Spring At Detroit Garden Works: An Addendum

As I was writing about the spring opening of Detroit Garden Works, it occurred to me that what the shop does best is reflect the taste and sensibilities of a wide range of gardeners. I have Rob to thank for that. Many years ago I made a landscape design call to a client whose house and art were of a contemporary ilk. On his rear terrace was a classical and traditional Smith and Hawkins teak bench. That disconnect made me blink. I suggested that he find some terrace furniture that more accuratetly represented his aesthetic.  So called contemporary garden ornament has been available for commercial projects for a long time-if you equate simple and functional with contemporary. I am thinking urban trash receptacles, bike racks and giant fiberglass cylinder planters. What was readily accessible to private gardeners was meager. Times have changed in that regard.

Shopping European markets has also made a big difference in the style of ornament we are able to offer.The Belgians, Dutch and French have been of a contemporary mind in the garden for quite a while. The containers pictured above are made from recycled tires from a manufacturer in France. They would look very disconcerting in my garden, but my client with the contemporary art collection would feel right at home with them.

I probably have said this before, but it is worth repeating. Any idea about period or style that you express indoors is fine to take outside. And advisable. A well done landscape does have an aura- an aura of genuine expression of some kind or another is unmistakable. A judicious selection of garden ornament is a strong and vibrant way to indicate an aesthetic point of view in the landscape.

A tree is a tree, with its own aura. That same species planted in a random grove in tall grass creates a different aura, driven by the aesthetic of the gardener in charge. A collection of that same tree planted in a grid could have a very formal aura-or a contemporary one. A garden ornament added to any one of these landscapes can organize and make the intent of that gardener clearer. This room at the shop is interesting, in that it takes traditional objects, and by association with more contemporary ones, gives those traditional ornaments a more contemporary aura. In the above picture, vintage French galvanized metal seed pans were lined up and stacked on a shelf against the far wall. The overall shape and grid has a very contemporary feeling, though I am sure the pans were originally used as a simple growing tool. The traditional glazed French jarre with a cream rim in the foreground is a very traditional shape. Paired with a vintage modern teak garden furniture set, the clean lines and simple shape of the container becomes its dominant visual characteristic.

On the walls in the background of this picture, a pair of antique French conservatory windows look at home in a more contemporary setting.  Their visual meaning is about their simple geometry, and not about their history. I would imagine the conservatory they came from was probably of a traditional sort.

The birdbath in the above picture is an antique piece from England. It is easy to imagine it in a classical English garden. But I suspect it could be right at home in a more austere and modern garden. To determine whether a classical piece might work in a contemporary garden, I try to ignore where or how the piece might have been used, and concentrate on its overall shape. The short version is to appreciate it in the abstract, and without preconceived notions.

The urn pictured in the opening above has a very traditional connotation and shape. Its visual aspect is in strong contrast to the concrete bowl planters placed on top of the wall. Each asks for a specific kind of garden.

I have seen lots of fish ornaments for gardens.  Some are whimsical.  Others are accurate to a specific shape and color of a kind of fish.  These French made steel sardine garden stakes have a sleek and contemporary look. They represent in the abstract the rhythm and sparkle of a school of fish in water. Rob has used these in contemporary container arrangements to great effect.

The vintage containers on this shelf have a decidedly modern feel.

This grill bears no resemblance to the Weber of my childhood. Contemporary fixtures for kitchens have been around a good while.  It is so great to see them becoming available for the outdoor kitchen. This Ofyr grill uses wood as a source of heat, and the top rim is a cooking surface as well as the grate.

This collection of grape gathering baskets have quite a history, but attached to a wall and planted in an architectural way, they could be a welcome addition to a contemporary garden.

This contemporary version of birds on a wire come from the same French company that makes our sardine stakes. They come with one, two, or three birds wide at the top. Oh the possibilities, for a contemporary garden maker.

