Part 2: How to Build Sustainable Large Scale Installations using Foam Free Mechanics

This is Part 2 of a two-part blog post on How to Build Large Scale Installations with Foam Free Mechanics.  Visit Part 1 to learn about the design process, and some of the basic components of these structures.

Large scale installation with foam free mechanics

In the beginning …

To the left is the piece that started it all for me! This is the “hero” of the first ever (2017) Whidbey Flower Workshop, led by my pal Susan Mcleary. (See Part 1 of this two part blog post to learn more about the “Why,” the “How,” and the “What”of sustainable large scale installations.)

This starts in a “secret bucket” on the floor (read on to see what that is!).  We wrapped chicken wire around it, coiled it upwards and connected it to the ceiling above. Another coil joined, and snaked across to another suspension point. We rolled sticks into the coils to give them some body and to improve the matrix for our greenery and flowers to stick into. Flowering branches are inserted into the bucket on the floor, and as they wind upward they are in tubes or EcoFresh wraps.

Since we knew the lifespan of this piece was to be brief, we also allowed a lot of dry insertions. Finally, all the floral product was super locally grown, with almost all the greenery foraged with permission on Whidbey!

Putting it all together

Usually I combine multiple mechanics in one piece.  I might use a “secret bucket” – a bucket of water that I wrap with chicken wire – along with a frame, a moss roulade (see below), chicken wire, wraps and tubes. Typically I start with locating the big or open water sources where I can, and/or where I want a really solid focal point.  Next I use a “hard green” that doesn’t need water to fill out the basic shape of my piece.  Last, I tuck in bundles of stems in EcoFresh Wraps or in tubes to fill out the focal points.

We commonly pre-tube and pre-wrap stems in the studio to save time on site. For fast set ups, I make a moss roulade at the studio the day before.  I then simply need to transport, drain, attach, finesse a few holes, and it’s good to go!

Use a zero-waste or low-waste approach:  As often as possible, I reclaim my mechanics.  I bid projects based on me taking down the installation, bringing it back to my studio and picking it apart to separate compost from reusable mechanics from waste.  This is the best way for me to reach my goal of zero-waste or low-waste floristry.  I separate the zip ties from the elastics from the water tubes and sort them all out for re-use.  This enables me to create very little waste.

As often as possible, I reclaim my mechanics.  I bid projects based on me taking down the installation, bringing it back to my studio and picking it apart to separate compost from reusable mechanics from waste. 

I usually end up with a nice pile of compost and a small handful of trash.  But with the same construction, if I am not the one to take it down, most likely the whole piece is tossed into the landfill.  Plant material in the landfill = methane, which is a nasty greenhouse gas.  Plus, any matter at all in the landfill = bigger landfill, not to mention the need to re-make the items that could have been used again instead.

When I have time, I save the worthwhile botanical leftovers and use them to brighten someone’s day.  Often I take them to a local retirement home.  It gives the residents a chance to play with flowers and enjoy their beauty!  Or I will call neighbors and friends and let them know to come get free flowers!  But there’s also nothing wrong with composting.  Sometimes after a huge wedding, I take some real, and maybe just a teensy bit morbid, satisfaction in chopping apart those stems and flower heads and raking them into a nice pile to rot!

Tips for going low/zero waste with your installation methods:

  • Use bind wire or jute/hemp twine instead of zip ties.  Most industrial composting facilities can take bind wire and twist ties, did you know that?   Save the twist ties from your bunches and reuse them (if you can disguise the colors!).
  • Reuse your zip ties.  Zip ties can be opened again!  Watch this video.  Or order ones designed to be opened – they are out there!  This does mean you need to leave your ties long.  And, they are still plastic…
  • Reuse the elastics/rubber bands from your bunches for your ecofresh wraps.  Or for anchoring a chicken wire mechanic into a vase, instead of tape.
  • Undo your EcoFresh Wraps and save the plastic bags for reuse.  The wraps can be composted, or dried to use again.
  • Save your tubes.  Plop them in a bucket of soapy water to sanitize and reuse.
  • Choose plastic coated chicken wire.  It won’t rust and therefore lasts longer.  It is also gentler on plant stems, fingers, and bags/tubes/ties.
  • Opt for mechanics you can reuse.
  • When you can’t salvage, consider a fully compostable structure.  Make a roll of sticks wrapped in jute mesh for your meadow or arch mechanic.  Tell the client or venue or whoever is taking it down to make sure to compost, not garbage it.

