PRINCETON RESIDENT JERRY Swanson stands next to his very first bottle tree, which is made with cobalt blue Italian water bottles. Laura Lyke photo
by Laura Lyke
Green Lake Reporter
Living in Wisconsin means giving up colorful gardens and blooming trees for a large, snowy portion of the year.
But Princeton resident Jerry Swanson challenges winter’s colorless landscaping with his artistic creations.
Swanson has been selling and creating a low-maintenance, year-round substitute and decoration for gardens and lawn ornaments. He calls them his “Bottle Trees.”
The idea for Swanson’s bottle tree creations was sparked by his love for cobalt blue.
“It was January of 2001 and I had been collecting blue bottles forever. My friends would save and send their bottles to me, as well, and at that time I had all my bottles lined up on shelving in the living room,” Swanson said. “One day it was snowing and I looked outside and thought, ‘I should put bottles at the end of tree branches like an aluminum Christmas tree—that would be beautiful.’”
The process was more difficult than simply placing a wine bottle at the end of each tree branch, however.
Sturdiness was a challenge, so he began experimenting with materials for his bottle trees.
“I was thinking about using wooden posts, but then as I thought about it more I decided that would not work,” Swanson said. “I like the idea of something colorful in my gardens year-round and something wooden would rot eventually, especially in the winter. So I decided on steel or metal.”
He not only designed and built his own trees, but completely taught himself how to weld, as well.
“After I taught myself how to weld, I made my first tree out of steel reed bark,” Swanson said. “I thought maybe I could make this for other people. So I started to draw some designs and I began selling my trees.”
His business quickly grew in success as his trees now have been sold to all 50 states, five provinces in Canada, the Philippines, Great Britain and in the Caribbean.
“Now I’m shipping almost a couple dozen trees from my website every week. Now I’m on Amazon,” Swanson said. “It’s turned into a very interesting journey.”
Swanson’s yard at home is filled with bottle tree creations that are surrounded by colorful gardens and ponds in the warm months.
“Gardening is absolutely my therapy,” he said. “If I need to relax, I love to weed on my hands and knees. I enjoy it.”
Swanson added he picked up his “green thumb” from his mother, who is 86 and going strong and puts his gardening to shame.
While he is not the best gardener in his family, Swanson continues to express nothing but love for his work.
“It’s always fun,” he said. “I can honestly say I’ve never dreaded getting up in the morning or going to the shop or designing things.
“I absolutely love it. I am fortunate to say that I haven’t had a lot of jobs in my life. I’d say less than a dozen. I can’t think of one of those jobs I haven’t enjoyed going to or working at.”
Swanson always has been self-employed. He bought and owned a Ripon convenience store for 12 years, sold it and moved to Princeton, where he’s been doing computer work since 1984.
“I transitioned into my bottle trees,” he said. “I still do computer work, but the bottle-tree business is where I’m headed. And boy, do I love my job.”
He also creates art pieces other than bottle trees, called “Invisible Creatures.”
“They’re an outline or silhouette of an animal made of rusted metal,” Swanson said. “You put them in a garden and you realize you’re standing next to a 10-foot giraffe or a monkey hanging from a tree.”
Swanson also has made bottle chandeliers and a new creation called “Bottle Bugs,” but he mostly spends time making bottle trees — creating new designs inspired by flowers and trees in his gardens.
“I’ve been managing to create probably six or so designs every year. It keeps things fresh,” Swanson said. “Right now, the most popular tree is the wind-blowing tree that comes in three different sizes.”
Swanson’s trees are sold locally out of his Princeton home and Bloch’s Farm in Green Lake. His trees also are sold out of outlets in Waukesha, Door County, Appleton, Madison and in Michigan.
He estimates, however, that 75 to 80 percent of his sales are online, through his website bottletreecreations.com.
“Some people order them with bottles, some people order them without,” Swanson said. “Most online [orders] are without bottles for shipping purposes. People also enjoy emptying their own bottles and putting them on the trees themselves.”
Swanson is kept busy, sending regular shipments of trees each week. Nonetheless, he doesn’t see a near-retirement to his bottle-tree business.
“I’ve never looked at my job as work. It’s always been fun,” Swanson said. “I’ve known too many friends who complain about their job or say, ‘God, I have to go to work.’ I’ve never had that attitude. I’ve been lucky. I’m so fortunate to love what I do.
“Confucius said something like ‘Find a job you’ll love and you will never have to work a day in your life.’ That’s my following, too.”