Snow Glow

Blue skies and fluffy clouds the likes of which are pictured above are a rarity in a Michigan January. It is a bleak time of year, featuring uniformly gray-sky days, a lengthy twilight, and long ink black nights for what seems much longer than a month. February will bring more of the same. If this does not sound very appetizing, you are right. It isn’t. For that reason alone, snow can be a welcome visual addition to the landscape. Not those mountains of snow that make shoveling, walking and driving a dangerous and exhausting full time job. A new two to four inch layer of fresh snow describes all of the shapes both living and not in the landscape with a precisely applied thick carpet of bright white. A little judicious wind can whip up some interesting snow shapes on fences, benches and sculpture. Snow is water vapor in the atmosphere that turns to ice crystals without ever passing through a liquid phase. Multiple ice crystals make snow flakes. That lightweight flaky stuff can enliven a winter landscape. At least the cold comes to some good.

Our snow came early, and persisted. 3 weeks of bone chilling cold made sure it was not going anywhere. Then a week ago, a few days in the high forties reduced the mass of it considerably. The landscape was going dark again. The light in my winter containers was welcome. Providing light for the landscape is never more important than providing it in the winter. Great landscape lighting can go so far as to illuminate the structure of the winter landscape during the gray and dark days. In its simplest form, it can light the way from here to there. Seasonal/temporary lighting can add a sculptural element to the winter garden.

I especially like a lighting component in winter pots. Not only does it illuminate the materials and shape of the winter container itself, that temporary glow spreads out and encompasses the immediate environment. New technology which has produced warm and flexible LED string lighting that draws little energy, is shatterproof and good for 50,000 hours means it has never been easier or more economical to boost the light in a winter landscape. Adding arrangements to garden pots for the winter season is a must have in my garden. Lighting them means is is possible to enjoy them day and night.

Weaving light strings into the greens in a winter pot, and piling them up at the base of a centerpiece is a fairly simple task. The results are striking from a distance outdoors. And they provide so much visual interest from indoors. One client likes us to wrap the bottom 7 feet of the trunks of 4 columnar gingkos that frame the entrance to her house. She runs those lights all winter long, as they illuminate the way, and say welcome to my door. Temporary landscape lighting done in November that can light the night until the days start to lengthen is a feature of my winter landscape.

Once we had more snow, that temporary lighting was providing snow glow. Each tiny LED light that is virtually invisible during the day was magnified by the snow at night. Ice crystals meeting LED string lighting-beautiful. I miss the digging, the planting, the watering, the staking, the dividing and all else that a landscape and garden provides as much as any other gardener. But the winter has its pleasures.

The snow glow emanating from my pots lights the surrounding landscape in places I can see from inside. Planning for good views out the windows in winter is just acting on one’s own defense. The gloom can be penetrating, as is goes on so long. Is this a substitute for a summer day in the garden?  No. But expecting it to only makes one long for another time and place. The winter is its own season, and there are things that can be done to make something beautiful of the dark. Winter is the only season of ours in which an expression like this is possible.

Our snow is melting again.  We have rain this morning. But there will most assuredly be more snow before the winter is over.

Though creating sculptures with temporary lighting is a winter activity with all kinds of benefits, permanent landscape lighting is a feature I would recommend to any gardener. I like my front porch lit at night. I like my sidewalk lighting just as much. My house is set almost 4′ above the grade at the sidewalk. I would not want guests to have to negotiate 3 sets of steps without proper lighting. Big pools of light come courtesy of the snow.

 Landscape lighting is all about trying to endow the winter season with some visual interest. This pot is on axis north and south with the sidewalk, and east and west with the den windows. That placement makes it possible to enjoy this from multiple vantage points.

Yesterday morning at dawn, my snow covered winter pots were, in my opinion, the best intersection of electricity and snow that I have ever devised. Fire and snow look good together.

