Build a bottle tree and watch it bloom year round


See that hint of blue glass behind the ‘Radrazz’ rose? Could it be?


Yes! The bottle tree is back. It’s more of a bottlebrush tree than before because I used more bottles and shorter branches. As you can see, I still need a couple more bottles to finish it.

For my old bottle tree, I set a redwood post in concrete and used rebar pieces for the branches. This time I set a cedar post in gravel and used lag screws for the branches. Time will tell whether the gravel-set post will hold up as well as the concreted one. If you’re interested in constructing a bottle tree of your own, here’s how I did it.


I dug a hole two feet deep and about a foot in diameter.


It’s amazing how much dirt a hole this size creates. I carted this off to the lower reaches of the garden.


I poured some gravel into the hole for the cedar post (4×4 inch, 8 feet long) to sit on and then added about six inches of gravel around it. Hold off on any more gravel until you use a level on two sides of the post to be sure it’s vertical. Continue to add gravel, checking with the level, until the hole is filled and post is surrounded by gravel. I sprayed the gravel with water and stomped on it to compact it around the post.


Here’s my box of water and sake bottles, passed along to me by MSS several years ago.


I didn’t want to hammer in nails for branches since I wasn’t setting this post in concrete. Instead I used an electric drill to pre-drill holes for 8-inch galvanized lag screws, which I inserted with the help of a socket wrench.


They won’t rust, and they only need to be screwed in an inch and a half to hold the bottles.


Voila! Bottle trees were originated by African slaves in Southern states and the Caribbean islands. They believed that blue bottles would trap evil spirits and keep them out of the house. To this day the bottle tree has hung on as a symbol of the rural South, and they’re often simply constructed on dead trees by sliding bottles of any color over the bare branches. Nowadays it seems every garden or nursery or blog I visit has a bottle tree. (If you have one, why not leave a link to a photo in the comments? Let’s show them off!) It’s a fun, colorful, and economical piece of yard art.

I planted my old Mexican snapdragon vine next to my new bottle tree. I envision dainty, purple-blue flowers climbing up among the bottles next summer.

All material © 2006-2009 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

38 Responses

  1. Sylvia (England) says:

    Pam, the first bottle tree I ever saw (in photos I have never seen a “live” one!) was in your old garden. I am glad you gave us a bit of the history, really interesting and surprising. I was interested to see the picture of your spade, this is very different from the ones we use in the UK, I assume it has a long handle. We are beginning to see longer handles here but the spade shape is different. I think blogs are really good at showing the reality of our gardens in different areas and countries.

    I do like the way you call your new garden “baby garden” it makes me chuckle every time! I really enjoy your posts, thank you. Best wishes Sylvia (England)

    Thanks, Sylvia. So I guess there aren’t bottle trees in England? I’ve seen them in blogs and magazine pictures all over the U.S., so it must be just a matter of time until this hard-to-kill tree makes its way into British gardens.

    As for my favorite digging tool, it isn’t a spade but a shovel. It does have a long handle, as you noted. I’ve never gotten the knack of using a short-handled spade, perhaps because I’m so tall. —Pam

  2. Robin says:

    The picture of the rose with the blue background is stunning! It looks like you have incredible dirt in your garden! From the picture, the wheelbarrow looks like it is full of rich compost.

    There’s a surprising amount of good dirt in the back yard, Robin. The former owners told me they had added soil when they landscaped, probably 5 years ago when they put in the pool. I’ve tried to imagine the back yard pre-pool and pre-terracing. It would have been steeply sloping, and the ground would have been full of rock. I’m enjoying the benefits of that pool in more ways than one, as I begin digging in the back garden.

    The front yard is another story entirely, as we discovered when digging a hole for the basketball pole. There’s two or three inches of topsoil and then rocky caliche (crumbly limestone that must be broken up with a breaker bar). —Pam

  3. Jenny says:

    Your new tree is quite an upgrade and you certainly put some good effort into its construction. What is really impressive is how you could dig the hole with a shovel! I can never dig a hole without using the pick axe. Still, shovel or axe those holes take a lot of time to dig. I had no idea there was an interesting history to the bottle tree.

    Jenny, I was very surprised to find dig-able dirt too, especially since we hit caliche so quickly when putting the basketball pole in the front yard. See my answer to Robin’s comment about the dirt, above. —Pam

  4. Darla says:

    This is a first for me! Cute!!! A vine will be beautiful twining around those blue bottles for sure, please post when that come to fruition.

