The Winter Ahead

We finished the last of our winter container work this past Friday, January 4. The pots on my driveway were the very last of the late work. I do not mind that dead last slot. We have a long winter ahead of us. If I am ready for what Michigan winter weather has to dish out come January, my winter will be all the more tolerable. I was fortunate that we had a few cases of mountain hemlock left. It will stay green the entire winter. But the star of the show will be the lights. The technology behind LED string lighting revolutionized the options for landscape lighting. Every year, this lighting becomes more affordable, durable, and easier to use. Since the light is bright, but diffuse, it makes sense to use them in the winter months, and en masse. I know I wrote the beginning of December about lighting as an element in winter pots, but given that our winter is dead ahead, I thought to broach the topic again.

Detroit Garden Works manufactured steel circles expressly designed to hold multiple wrappings of these lights. It is astonishing how much light they emit. The ring has a four pronged base that goes into the foam and soil in the pot.  They are equally stable with an in ground installation. Each of these winter pots have a 110 foot long strand of warm white LED’s in the greens. The burst of lights in the center come from an all in one lighting product called a lightburst. Multiple bark like stems studded with lights are mounted into a pointed base that can be set in a pot. The overall height is three feet, so it makes a statement on its own. Set in the middle of a grouping of twigs or branches, it provides light from within.  Each stem is flexible, and can be positioned to suit. The end result here is the route from the car to the back door is well lit. This is the practical application of seasonal lighting.

The pleasure of the light is equally important, given there will be little sun and no being outdoors gardening for at least 10 weeks. I see this coming from and going to work. I can see it from the balcony above.  Bear with me, as I have said this too many times. Arranging for temporary winter lighting is a form of gardening. Every plant in the garden that I know of needs light.  So do people.

We took the last 10 bunches of curly willow, and zip tied them to a modified tomato cage. We cut the cage open, so we could encircle the two lindens outside the gate at the shop with them. Once they were in place, we zip tied the forms shut. A length of leftover garland covered the zip ties, and the extension cords.  It only took three of the light burst to illuminate that willow from within. David had the idea to bend and bring some of the light burst branches to the outside. Light inside and out-I was game.

At 5pm today, those lights were already creating a visual stir. As the lighting options get more sophisticated, I feel a need to try them out. Rob makes that easy, as he vets every new product. He sees a lot, and buys a few. He furthermore goes to the trouble of displaying how he thinks the lights can be used. I am always behind him in this regard. I just discovered those light bursts two weeks ago. In the garage, I had the time to study his twig display with a light burst tucked inside. He promises to have them again next year.

These five light rings set in the ground in front of a wall covered by Boston Ivy is the antithesis of the summer view. Do I like one season more than another? No. Every season has its time to shine.

pergola with light garlands and a polestar. The light rings in the foreground are so easy to hang in a window or a tree, and plug in.

Winter container arrangement with LED string lighting in the twigs.

Curly copper willow lashed to a tomato cage, and lighted from underneath

Lighted London Planes

We repurposed these dead crab apples as winter topiaries. The branches were hung with nine inch long glass drops. All of the light came from the bottom. Bottom light in a winter pot

winter light

winter light drama, given a substantial snow

lighting the stairs, 2016.

late day lighting

Night light. Winter lighting that looks like fire warms me up.

That cast iron cistern at the end of the driveway at Detroit Garden Works has for years been dressed for the season at hand, and the season to come. This year was no exception. That cistern is ablaze with light. Rob too several days to bring his lighting idea to a finish.

Thanks, Rob.

Winter Window Boxes

A good many posts ago, I described a window box as a hybrid vehicle. It is generally more expansive than a pot, but smaller than an in ground garden bed. A window box is an above ground defined space which is large enough to thoroughly explore an idea, and small enough to finish every square inch beautifully. I like any landscape project that is as beautiful and polished at the finish as it was from the design beginning. This means tailoring seasonal efforts to a size that celebrates aspiration, and acknowledges limits. Planting an area in the garden with seasonal plants leaves me cold. There is too much square footage to deal with. More on the knees work than I am willing to do anymore. Too much poor soil and poorer drainage than I want to address. Get me off the ground, please and thank you. A window box is the perfectly sized venue for a bigger seasonal gesture.

A landscape client with a new house signed up for four window boxes on stands in the front of her house. Branch made them to my specifications. Though the window boxes were fabricated this past summer, it was not until November when the landscape was ready for their installation. Meaning we would address them for the winter season. We made forms for the boxes, and fabricated the winter arrangements in our shop. Dry floral foam forms were a vehicle for a collection of sparkly white picks, cut magnolia branches, faux white berry picks and noble fir. Presiding over all, a three foot diameter light ring.

We do as much of the work as we can, in the shop. We like the better part of the work to be done in a warm space. The construction is faster, and more thoughtful. All of us want to focus on the project at hand, rather than enduring the cold conditions on site. This work included creating the arrangement, and dressing the greens with lights. This layout table was large enough to hold two arrangements at a good height for working.

