By Natalia Hook
I’m not sure when the receptacle revolution started. It used to be that a good looking bowl or vase could stand alone. But in current décor trends, empty bowls and vases, as well as bottles, jars, and baskets, seem to be shunned. Being lovely on their own doesn’t cut it anymore, they have to be filled with more loveliness. Well, before you rush off to buy prepackaged bowl and vase fillers, let me explain why you shouldn’t.
Personally, I suspect today’s commercialized bowl filling started with potpourri. Someone decided that dried up stuff in a bowl looks decorative, and I’m not saying it doesn’t. What bothers me is the idea that you must find something, or even buy something, to fill up your vases, jars, and baskets. Instead of “where will I put this?” the question has become “what will I put in this?”
There are two general types of prepackaged vase and bowl fillers: baubles, like itty bitty glass pumpkins, and natural elements, such as pine cones and seashells. Sometimes you’ll see an unholy hybrid, like dried orange peels enshrouded in sequins. All of these fillers cost anywhere from $2 to $20, but I have successfully avoided buying any of them.
While I do have a few bottles and vases with nothing in them, most of my decorative bowls, baskets, and brethren have been pressed into service holding things that I like, or use — sometimes both. I have a bowl that’s holding another bowl. It looks fabulous. I’ve never looked at a glass jar and thought, “I’d better fill that up with some prepackaged metallic beads, pronto.”
But I get it, I do. It’s trendy to fill your bowls, your baskets, and your vases. Everyone is doing it, and you want to get on board. I can understand that. I can even get behind that. I’m less inclined to put my wallet behind it, though. So, here are ten ideas for filling all your vases, bottles, and bowls, most of which cost $0 — either because the fillers are free, or because you probably already own them.
1. Pine Cones & Other Botanicals
It truly irks me to see pine cones being sold in stores when they literally grow on trees. If there are pine trees nearby, there are also pine cones. Live in an urban area? Don’t give up hope. Think public park or bike path. When I was living in the Bronx, I collected pine cones off the sidewalk — a big tree in someone’s yard tree overhung the fence. If not pine cones, something else organic might be available. Sweetgum pods are fun. Princess tree seed pods are dainty and delicate. All botanical décor should be brushed off thoroughly to remove any residual dirt. Acorns are great, too, they just require a little more work, like baking them to make sure any insects inside them are killed (yuck,) and gluing the caps on securely afterward.
Make sure you avoid the monochromatic look of brown organics in a brown (wooden) bowl. Either use a metallic or ceramic bowl in a contrasting shade or add a splash of color to the mix. I prefer to stick with an unaltered look, but if you like a little bit of sparkle on your natural elements, spread on a thin layer of white glue with a brush, or your finger, and sprinkle with your choice of glitters. A light hand with a can of spray paint can achieve a frosted look, or rub a small amount of enamel paint on smooth surfaces with a cotton swab for a colored patina.
Looking to fill a vase? How about some twiggy berry branches? Bamboo? Dried ornamental grass? These are all plants, and plants grow. What’s in your backyard, or on the side of your favorite hiking trail? (Please notice that “your neighbor’s garden” isn’t on this list!)
Do you have access to an ocean beach? Yes? Then you have access to shells, the mother of all vase fillers! If there isn’t a beach nearby, just keep it in mind should you happen to visit or vacation at one. Beachcombing can be fun and relaxing — just make sure you don’t take any critters with you — check that all shells are empty. You may come across coral, driftwood, or other interesting finds, too. Even some types of seaweed can be sun-dried into beautiful beach keepsakes. The best part? All of these treasures will look great together in your container of choice.
Don’t underestimate the potential of lowly stones to fill vases, bowls, or anything else. And please, don’t pay for them! I have lots of lovely pebbles, almost a whole drawer full, from travels here and there, most of them fairly close to home (air travel certainly limits rock collecting). A lot of stones from beaches and streams are waterworn and smooth, and at the end of the day, they look dynamite in a bowl. Don’t discount rough rocks, either — they can be beautiful in their own way, too.
4. Misplaced Items
Do you ever find that specific items never seem to be on hand when you need them? Maybe you never put your keys down in the same place after you walk in the door, or can’t seem to find a headband or bobby pin in the tangle of stuff in your drawer. Use a pretty little basket or bowl to corral the runaway items. Ta-da! You have filled up a lovely vessel and found a place for things that were previously homeless. Decorative is even better when it’s also useful. You’re welcome.
5. Cat & Dog Toys
Why would you buy an overpriced toy bin or basket for your fur child when you can put all those catnip mice, or Nylabones in something that’s probably less expensive, better looking, and may already be in your home? The short answer? You wouldn’t. So, don’t. Grab that basket from the “Get Well Soon” fruit arrangement that your coworkers sent you, or the one you bought but never used for anything, and nestle Binky’s stuff inside.
I once picked up an old, wooden top at an antique shop for two bucks. I mentioned it to my mom, and not long after that, she snagged a vintage gyroscope for me at a garage sale. I eventually collected three more old tops and kept all five of them in a little box in a closet. They are now on a shelf in a bookcase, looking like a happy family of spinning things in their little round bowl. You, too, can have a bowl of tops, or a jar of vintage buttons, or a bottle of jacks. You’re not enjoying whatever little things you like to collect if they stay in the closet, are you?
This one really only works if you (or someone in your home) drink wine. My husband and I saved the cork from a bottle of wine on our honeymoon, and then a few more on birthdays and other special occasions. We threw them all in a drawer, and pretty much forgot about them. I just cleaned out that drawer, and guess what? We now have a jar of corks on our bar. We’ve only been married for four years, so we still have room for more. Down the line, I suppose there’s always the option of getting a bigger jar.
8. Holiday Ornaments
Who says you have to hang your ornaments on a tree or hang them at all for that matter? Fill up a bowl or jar with them instead. This works particularly well with globe ornaments, but you can get creative and try out different shapes and sizes. Add a light string, and you’ll be festive in no time. Get creative and think beyond the winter holidays — you can change up what you display for Valentine’s Day, Halloween, or Thanksgiving, too.
9. Repurposed Treasures
On top of a bookcase, I have an old wide mouth olive oil bottle with a “bamboo bouquet” in it. The bamboo used to be part of a caned placemat, but the back threading had frayed and come apart. I saved the pieces because they were too pretty to throw away. Eventually, I cut them to a variety of lengths and arranged them in the bottle. Voila! What salvaged treasures have you held on to? A broken necklace? Mismatched chopsticks? Maybe your instinctively kept “junk” can be upcycled into decorative payoffs now.
Everyone has a fruit bowl, and it lives in the kitchen. Candy in a jar? Sure, on your office desk at work. Why not think beyond these two givens and keep grabbable goodies in the living room, or den? My favorite takes a page from my grandmother’s book—mixed nuts in the shell. They’re beautiful and have a healthy shelf life, which makes them perfect for display and snacking. Add a few dried berry sprigs (mine are from flowers a friend sent,) and you’re done. If nuts aren’t your thing, you might try some exotic fruits, like pomegranates and persimmons, for a bright and tasty display.
If you’re thrifty and creative, this list is just the beginning. Start experimenting with what you have — I’d love to hear your ideas and see your results. And remember, if you’re feeling really daring, keep an empty bowl or two on display. Who knows — it may just catch on.
Images used with permission, courtesy of Natalia Hook