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Transforming Mundane to Magnificent

By: Sandra Nelson; Images Sandy DeFoe

No matter how hard I try, I can never seem to transform this: 

empty planter

                      into this:

winter pot

Somewhere along the line I missed out on the How to Create Seasonal Beauty lesson!


So, this year, instead of rushing into my usual feeble attempts at winter pots, I decided to learn from a true  master, Embassy's resident horticultural artist Jo Ann Prieto. On her invitation, we were able to see firsthand how she fashions her winter masterpieces. We began with an overview of her design process.

My planters have always begun at the local garden center where I randomly pick up greenery and baubles that catch my eye.  Jo Ann takes a much different (and I have to admit much more sensible) approach.  Before purchasing her materials, Jo Ann spends time developing a foundational idea from which she develops her plantings. She finds that her thinking is stimulated by perusing people's holiday plantings on Instagram. Chicago postings are especially helpful since they typically plant earlier than we do here in Kansas City. This year, she noticed some interesting topiaries and lots of faux fruit in the northern designs, but nothing especially groundbreaking. After the upheavals of the last few years, people  still seem to be seeking the comfort of the traditional. 

Once her ideas have begun to gel, then Jo Ann orders her materials. Some, like red and yellow twig dogwood branches, are yearly favorites for providing architectural interest to a design. Others that top her list are noble fir, western cedar and the richly fragrant incense cedar.   incense cedarShe warns that as wonderful as incense cedar is in a design, it does tend to dry out quickly.  

Jo Ann also recommends foraging for interesting seed pods and cones. They can help give your winter planters a unique, personalized appearance. If you do opt for purchased accents, be aware that Styrofoam can burst in the freeze/thaw cycles that are typical of our winters here. Try to protect them as much as possible. Finally, she suggests that live arrangements be watered thoroughly and then sprayed with an anti-dessicant to prolong their lives. 

After sharing her insights, Jo Ann invited us to join her and her assistant Susie on one of their first plantings of the season. 


The process began at Embassy's shop, where Jo Ann's boxes of greenery were stored.

stack of boxes


As Jo Ann and Susie got ready to leave for the day's plantings, their van was stuffed full of all of the materials and tools that could possibly be needed. While Jo Ann has the design well planned before she begins to install it,  last minute on-site adjustments often have to be made. New inspirations are also a possibility so over the years she has learned to be prepared for anything.

van full of materials


Once at the site, the work began. The thriller, in this case a small tree, was centered in the planter. The thriller is  the focal point of the design and usually provides height that draws your attention to the arrangement.

tree in planter


Sections of larger branches were removed to be used later as possible fillers. The ends of the branches were cut into sharp points, making it easier for the stripped branches to take up necessary moisture. Cut branches quickly crust over,  blocking water from entering their vascular systems. Slanted cuts expose more open surface area, allowing more moisture to reach the foliage keeping it fresher longer.

pruning tree


Bringing even more drama to the design, Jo Ann added upright birch branches next to the tree. It took a great deal of force to make sure they stayed in place.

pounding a branch in


Once the thrillers were set, then Jo Ann and Susie began to place the fillers, or the materials that add density and bulk to an arrangement. As the name implies, they are also used to fill in the empty spots.

adding fillers


Since Jo Ann brought options to the field, she and her assistant had the freedom to choose what best suited the  emerging design. 

choosing fillers


While some designers prefer to work layer by layer, Jo Ann was comfortable working back and forth between the filler layer and the spiller layer.

placing spiller


Spillers, material that flows over the sides of the planter, help to pull the eye throughout the arrangement. Without spillers, the design seems to end abruptly and leaves the viewer with an unfinished feeling.


Once the basic design was developed, then Jo Ann and Susie began to enliven the arrangement with classic accents,

classic accents

including some dogwood branches.

dogwood branches


More fillers and adornments,

adding detail

then a step back to evaluate.

evaluating pot


A mere 60 minutes later, Jo Ann and Susie are finally satisfied with their creation. They water,


spray with anti-dessicant,


reload the truck,

reload the truck

thoroughly clean their work area,

sweep up

take one last look

last look

and head off to their next project, leaving behind a slice of beauty for others to enjoy.