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SHOW #38/6112. How Containers Are Made

Summary Of Show

History Of Container Gardening
CONTAINER GARDENING DATES BACK thousands of years, as our ancestors sought to bring their favorite edible and ornamental plants closer to home and provide desirable plants a hospitable environment to thrive. Containers give us the ability to have tropical plants year round in cold climates as well as providing a pathway for turning a small courtyard or deck into a garden oasis.

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Michael’s Career Path
Eric wants to know, this is your life now, and it's not a very common life path. HOW DID YOU GET INTO IT? Michael explains he was not one of those guys that went to college and was able to tell the counselor, “ This is what I want to do. Put me in this path.” Counselors want to pin you down. “ What's your major? What do you want to do?" He was not one of those guys. He saw the whole world, there were a lot of things he wanted to experience, he just didn't want to be pigeonholed.

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Getting Containers Made
Eric notes there's a lot behind the scenes in the world of containers that we don't see. When we go to our our local garden center trying to find just the right thing for a plant we just bought there are a lot of considerations. From the design standpoint, Michael has come up with this brilliant idea for this new container that's going to be something special for a year or more from now. But then Michael has to GET IT MADE, so his partners on that side of the equation are very, very important in taking Michael's vision and ideal of the perfect container - something that is high quality, something that’s going to be durable - then turning it into a reality. Eric would like for Michael to talk us through the process of finding that partner and how that works.

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Hundreds And Hundreds Of Designs
But that's definitely not what Michael is doing because there are HUNDREDS AND HUNDREDS OF DESIGNS over the course of his career that he's come up with. Why did you feel the need move in that direction? Michael explains - his very first year in business, when doing the Mexican collection he went to his first show in Atlanta, Georgia, at what's called the Merchandise Mart. He sold so much stuff, at least what he thought was so much stuff back then, for a little, small guy. He sold more than he could make, he actually could not make enough to sell, he couldn't produce all the containers. He was thinking, “Wow, we've got a winner here." So he comes back to the next show, the next year, and people walk up to him and ask, “So what's new?" And he's thinking, “What do you mean, what's new?" Everything we had last year, you couldn't get enough of it, you loved it." And they just walked on down the road. So, he said to himself this can’t happen.

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From Idea To Reality
Every person's creative process is a little bit different. Eric's really curious to know how Michael takes that idea, let's say it is something like the way that the sun is cast on a building at sunset. How do you TAKE THAT IDEA AND CONVERT IT INTO A CONTAINER? Is this something you're sketching on paper What's your process? A lot of times it's on paper, just drawing it, not a great drawing, but enough to where he can get the idea. When he first started, to be honest, he spent three weeks over at the factory, just sitting there making molds.

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The Mold Is Important
The MOLD guy is super important. Michael has always believed, “Spend the time to make the mold right the first time.” The mold is the most important thing. Take your time. Get the details correct, the details for him are so important. It could take weeks. The molds are very expensive to make. And not only do you have a design for one container, you've got another mold for the different sizes and different types of material for that same type of design element. So a molder is actually carving that design.

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Materials For A Container
The one thing that is essential for the quality in a container is the actual MATERIALS it's made of. And there are a lot of different options there, whether it's using clay or concrete. Eric would like for Michael to talk about some of the materials he uses, and how important that is for the quality and the longevity of a container. First of all, there are multiple types of clay. In Michael's pieces, they actually mix three different types of clay together.

Click here for more info

Getting The Clay Into The Mold
After the clay has been made Eric would like for Michael to walk us through the next process of GETTING IT INTO THE MOLD. How is that packed and prepared? Once they pull it out of their clay preparation machinery, it comes in little round logs, actually fairly large logs. They then work it over to the stage where they're putting the clay into the molds. Quite frankly, they're packing it in, they're pulling out pieces and just packing it in, smoothing it off with their hands. It's quite a process to watch.

