Imagine yourself as MacGyver. You’ve got a house full of objects around you. What can you use to make a hanging basket in a pinch? Or a green wall in your bathroom? It’s liberating to get out of the mindset that you have to buy everything in order to create an enchanting home and garden. What is style about anyhow if it doesn’t impart a sense about you, an understanding of what you care about, what you enjoy, your attention to detail, and your particular savvy? Creating things yourself is a fuller expression of who you are. It can save you money, which always makes me feel a little mischievous when I can squirrel away savings instead of having it drain between my fingers like sand. But mostly I think of it as the gift to myself that keeps on giving…
The first thing to do? Get inspired. Gather photo clippings of what excites your imagination. Choose a range of colors that suits the mood of your space. Think about the feelings you want to have and imagine how this place will help you create them. What have you been missing? Make it a reality by going out to your favorite nurseries, plant conservatories, prowling around in flea markets, and hiking the craggy cliffs of your native habitat! Keep a folder of your dreaming… Don’t be afraid of drawing over magazine pages, coloring pots in to see if bright blue or red would really work like you imagined (colorful pots unless matching an equally colorful background can take the focus off of the plants). Pick a room. Take a photo of your spot and do tissue sketches over it with different arrangements. Think about light and climate. Where will your plants do well?
Don’t let financial constraints block you. Recycled materials and found objects with a few adjustments can work just as well as pieces you build yourself or buy from a ceramist or other professional. Coming up with your own solutions is half the fun and the adventure can be shared and retold to friends…
I started with my bathroom which is a perfect 1950′s mauve. I dreamed of painting neon wisps all over it, a kind of retrospective on colors engineered by man in different eras but my place is a rental. Piff! Whatever! I’ll just cover it up with plants! Lets call it a jungle motif. From there I started thinking about how I could build it. How do you cover mauve tile anyway, a mirror with loopy floral designs etched into the edges, or a window that looks directly out onto someones entry?
The answer: suction cups. I promise not to write a whole craft book on suction cup art and all its possible permutations but it COULD be done… It turns out they hold plants to tile, mirrors, and glass ridiculously well and can cover over any unwanted embellishments, views, or architectural ineptitude’s. Not just any plant will do though. I found Tillandsia (air plants) that don’t need soil, and Orchids that only need bark, to be the best candidates. They are lighter and create less of a mess. Cover the walls with them. Keep them well watered with daily misting and weekly immersions and you’ll get to see your plants putting out new growth and repeat blooms. Sponge holders with suctions on the back create a pre-made container, but you can also attach twigs, bark, or wood to a suction cup yourself (drift wood must be soaked in fresh water to expunge the salt). All you need is a little fishing line and a bit of Sphagnum Moss… and voila! The options are endless. Just think about the area you want to cover, the plants you want to display, and get to brainstorming what materials will attach best to the surfaces you are working with.
If we aren’t talking about vertical space. Shells work great as natural containers on the horizontal plane. Naturally decorative pieces, I just nestle Tillandsia inside an abalone shell, and it brings it alive… I’ve also taken to going for walks in the Arboretum after work and after windy days I’ll find an abundance of lichen from sea blue green to a neon chartreuse. These look deceptively like natural sea sponges and make for great embellishments around shells or on twigs and wood.
If you want a hanging planter but aren’t up to building your own conservatory style planter all you need are some old baskets left over from Easter or found at the thrift store. Line it with plastic and then find an old plastic pasta drainer or bowl that you drill a couple of holes in. Place the bowl in the basket (of course make sure that the plastic lip doesn’t show first and fills in the basket completely) and put your potting soil and plants straight into it. The plastic liner in the basket will act as a drainage tray. Make it a hanging basket by finding some twine and cutting it to length. I always get the most even hang by taking the twine, tying it to the basket in three to four different spots individually while it sits on even ground. Then while pulling up on the strings right where I determine the center of the container to be I twist the strings together and tie them in a knot. Try hanging it to see if you need to make any adjustments.
There are many more options for fabricating or finding your own containers on the cheap. I keep my eyes open at flea markets for richer or more finished pieces to pair with my own homemade inventions. The combination of slick or modern with rustic or something broken but obscured by plants is usually a visual treat. You want your space to be easy to read i.e. know where you’re going in it, where the exit is etc. but you also want the visit to be new each time, not so simple that there aren’t any surprises. A diversity of materials lends a space that kind of interest.
Besides shells and baskets other recycled objects might include old oil drums, tins, cans, tires, wood barrels halved, crates, wheels barrows, watering cans, stacks of rock, glass bottles, or broken cement, troughs, or old tubs can all be turned into containers. You could also plan and build your own hypertufa (which I will try this summer and post a blog about), gabions, hanging baskets, conservatory style wood nests and boards, ceramic containers, terrariums, and fabric pouches. If you can’t find what you want and would like a professional hand making an object try leaving a post on the board at your local art school or center. There are always plenty of art students eager to develop their resume. A friend recently wanted a terrarium built for his sweetie and I almost had it hand blown until I visited a local shop in Ballard and found they could order exactly what I needed at a better value to me.
In the end I found that my only real constraints were time and space. I’ve stopped feeling so impatient because there’s always a new problem to entertain me… And the problem of enough space always sets the logic and innovation in motion for the place.
At the end of a class I taught recently on this topic a student came up to me after everyone else and asked for some advise. She had a very particular situation. She was moving to San Fransisco for a summer writing program and wanted to take a plant or two with her to decorate the place. What should she do? I immediately thought of something like the Woolly Vagabond (made by the Woolly Pocket company), but made out of luggage. I could see her arriving in her new apartment, setting a small suitcase on a table near a window, opening it and presto a planter ready to go! but this was more my own fancy than hers, so instead of sharing my crackpot idea I asked her to tell me a little more. It turned out she loved the Tillandsia that I had arranged in shells and we came up with a couple of new ways to present them. She could find a few twigs (Manzanita grows wild in California and has a beautiful red bark), attach the twigs to a wall and hang the Tillandsia to them. She could also glue or attach the plant to a magnet or a suction cup to decorate kitchen windows or a fridge. There was also the possibility that she could explore San Fransisco in a new way if she bought the plant there (I suggested an exotic little store that I’d heard of started by a woman named Flora Grubb). As we talked she grew more excited about all the possibilities of the move, how much there was to explore, and how little she had to spend.
And it’s true, some of us orient ourselves in the world by knowing what we want to create. I’m thinking about finding an old piece of luggage to turn into a planter for exotics. Maybe I’ll find just the thing if I follow up on my dreams of planning a trip to Mexico…! If I do I’ll need to fabricate a candle for the patron saint of scrimp and save…