    I promise to, Darla, and hope it works out the way I am envisioning. —Pam

  5. Brenda Kula says:

    Oh, I’ve been awaiting the bottle tree! And it’s lovely of course. I did enjoy the history, which makes it even more special. Now I have to look for cobalt blue bottles, which is the color I also want. I have to say I’m impressed with your knowledge of what all those screws and things are! Foreign language to me!
    Brenda

    MSS gave me most of these bottles, Brenda. She said they were a mix of sake and water bottles. As for the hardware, I enjoy poking around in the bins to see what might work. I’ve often said that a drill is a girl’s best friend—it’s easy to use and useful for so many projects—and I’d add that a set of socket wrenches is pretty darn handy too. —Pam

  6. cindee says:

    Your new tree looks just beautiful! I am going to try the post method when my tree finally falls over. I go out and shake it every now and then to see if it is loose on the bottom but so far its doing o.k. I did have to glue the rebar into the trunk though because as the bark started to come off the rebar became loose. I just put a bit of gorilla glue in the holes and it seems to have held up pretty well.

    http://cindeesgarden.blogspot.com/2008/04/bottle-tree-in-full-bloom.html

    Thanks for the link, Cindee. I remember your beautiful tree, and I see that I left the first comment on that post. :-) —Pam

  7. Hi Pam
    I have never seen a Bottle tree before I get to your old blog. It was fun to read how they arose. I don’t have it in my garden yet but you never now…
    It is so hard to understand that you have a rose in bloom?
    Ken

    Hi, Ken. It must seem very strange to cold-winter gardeners to see roses in bloom in January. But they do as far south as I am. They don’t have a lot of blooms, mind you, but even one or two cheers up the winter garden. —Pam

  8. Gail says:

    Another icon is added to your Baby Garden! Love it Pam. It was meant to be in any garden you grow! gail

    Gail, I just can’t give up my kitsch! I’m trying to tone it down a little in this garden, but it will probably end up as folk-arty and colorful as my old one. —Pam

  9. Randy says:

    I had no idea of the mysticism behind the bottle tree! I have a whole new appreciation for them! But, where do you find the blue bottles?

    From my friendly, neighborhood garden bloggers. ;-) Most of these bottles came from MSS/Zanthan Gardens’ shed—a collection of water and sake bottles. —Pam

  10. Nola says:

    Thanks for the instructions, your tree turned out great! Brenda~View From the Pines sent me over to see it.

    Hi, Nola. Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you stopped by. —Pam

  11. Jean says:

    Pam, I don’t have a bottle tree of my own to share but you must see Felder Rushing’s website for the many photographs of bottle trees that he’s taken. It’s here: http://www.felderrushing.net/BottleTreeImagess.htm. Some of them will blow your mind!

    btw, yours looks lovely and will be even better come spring!

    Felder has documented a LOT of bottle trees. It was fun to see the variations on this theme. Thanks for the link. —Pam

  12. Nicole says:

    Thanks for the instructions, Pam. Your new tree looks smart, I will try to fit one in my new garden.

    It would make a nice addition to your own new garden, Nicole. Do you ever see them in the Caribbean? —Pam

  13. Grace says:

    I think collecting the bottles would be half the fun. Like when you go to a garage sale and see one and MUST buy it because it’s perfect for your bottle tree. Very cool. I didn’t know the lore surrounding them. Very interesting.

    Collecting over time might be fun, but it was really fun for me to hit the jackpot with MSS’s box of old bottles. That shows you what my patience level is like. ;-) —Pam

  14. Ann says:

    Pam,
    Just love your cobalt blue bottle tree. Excellent instructions with photos. Thanks! Very inspirational. Will keep an eye out for some lovely colored bottles at flea markets and yard sales this spring. A great pop of color for the garden. Just what I could use to shake things up a bit here in my New England gardens. Your agave is fabulous too by the way. The bottle tree creates a perfect accent to its gray blue tones.

    That’s what I was hoping, Ann. I’m trying to use a lot of blue and silver in that bed, with a few pops of red. —Pam

  15. Racquel says:

    A beautiful work of art in your garden Pam! Thanks for the steps on how you created it! :)

    My pleasure, Racquel. —Pam

  16. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Girl, you are a wealth of information. I didn’t know what possessed people to make a bottle tree. I must say those blue bottles are intriguing. Is the wine any good?? It must be since everyone is collecting the blue bottles. Ha..

