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.

 

 

Noxious Cold

Like a good bit of the rest of the US, we were invaded by a particularly noxious and extreme cold usually confined to the northern polar regions. Fierce winds usually keep that cold where it belongs, but on occasion, that cold travels our way. In early December it became apparent that we had bitterly cold weather coming up. The first order of business was to clean out all of the fall plantings in those pots that were due to have winter arrangements, and take the soil level down four inches from the top. The floral foam form would sit on top of that lowered frozen soil. The form would be anchored into the soil with bamboo stakes, or steel rebar. Pounding a stake down through frozen soil is a good bit easier than chiselling out frozen soil. Three weeks worth of installations were accompanied by this relentless cold. Never have I been happier that we do most of our fabrication for the winter pots in the shop stockroom.

The evergreens in my garden have no where to go, and no other option but to endure. A gardener can provide their evergreens with regular water in the fall. An evergreen with juicy stems and needles is an evergreen dressed properly for the weather. Once the ground freezes, the plants will no longer be able to transmit moisture from the roots to the needles. An evergreen that goes into the dormant season dry is poorly positioned to deal with desiccating winter winds and sun, and the inevitable loss of moisture from transpiration. The water that evaporates from the needled foliage of this yew cannot be replaced until the ground thaws.

That many evergreens have needled foliage as opposed to leaves is a survival mechanism, courtesy of nature. Each needle has a relatively small surface area from which moisture can evaporate. Leaves are poor conservators of water, as they present so much surface area to sun and wind. It is no wonder that deciduous trees and shrubs drop their leaves in the fall.  Carrying a full set of green leaves through the winter would most likely be deadly. At the extreme other end of the spectrum, cactus have evolved to have spines in place of those leaves that are so ill equipped to conserve moisture. Those spines do collect water from rare rains, which then drips down to the roots. Water in some degree is essential to the life of plants. I may let plenty of things go in the garden, but I do water. Plants that do not get the moisture they need are stressed and vulnerable plants.

Of course our long run of cold has me worrying about the boxwood. They are broad leaved evergreens. Those leaves readily desiccate in extreme wind and cold. They are prime candidates for winter burn.  A drench of anti desiccant such as Vapor Gard on both the tops and the bottoms of the leaves coats the surface with a waxy natural compound of pine resin that reduces the evaporation rate. It is amazing what a difference an anti desiccant can make. Any evergreen planting I do after the middle of August gets Vapor Gard ahead of the first winter. It is very inexpensive insurance against disaster. The above picture was taken in April of 2014. These 20 year old shrubs were killed outright from the extreme cold we experienced in the winter of 2013-2014. Double digit below zero temperatures for days on end proved too much for them. The 100 inches of snow we had went beyond insulating them to overloading them with branch cracking weight.

A boxwood disaster is rarely apparent before April. That makes it easy to fret over them all winter.

This day was a heartbreaking day. That day in April made it obvious that the west end section of this old hedge had perished. It succumbed to a once in a lifetime extended cold well below its hardiness limit. The entire summer of 2014 I drove by so many hedges of dead boxwood still in the ground.  I could not have looked at dead plants day after day, and month after month, but disbelief, grief and denial can be very powerful.

Do I think the extreme cold spell we have just had will kill my boxwood? Our coldest temperature was 6 below zero. This is not cold enough to kill a zone 5 shrub. It was cold enough to make me dress from top to bottom for bone chilling cold. I limited the time the corgis spent outdoors. One morning at 4 degrees below zero they came in limping after 3 minutes outdoors. Cold feet. But I do not believe it has been cold enough to seriously damage the boxwood.

Once we finished removing the section of dead plants, we placed big Branch pots in front of the bare ends of the boxwood. It would be every bit of several years before the dead spots and sections would recover from this winter. Note that the tulips coming on sustained no damage from the extreme cold. They were completely dormant, and below ground. Sub shrubs such as lavender, that have live branches above ground in the winter, can be very difficult to winter over.

We did finally get the window boxes and 2 pots in front of the shop done up for winter. They feature cut boxwood twigs stuffed into dry floral foam.  After just a few days outdoors, they began to show the signs of leaf shrinkage from evaporation.

Even the backs of the leaves show signs of stress. As long as these cut stems were packed in wax coated boxes, and not exposed to sun or wind, the leaves were glossy and plump. Once exposed to the weather, they reacted as expected. Fortunately boxwood leaves stay green even as they dry.

I am sure we will have burned and dead tips on these plants come spring, but I expect them to recover.  32 degrees this morning-what a relief.

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.

 

More Of The Winter Work

Every Saturday from the first week in November until just before Christmas, I pose a question to my landscape crews. The closest answer to the right answer wins a cash prize. The prize money goes up as the weeks go on-as well it should. The work of doing holiday and winter containers, lighting, and holiday decorating is hard work that requires considerable attention to detail. The design comes first. Then all of those elements that contribute to the construction. And then the installation. Then we start that process all over again-fresh. The staying fresh part is the hardest part. I am very lucky to have a group of people who go after the gold, day after day, for weeks.  That gold?  Excellent and thoughtful work.

My last question before the Christmas holiday was “How many winter and holiday containers have we done this season?” I never want to start the season with a run down of all the work we have ahead of us. We all know we have lots of work, but handling that work one day at a time is how we like to do things. So I wait until we are close to the finish to broach the topic of volume.

199 pots got filled this season, by my count. Salvador won the prize with a guess of 178. Would I subject you to 199 photographs- heavens no. But to follow is a good number of pictures of some of our work this season.



Almost done.