At A Glance: The Holiday At Home

holiday lighting (2)My holiday at home came very late in December. I do not even think of decking out my own home for winter until all of my work is done. That only seems fair. Buck and I are both used to the last minute nature of our holiday. This December 23rd, I was so glad to see my crew driving up and unloading what would hold down my landscape for the winter. Fortunately, the weather was so mild that the installation went fast. They were working. I was breathing a big sigh of relief.

holiday lighting (3)The Branch Studio people made short work of constructing and hanging the garland. As I like the garland hung straight across the top, we attach that section to a bamboo pole. The pole gets attached to the wall via screws that are set in the mortar, and concrete wire looped around the pole.

holiday lighting (4)the finish at the front door

December 23, 2015 004one of the four cast iron pots original to the house that are visible from the street.

holiday lighting (5)I have a very formal landscape. The tenor of the seasonal display is in sharp contrast to that sober and spare landscape. The contrast here is in form. The pots and garland are loosely made, and not all that formal. Contrast is a very important element in design. Too much of the same can be monotonous at best, or overwhelming at worst. Contrast makes each element look better. There is a lot of green here, but the textures vary.

holiday lighting (6)The grapevine garland is wound with lights. This will help to keep my porch well lit over the winter months.

holiday lighting (7)at dusk

holiday lighting (10)night light

holiday lighting (9)My front porch is lighted as best I can. If I have company coming,I want the way to the front door to be brightly lit. If I have a winter ahead of me, I want some entertainment and pleasure from the dormant landscape.

holiday lighting (8)Pots that are full up for the winter, and warmly lit make the quiet and dark a little easier to bear.

Flipping The Switch

night lightThe beginning of the winter season is marked by the scarcity of daylight. By mid December, it seems like it is dark most of the time. Winter days are likely to be gray days. It is no wonder that outdoor lighting is a hallmark of the holidays. I have always thought that holiday lighting is a form of winter gardening. The lights may outline the roof of a house, or decorate a specimen tree or evergreen, or be draped over the shrubbery. No one but the most ruinously serious of us thinks their holiday lighting will be subject to a taste test. The materials are relatively inexpensive, and people express their dismay with the coming of the dark, and the celebration of the holidays with abandon. I like all of the light at this gloomy time of year.

DSC_3753I will confess that most landscape lighting does not interest me-except during the winter.  It is light late in the summer, and equally as light early in the morning.  The light from the sky is like no other.  But once the skies go dark, in tandem with the landscape going dormant, I am more interested in some night light.  Rob’s lit spheres have been a staple at Detroit Garden Works for a number of years.  We manufacture raw steel circles that we infill with brown corded lights in 2 styles. We make them so they can be hung from a low branch of a big tree.  We also make them with long prongs that can be pushed into the ground in a garden. These light rings are more about winter light, than holiday light.  What a relief. It is OK to run those rings all winter long.

DSC_3765Winter containers are the perfect vehicle for some temporary winter lighting. The greens do a great job of obscuring the cords. When the dark comes early, it is a pleasure to enjoy what is in those pots day or night. The advent of warm light LED light strings means that lighting the landscape in the winter is an inexpensive affair. They draw so little power-about 1/10th that of incandescent light strings. The color of that light has improved so much in recent years. When LED string lights first came out, that cold blue light had no grace or charm whatsoever.
DSC_3754Electric light in the winter landscape adds a little sparkle to a gloomy morning and afternoon. Company coming to my house for dinner at 7pm are walking up to the front door in the dark.  Landscape path lighting is utilitarian.  Lights in the pots dispel the gloom, and say welcome.

DSC_3755My landscape lighting skills are poor to middling.  There are lighting designers who do an incredible job of featuring the landscape at night. Should I have a client who is interested in landscape lighting, I refer them. I myself am not interested in lighting design. I am interested in a warm, friendly, and unstudied look.

DSC_3756There are those places and moments when night lighting is theater. That theater is not my forte. I like a blush over the landscape. In the very late afternoon, the light in pots is as soft as it is sparkly. This much light is enough.

DSC_3804Once the skies go dark, those lighted pots glow. This brick wall is bathed in a warm subtle light.

DSC_3802This client has a covered porch, with no ceiling light fixture. One string of our 1000 light LED strings illuminate the perimeter of the ceiling, and each side of the front door. Another 750 count LED light string strewn on the floor of the porch around a grouping of pots makes this porch glow.  A winter with a glow in the landscape is a winter that has a landscape that is lively.

DSC_3797My advice this 6th day of January? Stay warm.  Plug something in.

New Year’s

Detroit Garden Works winter 2015 (3)Christmas came and went, without the shop being fully dressed for winter. We had an incredibly busy season – that work has to come first. No one knows that better than I. But I have a love and a mission for making sure that our shop delights the eye of any gardener face to face with the winter season. The Branch crew constructed and hung the garland that is draped across the top of the roof boxes and all the way down to the ground on a Saturday in mid December. They added greens to the leading edge of the boxes behind the garland, for an especially lush look on the roof. That was a huge undertaking. It took 5 people just to haul it up an extension ladder to the roof. That was all we had going on for at least another week. The next Saturday all of the window boxes were filled with greens, and the 2 pots out front had twigs and greens. Christmas day afternoon, I constructed and set all of the centerpieces in the window boxes, and added small scale vine garlands to the greens, and pine cones to drape. Yes, Christmas afternoon.  Buck was rolling his eyes.  New Year’s Eve day, I had help from a sympathetic crew.  David found lights for the window boxes elsewhere, as we were out, and installed them.