    You’d think so, wouldn’t you? :-) Actually, nearly all of mine were given to me by MSS, so you’d have to ask her. —Pam

  17. Great bottle tree (and tutorial on making one).

    I have no bottle tree. Something tells me that my Home Owners Association wouldn’t approve it. I must wait until my shrubbery and trees grow to a size so that the neighbors can’t see everything that I “plant” or build. :-)

    Cameron

    The old nosy neighborhood association problem, eh? That’s hard to get around, but a good screen does help. Maybe a short bottle shrub would be the ticket in the meantime. —Pam

  18. How wise you are to modify the form of the bottle tree to fit the new location, while keeping the essence! I was going to link to Felder Rushing’s page on Bottle tree history but see Jean beat me to it. Because of his Passalong Plants book, Bottle Trees were known to me back in Illinois, but Pam, you were the first real, live person I ever met who had one!

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    My mom had one before I did, and after visiting her garden and admiring it shining among her hollyhocks, I just had to have one of my own. No hollyhocks here though, sadly. —Pam

  19. You should have waited until Garden Blogger’s Bloom Day to post this!

    Jim, I can almost guarantee that it’ll still be blooming on the 15th. ;-) —Pam

  20. Les says:

    If that doesn’t keep the evil spirits out of the garden, I don’t know what will.

    You’re telling me. —Pam

  21. RobinL says:

    Thanks for sharing the history of bottle trees! They are pretty much unheard of here in the north, but I’d seen a few of them on various garden blogs. Now I know what they are all about!

    Felder Rushing’s website—see the link in Jean’s comment, above—has even more of the bottle tree’s history, if you’re interested, Robin. —Pam

  22. Diana Kirby says:

    It’s beginning to look a lot like your garden, Pam. Love the bottle tree — and what an ambitious endeavor you’ve undertaken with power tools and all. I had no idea that bottle trees had such a colorful history (pardon the pun). That’s just fascinating. I’ve gotten much more folksy in my garden decor in the last year — Your style was lovely in the previous garden and I know you’ll impart a unique and colorful feel to this one, as well.

    I can’t resist color in my garden, Diana, and this bottle tree adds a lot. Using the electric drill was easy as pie though. ;-) —Pam

  23. Cindy, MCOK says:

    Pam, the new tree looks great in that spot! Many thanks for the instructions. The creation of a bottle tree is on my to-do list for spring. I’ve been slowly collecting some gorgeous turquoise blue wine bottles but I’ve got a ways to go before I have enough!

    Ooh, a turquoise bottle tree sounds gorgeous—very beachy, maybe? I can’t wait to see it. —Pam

  24. jodi says:

    I’m so excited about this! THIS will work in my garden because the wind can’t possibly do in such a tree–unless it takes down the barn, the real trees and, oh yeah, the house. Plus I didn’t know about the story behind the bottle tree, so I like it even more. Well done, Pam. (now…I must start drinking that blue-bottled wine. We don’t have water bottles in that colour here. )

    Start popping those corks, Jodi! I can just picture a sparkling, colorful bottle tree in your Nova Scotia garden. It’ll pick up the color of the sea. —Pam

  25. Robin says:

    Pam, Awesome variation on the bottle tree! And I can’t believe you managed to dig a 2 foot deep hole in your yard, now THAT is impressive. I’ve been planning to add one of these, and now you are forcing me to add it to my long list of “things I need to do in the garden and am too lazy to do cause they are lots of labor” stuff. However, envisioning your plan of a vine twining around it is very inspiring and motivating. Thanks for the post.

    It was my pleasure, Robin. I love bottle trees, and they can be so easy to make. My mother stuck flexible, green-coated plant stakes in the ground and made a beautiful bottle shrub. It can’t have taken more than 10 minutes. So don’t let labor worries stop you. Just make it easy! —Pam

  26. Robin says:

    oh yeah, and a big THANK YOU to the previous owners for being savvy enough to add dirt when they put in the pool! Hooray, that’s the best discovery of all, isn’t it?

    Hallelujah! —Pam

  27. carolyngail says:

    You should be fine with the gravel in the hole, Pam. Your frost line is a foot less than ours here and so I know what a job it is to dig those holes and with post hole diggers to boot. Sure works the muscles.

    The bottle tree looks great in your new garden ( didja know that there really is a ‘bottle tree’ native to Australia and grown in parts of Florida and California? ) I think your cobalt bottle tree fits very well in the Texas landscape.

    Glad to see that your garden is taking shape.

