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.

Merry Christmas From Milo

The work run up to Christmas this year had its ups and downs. We were fortunate to have a good many great winter and holiday container and decorating projects. That every one gets done one thoughtful stick at a time means each project takes whatever time it takes. Though we were at it 6 days a week for better than 6 weeks, it became clear we would not finish all of the work before the holiday. The clients whose work will be done next week are not concerned, for a variety of reasons. They were fine that the finish would be later than usual. I was not so easy accepting that state of affairs. I like to finish what I start, on time. What I would have wanted was not to be. The best laid plans do not always work out, do they? I was not so happy that we would be late. One morning last week Dan insisted that he and his crew would be installing a lighted Christmas tree in my side garden. He knew before I did there would no time left over for me to do anything else at home.

He waved off my protest. I am grateful to him for that. I can see this tree out of all 3 rooms on the south side of my house. Prior to this, I should say it is very unusual for Christmas Eve to arrive on a Sunday, and Christmas on a Monday. We had enough work done at the close of the day on Friday the 22nd that I sent my crews home for the holidays. Three days off would be good for all of them. They have worked their hearts out-I can speak to that. The shop would be closed Christmas Eve, meaning I would be home both Sunday and Monday. The snow started about 1pm on the 24th, and did not stop. It was quiet and steady, and then heavy and steady. The Christmas tree inside was decorated, and my presents wrapped and ready. Those ensuing hours were mine, to watch that snow coming down. The weather was not extraordinary, dramatic or visually demanding. The skies were not booming. Those skies were that pale gray that hinted of a lot of snow in the air. It was a quiet and tranquil affair. Over the course of the day, the landscape became draped in white. I was able to watch that unusual Christmas Eve transformation in peace and quiet.

I decided I wanted to take a picture of that tree in the side yard. That would give me a chance to try out a new knee length winter coat, and new snow boots. Of course, Milo wanted to come along. Howard prefers his cozy bed, so we left him behind. I was enchanted when I reached the stairs going to the side yard. It is very hard to give up the gardening season, and that big pot that is always full of flowers all summer long. As I only replanted roses on the south side 2 years ago, that single pot, a surrounding formal arrangement of boxwood, and a pair of chairs is all that draws me to that upper level in the summer. Once those flowers in that large pot fade, and it is too cold to sit in the garden, I shudder for what is to come. I am sure the reason that I have spent better than 10 years keen to learn how to create container arrangements for the winter is a reaction to that loss. It was my landscape super Dan who banished any feeling of loss. That tree, in that pot, in the falling snow, was as beautiful a moment as I have ever had in my garden.

I took a lot of pictures to start. Milo was the steadfast companion that he always is. He picked a spot, and settled in. I settled in, too.  I was warm and dry, so why not wait to see what would develop when the late day light would start changing? We both had coats, boots and gloves. We stayed.

By this time I had completely forgotten about that winter work that was yet to be done. I was home for Christmas – much to our mutual satsfaction.

It was at this moment that I remembered why I became a gardener. The natural world is a world to which I belong. Sometimes I need to be reminded of this. I remembered my membership today. This Christmas Eve day long snow was a great gift from nature. The gifts from nature are legion, aren’t they? That steady snow brushed away all of my concern about the work yet to be done. I was home in my garden. What could be better?

There are those gardening moments that are perfect moments. This was one of those moments.

Buck’s son Stryker could not imagine why I had been outdoors so long in a snow storm. He took this picture of me. The out of doors is a place for me to live, breathe and be, oh yes. I am happy for this picture that says so.

Milo kept me out until just after dark.

That lighted tree from inside? A brightly shining Christmas moment. A landscape and garden moment. The view out the window was a happy view indeed.

Later, that tree is still shining. Merry Christmas!

This post was written in honor of, in recognition of, and in special appreciation for my landscape superintendent, Dan Sass. Merry Christmas, Dan.

Merry Christmas, gardeners all!

The Finishing Touch

The moment I saw this winter project, I knew a lighted garland wrapped around the front door surround would bring all of the winter elements together. A garland attached to that limestone surround some 25 feet off the ground that would describe the entrance to this home is the stuff of fairy tales. I told my client it would take a lot of people and equipment to make this happen. There would be no ladder tall enough and safe enough for an installation at this height. Expecting her to say no, she said yes. Given her go ahead, Templeton Building Company was kind enough to send out four sections of scaffolding, and two of their people to set screws in the mortar over the doorway, and down the sides. Four of my crew met the two from Templeton early one morning.

I was not especially happy about the process. The scaffolding was on wheels, for starters. Really? It got built skyward, section by section, until it was high enough to provide a place to work. Would I want to be up there working? No. Was I worried about each and every one of them climbing this expanded ladder to the sky-yes I was. It only took Matt 40 minutes to set the screws that would hold both the magnolia garland, and the light garland. So far, so good. My crew on the ground delivered the materials to those people who were aloft.

Once the screws were in place, LaBelle made his way up the scaffolding, hauling one end of the magnolia garland. David LaBelle is a leading fabricator for my company, the Branch Studio, and he has no fear of heights, or scaffolding. I cannot imagine how that can be, but he seemed relaxed about it, and I knew he would be entirely capable of wiring on the garlands. As the scaffolding was but 7 feet wide, we would have to install one side of the garland at a time, and then move the scaffolding to the other side.

The top surface of the top layer of scaffolding was only one board wide. LaBelle was not in the least bit concerned. The best part of all of my companies are the people who make things happen. Our group of 20 something has varying skills. The variety of work we are able to do depends on this.

Once the first sections of garland came down the right and left side, I knew the big effort to set lighted garland over this two story doorway was a good idea. The final sections of garland could be attached from a ladder.

Once the magnolia garland was secured, the light garland went up next. The garland is 50 feet long overall, and is comprised of a 100 foot strand of LED C-9 lights, and a 100 foot strand of Lumineo mini LED lights, each folded in half, and twisted together. Frequent zip ties keep the twist from unraveling.

LaBelle was ready to take this light garland up high. The LED lights represent a vast improvement in exterior lighting. This garland is amazingly light weight. LED’s now have a quality of light very similar to warm incandescent lighting.  They consume very little power, and are economical to run. But the best feature for us is the fact that the light covers are plastic – not glass. They are shatterproof.  So no harm if you drop them, or bang them against a brick wall. When first introduced, the big bulb LED lights were very expensive. 1 25′ strand would run 27.00. That same strand is less than 10.00 now.

The lighted magnolia garland over this door is beautiful – day and night. The backs of the leaves echo the color of the brick and wood architectural elements.

From the drive court, the scale of every winter element looks appropriate. From the ground plane to the sky, this winter landscape has a lot going on. That lighted magnolia garland better than two stories up over the front door does not look too big or overly elaborate. It is fairly simple, just sized to fit.

From the far side of the drive court, some rare late day December sun describes a landscape and garden ready for winter. This winter landscape has volume, structure, texture, mass, -and most importantly, lighting. A routine winter day in Michigan is gray.

Once the December light fades, there is a garden to be seen of a different sort. Light your own winter landscape as you wish. I would suggest that any effort you make to light the landscape is well worth the effort.