The Light Rings

If my memory serves me correctly, it was 7 years ago that Rob wound strand lighting around a few vintage wagon wheels, and suspended them from the ceiling of the shop for the holidays. I doubt they were on display for a week before the lot of them was purchased by an enthusiastic client. Over the next several years he designed and redesigned custom made steel circles, carefully engineered and fabricated to accept lights that would hang from a stout tree branch. Of course the light cord was disguised by a substantial hank of jute. An extension cord run up the trunk of the tree would connect to the plug at the top of the branch. They were so beautiful. Arresting. A circle of light with with no visible means of support shining in the winter night. What could be more simple and more joyful? This version of winter lighting is spare and eminently satisfying, both in its shape, and installation. Tie the ring to a substantial branch, and plug it in. Winter gardening in my zone is all about the quality of the light. Not only the body benefits from vitamin D.

A later design of Rob’s included a four pronged mechanism that would enable the light rings to be set securely into the ground, or the soil in a container. This revolutionized my winter container design. How I love incorporating lighting in winter pots. The ring set in the pot encouraged a whole new avenue of design. A few years ago, he suggested that his lighted circles had run their course, and perhaps he should move on to another design or shape. I was incredulous. Those light circles had enchanted clients both near and far. A restaurant in Newfoundland Canada bought 7 of the largest size, and five of the medium size-for their outdoor dining space. They, and countless other design and private clients both local and nation wide have spoken for those lighted circles. Year after year. I suspect I will never tire of them.

A circle is a simple shape. It is a closed and regular curve that divides a plane into two regions. The interior, and the exterior. This from Wikipedia. The interior of this light ring is inhabited by a brightly burning light burst. The exterior is the greater landscape. The circle here is a means by which to focus on a particular albeit temporary feature-the light.  A circle has no beginning or end. It’s recognizable symmetry is a source of visual delight in nature, and in designed spaces of all kinds. The circle is the basis of all kinds of graphic design, of which the polka dot dress is a familiar example. The circle was also the basis for the wheel, which makes all manner of modern machinery possible. It is interesting to note that all circles are the same, except for their diameter, and the width of their border. Circles of different materials and sizes that intersect create other shapes.

The space between 2 endpoints marked on a circle is called a chord. I do not know the history of this definition, but I can attest to the fact that landscape designs that strike a chord with a client or a viewer are engaging, and emotionally satisfying. A circle is a complete entity unto itself. A circle comes standard issue with a sense of completeness. As in the rotation of the seasons.  Though I may not have so many words to put to the experience, circular shapes and spaces evoke a response. In laying out a curved area in the landscape, I start with a chord-or a section of a circle. This is fairly easy to do, with a bamboo stake and string. Finding the center of that circle which will produce the desired chord may take a while, but eventually there will be consistently curving line.

Taking the time to draw the chord on the ground helps to eliminate the squiggles. By squiggles, I mean those bed lines that curve in and out in rapid succession around this shrub and that tree – without an overall sweeping curve that is visually cohesive. It helps to provide focus to what landscape elements belong in the exterior of that partial circle, and what belongs outside. The light ring pictured above is made from steel, but that steel does not need to be that thick. Steel rolled into a circular shape is as stable and strong physically as it appears to be. The ring celebrates the centerpiece. The pussy willow that pushes past the edge of the circle creates a relationship between the geometry of one element and the natural form of another. Both materials are stronger visually given the form of the other. The ring also compliments the rectangular geometry of the planter box, and narrower and wider rectangle of the greens. The composition without the ring would be fine. But its presence completes the composition in a way that organizes all of the other shapes and materials.

Rob has the rings made in a variety of sizes, from two feet in diameter up to seven feet. The ring pictures above is five feet in diameter – a good size considering the size of this pot. The first rings were strung with strands of incandescent twinkle lights that had brown cords.  Now we use only LED lights, for longevity’s sake. The lights go around the outside of the ring, and each bulb faces out. We ship them out with and without lights, and we have made them in custom sizes for a particular application.

This ring is hung high in a window, so it can easily be seen from the street.

Led lights produce little in the way of heat, so the snow has collected on the inside lower edge of the ring pictured above. The contrast of the snow and the light provides a little welcome interest to the winter landscape, even during the day.

This is my first year with light rings at home. I drive up to them, and I can see them from the deck above.

The 6 inches of snow that fell yesterday just made them look better.

H sent me these pictures of her winter boxes last night. She is enjoying hers too.

