Debra Prinzing

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Plant your summer centerpiece

May 26th, 2010

On location in my own backyard with BH&G senior art director Shelley Caldwell

One perk that comes with my new gig as contributing garden editor for Better Homes & Gardens was recently producing a photo shoot in my garden. Some of the shots from our March session, photographed by the very talented Jack Coyier, appear in the June 2010 issue of BH&G (on newsstands now).   

The story idea came from the Home Design department rather than the Garden Group, but I got involved because this design/entertaining story included plants.    

This is my tale of what happens with a great story idea and how it takes the journey from something pretty HUGE to something fairly modest. I’m learning that it’s all about the creative process, not just the end game.   

It all started when I was asked to come up with three planted container ideas that could look good outdoors all summer long. That sounds easy, doesn’t it? The editor asked:   

As part of a larger summer outdoor entertaining guide, we want to give some ideas for summer-long living centerpieces. Wondered if you would have some thoughts on that and be interested in designing 3 centerpieces. 

I sent her several suggestions featuring foliage plants. Here they are: 

  1. Wood window box planted with edibles: Herbs (chives, flat-leaf Italian parsley, oregano, thyme, and strawberries)
  2. Galvanized zinc or aluminum containers with bold foliage – such as Rex begonias (dark green and burgundy) with creeping jenny or helichrysum (lime foliage that drapes over the edge of the planter)
  3. Terra cotta pots with air plants (silver-blue tillandsias); This is to show a low-maintenance alternative to succulents; tillandsias do not require planting and can be arranged on gravel or pebbles that fill the containers (and misted over the summer to keep alive).
  4. Glazed pottery with grass (or grass-like) plantings; Planted with tufts of green mondo grass or seeded with wheat grass, fill the shallow, Asian-style containers for fresh, summer-long lawn on your table. The grass can be embellished with clear glass votive holders or peppered with cut flowers inserted in the grass with stakes (for single events). This is Jack Coyier’s idea and I think it’s cute!

One of the tabletop designs shot in my backyard - featured in BH&G's June issue

The feedback? Where are the flowers? This is the editor’s reply:   

Something to think about . . . how can we tweak these to be a little more decorative and festive, and a tiny bit less about foliage? Can we get one of them centering on a beautiful bloomer?   

Yikes! I forgot the flowers. Actually, I didn’t really forget them; I just selected foliage plants thinking they would be lower maintenance than flowers (which might require regular dead-heading, fertilizer, etc.) and be guaranteed to look pretty from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Turns out, BH&G readers really LOVE their blooms. There can never be too many flowers, remember?   

I refocused my brainstorming to include more, more, more blooms. The story planning went through several iterations until I was told this might be a feature spread with five different planted centerpieces. I went to town – actually sourcing plants and containers from as far north as Ventura to as far south as Hollywood, logging 200-plus miles on my Volvo’s odometer as I pulled pots, plants and accessories for the March 9th prep day and March 10th photo shoot.   

From left: Jack Coyier, Char Hatch Langos and Shelley Caldwell

The plan was to photograph all five tabletop looks. Thank goodness for the very talented Char Hatch Langos, an LA-based stylist who logged even more hours and miles in her car hunting down props than I did!   

She arrived on Tuesday with BH&G senior art director Shelley Caldwell. Between the two of them they had a condo’s worth of patio furniture, textiles, vases, dishes, flatware, napkin rings – you name it – crammed into two cars! All of this for five different looks!   

The looks related to five themes that we had worked out: Romantic; Asian; Edible/Herbs; Citrus Mix-n-Match; and Tabletop Tray of Collectibles.   

So it was a fun two days, with a lot of fine-tuning, adjusting for the sunlight bouncing off of my California Gold crushed gravel garden, unseasonably low temperatures and brisk winds.   

As always, Jack and his assistant Stuart Gow were easy and fun to work with *(I’ve been on several other garden locations with these men and they are THE BEST). Wonderwomen Shelley and Char made it all look easy, with their lovely art direction and styling, respectively.   

This design actually made it onto page 91 as "idea number 26" in the summer outdoor entertaining story

June 2010 issue of Better Homes & Gardens

All that work, including some portraits of me in the garden, and we called it a day.   

Later, Char and I hauled a lot of props and pots back to their homes for “returns,” although some of the designs remained in my back patio to beautify my summer entertaining efforts.   

Fast forward to the new issue of BH&G and, well, the upshot is – only 2 of the photos made it into the June editorial. 

It’s a bummer that we couldn’t feature each of these tabletop centerpieces in the magazine’s pages, but that is the nature of today’s print world.

I’ve learned that one of the reasons for the success of a publication as huge as BH&G is that the editors and art directors make sure they have plenty of choices when it comes to building each issue. 