Detroit Garden Works winter 2015 (14)I wanted something tree like at the front door. Dan and his landscape crew cut down a Siberian elm that was growing up through the gas meter at Branch, and set them into steel shoes in the bottom of a pair of fiber pots. Once the fiber pots were filled with gravel, these tall branches were stable. As I had a pine cone fest already going on, I decided to hang pine cones on these trees. Marzela and David did all of the work of it. Dan, my landscape super, named these trees Pinus Ulmus.  We all found this incredibly amusing. The fun of hanging pine cones on a deciduous tree aside, I wanted to bring some of the warm orangy brown of the cones and grapevine garland onto these pale gray branches.

Detroit Garden Works winter 2015 (4)The centerpieces in the window boxes are largely comprised of bunches of short branches that Rob had for sale in the shop. I can’t say what they are, I was looking at the height, color, and texture, and not the species.  The white tallow berry picks are artificial. They and the bleached pine cones add punch and punctuation to the mix. The roof garland features our new pin point LED lights. All of the light garlands are attached to the grapevine.

DSC_3726The two little leaf lindens outside the shop fence got a winter coat of natural curly willow. David got all of the bunches up against the trunk with the help of some bungee cords. Once he had every stem arranged to his satisfaction, he wired them on with concrete wire.  He and I covered that wire with two pine cone garlands wound around and secured to each tree. This is a warm look for winter.  Rob’s wire baskets with lights in the bottom, and a mass of twigs, got placed on either side of a birch faux bois bench.

Detroit Garden Works winter 2015 (5)We were looking like we were ready for the winter. This made me happy.

Detroit Garden Works winter 2015 (9)We have a very gray and dark season ahead of us. It is a tough time for anyone who gardens in a northern climate. The dark comes on in late afternoon, and does not abate until 8 am.  The cold has finally caught up with us. Michigan is renowned on the gray skies list-it ranks right up there. Having the shop with a display for winter will make the winter easier to bear. Every day when I walk to my office door, I will be glad for the warm blanket.  It is as simple as that.

Detroit Garden Works winter 2015 (10)I took this picture at 4:40 this afternoon. The yews and boxwood have gone to their winter black green. The dusting of snow looks chilly.

Detroit Garden Works winter 2015 (12)One of my most favorite items we sold in the shop for the winter are these strings of lights with giant bulbs. I have Rob to thank for these. The linden closest to the road will have this string lighted all winter long.  I come to work in the dark, and I park my car here in the winter.  The light these bulbs provide is adding lots of visual vitamin D to my daily life.

Detroit Garden Works winter 2015 (1)Happy New Year.



The Case For Planting Winter Pots

I wrote the following article for the December issue of the Michigan Gardener Magazine. For those of you who do not have access to this magazine, I thought I would reprint the article.

the case for planting winter pots (5)
Few moments are as daunting to a gardener as that moment when it is apparent that the gardening season is coming to a close. The stems of some perennials will dry, and persist in the landscape the entire winter. Those with juicy stems will drop to the ground, and begin decomposing as the temperatures dip below freezing. The trees regale the landscape their leaves in full and vibrant fall color. Hidden behind that beautiful display is the process by which the trees are going dormant in preparation for the winter season. Every Michigan gardener is well aware that we have 6 months of the year to enjoy and work in the garden, and that trying other 6 months in which the garden is dormant. Gardeners handle the off season in a variety of ways. They read. They make plans for a new garden. They order seeds, and plants. Some put together a collection of new perennial plants to try. Others grow tropical plants – indoors.
A good many gardeners make sure to include trees with great bark and berries in their landscape. Others leave their perennial gardens intact until the spring. Snow can highlight a dormant garden in a beautiful way. Some gardeners just fret their way through the winter as best they can, or go south when they are about to black out from the prospect of one more day of winter weather. I have another idea worth considering.

the case for planting winter pots (9)
Having been in the container garden business in the spring, summer, and fall for many years, it only took one simple stray thought to entertain the notion of planting pots for the winter. Many gardeners have containers gracing their landscape. Pots at the front door are welcoming. Pots on a terrace provide an environment to the time spent outdoors entertaining. Multiple pots can screen an untoward view. Containers filled with lights are an alternative form of landscape lighting, especially designed to avert the dark that comes early and stays long. Window boxes are a way of integrating nature and architecture. A great container can be the perfect focal point in a garden. A great container planting is a landscape in miniature-wherever you want it. Arranging a winter container has only one hard and fast rule-the container must be frost proof. Think wood, stone, stoneware, metal, stoneware, rattan,or concrete, as opposed to terra cotta.

