Winter Red

Our second winter/holiday project comes with a story, just like our first. If you were to ask how I schedule all the work, I am sure I would hesitate before I answered. There are many factors, some involving the availability of materials and other logistical issues. But personal issues for clients play a big part in the scheduling.  A client whose daughter was getting married as I began writing this came first.  No doubt someone else will be first next season. Our second project involves a landscape client who is hosting 19 members of his greater family for Thanksgiving at his home. They live a long ways away; the earliest arrivals are tomorrow. Shortly after Thanksgiving, they are leaving on an extended trip. They wanted their holiday/winter pots to be in place well in advance of the Thanksgiving holiday with family, as they would be celebrating both holidays at once.

We began the fabrication of all of their pots and holiday decorations this past Wednesday. They had a specific request for red, in any form we might manage.  I understand that. The winter landscape in Michigan is varying shades of brown set against interminably gray skies. Our winter daylight is watery and wan. Some of my favorite shrubs and trees feature a red berry set for the winter.  A well grown stand of Michigan holly (ilex verticillata) in full berry mode electrifies our winter landscape. Funny this – I have a love for red in the landscape at the visually hungriest times of year.  Red tulips in the spring are such a welcome and cheery burst of color. A plan for red in our winter landscape is equally as celebratory. Our second year red twig dogwood bunches are especially beautiful this year. We rarely have the opportunity to purchase old growth red twig of this caliber. The thick stems are heavily branched, and arch outwards as if they were still growing. Long faux berry stems zip tied to the natural twigs make a big statement about winter red. Our winter and holiday container arrangements are as much about sculpture as they are about nature.  We know whatever we fabricate has to endure a entire winter’s worth of windy and snowy weather, unfazed. A construction site in our garage means we are able to recreate natural and graceful shapes that are able to endure the worst of our winter weather.

Our clients have one container that is 42″ by 42″ square, by 40″ tall. This is an incredibly large container that is home to a tree sized banana plant over the course of the summer.  Of course the size of a container asks for an arrangement of a proper and proportional size. The centerpiece for this pot needed a good deal of mass and volume. A galvanized tomato cage was perfect for zip tying individual cut stems of second year red twig dogwood all around the outside to create the illusion of great mass. It took 8 bunches of fuchsia eucalyptus to match the scale established by the height and diameter of the dogwood centerpiece, and the size of the container.

The upper galvanized steel ring of the tomato cage is evident in this picture. Topiary forms, or in this case, a heavy gauge galvanized tomato cage, can provide a key sculptural element to a container. I am grateful for topiary forms that enable my mandevilleas to climb skyward during the summer. Those forms can be strung with lights and grapevine for the winter season. In this case, the tomato cage provides an unseen structure for the twigs. Am I concerned that I can see this top ring? No. As you will see in the following picture, this pot is viewed from afar, rather than up close.

Not all tomato cages are created equal. Rob buys very heavy gauge galvanized steel rod cages in a variety of sizes. They provide significant support for vines, and in this case, twigs.  This very large container has a centerpiece appropriate to its size. The fuchsia and red echoes the late fall color of the hedge of the oak leaf hydrangea “Ruby Slippers”.

I asked Dan to take this picture down into the centerpiece from high on the ladder. The red twig is zip tied to the form at the soil line, and again 2/3rds of the way up. This takes some time to do, but it insures that the twigs will stay put throughout the winter. Illuminating this centerpiece from within would take a lot of light, so we installed four strands of 25 count C-9 incandescent lights.

The greens were liberally dosed with Lumineo LED light strands. Barely visible during the day, they will do a great job of illuminating the greens and exterior of the centerpiece at night. This pot will light up a fairly dark spot on the driveway all winter long.

The four boxes at the front door feature lots of that winter red. Marzela stuffs the noble fir into dry foam in the studio, and David constructed all of the centerpieces. The centerpieces are secured with steel rebar and concrete wire. The bottom portion of the foam form is wedged into the box.

 Marzela adds the last element to the pots on site.

The red/red violet seed pods on stems provide a transition from the greens to the centerpiece, and conceal any zip ties from the centerpiece construction. The greens are deliberately shorter in the center, so the entire centerpiece can be seen.

The lighting of the pots comes last. The light fixtures on the house are large, but their light is more glowing than illuminating. The lights in the pots will brighten the entrance walk with lots of light.