Those LED lights can set a a landscape on fire. Inspired to walk through the snow on the upper deck, a long exposure reveals how bright that temporary lighting can be. I can see Milo in the yard-nice. This past summer, I took all of the landscape lighting out of the trees, and placed them facing up against the fence. That permanent lighting is much more subtle, and silhouettes the trunks of the maple trees and the branches of the yews. This is the best of both lighting worlds that I have to offer my winter landscape.



Okra Pods

We were able to finish all of our 2017 projects last week, save one, by last Thursday afternoon. That final project needs a decent sized block of time, so we will do it this coming week. This meant there would be time for me to get some pots done at home. Finding materials would be a challenge. Given that the supply of fresh cut greens is all but depleted, my only hope was 8  9 foot Frazier fir Christmas trees purchased to chop up for our last project to come. There would be enough branches from those trees available to do my two pots on the driveway. The Frazier fir would shake off all the cold and snow a winter season would have to dish out, and still look great next March. The skirt of green was available.

Our supply of fresh cut twigs was equally skimpy, but for two bundles of red bud pussy willow we put on reserve for our last project. I toured the shop at least three times before I focused on a pair of steel topiary cones that we had Missy cover with grapevine and brown corded incandescent lights. These topiary forms are 5.5 feet tall. The scale of them would be perfect for my 30″ tall and 30″ diameter Branch Hudson tapers, given that we had no branches available for the center. I had no use for those incandescent lights. There had to be another idea. While David was removing those lights, I toured the store for the 4th time. We had a case of 10′ long LED rice light strands on silver wire still available.  These lights would need their transformer and plug protected from the elements.  We could do that. As the lights seemed so minuscule (each light is truly the size of a grain of rice), I doubled up the strands. David and I took a few minutes to wind them around each topiary form in an informal spiral.

What next? The intersection of that vertical topiary form with that horizontally oriented bed of greens was bare, stark and dry. Awkward.  An intermediary element that would soften spot and provide visual interest would be a good idea. This part of the container would be at eye level, as my tapers are set on tall steel socles. I knew I would want to load up that interior level with Lumineo cluster lights, but those lights needed something at eye level to illuminate besides the bare legs of the topiary cones. Successful containers, no matter the season, need to be designed and planted as a complete and literate visual world unto themselves. The spring, summer and fall plants, and winter materials, play a considerable role in this. But it is the overall sculptural quality that makes a container garden complete.

We had plenty of bunches of dried okra seed pods on slim wood stems in the shop greenhouse. I love these pods-we always have them. We usually use them in fall and winter interior arrangements. The numbers of bunches available were sufficient for my pots. OK, bring on the okra. David and I faced all of those curving pods inward. Like a chrysanthemum flower, or an artichoke. We left the pods tall, so they would represent entirely above the level of the greens. The slight wood stems on the pods would not in any way obstruct the light at the center. Setting the levels for all of the materials for these pots was all about creating sculpture. Those stick bottoms are not visible unless you walk right up to the pots, and look over the greens.  Okra? Few on my crew had ever heard of okra. Over the course of building these winter pots, there was a discussion of okra the vegetable, as well as placing dry pods in a pot.

Though I spent much time melding a design to the available materials, I was not prepared for this outcome. The rice lights were anything but shy. The four strands on two pots illuminates my entire driveway. The okra pods set tall on wood skewers both absorbed and reflected the bright light.

These winter pots are by far and away the best I have every had. That best had everything to do with an unusual choice of materials. The design and fabrication of these pots is all about creating relationships with unfamiliar materials.

The pots are at their best at night. I had no idea that the okra pods would so dramatically provide the much needed weight to the bottom of these pots. These pots glow from top to bottom, and are fiery in the midsection. Having the fabrication of these winter pots scheduled next to dead last has its advantages. There was time to tinker. Time to dream up something different.

The light is delightful and startling.

From the deck above.

The later darkness strips away all of the detail, and celebrates the big gestures.

The full moon looking over my driveway pots? Terrific. So swell. I will admit I was over the moon about every bit of this.


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.


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.