I have indeed talked before about these rings recently, but the fact is we are looking at more weather that looks just like this for quite a while yet. These lighted circles make it easier to bear with the winter.

 

Cinderella

A client asked of we would be able to light a pair of London Plane trees that we planted on either side of her driveway near the road – for the winter season. Of course I said yes. But I should back up. To say that we planted them warrants further explanation. I asked Ralph Plummer, owner of GP Enterprises, to locate, secure and plant a pair of London Planes of substantial size at the street entry of a landscape I designed and installed.

He obliged with a pair of eight inch caliper Planes that topped out at nearly 30 feet tall. I like big elements in the foreground of a landscape composition. That size is a request to focus and a visual invitation. These giant trees frame the view ahead. I had been absorbed with the installation inside the gates. My client made a request to me for a pair of big framing trees outside those gates. I can assure you flat out that my best projects as a designer have a committed and passionate client as a partner.

So back to the lighting of these trees. Of course Rob backed us up at Detroit Garden Works with LED compact string lighting strands that were 110 feet in length, and featured 2000 lights each. We wound the trunks and major branches horizontally with these strands – lots of them. This day in November was 20 degrees. The weather was an enormous challenge to the work, but that is not news where gardening is concerned.

Our lighting via ladders took us up close to 20 feet. My client called to ask when were we coming back to do the rest? I should have known that the limit of our reach on our ladders was a self imposed limit. If the sky was the limit, I was going to need some help. Mike Shecter sent two of his people over with a lift. That machine enabled them to wrap both of the trees much closer to the top.

There are a few landscape companies in my area that offer holiday lighting, but that is a very specialized niche. The purchase and maintenance on a piece of equipment like this has to be very expensive. Not to mention the workman’s compensation policy on people who are working this high off the ground. I was happy to get some help with this project, and even happier that I do not own this machine.

Trees densely wound round with lights is not especially unusual. Many commercial businesses feature very elaborate lighting schemes for the holiday season.  I understand why. The light is dazzling, and uplifting. As in festival of lights. As much as I loved this look, something was missing.

We put together a pair of light garlands in our shop, featuring 100 feet of LED compact lighted zip tied to a corresponding length of LED strands with the larger C-7 size bulbs. As there was no way to draw or describe the installation of the garland, I was part of the install crew. We laid the garland on the ground, and dragged and pulled it until it described a large circle on the ground all around each tree. A ladder, a 6′ 2″ tall person, a 10 foot bamboo stake with a hook at the top, and 4 support people were all we had in the way of equipment.

The lowest point of each loop/swoop is just about 6′ 2″ above the ground. It was easy to have Colin stand underneath the loops so we knew how low to make them. As bright as they are at night, these lights are a little tough to see during the day. The tops of the loops were secured to lighted branches via a zip tie. Having learned this the hard way, I would recommend tagging the ends of each strand of lights with its own zip tie. The technology of these lights is amazing, but they are by no means perfect or foolproof.  If you have a strand go out that cannot be fixed with a new transformer, you want to know the location of the end of that faulty strand. Trying to find it on a cold winter’s day is exasperating, especially considering that this work is next to impossible to do with gloves on.

The gardens added a whole other dimension to the lighting scheme. What was impressive in its scope was now a jewel in the landscape. They have that aura of romance.

I posted this picture that David took the other morning at 8am on instagram. Landscape designer Susan Cohan commented: “Cinderellas!” What a wonderful way to describe them! Though London Planes are stately trees with gorgeous exfoliating bark and luxuriously large leaves, dressed in lights and wreathed in garlands, they are the stuff of fairy tales. Wrought from a very static and hard material, the effect is graceful and dressy.

The snow a couple days ago adds yet another dimension-the warm fire contrasting with the cold ice and snow. Winter lighting and weather play off one another in a way that provides a lot of visual punch while the garden is dormant. They shine forth on all but the sunniest winter days. As sunny winter days are few and far between in my zone, I would not do without the lighted winter landscape.

Several of these pictures were taken by my client. I know she is enjoying them.

I am hoping they make her feel like Cinderella.