David and Dan rewind all of the strands for the pots, so they are easy to install.

The bed to the right of the walk is already planted with tulips for the spring.  It is planted with seasonal plants in the summer and fall.  This year, my clients requested a winter vignette with cut trees and grapevine deer, to add to the festivities. The trees were lighted in the garage before we brought them. The heaviest concentration of light is on the trunk. The lighting on the branches is lighter, both in density and color. The Lumineo strands are designed to be as unobtrusive as possible. That design works. It is hard to spot them during the day.

This is the finished installation, as seen from inside our box truck.

the finished front walk

At 5pm, the natural light has all but faded. The length of the exposure taking the picture intensifies the light more than what it looks like in person, but you get the idea.

Their landscape is ready for their holiday, and their winter.

The Beginning of the Winter Season

Our winter/holiday season began the moment that our cut greens arrived. Why so early? The daughter of a long standing client is to be married this Saturday the 18th. Lots of family and friends from places far away will be attending.  I promised that her winter pots would be done before the first of their out of town guests were scheduled to arrive. On the face of it, that seemed easy enough. To say we carry cut greens is an understatement. Our west coast grown greens are premium length and fine quality boughs that permit us to provide the proper scale and density to our winter pots.

Those greens were scheduled to be delivered this past Monday. But on Monday, our driver was still in Nebraska. Shipping delays are not that unusual, but I had a deadline that had no wiggle room.  I talked to my client, and assured her that the moment those materials arrived, we would be on her project.  Tuesday morning we were breaking in to the 40 pound boxes of greens as they came off the truck. Wednesday morning first thing we were ready to install.

All of the work of our winter containers is done in the stockroom/garage at Detroit Garden Works. The materials for the centerpieces are arranged around and zip tied to a stout bamboo pole. That pole gets driven down into the pot with a padded mallet once we determine the exact location for that centerpiece. That long stake driven down into the pot provides ballast that keeps that centerpiece perfectly vertical.  Of course smaller pots get smaller stakes. The greens are cut to the length we need, and sharpened at the ends before they are inserted in thick dry foam forms.

Those double layered dry foam forms are cut to the interior dimensions of the pot in question. The bottom layer is inserted into the container.  The top layer stands proud of the rim of the pot.  This enables us to stick greats horizontally – a look which is graceful and natural coming over the edge of the pot. Once the greens in the form are wedged into the pot, and the centerpiece set, we add lights. Winter pots provide an opportunity to light that dark time of year.

We exclusively use Lumineo LED light strands available from Detroit Garden Works for our winter containers. The strands are so lightweight, and entirely flexible. I can easily hold a 110 foot long strand in one hand. They drape beautifully. The lights are shatterproof – stepping on them does no harm. You can count on 50,000 hours, or at least ten years of longevity. The dots of light are set on top of long black green stems. This design makes it simple to hide the lightweight wire, and have the lights proud of the greens. They come in a range of lengths and light densities. They also come is a classic warm color mirroring the color of traditional incandescent strings, or a warm white which is a clearer and brighter white.  These LED light strands do not have the fire power of traditional incandescent winter and holiday lighting, but they make up for that in longevity and economy. Interested in more firepower? Try the cluster lights, which are set very close together. They draw so little power, that they eliminate the need for timers. Detroit Garden Works has switched over to this lighting for its signature light rings.

Great technology can be incredible, and shipping can be delayed, but foremost, our first winter project was very personal. We chose materials that seemed celebratory of a very special event. My client was happy about those materials, and the lighting. I put all of my crews to getting the work done. I was so pleased about the look.  I fluffed this, and rearranged that, but by and large my crew did a terrific job of rising to the occasion.

This pot at the corner of the garage features glass drops attached to a weed tree much like what we did for her 9 years ago. She brought the box of drops to me a week ago.  We added some drops, given the size of a weed tree on our landscape property that we cut for this particular pot.

My client took me through her entire house so I could see the views out her windows. She explained to me how the views from inside to the outside meant so much to her. Seeing the landscape from inside out for the first time was a revelation. I have done lots of landscape work for her. Yesterday, I understood what she sees. What I understand from our first winter installation is that what is personal and important is precious.