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The Kiln
After the glaze has been applied, a super-important part of THE WHOLE PROCESS IS KILNING IT. These are not just dried in the sun they have to be heated to very, very high temperatures to basically make it where this container is going to last for years. After they put the clay in the mold, press it in, it has to sit there a couple of days. But the clay has to be so dry at a certain point before you pull the molds, or it loses its shape. Then it has to sit there for another couple of days, till it dries enough to where they can start putting the glaze on. Once you glaze a piece, you really still can't tell the color it's really cool once it gets to that point where the glaze dries. Years ago, they only had the old world kiln that basically had 30 different chambers going up a hill.

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PACKING
At that point in time, it’s time for the PACKING. They are fortunate to have a shoe company close by, they produce all the soles for the different tennis shoes or running shoes around the world. So they are actually able to recycle the excess material that's left over and use that for packing, they reuse it one more time.

Click here for more info

LINKS:

SHOW #38/6112. How Containers Are Made

Transcript Of Show

Have you ever wondered how your favorite container goes from concept to reality? In this Episode GardenSMART visits with an accomplished container designer who shows us how it’s done.

CONTAINER GARDENING DATES BACK thousands of years, as our ancestors sought to bring their favorite edible and ornamental plants closer to home and provide desirable plants a hospitable environment to thrive. Containers give us the ability to have tropical plants year round in cold climates as well as providing a pathway for turning a small courtyard or deck into a garden oasis. Almost anything can double as a plant container, there's almost no limit to the possibilities. Some of the most elegant are the classic ceramic containers that marry old world charm with elements of modern design.

Eric meets a master in the field of container design, Michael Carr. Michael has spent the past two decades in the business of designing and building beautiful containers for gardens across the U.S. and well beyond. He's launched over 2,000 unique designs in that time. His annual catalog every year features more than 60% new offerings.

Michael has traveled the world to find the best partners to build these beautiful creations. His world is an amazing blend of business and art. In this Episode we have the pleasure of going behind the scenes to look into the magical world of containers.

Eric welcomes Michael to the show. Thanks so much for joining us. Michael in turn thanks Eric and GardenSMART for helping tell his story.

For Eric containers are one of the most exciting elements in the garden. There are so many possibilities, wide ranges of colors and designs. He importantly loves the flexibility that containers offer. Even if one has a limited space, there's something you can do with a container. A little, small patio, a courtyard, even in giant garden settings they provide the opportunity to have fun with, say, tropical plants that are not hardy in an area. And containers make all that possible. Top

Eric wants to know, this is your life now, and it's not a very common life path. HOW DID YOU GET INTO IT? Michael explains he was not one of those guys that went to college and was able to tell the counselor, “ This is what I want to do. Put me in this path.” Counselors want to pin you down. “ What's your major? What do you want to do?" He was not one of those guys. He saw the whole world, there were a lot of things he wanted to experience, he just didn't want to be pigeonholed. Even when he got out of college, he still didn't know. He had a business degree because it was broad, he could do a lot of different things. And did a lot of different things and enjoyed them. But all got old quick. He enjoyed the business of selling but the actual part of the job, he didn't.

Several years down the road from there he remembered one coach had a really big influence in his life. Because he really loved athletics that coach had such an influence on a lot of things he did. And Michael wanted to be that for other people, he wanted to give back a little bit. So one day he took a test so he could teach school and whatnot and be a coach. He wanted to do that for two or three years, just to give back to the kids. At the same time he served three terms in politics in the same city. It was an enjoyable time, but at some point in time he knew "okay, ready to move on to the next step.” He had a friend that owned several businesses, and he wanted to diversify. He told me he had bought a Mexican pottery company. Michael said, “Good, what does that mean?” His friend said, “I need you to go in there and look at it because I don't know a thing about pottery.” Michael said, “ Dan, I don't have a clue, either, what's going on.” Michael had one segment of his career where he sourced a lot of pottery out of Impruneta, Italy. Cool stuff, handmade, hand-painted, just cool art pieces. It was fun and still has some of those pieces himself. But when the folks working in the factory are wearing Gucci shoes and things like that the cost of containers can become kind of expensive. You've got to keep your eye on cost, you still have to take it to the market, have a product that folks can afford. So it's not just the art. Michael is also a business guy, you've got to make it work both ways.

