Stuffed into a cinderblock high-rise in college, I bought a cheap brandy snifter at the hardware store. It was not so much a drink container (well, not so much) as an elegant vase to hold the wild chicory, dandelion, Queen Anne's lace and other weeds that grew in the cracks in the sidewalks and along the roadside. An empty soup can would have served, but the graceful lines of the glass enhanced the meager wildflower bouquets and raised them to the realm of dormitory chic.
"If you've got a really good-looking container, you're way ahead of the game," says Muffin Evander, head of the garden committee at Ladew Topiary Gardens and owner of Cultivated Designs by Muffin in Baltimore.
"I've got a round antique brass container and whatever I put in it looks good."
But while some containers improve even a scraggly fistful of weeds, the most satisfying results most often come from a collaboration between container and contained.
"You pick the container so the things that will go in it will be complemented," says Marie Coulter, a master flower show judge who helped write the handbook for the Flower Show Schools for the National Garden Clubs.
Coulter says the anticipated style of the arrangement also influences the choice of container. For a formal arrangement (usually for a formal occasion or decor) she recommends silver, crystal or china. For something looser, she likes wood or pottery.
Potter and Ikebana teacher Seiko Baer of Chestertown was trained in a formal style that calls for a prescribed container, but she usually prefers to let the materials guide her design, rather than deciding on a design and then finding container and materials to execute it.
"When I see some interesting container I think, 'Wow, what arrangement can be done in this?' " she says. "Or when I see beautiful flowers or branches, I will try to imagine what kind of containers they would look best in."
The perfect pot
Indoor containers come in all shapes and sizes. From glass, ceramics, whimsical mosaics, and antique cloisonne to baskets and teacups, they range from cheap to eye-popping in price. But regardless of cost, each adds its own distinctive note to the overall look. Some restrict the choices of what to put in them through neck size, overall size, shape, heft and even style. For example, adding a lavish arrangement to an elaborate container can overwhelm -- like a loud, self-obsessed party guest -- rather than enhance a space.
"With a very ornate container, it's best to keep the arrangement simple," says Evander. "But you need to have something in it that helps bring out the colors and line of the container. I have a dark red lacquered and heavily scrolled Victorian vase that looks beautiful with some red cyclamen or red-twig dogwood branches and nothing else."
On the other end of the spectrum, simpler containers, like clear glass -- the little black dress of flower arranging -- open up accessory possibilities. Colored beads at the bottom of a glass vase can simultaneously hold stems in place and echo the colors in the arrangement. Or you can dress the glass container down elegantly with the "less is more" approach.
"Hellebores [Lenten rose], which are perfect this time of year, make an impressive dinner arrangement by themselves just floated in a glass bowl," says Evander. "And they are long-lasting."
Looking for balance
For an even longer-lasting arrangement, plunk potted flowers and plants into a container. Evander uses whatever catches her fancy at the florist, garden center or grocery store: potted ferns, primrose, ranunculus or ice blue succulents. She then drops them into a red ceramic window box on an indoor window and camouflages the pot edges with chartreuse reindeer moss.
"It's a really simple way to arrange," she says. "You don't have to worry about a frog or oasis to hold things in place."
Evander's favorite pots are those with a history -- ones that belonged to her mother-in-law, or were gifts from her husband or a friend. Baer, who began her career with Ikebana's uniform commercial vases, prefers something more individual, with a more personal connection. So she mostly makes her own out of clay: magma-colored boxes with peeled-open centers, loosely woven Gordian knots that hang on a wall twined with dried trailing Chinese lantern or bittersweet, and blue-gray mountain ranges erupting with curly willow and enormous proteus or wicked-looking trifoliate orange branches.
When making any kind of arrangement -- flower, branch, fruit -- the traditional rule is that the arrangement should be one-and-a-half times as tall as the container to achieve a sense of balance between container and contained. There are other rules too, but they can all be ignored if you like what you see when you finish.
"You are looking for visual, not mathematical, balance," says Coulter.
"It's all you expressing yourself," Baer agrees. "So you choose to suit your own taste."
Here are a few sources for interesting containers:
The Dutch Connection
3811 Canterbury Road
Baltimore, MD 21218
Wealth of containers, both indoor and outdoor.
Smith and Hawken
1340 Smith Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21209
Containers, reindeer moss.
Seiko Baer Pottery
100 S. Queen St.
Chestertown, MD 21620
Studio sales by appointment.
Cultivated Designs by Muffin
Muffin Evander will give a series of workshop lectures on containers at the Enoch Pratt Free Library on March 13 at 1 p.m. Information: Judy Cooper, 410-396-5494.