From Start To Finish

Once in a blue moon we have a client who decides to buy new pots in December. The process from purchase to finish involves a series of steps, the first of which is the placement. Installing pots in a bed, rather than on a hard surface, is not all that usual. But in this case, I think my client made a great choice. Starting over is an opportunity. For her, and for me. It took us a few days to put everything together, but our idea was to stay on the project from start to finish.

These substantial pots were set to be placed in a pair of beds that once held some very unhappy plant material.  By large, I mean 36″ tall, and 36″ in diameter at the top. The first order of business was to level the ground they would sit on, and provide a way for the pots to drain. Given the size of the pots, elevating them on bricks seemed like a good idea.

There is measuring and more measuring involved in this phase, because none of us want to try and level or center a large pot that is full of soil, and a winter arrangement. Empty pots are the easiest to move around.

The centerpieces needed to be big and tall, to be proportional to the size of the pots. A group of tall birch poles would provide plenty of substantial height. We filled the pot with cypress bark mulch to the center rib on the outside of the pot, and set the birch poles directly on top of that bark. Having a very heavy centerpiece set this deep in the pot will help keep it secure and upright. Few things seem so forlorn as a centerpiece listing out of vertical from stormy winter weather. Once the centerpiece was set, the pot could be filled with soil.

It would not be possible to fill the pots with soil if we set the greens first, so the greens placement was out of our regular order. It came after the setting of the centerpiece. The top of this centerpiece would never fit through the hole just big enough for the birch in the center of the form. The copper curly willow we added to the birch was about 3 feet wide at the top. So we sliced the greens form into two halves. Marzela set the greens in a way that made it easy to cut through her work.

Of course cutting the form in half impacted its strength. The weight of the greens on the outer edge would eventually pull the form and every evergreen stem inserted in it to the ground. Gravity is a force to be reckoned with. The cut form needed some ballast close to the centerpiece.

We secured each half with a pair of long steel rebar poles pounded in at an angle opposite to the downward force of the heavy side.  The rebar sits above the form about 5 inches. Concrete wire was wrapped around the four pieces of steel several times.  This will keep the forms anchored, and just about foolproof once the soil freezes.

We added eucalyptus to that space between the greens and the centerpiece. That plum red is a beautiful foil to the color of the copper curly willow. We zip tied individual stems to a bamboo stake. That slender stake is much more successful an anchor than the individual stems. We also had the option of setting the stems at an angle out, rather than straight up and down.

We also added extra short stem of the willow to the base of the centerpiece, so the hole in the foam would be completely filled. Gaps between the centerpiece and the opening in the foam are an opportunity for the stems to shift. Shifting stems mean trouble.  Once the pot is finished, we look for a tight fit for every element. It should be clear by now that the engineering plays just as big a role as the design.

Once the pots were close to a finish, the lighting could be added. That lighting will do a lot to illuminate this front terrace.

I left the centerpiece visible from top to bottom from the road side view. That seemed like a good idea. We wrapped the centerpiece with its own string of lights. The lighting plays such a big part in winter pots. A few bags of soil covered the bricks elevating the pot. We were just about finished.

Our client felt a second pair of smaller Branch tapered pots nearer her front door would complete the look she was after. The last of this installation was about companionship. We were happy to oblige.

These smaller scale Branch pots near the front door completed the project. They are smaller, but just as robust.

picture perfect, in my opinion.

Stick Work

 

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Mid November is a good time to be planning what you might do to interpret the garden and landscape for the holiday and the winter.  Early is the best time to get going on a scheme.  The most compelling reason has to do with weather.  The past few years, our late fall was very mild.  Mild means it is reasonably easy to work outdoors.  A really cold late fall makes so much work of any installation outdoors.  For those gardeners that do their own work, dramatically cold fall temperatures is enough to make anyone consider skipping the winter work altogether. 

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My advice-don’t skip any experience of the garden.  Plant roses, peonies, trees, and wildflowers.  Plant bulbs in the ground, or in pots.  Grow topiaries and espaliers.  Plant clematis and tomatoes.  Take a liking to asters, and amass a collection.  Make enthusiasm for the garden and landscape a way of life.   Plan to express a winter idea-you will not be sorry.  On and off, we have had extremely cold temperatures in November.  The temperature today when I came to work was 20 degrees.  This is unseasonably cold, but by no means unheard of.  I remember those years when we had to chop frozen soil out of pots in order to install a winter arrangement.  Should night temperatures this low persist for much longer, our winter installations will be arduous.  Tough conditions in the landscape are my problem-not my client’s problem.

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If your winter garden is all your own to create, I would urge you to get dressed, and get out there.  The forecast for our coming weekend calls for 50 degrees both days.  All you need for a stellar winter arrangement in your pots are some great materials, a load of lights,  and an atmosphere in which you have time to concentrate.  Once I am in the process of stuffing a pot with sticks for the winter, I do not much notice the cold.  The fresh cut branches we bring in for the winter season shrug off the cold-why shouldn’t I?  I spent the entire day today outdoors, installing our first winter/holiday pots of the season.

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Stick week-we take possession of so many beautiful fresh cut twigs.  The stick work is what comes next.  Those sticks can be bound together.  They can provide the bulk and mass of a beautiful centerpiece. They can be stuck into the soil, one at a time.  They can provide the stalk of a great winter topiary for a sideboard in the dining room.  They can be woven around a form.  Our bunches of fresh cut twigs delight and challenge me, in the beginning of that season when the landscape is going dormant.  I find that the best antidote to loss is taking on the responsibility for a life that goes on.  A gorgeous winter garden helps to take the sting out of experiencing a garden going down for the winter.