Top

Eric notes there's a lot behind the scenes in the world of containers that we don't see. When we go to our our local garden center trying to find just the right thing for a plant we just bought there are a lot of considerations. From the design standpoint, Michael has come up with this brilliant idea for this new container that's going to be something special for a year or more from now. But then Michael has to GET IT MADE, so his partners on that side of the equation are very, very important in taking Michael's vision and ideal of the perfect container - something that is high quality, something that’s going to be durable - then turning it into a reality. Eric would like for Michael to talk us through the process of finding that partner and how that works. Michael emphasizes it doesn't just take a phone call to make it happen. He’s probably been to Vietnam more than 50 times, typically two or three weeks at a time. He remembers the first time, landing in an old airport in Vietnam, a 23-hour flight. He realized how far away from home he was and thinking, "What in the world have I just gotten into?” He goes through customs and they're all soldiers, nobody smiles. You can't even make them smile. But he goes through the customs, and all of a sudden meets the people he’s going to do business with. They're all smiling and they have beautiful souls. He's loved it ever since. Michael found this group, this group of people, it's a family business, they're in their fourth generation making containers. Great-great granddad came over from China with the techniques and know-how to make pots and bricks and stuff. Right now the generation he's dealing with that run the business are two brothers. They are educated, smart people and they're driven to build their name. The name is an important thing. So Michael has been doing business with this group for many years. They're like family to him. It was quite a pleasure to finally find that piece of gold.

Top

To Eric it seems in the world of containers there are two basic schools of thought for the way folks that sell containers think about what they're doing on an annual basis. One group makes the very traditional, conventional, almost like old world containers. They offer 30 different things, and that doesn't change that much. But that's definitely not what Michael is doing because there are HUNDREDS AND HUNDREDS OF DESIGNS over the course of his career that he's come up with. Why did you feel the need move in that direction? Michael explains - his very first year in business, when doing the Mexican collection he went to his first show in Atlanta, Georgia, at what's called the Merchandise Mart. He sold so much stuff, at least what he thought was so much stuff back then, for a little, small guy. He sold more than he could make, he actually could not make enough to sell, he couldn't produce all the containers. He was thinking, “Wow, we've got a winner here." So he comes back to the next show, the next year, and people walk up to him and ask, “So what's new?" And he's thinking, “What do you mean, what's new?" Everything we had last year, you couldn't get enough of it, you loved it." And they just walked on down the road. So, he said to himself this can’t happen. But the light came on again, so he started making some new stuff and brought it back. All of a sudden they came in and asked, “What's new?” Now he has an answer “Right here.” And sales started to grow rapidly again. But more impactful than that was years later Michael had a 40-50 page catalog with all these different items. And he thought they were all so cool. He had been trying to get one specific customer for a couple of years. They had multiple stores and whatnot, they were big, known in the business. He finally got the business, she bought a couple containers of pots for her stores, 40-foot containers, lots of pots. Michael went to her open house when the pots arrived. Everything was laid out beautifully, the planters and tons of people. She said, “Mike, everything looks great, I love it. But I just want to let you know, in two years, I'm swapping to somebody else.” He’s thinking here I go again “This was too difficult to get your business, what do you mean, you're going to go somewhere?" She said, “Just always need a new look.” Once again, the light comes on. He's still learning, always learning every day. He said, “No, you're not going to have to go somewhere else in two years, I will give you the new look. I never want you to have to go away to find a new look.” And that's where his thought process changed completely. It's like he has to create new stuff all the time, which is the most difficult thing he does. But it is the most rewarding, really he loves that part of it. So it's just a challenge every year. He initially thinks there's no way he could come up with something else, we're talking hundreds and hundreds of new things. Now his catalog is 400 pages, and 50 to 60% of that is new every year. Inspirations for new designs, come from everywhere. It could be how the sun's setting on a building, it could be the carpet on the floor, a design of a drape, it could be something just pops into his head. Sometimes it’s the factory. After so long they've been working together, sometimes they throw some stuff at him and he will go, “OK, change this or change that.” Sometimes it's not just the style of that pot, sometimes it's texture, sometimes different colors. But that's the fun part, but it's also difficult.

