A Winter Tale

Our winter installations have been accompanied by better than 12 inches of snow in the past week. The snow came on top of several week’s worth of bitter cold weather. I am surprised to have this much snow and bitter cold in mid December, but so be it. Fortunately most of the construction for our winter installations are done in our heated to 60 degrees shop stock room. A warm, well lit and dry place means we are able to focus on the work, and not on the inhospitable weather. What I had planned for this very lovely house would be much more wintry than holiday in feeling. My clients travel. For that reason, among others, winter pots and exterior decor that that would carry them through the long Michigan winter seemed like a good idea. The architecture of the swooping roof of the entrance porch is unusual, and striking. We had plans to make much of that particular detail. A garland would describe and celebrate that roof line. I did decide to extend the garland past the ends of that roof line and downward, like oversized tassels.  I like how the drop of the garland embraces the house numbers on the roof pillar. A garland that drops has an undeniably traditional feeling. Garlands that describe a horizontal surface sans drop have a more contemporary feeling. It seems like contemporary expressions are striking for their brevity, and more traditional ones are more generous with the details and materials.

The blue/gray shingles and white trim offered much in the way of a color inspiration. Fresh cut stems of red bud pussy willow and fan willow were captured by eucalyptus in a color we call Rain. White faux berry branches echoed the white trim. The house is set in an informal and naturally imagined large piece of property. This past spring we redid the landscape in the front of the house in a much more formal way.  The contrast of the entrance formality to the natural setting appealed to my clients. They did purchase a pair of round Barry tapers from Branch, as well as some custom made window boxes set on the ground in front of a pair of matching windows. The landscape at the front of their house this summer was beautifully lush with contrasting shrubby and perennial materials.  I planned for a similar look for the winter.

The generously sized window boxes were stuffed with greens and lights. In the center of each window, a light ring was highlights with cut alder branches and white berry picks.  The garland and the pair of pots at the drive would also have lighting.The lighting was particularly important to my clients. They enjoy going outside at dusk with their dog for some fresh air. Lighting the way in the winter is a good idea for anyone who lives in a northern climate. Landscape lighting is decorative. Illustrative. Seasonal lighting can supplement the permanent lighting in a useful and beautiful way.

This galvanized dolly tub stuffed with pussy willow, rain eucalyptus and white berry picks had LED string lights nestled into the greens.

The pair of these tubs arranged for winter are elegantly sober and subdued during the day. At night, these greens lighted tubs help guide the way in closer to the ground level.

Lighted window box

The pots after a heavy snow

The resulting ice on the garland illustrates why we take so much care in the construction. Nature can really dish it out.

The winter landscape here would be very spare without the pots and garland.

ready for winter

The Finishing Touch

The moment I saw this winter project, I knew a lighted garland wrapped around the front door surround would bring all of the winter elements together. A garland attached to that limestone surround some 25 feet off the ground that would describe the entrance to this home is the stuff of fairy tales. I told my client it would take a lot of people and equipment to make this happen. There would be no ladder tall enough and safe enough for an installation at this height. Expecting her to say no, she said yes. Given her go ahead, Templeton Building Company was kind enough to send out four sections of scaffolding, and two of their people to set screws in the mortar over the doorway, and down the sides. Four of my crew met the two from Templeton early one morning.

I was not especially happy about the process. The scaffolding was on wheels, for starters. Really? It got built skyward, section by section, until it was high enough to provide a place to work. Would I want to be up there working? No. Was I worried about each and every one of them climbing this expanded ladder to the sky-yes I was. It only took Matt 40 minutes to set the screws that would hold both the magnolia garland, and the light garland. So far, so good. My crew on the ground delivered the materials to those people who were aloft.

Once the screws were in place, LaBelle made his way up the scaffolding, hauling one end of the magnolia garland. David LaBelle is a leading fabricator for my company, the Branch Studio, and he has no fear of heights, or scaffolding. I cannot imagine how that can be, but he seemed relaxed about it, and I knew he would be entirely capable of wiring on the garlands. As the scaffolding was but 7 feet wide, we would have to install one side of the garland at a time, and then move the scaffolding to the other side.