So, here, for you reading and gardening pleasure, are all five container designs, along with my original text. There’s still plenty of time to plant something for your patio table and perhaps these will inspire your own creativity. 

You can see Jack's close-up shot above - the one actually used. Here is my backyard shot that reveals how nicely Char and Shelley styled the scene.

Flowering pots:

Pair a pretty container with your favorite summer flowers – it’s a simple and affordable way to dress up your patio table with a long-blooming centerpiece.   

A trio that pops 

Fill multiple flower pots with similar varieties of the same plant for a harmonious design. For example, I love mixing it up with coral, mango and lemon yellow begonias, but you could also try this project with miniature roses, million bells, or petunias.  

Here, the cheery, citrus palette and the repetition of the containers add up to a vibrant and modern centerpiece. Plant each 7-inch container with a pretty begonia and top the potting soil with a layer of pebbles. To display the pots, line up a row or cluster as a group. For a larger table, use pots of various sizes.  

My cheery geraniums in a glazed blue bowl; the lime-green lamium adds needed highlights

 A bowlful of beautiful   

Geraniums are the perfect summer flower because they thrive in the heat and sunshine.

Choose a cool, blue-glazed bowl that’s low enough to allow dinner guests to converse across the table and wide enough to accommodate a profusion of plants (we used a 6-inch-by-12-inch container). Here, I planted five salmon-pink zonal geraniums in a crisscross pattern and added a chartreuse-colored spotted dead nettle (Lamium maculatum ‘Gold’) between each geranium. As the season unfolds, the trailing foliage of the nettle will look dazzling against the blue bowl. And the geraniums will continue to flower for months.  

Herbs and strawberries in a cedar windowbox, painted French blue


A culinary centerpiece   

To create an herb garden that doubles as an attractive centerpiece, I filled a 24-inch window box with edibles typically used in summertime cooking. 

First, a coat of French blue paint brightens an inexpensive wood planter from a home center. I inserted mint, strawberries, rosemary and lemon variegated thyme growing in individual plastic pots (you can use any of your favorite herbs or edible flowers). After the berries are harvested or the herbs are snipped, it’s easy to replace a single plant in the pot. 

Encourage your guests to pick a few mint leaves for ice tea, lemonade or cocktails. Or, snip the thyme or rosemary to garnish chicken on the grill. And, of course, you know what to do with the strawberries!     

Love this Asian metal tray that contains an asymmetrical planting and votives.

Zen still-life   

This serene tablescape – a miniature landscape of three contrasting grasses – was inspired by the simplicity of Japanese gravel gardens.

I used bronzy-orange Libertia peregrinans, an iris relative (dwarf carex and ‘Jack Spratt’ New Zealand flax are other good choices). The tall grass is planted asymmetrically in one corner with two types of mondo grass (black and dwarf green) as accent foliage.

Small black pebbles top the soil and one corner was left unplanted for placing small votives. Light them and enjoy an elegant and artful centerpiece. You can replace the candles with a grouping of larger stones or float a single flower in a shallow saucer.  

A beautiful outdoor tray filled with small objects, potted plants, and a vase for cut flowers.


Objects of desire   

I love to gather my collections of small potted plants and display them on an all-weather wicker tray with candles and decorative objects.

The idea is to design a portable centerpiece combining a green-and-white palette of plants – variegated ivy, clipped dwarf euonymus, delicate ferns and ‘Giant Snowflake’ flowering bacopa.

The individual plants shine, each in its own pot – a variety of terra cotta, concrete and glazed stoneware. Add an accent of color by filling a small vase with flowers and foliage cut from the garden and you’ve created an ever-changing seasonal display.  

From the top view - geraniums and lamium

Planting and care tips   

  • Choose a short container that allows guests to see one another across the table when seated. Look for pots no taller than 6 or 7 inches high.
  • Select a container with a drainage hole or ask the garden center to drill one for you. You’ll also want to add a saucer, dish or tray under the planted container or plan to remove it from your table when you need to water.
  • Don’t over- or underwater the container, but do check that soil does not dry out. Outdoor containers, even on a shaded patio, tend to dry out quickly during summer and may need a daily drink.
  • Feed plants with a water-soluble fertilizer to encourage ongoing flowering. I like to mix one-quarter or one-half strength fertilizer in my watering can each time I water.
  • Ensure that the flowers you plant continue to produce new blooms by pinching or snipping off “spent” flowers.

–Debra Prinzing   


A Post-Script: Why, you may ask, did a huge chunk of this story NOT make it into the pages of our June issue? There’s no simple explanation. So I’ll just chalk it up to too much of a good thing. The editorial process is a delicate balance of competing ideas, visions and creativity. I’m just happy to be along for the ride!

One Response to “Plant your summer centerpiece”

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