    Are you going to visit us in Chicago for the Spring-Fling?

    Hi, Carolyn Gail. Does Austin even have a frost line? I’ve never known the ground to freeze here, so I didn’t take that into consideration. Yes, digging a hole is hard work, but I was feeling grateful that I HAD dirt and not rock in that spot. Yippee!

    I love the Australian bottlebrush tree and grew the dwarf variety, ‘Little John’, in my old garden. Some people will plant the full-size tree here, but it’s very marginal in our climate, and I figure one of these days a series of hard freezes will get them.

    I am planning to come to Chicago and just hoping to scrape up the dough to do it. I hope to meet you then! —Pam

  28. Back in blog land for a bit — god to catch up and to see flowers and green! We’re freezing up here in New England. I like the bottle bush. I just may make one when Spring returns.

    May spring come quickly for you, Carol, and I hope to see a bottle tree in your garden soon. —Pam

  29. Thanks for stopping by, Pam. I’ll do another little shout-out to your blog/past posts when I do the next post on the tank itself. I’m like you–I love that galvanized tank look in a Texas garden, and I love your posts on it.

    Cheers!

    Thanks, Susan. Those galvanized tanks look very Texan, don’t they? I look forward to reading more about your water-collection system. —Pam

  30. tina says:

    It’s looking mighty good. I so enjoy seeing bottle trees on other’s sites. I put some LED lights in my newest one and it literally shines. I think it they might work for yours too if you like that look. Your new garden is looking mighty good. Do take care.

    Hi, Tina. I admired your bottle tree on your blog. Do you have any pictures of it at night? I bet it looks great. —Pam

  31. Frances says:

    Hi Pam, lag screws and a socket wrench, brilliant! I like this better than the rebar idea too. Did you use gravel so it could be moved later? And thanks for the step by step instructions for everyone to be able to make their own. What a generous blogger you are! :-)
    Frances

    Hi, Frances. No, I used gravel because I was lazy and thought it would be easier than concrete. It was! —Pam

  32. Monica says:

    I just love any excuse to use power tools, and the bottle tree is as good as any! (I’ve seen one in Columbus, Ohio, but none farther north.) I also love the vibrant color of the pink rose and the blue glass!

    Thanks, Monica. Power tools can be fun to use, and they sure make certain projects a lot easier. —Pam

  33. Layanee says:

    Do you think a blue bottle tree would grow north of the Mason/Dixon line and east of the Mississippi? I love this look!

    Layanee, the remarkable bottle tree (Arborus amphora) knows no growing zones and is amazingly resistant to drought, damp, heat, cold, fungus, insects, rabbits, and deer. Even string trimmers. Every gardener should plant one. :-) —Pam

  34. Love the blue of your metal setee near the blue “blooms” of your bottle tree. I’ve always heard that bottle trees are a southern thing but never knew where they came come – I like that keepin’ the evil spirits out of house.

    It doesn’t hurt to try, does it? ;-) —Pam

  35. tina says:

    None at night, but I need to take some for sure. Thanks for asking.

  36. blossom says:

    Neat! I’ve never seen, nor heard of a bottle tree before. I’ll put this in mind. It will make a great addition to my garden. thanks for sharing.

    No? Well, they are fun to plant, and they are always in flower. I hope you can grow one too. —Pam

  37. M A says:

    Pam, Love that bottle tree and thanks so much for the instructions. I am going to put one up straight away. Have wanted a bottle tree since I lived in Maryland in 1981 when I first saw them in people’s yards, there, and in North Carolina. Seeing the one in your garden last year made me revisit the whole idea. Loved the link to Felder’s site as well. I saw the blue ball tree at Cornerstone last year and still can’t get over how awesome it was. OK, I may need more than one glass tree.

    More than one would be even better. More is more! I hope you bring the tradition to Idaho, MA. —Pam

  38. Kat says:

    Hey Pam,
    I’m in Crestview in Austin, and I just discovered your blog. I’m like a junkie now…I gotta visit a couple times a day. I too have never seen a bottle tree, but now I’m fascinated, and I know my husband would love one. Is there something significant about blue bottles? It seems to be the color of choice for most of the bottle trees in the felderushing.net link above. Thanks so much, and keep on bloggin’!
    kat

    Hi, Kat. Thanks so much for visiting regularly and for commenting. The color blue in many cultures is thought to ward off evil spirits, which accounts for the traditional blue bottle tree. But I just like the color. —Pam