 

The Winter Landscape: Plant Hardiness

Plants are very specific about what soil, light and water conditions they need to thrive. Any gardener who has moved a sulking plant around 3 or 4 times before striking pay dirt understands this. It is simple to spot a plant that is unhappy.  Figuring out the cause of the trouble can be tough, as there are so many factors that come in to play. There are those plants, in defiance of every good intention and effort to find them a suitable home, that fail to prosper. I have killed outright plenty of plants. Given that every plant has a strong will to live and reproduce, those failures are frustrating and embarrassing. Figuring out what a plant needs to thrive is 2 parts science, 2 parts luck, and 6 parts good instincts. The hellebores in the above picture look unhappy, as they always do in February. They like the filtered sun, protection from wind, the friable soil and regular moisture that is available to them here in the growing season. They have what they need to thrive. What they do not like in February is the cold. Before any plant in a Michigan garden can thrive, it has to be able to survive our winters.

Plant hardiness zones indicate a worst case low temperature for different parts of the country. The USDA, in compiling data from weather stations, and factoring in mitigating circumstances which can influence low temperatures, has produced a plant hardiness map. Interested in that map making process?  mapping plant hardiness    It gives gardeners an idea of what the lowest average winter temperature can be in a given area. The hardiness map is a guide that can help gardeners select plants which are appropriate for their area. My area is at best a zone 6, and at worst, a zone 5b.  This means that plants that are able to withstand low temperatures in the -15 to -10 degrees should be able to survive in my garden. That includes these ratty looking  hellebores. Last year’s foliage may be burned from cold and wind, but they are very much alive, and waiting for some signs of spring.

The key to survival in very cold regions is dependent on that plant slowly going dormant over the metabolic slow down that we call fall, and a constant deep dormancy throughout the period of very cold weather. What the hardiness zone map does not provide for are weather events out of the norm. We have had temperatures in the 50’s and 60’s for a week. On February 18, the record high for that day of 62 degrees set in 1976 was eclipsed by a 65 degree day. One or two days of weather that warm might not affect any plants that are still dormant.  The frost is deep in the ground. But the days are staying warm. We have a low of 56 forecast for overnight tonight. Now I am starting to fret. It is too warm, way too early. Under that winter foliage, I see signs that the hellebore flower stalks have begun to emerge.

hellebore A plant breaks dormancy for a constellation of reasons.  Longer day length and warming temperatures are key. No plant reacts instantly to a brief change in conditions. But a change that persists is an invitation to wake up. Hellebores are greatly prized by gardeners everywhere. I do favor helleborus orientalis hybrids for my zone.  This group of hellebores, now known as helleborus hybridus, are bred from hellebores commonly known as Lenten roses. This group generally begins blooming in April in my zone 6 garden. Hellebore hybrids featuring the genes of Helleborus niger, commonly known as the Christmas rose, naturally bloom at a time which is winter in my garden. Do I have inter generic hellebores in my garden that would prosper better in zones further south?  Of course I do. I am always pushing my luck. I have had great success growing plants marginal to my zone. But nature is unpredictable. Nor does she care a whit for me and my love for my garden.

snowdropsOur bitter 2014 winter turned my zone 6 into a battle zone 4. None of my magnolias bloomed. My parrotias sustained extensive die back to their upper branches. My roses were killed back to within a foot of the ground plane. My clematis sputtered. My 20 year old boxwood had unbearable damage. It was a sobering experience, to say the least. Any plant marginal to my plant hardiness zone suffered damage of one sort or another. The winter of 2015 might have been worse. On February 20, 2015, the temperature in Roscommon Michigan was -39 degrees. The statewide average for that day was 18.5 degrees below zero. The damage done to evergreens these two back to back vicious winters was extensive. But those plants that were safely dormant managed to survive. The snow drops showing their faces yesterday worry me.  65 degrees in February is an anomaly.  The cold weather will return. How much cold can their flowers endure?

magnolia stellataOf course I am anxiously checking all of my early spring blooming plants.  This magnolia stellata was a 2 foot tall tree the day I bought my house twenty some years ago. It has prospered where it was planted.  It did not bloom in either 2014 or 2015. Its hardiness was sorely tested by a pair of bad winters.  The flowering in 2016 was a happening.  I am trying to decide if our warm weather is encouraging the buds to swell.  Not that I could intervene. Mother nature bats last. I am reading we have some night temperatures in early March in the teens.  Though I am ready to wash my hands of winter at the end of February, March is a winter month for us. Any early spring plant which is breaking dormancy right now may not fare so well in March. This is more a worry than a certainty.