 

Essentials of Foam-Free Mechanics

The Secret Bucket

The Secret Bucket, with Stakes

This is a favorite mechanic of mine for floor-based installations.  It is  so versatile!  The “Secret Bucket” is a bucket of water that is hidden in the installation.   You can use a plain old bucket, but here’s an idea for a double duty situation: structure, plus water!  Fill a bucket half full of concrete, then jab in three or four 1″ square tomato stakes.  Pay attention to how you place your stakes, and you can create the perfect space to nestle another bucket up higher.  Then wrap the whole structure in chicken wire. This provides 2 water sources (the buckets) plus structural support (stakes and wire) as well as ballast (concrete).  There are so many ways to interact with this structure:

  • Stick stems through the chicken wire into the water
  • Insert dry stems into the wire anywhere
  • Tie longer branches onto the stakes to extend the structure
  • Tuck in Eco-Fresh wrapped bunches or tubed stems in wherever

This the primary mechanic in the asymmetric arch we made at the Sustainable Flowers Workshop in Calgary (the opening picture in Part 1).

Moss Roulade

This is another indispensable go-to mechanic.  Take a piece of chicken wire, spread a thick layer of real forest moss across it, and roll it up.  Think Jelly Roll.  Now you have alternating swirls of wire and moss, perfect for support and hydration. 

Make it as small as or as big as you want.  Squish it into whatever shape you need.  Use it, then pull everything out and store it for next time.  I have some that are little 12″ – 18″ crescents for the corner of an arbor, and I have some big 6′ snakes that go across the top my arbor.  I have some that are probably 4 or 5 years old!  I just chuck them into a pile in the yard between uses.  When I need them I pull  them out, give them a soak (unless it is been raining, in which case they are pre-soaked!), and jam in the stems!

The moisture in the soaked moss is often enough to provide ample humidity to keep flowers alive for the 6 – 8 hours needed for an event.  The moss/wire matrix is great for stuffing stems in and having them stay pretty well put.  You will want to soak the moss for an hour to let it fully hydrate, and at the gig you will need time to let it drain.  

Sometimes I combine water sources – I will stick a stem through and jab a tube into it on the other side. The moss roulade is great for make-ahead installs.  The biggest drawback is that they are heavy when wet, and if you are using them dry they can actually pull moisture away from the stems.  The moss can be messy, whether dry (flaky) or when wet.  I typically use this in outdoor venues, but have used it indoors on concrete floors, once I know it is well drained. A Variation: Instead of moss, use sticks and clippings.  Or use Exelsior – this is a shredded wood product used for packing.  It is great to reclaim and reuse!

A note:  I live in the PNW where forest moss is abundant, so for me this is a renewable resource that comes, sometimes very literally, from my backyard.  Moss use can be controversial, but for me it makes sense.

Holly Pillows are a useful foam-free mechanic for sustainable large scale installations

Holly Pillows

You’ve probably met these, but if you haven’t – you might want to!  They are like chicken wire, but easier.  Tie them together, tie them onto something, and get busy.  You could fill them with moss, but I just use them empty, sometimes with tubed stems.  Quite handy and versatile.

EcoFresh Bouquet Wraps are a great water source tool for foam free large scale installations

EcoFresh Bouquet Wraps

Swim diapers for flowers!  I love to use these for a sneaky water source where I want a big bunch of blooms, or when I want a bigger reservoir than a tube can support.  They are a more secure option than an open vase of water.  Depending on how full the bag, and how tight your elastic, they can be inserted at a variety of angles. The wrap itself is compostable, recyclable, and if you are motivated, you can dry and reuse them.

The tricky bit about this product, from a sustainability viewpoint, is the bag.  You pretty much have to have a plastic bag to make these work.  For some, that is problematic.  WrapMaker Debbie is trying hard to find a “good” plastic bag to go with them, and she is trying hard with the best of intentions.  PLA bags work in some cases but not others – temperature, duration of moisture exposure, and degree of wetness seem to be issues.  Experiment, and see what works for you.

My own “better than” solution is to use dog poo bags which are “compostable” (and not unimportantly, green or black, which makes disguising those white wraps a lot easier!).  I am careful with my inserting, and try not to puncture them.  At the end, I try to salvage them for reuse in the next install.  “Compostable” plastics are controversial, so I use these sparingly and conscientiously.   But these wraps are great – we used them with LILACS, people!  The Queen Wilters of the plant world – and they held up overnight and then some!  You just have to tuck carefully if you are putting a lot of water in them so stems and wires don’t puncture the bags full of water!

Statement installation for a bar at a wedding

Truly a large scale installation! This beautiful statement piece became the bar feature.

Ex. 1: Using Foam Free Mechanics to Build Large Scale Installations

Meet Mr. Gorgeous Monster! He was the centerpiece creation of the 2018 Whidbey Flower Workshop, led by Joseph Massie. This picture does not do justice to the scale! But it does let you see the pretty details! And what a stunning bar table it made! (see above)  I hope you can appreciate the scale of this creation!  It was gigantic. 

It begins in a 5 gallon bucket hidden inside a terra-cotta urn on the table.  Growing from the bucket is a tree-like structure made of chicken wire rolls that are suspended from the ceiling.  We inserted the longest flowering branches directly into the bucket of water.  Then we filled in with hard greenery.  Next we wrapped bunches of thirsty greens and flowers in EcoFresh and placed them throughout – including the Lilac I spoke of earlier.

