The Stick Crop

natural-twigs.jpgThe most glorious color award in the landscape must surely go to the fall season.  From the asparagus to the sweet gums, color is in the air.  The green of the evergreen shrubs and trees is all the more intense by contrast with the colors sported by the leaves of deciduous plants.  Once those leaves fall, the landscape takes on a much more subdued and subtle palette. The natural birch branches, honeysuckle vine rolls, grapevine deer, wood crates and pumpkins in the above picture are one shade of brown or another.  The bark of the linden is a gray variation of brown. So much brown!  The garden is going quiet. For every gardener unwilling to go quiet, the branches, twigs and poles available late in the fall can offer a new lease on a garden life.

red-curly-willow.jpgFor those gardeners who live in more northerly zones, the time between the last of the fall leaves and the spring crocus can be a very long time indeed. This means that the shrubs and trees that sport bark with great color are of great interest. Planning a landscape for winter interest is a good idea in my zone. My dilemma-space.  I have a very small urban property.  I run up against the limits of the space all the time.  Given a large property, I could have swaths of red and yellow twig dogwood, groves of bungeana pine, a group of London planes, and all manner of interesting willows.  Lacking that kind of space does not mean that I have to do without some winter color.        red-twig-dogwood-bundles.jpgI am fortunate that there are farmers in this country that grow certain species of shrubs and trees from which they harvest cut branches. Our shipment of cut branches arrived a few days ago.  The colors are astonishing.  The dogwood branches have glossy bark in a variety of shades of red and yellow.  The curly copper willow is a yellowy orange.  The flame willow is the color of cinnamon. The red bud pussy willow has a glossy dark red brown bark, and red orange buds. This color and bark texture destined to last throughout the winter- so welcome.

red-twig-dogwood.jpgThe species red twig dogwood is dull and dark red. Cut from the garden, this dogwood has small branchlets, and cream colored growth scars. New cultivars of dogwood sport clearer and more intense color than the species.  Spring Meadow Farms has been instrumental in offering great new cultivars of vibrantly barked shrubs to nurseries.  Dogwood which is grown for branches is at some point cut back near to the ground. This process is known as coppicing.  The English have been growing shrubs and cutting them back hard with the express purpose of harvesting the branches for fencing for centuries. A shrub that is cut back hard responds with vigorous new growth.  The straight and unbranched new growth provides the best color, and the glossiest bark.  The red twig dogwood “Cardinal” has the most brilliantly red bark of any cultivar I know.  The color of these branches is as luscious as a red tulip.

pussy-willow.jpgPussy willow is an enormous growing shrub whose main claim to fame is the fuzzy and silvery spring catkins that sally forth in the spring. But pussy willow branches are a gift to a winter landscape. We buy the cut branches at 6 feet tall or better.  The green and chocolate bark, and the orange red buds are sensational.  So how do I use these glossy barked and beautifully colored branches?  In containers at the front door.  On the mantle for the holidays. Over the door.  They can be woven into wreaths. In any application, they are a lively reminder that the harvest from the garden can endow your winter seaso..

red-bud-pussy-willow.jpg A casual bunch of branches has a more informal and traditional look. They pair well with other materials available for the season-grapevine, evergreen boughs, pine cones, dry hydrangea flowers and berries-even the sturdy remains of perennials from the garden.  Ornamental grasses, cut and fixed to a bamboo stake make a graceful foil to the more substantial branches.

yellow-twig-dogwood.jpgAn arrangement of fresh cut branches can have a very contemporary look, placed vertically in a container. The height is a welcome addition to a winter container.  Stems stuck into soil may very well root and sprout in the spring.  The willow leafing out means the branches can be part of a spring container planting.

cut-twigs-and-branches.jpgThe branches are beautiful this year.  They make an enormous visual impact in a winter landscape with minimal color.poplar-poles-and-grapevine-rolls.jpg These poplar poles are much bigger than a branch.  There are places where barked poles are the perfect thing.  A celebration of the season in whatever style and shape suits you.

twig-time.jpgDetroit Garden Works is a source for branches, twigs, poles, and other natural materials in November.  These materials help to make the celebration of the winter season all the better.  These branches can help make a winter landscape all the more beautiful.




The Shop Winter Garden


The shop landscape is very simple.  A rectangle of boxwood set in a generous plane of decomposed granite, a pair of Techny arborvitae bookends, and a pair of lindens is about all there is.  These plants, almost 20 years old, occupy a modest percentage of the overall space.  This means there is room for a temporary, ephemeral, and seasonal garden expression.  Gardening in a zone which features four distinct seasons is a challenge and an opportunity I would never want to do without.  The chance to start fresh given the change of the season-love that.  The holiday/winter garden is no different.

The inspiration is almost always driven by a natural material that catches my eye.  This year, the curly copper willow branches are incredibly beautiful.  The color is rich and saturated.  The stems are fat and juicy-there is no hint of stress from the drought they endured all summer.  They have a distinctly fresh fragrance.  Each stout stem was topped with a cloud of delicate branches-breathtaking.  I ordered extra, so I would have enough to do the garden in front of the shop.

What would I do with them?  Fresh willow is incredibly flexible.  One could make baskets, fencing, wreaths-just about anything the eye could imagine, and the hand construct.  But I wanted a structure that would permit those thousands of tiny branches to make their own statement.  I use these steel forms at home to give my asparagus some support-I knew they would be perfect.  Attaching the thick stems, one stem at a time to this form, would provide stability without interfering with the natural form and inclination of the branchlets.   