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Nature provides a backdrop which is always interesting, and regularly spectacular.  Figure in the wind, the snow, the sunny days, the gray days, the cold, the ice, and that special quality which we call natural.  I have always posted entries to this online gardening journal of mine in real time.  This year, my idea is to pose the questions, post the pictures, and speak to the season, ahead of time.  In time for a reader to have time to consider all their options.  Rob loads in all manner of materials for the holiday and winter season.  I shop what he stocks at Detroit Garden Works for my projects.  Sticks, picks, greens, garlands, magnolia, grapevine, sinamay, weather proof ornament-his selections are beautiful.  Better than the beauty is the depth.  He takes great care to represent a wide range of interests.  Gardeners comprise a very big group with very diverse interests. Rob aims to engage each and every gardener.

First National holiday 2013 (53)

We do anticipate the season to come-we have to. Rob and I shop for the holiday to come the previous January.  We order materials in small numbers.  We hope that each gardener will draw from a large group of a limited stock of materials to create a holiday and winter that produces an original and personal result.  The order we place for sticks for your works happens in August.  The holiday display at Detroit Garden Works takes weeks to create.  We think ahead, so you do not have to.  But this year, the weather may close out early.  Our winter usually commences in January sometime.  I am thinking the winter will come early this year.  There is much stick work to do.  If you plan to harvest materials from your yard, or from the roadside, or the empty lot next door-now is the time.

holiday-containers.jpgThe curly copper willow that we installed in 12  pots downtown today is exuberant.  Lively. I do so like the warm color.  All of those curly stems are airy in a way only nature could create.  Our part was to put together an arrangement in which the twigs would celebrate winter season in a striking way.

container-detail.jpgOur expression of the winter season for this client is a relationship forged from cut twigs, fresh cut greens, dyed kiwi vine, sugar pine cones, gold sinamay, and fresh cut magnolia.  Any expression in the landscape revolves around a conversation.  If you are a gardener, you have a voice.  The season is another voice.  Nature is the first and foremost voice.  Multiple voices-harmonic.

holiday-container-arrangement.jpgAll the voices interacting-love this.

winter-containers.jpgYour winter season-love it up.

 

The Glamorous Bits

I had a comment some days ago from a reader named Carol.  She wondered if I could talk about some ideas for adding some glamorous bits to winter containers.  Ilex verticillata, or Michigan holly, is my first choice for a glamorous addition to a winter container or garland.  That said, I find the berries on the holly will wither and fall like crazy, unless they are treated with Vaporguard.  Vaporguard is an antidessicant, much stronger and more effective than Wiltpruf.  I have some first hand experience with this.  Holly we sprayed with vaporguard was effective on those berries through February of last year.   

Without an antidessicant spray, holly berries will drop, and drop early.  These orange holly berries are new to me; we sprayed them upon delivery.  Paired with red bud pussy willow, there is a lot going on here visually.  The color is beautiful.  If you live in Michigan, you know that our winter color palette is about grey, more grey, and a dry brown.  This color is juicy, and saturated.  Glamorous.  Crabapples can fruit heavily, but even the “fruit persistent” varieites will drop, or be raided by birds early in the winter.  I would recommend seeking a little glam from other sources.  

 

Rob collects materials, and takes them outside to look at them.  He may revise his choices 5 times, before he commits to anything.  The big idea here-hold all of your materials in your arms, and decide if you are crazy about what you see.  If a combination seems to fall flat, keep looking. 

Rob finally decided on the following-the orange berries and bleached leaves contrast dramatically. Breathtaking, this.  The tall bleached sticks strongly contrast in form with the grey branched hackberry stems.  The combination of colors and forms here is truly beautiful.  

 

 This combination of materials lit from within by a string of garland lights-garden evening wear.  Garland lights?  We stock strands of lights that have 300 bulbs set in a 17 foot length.  This makes for lots of fire power, and not so much cord.  This is my light string of choice for winter containers.   For the holiday or winter season, turn up the heat.  Make a plan to light up the night.  It may be your most glamorous gesture comes at night.  I encourage all of my clients to light their winter pots, and keep the lights on all winter.  Why not?  That light is cheery, hopeful- dramatic.      

I am having a milkweed seed pod year-that grey and honey brown coloration is beautiful; the shapes of the pods on the stems-even more beautiful.  Were I to glam up these dry stems, I might choose platinum branches.  These are birch branches, sprayed a subtle silvery grey.  These branches can add a little sparkle to a milkweed winter arrangement. 

Faux red berries-every gardener hates them.  Until they take them outdoors.  Nested into a centerpiece of branches, they are jewel-like.  No bird will make off with them.  No winter storm will destroy them.  Make no mistake-faux berry stems look their age at the end of the winter season.  They age, as the winter goes on.  This aging is a good look.  They look so much more natural, in that dulled-down state.  But over the holidays to come, they sparkle.  Bright red at the holiday-everyone notices.  

These faux white berries are spaced sparsely on the branches-they have a natural look.  From a distance, they are entirely believable.  Each stem is individually wired.  Move them around.  To insert a branched faux stem into an arrangement without putting your hand to arranging each arm is what makes them look fake, and out of place.  Arrange those faux stems.  

These white berry stems make no effort to copy any real berry stems-but I still like them.  They look great in contemporary arrangements.  They add scale to a more sparse berry stem.  Working several stems together that are the same color can be very effective.  Effective?  Any expression that brings a smile to your face, or warms your heart-effective.  Winter sustenance-decide how you plan to represent this. 

Faux berry stems with sparkling crystal bits can add considerable glamour to you winter arrangements.  The degree to which you want to dress up-this is up to you.  If what the garden leaves behind is enough, there are materials.  If materials suitable for a cocktail party is enough-there are other materials. If a floor length sequinned gown is your idea of celebrating the holiday and winter, there are materials out there.  The materials are out there, for you to choose.  Choose.