The Branch Studio Prototype Sale

If you read this journal regularly, you know I own a fabrication company known as The Branch Studio.  We manufacture garden ornament, boxes and pots for the garden. We also manufacture custom steel ornament, pots and fountains for private clients and designers nationwide. This weekend, Rob has organized a sale of Branch prototype pots at Detroit Garden Works. They are available for sale at or below our cost to manufacture them. I am sure you have questions, so let me explain.

Any company that designs a three dimensional object intended for production begins with drawings on paper. Some designs get test built in paper or foam core board. I cannot imagine how architects take a set of drawings for a building and review them, imagining in the third dimension. Some architects make a practice of building models of buildings they are proposing.  I have seen pictures of some that are beautiful in their own right. Buck and I have a much more low key process. We talk, and we trade sketches. As I am a designer, and he is a fabricator, there are fireworks. He wants a design that once fabricated is sturdy and serviceable. He wants a fabrication process that is smooth and reasonably quick. I want a design that is beautiful, properly proportioned, and with just enough detail to make it memorable. It is difficult to determine if a design for a container detailed on paper meets all the criteria that both Buck and I require to put that design into production. So we manufacture the idea, and take a good long look at the result. A prototype from Branch is an idea that gets spelled out in steel.

We were interested in a few designs for more contemporary garden pots to round out our collection of garden boxes. The round Barry tapers began with a half-oval rib detail that culminated in a round steel leg. The V-shaped flanges on either side of that vertical rib seemed like a great idea, visually. I find that many contemporary garden pots to be dry and lacking interest. Shape is an integral part of contemporary design for garden pots, but a shape without some detail seems blank and wanting.  During the production of this prototype, Buck had several issues. The subtle V flanges were flat, which made it very difficult to weld them to the curved surface of the round body of the pot. It was not possible to curve those small pieces mechanically by rolling them prior to welding them on.  Once the flanges were welded on to these tapered curved pots, the welding process threw the the top of the pot out of round. The flange sections were flat, and the rest of the container round. Viewed from above, the shape wobbled. Not pretty, this. The addition of a thin flat round ring welded onto the top of the pot to cover the the out of round result worked, but it seemed of  too meager proportion to the rest of the pot. In addition, welding the flanges to the surface of the pot took an incredibly long time. Of course I was interested that the flange that look like it had melted over the vertical rib. As Buck informed me, steel does not melt over anything. The V steel flanges were good looking, but just too labor intensive to create. It took Owen upwards of an entire day to weld the flanges for a single pot. A detail that takes an entire day to weld is too fussy. The picture above tells the story. The pot on the left features the subtle detail of the flanges. The top rim is too thin. The revised pot on the right has no flanges, and a rim with substance. The revised pot, which we have put into production, is simple and substantial.

Rob decided to relieve Branch of a various prototype pots they had made over the last year by staging a prototype sale. Most of all of these prototypes are available for less than what it took to produce them. I could say that I have mixed feelings about that, but I don’t.  It takes time, effort, and no small amount of investment to move an idea along. I will say that it is hard for me to let go of the prototypes we have available with my beloved flanges. But so be it.  Any person who purchases a Branch prototype gets a one of a kind garden pot at an incredibly good price. Then good news for us? We can go on designing, and we can manufacture new ideas.

The Dean pots. We love the farm and cottage look of them.  But farm and cottage style suggests a price that is equally down to earth. These Dean pots cannot be made for what it cost to manufacture a galvanized metal washtub.

These small Jackie boxes have an experimental finish that Buck calls a polar finish. A second wash after the galvanizing process brings out the white in the finish. These prototypes are about a finish we decided not to pursue, but that does not mean there is any defect in the finish. Someone out there may quite like them.

So pleased to see so many Branch Studio prototypes together in the same place. Today, 7 experimental pots found new homes. I a so pleased about that.Seeing how Rob has arranged the new contemporary stock boxes intermixed with the contemporary Branch Studio prototypes – terrific. You can see what changes have been made. And as we will not produce them again, they are one of a kind pots.

We have a new design we are looking at-Branch produced 4 of them. We are calling them the framed tapers. They are loosely based on a pair of pots Rob brought back from France. He really likes them, so we’ll see if other people do too.

Interested?

the Branch prototype sale