Each form was moved outdoors once it was finished. The cold temperature outside favors keeping the greens fresh. The palette of materials is simple. The volume and texture of the noble fir does a great job of showcasing the magnolia based centerpiece. A form this long needs support when it is moved, although all of the woody stems of the evergreens helps strengthen it. Though the form is long and narrow, we took great care to provide a rolling shape from back to front.  A good winter arrangement needs to supply a finished shape from the beginning, and create the illusion of motion and rhythm. Though most of these materials are natural, they will not grow. Creating a sense of growth from cut materials informs the best of winter container arrangements.

The form is slightly smaller than the interior dimension of the box, so it was easy to drop it in.

The pots look over scaled for the windows, but that will change once the new shutters are installed. The boxes and their contents have a very formal and dressy look, which is in keeping with the architecture.

After dark, the lights define the shapes and volumes. The view at night is important in my zone. We have a lot of short days and long nights ahead.

By this time next year, this landscape project will have landscape lighting. But for now, the window boxes provide some welcome illumination.

Every year we fill the window boxes at Detroit Garden Works for the winter season. This year, our winter and seasonal pot obligations ran long. On December 21, my crews had gone home for the holidays, and our storefront boxes were still bare. My crew had a long and arduous season, so I was not about to have them fret over the shop winter window boxes. And our supplies of branches and greens were low. Happily, our supplier emailed Rob that he had a late cutting of a new branch for him – were we interested? It did not take long for him to send 12 bales of Midwinter Fire dogwood stems our way. The form in the above picture has its fair share of holes, as this is its third season. But with a few minor repairs, it was ready. My part in the process of our winter pots is the design. My crew does all of the construction admirably well. But given that there was a time when I designed and fabricated, I was sure I could do that again. The idea was simple. Embed a light ring in a thicket of dogwood branches.

Christmas Eve day, the shop was open, so Karen had time to me a hand sticking the greens on the front face and sides of the forms. Rob and Scott helped trim the bottoms off the thickest branches. I set a row of branches close together across the back of the form, and 2 lengths of a 33 foot long light strand in front of them before starting the next row of branches. 4 rows of branches separated by four rows of lights. The branches are pushed in all the way to the bottom of the form.

The work of it was integrating each new branch into the neighboring branches. As they were fresh cut, the stems were pliable. A pair of thick wool gloves made that work easier. There was no need to cover the back of the form, as the window box hugs the window. The bottom layer of foam goes into the box. The soil had already been lowered a corresponding amount. The top layer on the front and sides holds the greens. Short stems of magnolia would separate the greens layer from the twig thicket. The large brown and green leaves not only separate the similar textures of the greens and twigs, they conceal the mechanics of the light source from view.

Though my crew would have sailed through this fabrication, it took me two days. No deadline was looming, and I wanted to enjoy the process. No twigs cover the lower portion of the light ring. The ring disappearing into the thicket and re-emerging at the top implies the thicket has depth. I would consider how to finish that spot once the boxes were installed.

Flipping the switch on the lights once the arrangements were done was great fun. We would indeed have a little midwinter fire.

Marzela and David came in the Thursday and Friday after Christmas. They fabricated and installed 2 projects we had not finished before the holiday. Karen, Rob and Scott joined in. We sometimes remove the light rings after fabrication, and reinstall them on the job. But in this case, it seemed vastly easier to just leave them in. They took care of all of the finishing work and electrical, once the forms were set.

Some of the finishing touches will only be seen by those who walk by or come over to take a closer look. We tried to address the near and far, and the day and night. The shop boxes are just the right size for that.

The pots on either side of the door are stuffed with fir and boxwood, and lit with a single 3 foot tall LED light burst from the shop. It came with a pointed metal stake that is easy to push into a form or soil.

Rob took this picture from the top of a 12 foot ladder, right at dusk. The look of them in the transition between day and night was subtle. The visual changes wrought by the light and weather come courtesy of mother nature.

I never thought about how they would look from inside my office, but I am enjoying it.

 

 

 

 

 

Recent Work

All of my group has been fabricating and installing at a breakneck pace since early November. That intensity has its ups and downs. By the end of a six day week, we are all tired. But the best part of an intense season are those great ideas that emerge. Design and fabrication is a big fluid situation ripe for innovation. I see that happening every day, from every member of my crews. They not only produce the work, they endow it. How I love that.  Would that I could express what it is like for us during this end of the year gardening season, but that would be a full length movie of interest to my group, and not so much anyone else. So suffice it to let the work speaks for itself.

English lead pot from Bulbeck dressed for the winter

Winter pot in blue and white

Layered winter pot featuring a stand u[p collar of German boxwood

trio of wood boxes dressed for winter

pots and garland

single London Plane tree lighted for winter

the pair of plane trees

Pink eucalyptus and copper curly willow

winter arrangement with faux bleached pine picks and dry okra pods

Jackie boxes ready for the holidays


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curly copper willow and cotton picks

magnolia and faux sedum flower picks

Himalayan white barked birch with a winter blanket

front porch box with a winter arrangement English urn dressed for the holidays

winter cheer for a local restaurant

Dry integrifolia and white eucalyptus mixed

a holiday and winter mix

natural

lighted winter container

Birch branches and red twig dogwood

red bud pussy willow, pine cone picks, magnolia branches and noble fir

lighted winter container with foraged tree of heaven branches

lighted topiary form with red and green

curly willow and red eucalyptus

yellow twig

red eucalyptus and icy red berry picks

red and green

5′ diameter light rings, green fuzz ball picks and red bud pussy willow make a bold statement.