Last, a few more dry insertions to hide the wraps, and some tubed stems, and voila! Note that both these photos are taken a solid 28 – 30 hours after it was created! All the flowers and greens are American-Grown.  Actually, it is mostly West-Coast grown – largely WA and OR with some Roses from CA. I am still re-using the chicken wire from this workshop.  It found its way back into all the 2019 workshop creations, plus it has been a part of many weddings and events in between!  There’s still some that will carry into 2020 and beyond!  

Zero waste sustainable floral installations

Despite the impressive size of that installation, it created very little waste.  This is a 3 gal bucket, and it contains the unsorted waste left from that enormous creation.  The wraps and botanicals all hit the compost pile (or rather, the compost mountain!  I’m glad I have property! That would have needed a dumpster!).   I didn’t do a great job of documenting the next step, but after I took this shot, I went on to pull out the tubes and the usable bags.  In the end, I think there was maybe a gallon size bucket of broken tubes, bags, and zip ties.  Not bad…  Think of what the mountain of FOAM would have been if that had been the mechanic!

Foam free installations include an asymmetric arch with a meadow and a floral cloud

Ex. 2: Using Foam Free Mechanics to Build Large Scale Installations

This pair of installations from the Sustainable Flowers Workshop in Calgary, produced by Prairie Girl Flowers and taught by me, encompassed many techniques I’ve just shared. The broken arch is made with constructions akin to “the secret bucket with stakes”. The “meadow” sections are giant moss and excelsior roulades. We have EcoFresh wraps and tubes tucked in throughout. The cloud is mostly dry insertions with a few tubed items.

Almost all the product for these was grown in Alberta, with just a few things coming from BC greenhouses. We were busy little salvagers at the end, and because of that, had loads of flowers to give away, a bunch of wraps hanging up to dry, and a very small, half handful of a few broken tubes and a few elastics. Very Impressive, if I do say so myself!

Suspended installation over a head table with Cherry Blossom, ferns and Tulips

Ex. 3: Using Foam Free Mechanics to Build Large Scale Installations

This suspended installation over the head table at the 2019 Whidbey Flower Workshop celebrates spring! We hung a 20′ x 3′ wire grid frame, and then used floral tubes and ecofresh wraps as the water source. Ferns were used dry, and their foliage helped to disguise the wraps and some of the tubes – other tubes were left exposed as a design choice. All flowers were west-coast grown, with most of them coming from OR and WA.

A foam-free wedding arch made with locally grown flowers

Ex. 4: Using Foam Free Mechanics to Build Large Scale Installations

This lush foam-free arch was made with my Moss Roulade technique. The arbor is 8′ wide. We strapped a 3′ – 4′ crescent in the corner and built on that. I think we only tubed the Dahlias. Yeah, some of that Silver Poplar is wilting, but I think only florists would know that! I got loads of compliments on this piece, so I would say the clients were very happy with it. All the botanicals are American Grown (and mostly west-coast grown).

Foam free installation at the SLow Flowers SUmmit 2019

Ex. 5a: Using Foam Free Mechanics to Build Large Scale Installations

Here’s the crazy framework for the installation we did at the Slow Flowers Summit 2019. You can see the Secret Bucket, the structural frames (brilliantly designed by Christine Huffman & hubby), the chicken wire, the Holly Pillow, and the branches.

Slow Flowers Summit 2019 presenters Tobey Nelson and Carly Jenkins

Ex. 5b: Using Foam Free Mechanics to Build Large Scale Installations

Look at the wild and fun creation made by the 100+ attendees of the Slow Flowers Summit! You see, the structure doesn’t need to be pretty to make something extravagant and fun!

This is a great time for a shout-out to a few wonderful humans:  dear Carly of Killing Frost Farm (pictured), who was my partner on this presentation and creation and to Debra Prinzing of Slow Flowers, to whom we all owe so much for holding the torch of this movement.

Foam free design for a ceremony installation using Holly Pillows

Ex. 6: Using Foam Free Mechanics to Build Large Scale Installations

We created this Enchanted Forest wedding backdrop using my 8′ diam metal ring (that I also use as a chandelier), Holly pillows and test tubes. For the larger grouping on the left of the image, we strapped 2 or 3 pillows together. The Dahlias were tubed; I can’t remember if we tubed the Lilies or not; I know we used the Roses dry. This photo was taken towards the end of the event. I think this one was all local save for the Roses – I sourced sustainably-grown imports for the head size.

I hope that behind-the-scenes look at my favorite techniques for building with no foam will help you make your floral business more sustainable!  I’m an open book: if you have questions or comments, I’d love to hear from you!  Leave a note below, or shoot me an email ([email protected]).  If you’d like to learn more about rigging, building, mechanics and more, consider coming to the Whidbey Flower Workshop in April!

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