The top surface of the top layer of scaffolding was only one board wide. LaBelle was not in the least bit concerned. The best part of all of my companies are the people who make things happen. Our group of 20 something has varying skills. The variety of work we are able to do depends on this.

Once the first sections of garland came down the right and left side, I knew the big effort to set lighted garland over this two story doorway was a good idea. The final sections of garland could be attached from a ladder.

Once the magnolia garland was secured, the light garland went up next. The garland is 50 feet long overall, and is comprised of a 100 foot strand of LED C-9 lights, and a 100 foot strand of Lumineo mini LED lights, each folded in half, and twisted together. Frequent zip ties keep the twist from unraveling.

LaBelle was ready to take this light garland up high. The LED lights represent a vast improvement in exterior lighting. This garland is amazingly light weight. LED’s now have a quality of light very similar to warm incandescent lighting.  They consume very little power, and are economical to run. But the best feature for us is the fact that the light covers are plastic – not glass. They are shatterproof.  So no harm if you drop them, or bang them against a brick wall. When first introduced, the big bulb LED lights were very expensive. 1 25′ strand would run 27.00. That same strand is less than 10.00 now.

The lighted magnolia garland over this door is beautiful – day and night. The backs of the leaves echo the color of the brick and wood architectural elements.

From the drive court, the scale of every winter element looks appropriate. From the ground plane to the sky, this winter landscape has a lot going on. That lighted magnolia garland better than two stories up over the front door does not look too big or overly elaborate. It is fairly simple, just sized to fit.

From the far side of the drive court, some rare late day December sun describes a landscape and garden ready for winter. This winter landscape has volume, structure, texture, mass, -and most importantly, lighting. A routine winter day in Michigan is gray.

Once the December light fades, there is a garden to be seen of a different sort. Light your own winter landscape as you wish. I would suggest that any effort you make to light the landscape is well worth the effort.

welcome.

Hooping It Up

If you’ve frequented Detroit Garden Works during the winter/holiday season in the past 4 or 5 years, you’ve seen Rob’s light rings. Inspired a number of years ago to wrap a trio of vintage grooved wagon wheels with string lights, he went on to design and have manufactured steel hoops specifically engineered to light the winter night with circles of light. Our clients responded in kind. He has had plenty of fans, both residential and commercial, purchase his light rings over the years. Heavy gauge steel channel of an appropriate depth is rolled into a circle and welded.  His first rings, produced in a number of different sizes, were designed to be hung from a stout branch of a tree, or in a window. Each ring comes with a generous width and length of jute rope as a hanging apparatus. The plug end of the light strand (or strands, in the case of the really large hoops) was concealed within the jute. An exterior rated extension cord ran up the back side of the tree trunk, and was plugged into the lights from the top.  This is his ingenious way of concealing the cord. Some large hoops hung in trees were stabilized with heavy weight fish line attached from the sides of the hoop to neighboring anchor branches to prevent them from swinging in windy weather. A year later, he came out with spiked light hoops, that could be inserted into the ground, or into a pot. The bottom of that spiked hoop is welded to a steel rectangular base. Detroit Garden Works places so many of his lighted hoops in both commercial and residential settings.  I greatly appreciate the opportunity to specify them for an installation. We had occasion to install a pair of 5′ diameter spiked light hoops in some large pots this past week.

In this picture, the spikes at each corner of the frame have already been pushed down through the foam form which had previously been stuffed with greens in the shop. Given the size of these hoops, steel rebar was pounded down into the soil at all four corners of the hoop base. Each piece of steel went deep into the soil in the pot, and is secured to the hoop framework at the top of the base with steel concrete wire.

Securing the hoops take some time, but my idea is any element in a winter pot that goes sideways in bad winter weather is a poor look indeed. I like winter containers whose every element persists, in spite of whatever the winter weather has to dish out. That these lighted hoops will remain in place the entire winter is the best reason to make sure they stay put. Our winter weather can be nasty as well as inhospitable. Winter containers that endure are beautiful.  Lighting the landscape via winter container arrangements is a good idea.  Our winters are gray and blah – visually tedious. Some light and some warmth makes everyone feel better. That light makes the winter landscape look better.

