A Belated Valentine

I suspect it has been better than 10 years ago that Rob bought a small collection of oversized kraft paper mache cherubs that had been used for display at a holiday vendor showroom, and had them shipped to the shop. He asked me if I was interested. Yes I was. The purchase cost was nothing. The shipping was something else, as I recall. I was delighted with them. We hung them from the ceiling with fish line, and attached lighted holiday garlands to their hands. The flying cherubs elicited plenty of comments. In subsequent years, I white washed that kraft paper. We sold a few.  Rob loaned some to a restaurant he liked for Valentine’s Day. Six months later, we got them back. The years went by, like they always do.

Then the story of their history gets blurry. The last photo I can find of them hanging in the holiday airspace at Detroit Garden Works is 2012. Is it possible they have been in storage for 6 years?  In January, Karen brought the last 3 remaining cherubs down from the roof of our tool room. She was charged with organizing and repacking all of the boxed holiday items for the winter. We store all of our holiday items on that roof. The three remaining paper mache cherubs were stashed in the far back of that space in plastic bags. Karen took them down, and brought them to my office. What would I like to do with them??

I was astonished and more than a little distressed to find that the putti had come on hard times. Feet and hands were completely detached, wings were askew-some sections had big dents. One cherub had broken upper arms.  I have no idea how this happened. Frankly, I don’t want to know, as I have this inexplicable fondness for them. What is the attraction? They have typically chubby baby boy figures, and astonishing swirling donut like hairdos. The hands and feet are webbed. Their tummies are substantial. Their only garment is ill fitting, and not very stylish. But they have benign and charming faces. And they have wings-what gardener doesn’t fall for a winged creature?

Cherubs have been the subject of countless garden ornament sculptures for centuries. Some represent love, even amorous love. Some depictions are mischievous and Puckish. Some cherubs are reminiscent of children, and innocence. Others bring angels to mind. It is not my intent to write about the origin and history of putti, cherubs and angels in garden ornament. A February project to my mind is less about study and scholarship and more about diversion.  My paper mache babies were in disrepair, and needed to be put back together.  I used fabric and hot melt glue to to reattach the hands and feet. I filled the dented elbows and tummies with light weight spackle.

Suffice it to say that my repairs were not museum quality. The repair joints were lumpy and clumsy – painfully obvious. More obvious was a need for me to cover my repairs with a decorative element that would disguise my inept repairs.  Left over from the holiday season were a number of bunches of dried integrifolia. A California supplier provides dry bunches of branches from this tree. The leaves cling tightly to the branches, even outdoors, exposed to our winter weather. The juvenile foliage is toothed and sharp.  The mature leaves are smooth and quite strong. The stems last a a very long time in their dried state.

I spent a number of hours stripping integrifolia leaves from their branches, and sorting them by size and shape. Some leaves dry flat.  Others dry with an up curve. Others curve down. Applying those leaves over my amateurish repairs would add another dimension to the surface of my cherubs. Now was the perfect time to take this project on, as I had both the time and inclination.

Buried in a box in the office were a number of packets of single mulberry paper flowers. I bought them years ago, with no particular use in mind.  I just liked them.  At last, a place to use them. These paper flowers were perfect for covering the cut ends of those integrifolia leaves. The renovation of the cherubs took on a life of its own. How I have enjoyed reinventing these paper mache sculptures. Pictured above, cherub 1.

From the beginning, I had the idea that I would ask Wayne to spray paint these cherubs all one color, once I was done. Now I am not so sure that they wouldn’t be just fine in their present green and white state. I have time to think about the final finish. Cherub 1 got a full head of integrifolia hair.

I did run out of mulberry paper flowers, so a search on line took me to a company who sells many versions of them. The daisy type flowers are more appealing to me than the roses. They arrived in bunches, each flower attached to a short length of paper covered wire. I glued through my first order of 400, and my reorder arrived in no time. Should you be interested:    mulberry paper flowers

The arrival of the polar vortex in Michigan was a sure sign to stay home. I can say that one of the deciding factors for my choosing landscape design and installation as a career was the idea that I could stay home in nasty winter weather. I took two cherubs, all of my materials and my glue gun home with me. I never ventured to work for seven days. I was busy, in a leisurely sort of way. I knew that viciously cold weather was out there, but I ignored it, but for taking the dogs outside.

I set up shop in my dining room. The peace and quiet meant I could concentrate. I recall a 20 minute period when I felt stir crazy, but that moment soon passed. Every inch of those cherubs got some attention. Cherub 2 got some integrifolia leaf eyebrows and eyelids, and some hot melt glue eyes. A mulberry leaf flower applied backwards improved the shape of the nose.

The cherubs needed  some elevation off the table surface in order for me to work on them. The integrifolia leaves are fairly tough, but dry foliage is brittle. A cardboard box kept the cherub aloft. More cardboard did a fine job of keeping hot melt glue off my dining room table.

A very good time was had by all.

hand detail

cherub 2

Cherub 2 aloft in my office. Rob gave me a hand drilling holes for screws, washers and toggle bolts. Given how they are finished, they will always need to be in the air.

cherub 3

I plan to keep them in the airspace for the foreseeable future. Part two of the project coming up next-you’ll see.