the case for planting winter pots (7)
I have seen lovely containers planted with dwarf evergreens, but live plants in pots are problematic in Michigan winters. Even miniature evergreens have substantial root balls. If you pots are on the small side, you may not have room to put together an interesting collection of plants. A group of evergreen plants do not grow up and into each other over the winter that will culminate in a gorgeous arrangement. They will look their same separate selves in April as they did the previous November. Worst of all, it is very difficult to keep evergreens alive in pots over the winter. Mugho pines and boxwood can be hardy in pots, if the weather and water conditions are just right. Hardiness in plants refers to plants whose roots are in the ground. Live plants with their roots above ground in containers can be challenging to keep alive. This is all by way of saying that beautiful winter containers can be constructed from cut natural materials, exactly the size and shape you need them to be. There are no end of cut evergreen stems available in the latter half of November. Douglas, frasier, noble and silver fir boughs are readily available. Fir is a great choice of a cut green-they stay green a very long time. For unusual greens, cut boxwood, German boxwood, berried juniper, Port Orford cedar, and countless other specialty greens are available for purchase. Interested in a cut green that will last until April without any hint of dry or brittle needles, or color loss? Mountain hemlock. I shy away from anything beyond a few bits of cedar and white pine-they will dry out and fade long before the winter is over.

the case for planting winter pots (8)
We do not stick cut evergreen stems into the soil in a pot. We take the soil in a pot down four inches when the summer or fall pots are emptied, in preparation for the winter arrangement. We construct a 4-6” thick dry floral foam form which is wedged into the top of the pot. The top third of the form sticks up above the rim of the pot. Each cut evergreen branch is roughly sharpened with the blade of a pair of pruners, and cut to a length representing the finished width of the arrangement. Each branch is stuck into that foam form at whatever angle seems natural and right. I like to approximate the shape of a naturally growing and graceful evergreen shrub. The branches usually grow in a horizontal configuration. Sticking evergreen branches into soil means every branch is awkwardly vertical. Few evergreens hold their branches vertically. A foam form means the gardener has the means and discretion to create a winter container that speaks strongly to the natural order of things. I have seen gardeners top their pots with evergreen wreaths, but wreaths do not have the scale and heft demanded by most pots.That thick evergreen blanket can have no end of other materials tucked into it. Eucalyptus pods are a striking texture, and a lovely wintry blue color. Winter berry (provided it has been thoroughly sprayed with Vapor Gard) is a natural source of red. Pods, twigs and bits from the field or garden can loosen and endow the appearance of the greens.

the case for planting winter pots (3)
As for a centerpiece, no material is as lustrous and colorful as fresh cut twigs. Red twig, yellow twig, and gray dogwood will look fresh in a container all winter long. Cut willow twigs have been known to root in a container over the winter. Curly and straight copper willow, black willow, and pussy willow are but a few of the available choices. We do zip tie our twigs to a stout bamboo pole, the end of which will go deep into the pots. Big centerpieces may need additional bamboo poles or steel rebar inserted all around the perimeter, through the dry floral foam and down into the soil of the pot for extra stability. These additional stakes may need to be wired together. Winter weather can be fierce; thoughtful and patient construction is a must. What you casually insert into a winter container on a calm November day may not hold up in the snow and wind of January. Constructing a winter pot is very different than creating an indoor arrangement.
A winter container takes on the personality and taste of the gardener in charge with those finishing touches that come next. Some will like sparkly picks added just for the holidays. Others will like pine cones, field weeds, magnolia pods or an abandoned bird’s nest. Natural dry seed pots are readily available in the fall. Preserved and dyed eucalyptus can add an unexpected punch of color to a winter arrangement. Good quality eucalyptus does not run, bleed, or fade. Still others favor fresh cut magnolia branches, or dashes of Port Orford cedar. Artificial picks are both convincing and weatherproof. Like the floral foam forms, they can be used and reused over a number of years. Dry stems of hardy hibiscus, butterfly weed, hydrangea, and Bear’s Breeches are beautiful in winter pots. Who knows what materials a fallow field or garden might provide. The materials available from the garden, farmer’s market, garden center or weedy field are just about limitless. Planting pots for winter is an entirely different way of gardening, but it is gardening nonetheless.

the case for planting winter pots (1)
A winter pot is the perfect vehicle by which to introduce light into the winter season. The garden is not only dormant, it is dark. Lights in winter pots on the porch, walk, or along the driveway welcome guests. A pot positioned by the stairs from the deck into the yard can light the way. Light strings are readily available in the fall. Placing them in the winter landscape is a form of gardening. 10 strings of mini lights will not consume much energy, but they will help to banish the dark. A new series of warm light LED strings from Holland are available this year. They are indestructible, very inexpensive to run, and last better than 50,000 hours. A fistful of lights at the bottom of a centerpiece will keep that centerpiece visible long after dark. We have a season ahead where daylight is scarce, gray skies are regular, and the dark comes early and stays late. Lit winter containers light up the winter landscape in a warm way.
A solidly and thoughtfully constructed winter container will delight, entertain, and console a gardener’s eye for as long as 6 months.

More specific commentary and pictures are to come in the next few weeks. All of the above pictures were taken at my house this past December.  I have no idea what will take shape for this year, but I am looking forward to the process.