The red twig dogwood was secured to a tomato cage in a way similar to a previous project. We did have to remove the bottom ring from this tomato cage so the dogwood and cage would fit over the bottom portion of the hoop. I have the Branch staff to thank for their adaptation that made this installation work. The middle ring of the tomato cage is attached to the base assembly of the hoop with more concrete wire.

A 50 light strand of C-9 LED lights was installed inside the funnel of dogwood. It is remarkable how much this gesture adds to the glow. Someone once said that the difference between very good and stellar in any gesture amounts to about 10 percent. This additional string of lights is a gesture aimed at stellar.

Once the centerpieces were set, several more layers of materials would be added. Those intermediary layers soften the intersection of the vertical centerpiece, and the horizontal blanket of greens. That intersection needs some intervention. Though our winter containers are engineered, they don’t need to look like it. An installation of this scale asks for thoughtful construction, but the look needs to be graceful and natural. Additional layers are cozy and warm. These boxes measure 40″ by 40″ on the outside. This is a very large space, calling for appropriately sized containers. They look like they are the right size in this environment. Only when people are photographed next to these pots do you realize how large they are.

A layer of red berry picks were inserted into the foam base.  The height of these berries conceal the top ring of the tomato cage, and the zip ties that hold the dogwood to the form. Bring on the red! Oh yes, these are faux berry stems. They will see service for a number of years, unfazed by the sun or the winter weather.

A final layer of tall fresh cut magnolia branches cover the lowest ring on the dogwood form.  The large size of these glossy green leaves is an effective contrast to the smaller texture of the other elements. Magnolia is one green that dries beautifully. That dark green will fade to a beautiful pale green, and the reverse side of each leaf will hold its cinnamon brown color for a long time.
The lights in the greens come last. Each small dot of light sits atop a dark green stalk which is easily an inch long. That stalk is attached to  base of wire. We thank the Dutch for these well designed light strings. Their longest strand is 110 feet, and features 1500 lights. Their design makes it possible to have the wiring and stalks set into the greens and out of sight, with just the dots of light on top. We lay the light strands on the surface until there is a pattern and coverage we like. When their are multiple pots, the same person does the layout for all. This makes for a consistent appearance from pot to pot. This may seem like a very small and unimportant gesture, but it does in fact contribute to the overall formality and quality of the installation. Though many hands take part in most of our projects, the finish needs to look focused and polished.

Once the lighting is arranged, we tuck in as much of the wire and light stalks as possible. Our daylight begins to fade at 4pm this time of year, and dawn straggles in about 8am. The challenge of winter pots is to design them them to work both day and night. All of the day time materials need to be natural and believable. A mechanism by which the pots can be appreciated at night is a big plus.


This finished container was photographed during the day. As for the size and scale of this container, I can assure you that two of my staff people were behind this pot, hooking up the final electrical. I am not surprised that I cannot see them. I am satisfied that we addressed the issue of scale and proportion accurately.

This late afternoon photograph was taken by my client. She is a passionate photographer, among a whole host of other things, including a keen interest in the landscape and garden. I love this picture from her. It tells me she feels like she got what she was looking for. The result pleases the both of us.

At A Glance: Holiday Garlands


To follow are pictures of garlands we have installed at one time or another. Why so many pictures? I like them. I treasure making them. I like that no matter how different they may be, each and every one celebrates the home and garden. It is just that simple. Winter garlands ward off the winter. I do not take so kindly to the coming of the winter.  My garden gone down and dark is a dark day indeed. The work I do outside now that enlightens and cheers the winter landscape is work I welcome.

Yes, I wrap my trees with garland. I doubt the grapevine and evergreen garland keeps my trees warm, but the act of wrapping the tree trunks comforts me, and keeps me warm.  No matter what a garland wraps, the big idea is about warmth. Gardeners in northern climates have a few months of bitterly cold weather ahead of them. Any expression of warmth is welcome now. Yes, please.

garland detail

a light garland

garland over the windows

magnolia garland

tree wrap

garland for an outdoor fireplace

window garland

burlap garland

asymmetrical garland

garland detail

light garland

I will confess that I go to great lengths to ward off the winter.  I am guilty as charged. Beyond those charges, the construction and the installation of garlands for the holiday and winter keeps me happy, and busy.