Zip tying each branch was time consuming, and not so easy.  Each stem needed a friendly neighbor.  My landscape crew does a superb job of all of my landscape installations-their seasonal winter work is no exception. They are not only incredibly talented and willing, they have an understanding of natural forms that comes only with many years of exposure to plants.  They never force anything to be.  They let the material dictate the construction, and the overall shape.  They use whatever they need to make the overall shape complete-even if that means I need to order more.  

The douglas fir boughs have been stuffed into dry floral foam, some 6 inches thick.  The bottom 3 inches are wedged into the rim of the pot.  The six inches above the rim are a home to all of the boughs that are set horizontally.  A form this high off the rim of the pot needs reinforcing.  4 pieces of steel rebar are driven through the corners of the foam, and into the soil in the pots.  Once the soil freezes around that steel, it will take gale force winds to dislodge the curly willow. 

A cloud of copper willow and a low wide base of douglas fir- this year’s holiday/winter expression.  The time it takes to construct what will go on in these pots all winter is time I don’t spend moping about the closing of the garden.  Should everything come together, these pots will make a statement about what is good about the winter season.  A customer in the shop yesterday lives in San Francisco.  He tells me the climate and weather is the most consistent and unchanging of any city in the US.  Though he misses the change of the seasons, he does not miss the gray skies.  He is right.  Michigan is one of the grayest and gloomiest  of all of the states in the winter.

So a good part of our winter garden is about turning the lights on.  The light garland draped over the empty window boxes is comprised of three different strands of three different types of lights.  The weight of multiple light strings twisted around each other makes them drape gracefully-they are heavy.  Inside each willow cloud is a spot light, wedged into the floral foam.  A collar of dry limelight hydrangeas flowers conceals it from view.  The spot light illuminates the willow from within.  How I like this idea, and and how it looks.  A light garland would around the base of the willow illuminates them from the outside.  A pair of ball and cone topiary froms are wound solid with ordinary garden variety mini lights.  Ordinary materials do not have to be used in an ordinary way.  

Having turned the lights on, I have no idea what I will do with this next.  Part of the joy of a winter garden is having the time to tinker with it.  The spring and summer garden-I am always running to try to keep up.  This and that always needs something.  Though I have a lot of work yet to come helping clients with holiday and winter containers and decorating, there will be time to figure out what else this garden might need.       

Early this morning, a first dusting of snow.  As my winter is most assuredly on the way, I would rather like it than not.


Coppice Wood

Coppicing is a traditional method of producing long straight woody stems by cutting a tree or a shrub back to the ground.  Many varieties of woody plants respond to this drastic treatment with vigorous growth-from the ground.  Coppice wood was used to provide firewood in European countries where the number of trees were vastly outnumbered by a large population requiring fire for cooking and heat.  Shrubby trees wre planted on the perimeters of farms; regular coppicing produced densely twiggy living fences.   

The new shoots emerging from the stump of a tree grow long and straight.  The juvenile growth is vigorous, and the color is vibrant.  In England, the coppice wood from the sweet chestnut tree is still used to make fencing and fence poles for livestock and poultry.  The sweet chestnut is coppicied on 12 to 18 year cycles, and then harvested to make fencing and gates.  The poles come from coppice wood which is allowed to grow upwards of 30 years before cutting. 

The fresh cut twigs which arrive at the shop in early November are grown by farmers who plant their shrubs in rows or blocks, like crops.  Large fields are harvested in rotation, so every year there is a crop of long straight stems.  Many of our twigs come from varieties of salix, or willow. Every gardener knows that the new or current year’s growth on a red twig dogwood shrub has the best color.  Mature stems become woody, and the color dull.  The new bark of coppice wood is lively.  Newer cultivars of the redtwig dogwood have better and brighter color.  The coppice wood of this redtwig dogwood cultivar is known for its especially brilliant color. 

Once the leaves fall, those twigs which are ready are harvested, sorted by length, bundled and shipped.  Most bunches are 10 stems, except for the curly willow.  The winter color of curly willow stems is subtle, but no so its shape.  The curving and curling stems provide lots of volume-these voluminous bunches are usually 5 stems.  5 stems of this gracefully airy and unpredictably curving willow can endow a winter container arrangement with lots of rhythm and movement.

Coppiced yellow twig dogwood is brilliantly yellow green.  The twigs will be color fast the entire winter.  Used in a winter container, it is not unusual for the stems to root, and leaf out in the spring.  Though but a very few of the leaves are still clinging, the branches are vibrant at a time of year when most all else in the garden has gone dormant. 

Flame willow is a striking coppery orange in color-quite unlike the bark of the trees and shrubs that grow in my garden.  This warm cinnamon color is a standout in snowy and gray weather.  This variety of willow is much more handsome in its twiggy state than it is as a green-leaved shrub. 

Japanese fan willow was cultivated from a fasciated, or flattened natural stem.  Many perennials and shrubs will exhibit this peculiar characteristic.  Some azaleas that exhibit densely twiggy growth were propagated originally from fasciated stems.  Fan willow is noted for its exotic shapes and forms.  No two branches ever look the same.

Curly copper willow exhibits much the same habit of growth as the green curly willow.  However the striking color means it will take fewer branches to make a statement in a winter container.  Our coppice wood has arrived at just the right time.  The cold temperatures outside will help keep them fresh, and the surface of the bark glossy.  Thought the color will survive the winter perfectly intact,  the warm weather in the spring will eventually dessicate and shrivel the stems. 

But there is a place for dry stems in winter containers.  Dead wood branches that have shed their bark can be beautiful in a winter arrangement.  Bleached natural branches are dramatically pale in color, and are visible from a great distance.  

The coppice wood-just one element of many that goes into a beautiful winter container arrangement.