from a kit sold in the chain stores. I stand this little wheelbarrow on a small flat stone, which adds a lovely feeling of outdoors.
At one show I saw a green poppy seedhead, with its centre carefully scooped out, serving as a holder for a miniature posy. But perhaps the most charming miniature
container I have had the pleasure of seeing was made from a lichened twig, stuck to a little cardboard base covered with more lichen. In the cleft of the twig was half the shell of a minute blue egg, filled with Florapak to hold the flower stems.
1 know someone who specialises in collecting miniature containers, and her china cabinet displays dolls’ china tea-ware, minute porcelaincans, a little silver cup, and a pewter jug only half an inch tall. She has three children who are just as enthusiastic as she, and the four of them take some defeating when it comes to competitions for miniatures at flower shows!
Miniature arrangements sometimes look more effective when standing on a proportionately small base. A mother-of-pearl button, shading pink and dove grey, is one of mine. I stand an aspirin bottle top on it as a container. The button’s colouring is, of course, picked up in the flowers I use.
One of those little Corinthian columns, used to divide the tiers of a wedding cake, will make possible a miniature pedestal design. I admired a whole class of these at a Christmas show, and found each entrancing. The very smallest miniature brass candlesticks, costing about four shillings, will make a doll’s-house-size pedestal arrangement.
For the small arrangement, as distinct from the true miniature, a hollowed-out tablet of toilet soap, filled with moist Florapak or Oasis, makes a novel container.
From the Shops
In the shops and chain stores there are many good cheap buys—items not actually intended as flower containers. For example, biscuit tins, wire fruit baskets, plastic egg cups, dolls’ furniture, inexpensive figurines, and the
decorative little boxes sold for holding pills, jewellery, or hair grips. A container of mine which is constantly mistaken for jade is, in fact, a 2s. lid. bath salts bottle, made of plastic! Just use your imagination, and there are containers galore.
Before buying any container, consider carefully what kind of flowers you will arrange in it. Will the design of the container allow the blooms to flow down at the sides and over the front rim or lip ? Some shapes make this difficult. Things such as low vases held by cherubs are lovely to look at, but are not always so easy to work with, as the figures invariably get in the way of the flowers. This type of container may best be left to the experienced arranger, but it certainly looks well on anyone’s display shelf.
I am very fond of cherub containers, and have quite a few. If possible, the arrangement must be designed in such a way that the figures are not obliterated; this may mean that the whole arrangement must be designed around the cherubs, so that they take their appointed part in it. If there is a single cherub to one side of the container it may be possible to turn the container so that this figure comes at the front. Then the flowers are arranged behind the cherub, making it the focal point of the design (focal point will be explained later in this website). A low container flanked by cherubs or other figures can sometimes take only an informal line arrangement, the flowers passing down between the figures.
Avoid dishes and vases with wavy rims; they tend to syphon water out on to your table top. Some pottery is porous and oozes water, but this can be cured by applying a coat of clear nail varnish or one of the patent water-repellent sealing substances.
Containers on Display
There is tremendous pleasure to be derived from a permanent display of containers which are in themselves beautiful or interesting. Shelves, or an alcove with a concealed light, make a decorative feature in the hall or drawing-room.
Pride of place in my own display is held by a perfect bronze and marble Regency urn which I found, covered with cobwebs, in a dark corner of an antique shop. The proprietor said it had been there for years, even though the shop was a regular haunt of members of the local flower club. I bought it for 15s.! The moral is that you can find containers in the most unlikely places.