Late this past summer, I replanted my rose garden. Though I know there is a limit to their hardiness in my zone, it is better for me to start over, than to do without. That was a personal decision, not a decision driven by a plant hardiness map. As for the dogwoods, I hope they will be able to endure a freakish warm spell in the middle of winter. No small part of the winter landscape are plants that endure.

 

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Ornament In The Winter Landscape

Though a landscape that is striking in all of the seasons largely depends on the confluence of a great design, interesting hard scape and thoughtful choices of plant material, I would venture to say that ornament in the landscape plays an especially vital role in our winter. The plants are welcome to be the star of the show every season of the year, as they should be. The walkways, driveways, and terraces facilitate flow, and provide places for people to be a part of it all. The 4th season in northern landscapes have a regional set of challenges. All the deciduous plants sulk in the advancing cold, shed their leaves, and go dormant for the winter. The trees stand firm and skeletal in the winter; the trunks and branches are indeed very sculptural. The branchy remains of shrubs and perennials rattle in the wind. This seasonal plant sculpture is not by choice. A gardener might say there is no meat in this scene. The evergreens are indeed green, but they can have a stiff and stoic look in their glazed over and embattled winter state, quite unlike their lively spring to fall life. The walks, terraces and driveways meant to welcome people into the landscape disappear under scarcely an inch of snow. The ground plane is at best obscured, and at worst, buried in our winters. Winter in Michigan is not so easy a season for gardeners. Long suffering is a phrase that applies. But there are ways to help mitigate that grief. Garden ornament?  By this I mean any object with a distinct profile that has a year round home in a landscape. Any object placed in the landscape that is marked by shape, mass, personality, memory, and persistence endows the winter landscape.  I am talking about those garden ornaments that have both a physical and emotional presence that cannot be snowed in, or grayed out. They are all the better for a coating of ice, or a hat of snow.   Pots, fencing, arbors, statuary, furniture, sculptures, fountains, architectural fragments, fire pits, bird baths, armillary spheres – all of these garden ornaments have a surprisingly lively and welcome life in the winter.

Those of you who put your garden furniture in the basement for the winter might consider this. The heat and relentless sun common in the summer season is much harder on garden furniture than anything the winter season might dish out. I leave my garden furniture out all winter. Though it is unlikely I will sit out in the winter, garden furniture is ornamental in the winter. That furniture can organize a view, even though the terrace upon which it sits is snowed under. The memory of the summer season warms the winter landscape. It may be that how I visually react to my summer furniture out in the winter landscape is stronger than my summer view.  In the summer, my terrace furniture is about its use.  In the winter, that furniture is a sculpture that speaks to the future.

This pergola with a wood roof and stone pillars was built to shrug off off anything the Michigan winter has to deliver. It is successful in that regard. The winter pots dusted with snow are landscape ornaments set at eye level that warm both that pergola, and this landscape. They counter the winter with the evidence of the gardening hand. An ornament selected for a garden or landscape is first and foremost a personal choice. Though I dressed these pots for winter for a client, it is her aura that enlivens this winter landscape.

To follow are a group of pictures of what I call ornament in the winter landscape. They that tell a story far better than I ever could. I rarely have cause to visit a client’s landscape in the winter. But when I go, I am struck by how garden ornament can improve, organize and energize the look of a landscape gone dormant.

A container, and an arrangement to go with for winter, can provide a focal point for the landscape that might be more welcome and more striking than that same container planted for summer. The winter season can be a good gardening season. It just asks for more. I would not want to be gardening in any other place than where I am gardening. Even in the winter.

Window boxes mounted outside a sun room, and dressed for winter.

a  terrace in winter

a Branch fountain in winter

a bench and pots in the winter season

birdbath in winter

sculpture in the winter landscape

urn dressed for winter

bench with snow pillow

winter containers loaded with snow

pots dressed for winter with a dusting of snow

Ornament in the winter landscape can be supremely satisfying. I was right behind Milo this winter day. We both liked what was there to see.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save