Top

Every person's creative process is a little bit different. Eric's really curious to know how Michael takes that idea, let's say it is something like the way that the sun is cast on a building at sunset. How do you TAKE THAT IDEA AND CONVERT IT INTO A CONTAINER? Is this something you're sketching on paper What's your process? A lot of times it's on paper, just drawing it, not a great drawing, but enough to where he can get the idea. When he first started, to be honest, he spent three weeks over at the factory, just sitting there making molds. He had them in his head, knew what he wanted to do, actually doing them himself. Sometimes there's a mold maker there that does it every day, Michael is just guiding him on what it looks like: “No, change this and change that.” But after this many years in working with the factory they are communicating so well, it's much easier to transfer the idea. To Eric it sounds like a beautiful partnership.

After Michael's design is complete there's a whole process that goes into turning that into a reality. With most of these pots, they start with a mold. It's a long process, there's a lot of work. And that’s what Michael loves about this. Everything is made by hand, people touch it, craftsmen, and it's important how talented they are.

Top

The MOLD guy is super important. Michael has always believed, “Spend the time to make the mold right the first time.” The mold is the most important thing. Take your time. Get the details correct, the details for him are so important. It could take weeks. The molds are very expensive to make. And not only do you have a design for one container, you've got another mold for the different sizes and different types of material for that same type of design element. So a molder is actually carving that design. But what is the material of the mold? Is it like a ceramic or plaster? It's a plaster. The first one is an absolute sculpture. They actually create a sculpture of what they want the piece to look like. Then they pour a reverse mold over that, and that becomes their master mold. It's important because detail and beauty and doing it the right way is so important. They actually create production molds from the master mold. They always keep that master mold protected and taken care of. About every 50 times they use a piece, they create another mold from the master mold.

Top

The one thing that is essential for the quality in a container is the actual MATERIALS it's made of. And there are a lot of different options there, whether it's using clay or concrete. Eric would like for Michael to talk about some of the materials he uses, and how important that is for the quality and the longevity of a container. First of all, there are multiple types of clay. In Michael's pieces, they actually mix three different types of clay together. And have multiple pieces of machinery that cost a half a million dollars apiece to make sure they mix the clay correctly. That machine will take it from solids; three different types of solid clay, it’s then put it into a big, huge vat, then it runs up a conveyor belt and is dumped into these 20-foot machines that look like rock tumblers, they then mix water with it and basically turn that clay into a liquid. They liquefy it, the clay then comes through channels under the floor, then it runs to another machine that shakes and sucks out all the impurities. Remember, it started as clay, it could have been in the river, it could have been on the mountainside or so forth, then once they pull it out, they want to reconstitute it into a solid; at least a malleable type of clay. But to do that whole process involves a lot of work and a lot of equipment. They do go the extra mile to make sure that that clay creates a beautiful, beautiful piece.

Top

After the clay has been made Eric would like for Michael to walk us through the next process of GETTING IT INOT THE MOLD. How is that packed and prepared? Once they pull it out of their clay preparation machinery, it comes in little round logs, actually fairly large logs. They then work it over to the stage where they're putting the clay into the molds. Quite frankly, they're packing it in, they're pulling out pieces and just packing it in, smoothing it off with their hands. It's quite a process to watch. Remember these are craftsmen and they've been doing this for many years, they know what they're doing. It's incredible. One can see that in their work. There are over 125 colors and finishes and many different textures. All of this goes on before it goes into the kiln.