New Year’s Day, 2019

Dear friends of mine dress their home and table for the Christmas holidays in a way that never fails to astonish and delight me. I have written about their holiday at least three times before, but I knew this year would be special. They spent the last two Christmas holidays visiting family in the US and abroad. They would be home this year.  M and I started talking about this year’s holiday in June, like we always do. I could say that talking goes on intermittently into the fall, but in fact, I am a listener, happy and intrigued to be privy to how his ideas evolve and gel. I am sure M2 is equally involved in this process. He is the more reserved of the two. The both of them are head over heels involved in the arts and design. They also have a sincere and passionate love of the landscape – this is how we came to meet, and fall for each other. Their holiday begins with the tree. Though they have an outstanding collection of vintage glass ornaments, the tree is always very different.

Their love of nature and the garden is always a substantial part of their tree.  They live on a large property in the country. Most of that property is wild. This year’s tree is chock full of the seedpods from butterfly weed, and assorted other weedy dry stems. The addition of the wild remains of plants foraged from their own property took a few intensely felt weekends. I truly admire and respect that they are able to set aside the demands of their professional lives, and give their all to the design and creation of this tree. It is a tour de force on so many levels.

I knew M had a plan to add clementines and persimmons to the mix. He later added mini Kishu mandarin oranges and kumquats.  I had my doubts about how that would work, but I kept that to myself. At the same time, I knew he was shopping every grocery store and farmers markets in his area for those orange fruits.   I greatly respect his eye. All it takes to be open to anything is the intent to be open.

The result is unique to them, and their point of view. Stunning, every square inch of it.  Their history, interests and passion for the arts and the garden resulted in a holiday expression of great beauty.

This New Year’s Day, I am thinking about those projects this past year that truly engaged me. Those projects that speak to the best, most inventive, and imaginative. And those projects that are created by the love of the landscape on both sides of the design equation. I have many to thank, and much to be thankful for.

As for the holiday created by my friends- thank you. It is a feast for the eyes, the heart and the soul.

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The buche de Noel, a culinary creation of theirs – exquisite.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

From Start To Finish

Once in a blue moon we have a client who decides to buy new pots in December. The process from purchase to finish involves a series of steps, the first of which is the placement. Installing pots in a bed, rather than on a hard surface, is not all that usual. But in this case, I think my client made a great choice. Starting over is an opportunity. For her, and for me. It took us a few days to put everything together, but our idea was to stay on the project from start to finish.

These substantial pots were set to be placed in a pair of beds that once held some very unhappy plant material.  By large, I mean 36″ tall, and 36″ in diameter at the top. The first order of business was to level the ground they would sit on, and provide a way for the pots to drain. Given the size of the pots, elevating them on bricks seemed like a good idea.

There is measuring and more measuring involved in this phase, because none of us want to try and level or center a large pot that is full of soil, and a winter arrangement. Empty pots are the easiest to move around.

The centerpieces needed to be big and tall, to be proportional to the size of the pots. A group of tall birch poles would provide plenty of substantial height. We filled the pot with cypress bark mulch to the center rib on the outside of the pot, and set the birch poles directly on top of that bark. Having a very heavy centerpiece set this deep in the pot will help keep it secure and upright. Few things seem so forlorn as a centerpiece listing out of vertical from stormy winter weather. Once the centerpiece was set, the pot could be filled with soil.

It would not be possible to fill the pots with soil if we set the greens first, so the greens placement was out of our regular order. It came after the setting of the centerpiece. The top of this centerpiece would never fit through the hole just big enough for the birch in the center of the form. The copper curly willow we added to the birch was about 3 feet wide at the top. So we sliced the greens form into two halves. Marzela set the greens in a way that made it easy to cut through her work.

Of course cutting the form in half impacted its strength. The weight of the greens on the outer edge would eventually pull the form and every evergreen stem inserted in it to the ground. Gravity is a force to be reckoned with. The cut form needed some ballast close to the centerpiece.

We secured each half with a pair of long steel rebar poles pounded in at an angle opposite to the downward force of the heavy side.  The rebar sits above the form about 5 inches. Concrete wire was wrapped around the four pieces of steel several times.  This will keep the forms anchored, and just about foolproof once the soil freezes.

We added eucalyptus to that space between the greens and the centerpiece. That plum red is a beautiful foil to the color of the copper curly willow. We zip tied individual stems to a bamboo stake. That slender stake is much more successful an anchor than the individual stems. We also had the option of setting the stems at an angle out, rather than straight up and down.

We also added extra short stem of the willow to the base of the centerpiece, so the hole in the foam would be completely filled. Gaps between the centerpiece and the opening in the foam are an opportunity for the stems to shift. Shifting stems mean trouble.  Once the pot is finished, we look for a tight fit for every element. It should be clear by now that the engineering plays just as big a role as the design.

Once the pots were close to a finish, the lighting could be added. That lighting will do a lot to illuminate this front terrace.

I left the centerpiece visible from top to bottom from the road side view. That seemed like a good idea. We wrapped the centerpiece with its own string of lights. The lighting plays such a big part in winter pots. A few bags of soil covered the bricks elevating the pot. We were just about finished.

Our client felt a second pair of smaller Branch tapered pots nearer her front door would complete the look she was after. The last of this installation was about companionship. We were happy to oblige.

These smaller scale Branch pots near the front door completed the project. They are smaller, but just as robust.

picture perfect, in my opinion.