A Michigan winter calls for a little gardening intervention.

 

 

A Construction Plan

A pair of simply wrought steel cone forms can provide a sturdy armature for no end of garden projects. That precise form is orderly and pleasing set in a garden where chaos usually reigns. Any lax growing perennial or annual vine would appreciate its stability and strong shoulders. Another summer version features planting at the base, and the form presiding over all as sculpture. Topiary forms in winter containers supply instant height and presence. One year, my 6′ tall steel cone form served as a Christmas tree. Would round with grapevine and lights, I added glass berry clusters and birds. How I loved bringing the garden indoors for the holidays. Last year, this pair of mine, wound with its grapevine intact, and lights, were the focal point of the winter pots on my driveway. They made a big statement from the deck above. What to do with them this year that is different and interesting? So much of the work we do begins with an idea. What comes next is a plan for construction.

It seemed like an idea worth pursuing to line the interior of those steel forms with flame willow. Those straight copper colored stems lining the form would greatly change the look of it. It is my pleasure to have the fabricators at the Branch Studio give me a hand for our holiday and winter installations. Sal has constructed with incredible precision no end of garden boxes, gates, pergolas and sculpture in steel as the senior fabricator at Branch. He was the perfect person with whom to discuss a construction plan. If you read my essays routinely, you know we begin the construction of a winter arrangement with a dry floral foam form constructed to fit the pot in question. After marking where the legs of the topiary form would go through the form, Sal inserted a tall bamboo stake in the center. The bamboo was a marker, indicating the location of the top of the steel form.

Our initial thought to insert each stem inside the form and attach it with zip ties seemed awkward and too time consuming. Creating an interior willow form that the steel form would slip over made more sense. Sal was able to determine the sticking angle by making sure the top of each branch would touch the center bamboo stake. As no two objects are ever exactly the same, we tagged which steel form would partner with this specific willow form. Why the gap in the above picture? Sal left an opening, so he could stuff the interior with boxwood. Once the boxwood layer was finished, he would add the last of the flame willow. Such is the order of events. One of the most important aspects of a construction plan for winter container arrangements is figuring out the most comfortable way to do the work. The most comfortable way is invariably the most efficient way to move a project along. We don’t build rocket ships, we built winter container arrangements. Sal determined the spacing and angle for each stem by eye, not by measurement. The work doesn’t need to be perfect, it needs to be believable and delightful.

The tall dark green cylinder capped in red on the layout table proved to be key to the next step. It is an oversized roll of thin self sticking plastic wrap. We use it to wrap fragile items in the shop for shipping. Sal tightly wrapped the top half of the willow tower before lowering the steel tower over the top of it. Typical of his construction, the willow tower was a tight fit inside the steel.

The plastic was easy to remove, and each of the freed willow stems was re positioned. The tops of the branches are very pliable, as they are fresh cut. The top of each stem was pulled out of the steel form. That branchy finial surrounds the topknot of lights.

Leave it to Marzela to figure out the last construction detail. How would we remove the bamboo stake from the center of the willow form? I did not think ahead to that moment. Push it through the bottom of the foam form, of course. As our foam is manufactured in 2″ thick sheets, 24″ by 36″, we have to piece a form for very large pots. This the seam in the above picture. We hot melt glue 2 layers of the foam together to make a 4″ thick form. The lower layer of foam will go into the pot, the top layer of soil having been removed. The top layer of foam permits greens to be inserted horizontally. For very large pots, we make the upper foam larger than the lower. The foam sitting on the rim of the pots provides extra strength and stability to the form.

Marzela is our chief greens person. She has a gift for stuffing the forms with greens in a volumetric and convincing way. These forms have been filled with mountain hemlock. It is the most durable of all of the cut greens. Though these cut branches will take the full brunt of the western winter sun and weather for months, they will be just as green in March as they are in the above picture.

At the last, Colin checks the LED lights on the form. They still work fine, going into their third year of service. The tiny bulbs emit an astonishing amount of light. They will do a great job of illuminating the form at night. He is also adding a string of mixed berry lights – new to us this year. Translucent globes of varying sizes emit a soft glow.

A generously long string of them will emit a glow strong enough to define the form at the bottom. I suspect that at night, neither the globes nor the wires will be visible. Just the light.

The daytime look is not that bad. The silver wires on the light strings are glaringly obvious, but the main view of the pots will be from afar.

A project like this is possible given the many pairs of skilled hands that contributed their part to the end result. And there is satisfaction in having made something that works as a group.  Marzela will get the rest of the greens done in short order this morning. I think we will be able to install them today.