Customers expect something new all the time so Michael is always studying color trends and so forth. There are 10 to 12 different types of ingredients and that’s not including paint ingredients. There are secret things that are put in there. But the bottom line is it takes time: experimenting, crushing this up, crushing that up, mixing it. It's not just mixing and getting those ingredients it's also how to apply the glaze. There are different ways they apply the glaze. For example, this particular white color that you see right here, four or five years ago, the whole industry from Vietnam had a white. But it was basically a smoky white, a dirty white. Michael had some customers say, "can you just make it white?” So he started studying and trying to experiment; trial and error, different methods to come up with that pure white. White is the hottest color in the business right now. He's glad they were able to make that happen, but it took about three years. Any new color he's happy with, the white especially so. He really likes to offer those different choices to customers. Top

After the glaze has been applied, a super-important part of THE WHOLE PROCESS IS KILNING IT. These are not just dried in the sun they have to be heated to very, very high temperatures to basically make it where this container is going to last for years. After they put the clay in the mold, press it in, it has to sit there a couple of days. But the clay has to be so dry at a certain point before you pull the molds, or it loses its shape. Then it has to sit there for another couple of days, till it dries enough to where they can start putting the glaze on. Once you glaze a piece, you really still can't tell the color it's really cool once it gets to that point where the glaze dries. Years ago, they only had the old world kiln that basically had 30 different chambers going up a hill. Every one of them a separate chamber. It has a hole or a door to go into, you put the pots in there. Then it has a door on the other side where they take them out. So it comes in with a dry glaze, it comes out beautiful. But every time you do it, every seven days or so, they have to brick it back up. They leave one little hole so they can pull the brick out, shove wood in all the time in every little chamber. So cool to watch. Michael has done this many times. But to just look through that hole you actually see the pieces on fire, and you can watch it as it goes from a dirt color to some of the glaze colors. It's fascinating to see, it's pretty cool. The container stays in that kiln for about seven days which gets up to about 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s amazing how they make that happen. Today there are also the gas kilns. It’s more modern, they can really manipulate temperature, gets to this temperature this long and so forth. These kilns get up to the same temperature but takes about two days. But when you open that door or when you break those bricks out and you see what the piece has turned into, it's like Christmas morning.

You can have an idea in your head and what you think what the pot will look like but you don't really know on a new piece what it's going to look like. Take the piece in this gunmetal color then do it on another color, and it runs different ways it reacts differently. You just don't know exactly what it's going to look like until you open it up. And it's never more beautiful than the time it comes out of that kiln, after it was fired. Then there are some final finishing touches, polishing for example. That is because inside that kiln the glaze may run down the side. It may create little puddles inside. On the outside it becomes rocks and stuff so they sand it all down, just make sure all the imperfections are gone.

Top

At that point in time, it’s time for the PACKING. They are fortunate to have a shoe company close by, they produce all the soles for the different tennis shoes or running shoes around the world. So they are actually able to recycle the excess material that's left over and use that for packing, they reuse it one more time. And that’s important when Michael first started this business, breakage was a difficult thing. To see where it comes from, to where it ends up - on a truck, on a ship, on the ocean, back in another transfer truck and across the country there's a lot of compression on those pieces. But their damage now is down to less than 1%. That packing material works really well.

There are so many different steps that go into making these containers truly works of art. It really provides Eric a deep appreciation for containers that are made well. They're an investment in the future of our garden. These are beautiful works of art that can be passed down for generations. The marriage of great design and superior materials yields a container that will last for generations. Buying containers of quality really, really does make a difference. Eric appreciates Michael giving us the behind-the-scenes perspective from the design process, all the way through the finished product. It’s been fascinating. Thank you so much. Michaels says it’s his privilege. Thank you all for coming.

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By Delilah Onofrey, Suntory Flowers
Photographs courtesy of Suntory Flowers

Millions of Senetti plants are sold each year and the vast majority are Magenta Bicolor and Blue Bicolor with stunning vibrant tips and white centers. But new this year is the Senetti violet which has deep purple petals. For more information about the Senetti plants, click here for an informative article.


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