Homing In On Winter: Part 2



Growing amaryllis in glass jars on a window sill is one way to keep the spirit of the garden going on in the winter months.  That said, gardeners like me are hard to persuade.   Those who insist that the garden is over at that moment we have a hard frost are selling their inclination to garden short.  Very short.  A gardener’s point of view is strong-all year long.  It doesn’t much matter whether you garden in Austin or Olympia or Chicago or Miami-a love of the garden can electrify a life.  Garden on-everyone.  If you garden in my zone, there are those “other six months”-like them or not. 

This might be my most favorite container I have ever planted at home.  For sure, it is my most favorite photograph of one of my containers.  How I loved how this looked, and how I regretted watching it succumb to the cold.  These Italian pots are in the basement now.  It is a quiet time for them.  Time for me to move on.

The winter season has its opportunities.  Winter arrangements in frostproof containers not only help stave off the off season blues, they are a delight to the eye.  Our shop is very busy-constructing winter gardens that reference the garden.  We produce an enormous amount of work for clients between mid November and mid December, but this post is not about my work.  I am interested in in passing along what all of that work, and all of that contact with people keenly interested in the garden, has taught me.  The upshot- every gardener has options.  All year round.  Every season.    

The moment any gardener decides to make something -and by this I mean envision, create, construct, edit, and install-is a good and satisfying series of moments.  As heartbreaking as it is to watch the garden go dormant, it is equally exciting to have a winter gardening season asking for a gardener’s best effort. Feeling low?  The best counter to that is to make something.  Make something be.  Make something happen.    

Winter container arrangements speak the language of the garden.  More importantly, they scoop up, engage, and occupy the heart of any serious gardener.  Be generous.  Go large.  

Those topiary forms that over the course of the summer that provide a form for hyacinth bean vines or mandevillea can provide a structure for winter lighting.   Lighting in the winter-essential.  Should you garden in my zone, the dark at 4pm is soon to come.  Light up the night.     

These pots are stuffed with greens.  Fresh evergreens.  In the center, variegated English boxwood.  The steel topiary forms are detailed with lights.  The time it takes to create a winter arrangement like this is time very well spent.  The process of coming to grips with the winter is every bit as important, maybe more important, than the passing of the summer garden.  Change is not so easy, but change is essential.

How do I handle the garden going dormant?  I get busy.  I decorate for the holiday-and the winter.  It helps sooth the sting that begins with the first hard frost.

Fresh boxwood is available at your local farmer’s market.  This 54 inch wide boxwood wreath-a request from a client.  Hew plans to decorate his client’s home in a big and positive way.  Spend more time making your winter season beautiful. 

Whenever I am making something, I am happy.  My advice?  Get busy.  Make something.  Make something beautiful.  I promise-the winter will fly by. 




Something In The Air

Given our warm weather last week, I foolishly expected to sense some sign of spring in the air. This foolishness on my part will happen at least 6 more times before nature finally decides to change the channel.  The weather report duly noted that we had already had our average quota of snow for a winter-I was feeling home free.      

What began as a few big flakes escalated into a driving rain of flakes in a matter of minutes.  I am looking out the window of my office this past Sunday afternoon-incredulous would accurately describe my reaction.  Who told me this was on the way?  I moved on to avoiding paying any mind to what was in the air-I had a bigger mission.  My beloved camera had disappeared.  How so?  Every winter, I close the shop except by chance or appointment, between January 15 and March 1.  How else could I clean, repaint, rework, and refresh?  That camera-no doubt I had laid it down somewhere in all the confusion-but where, exactly?     

On my fifth tour of the building, I find my camera.  I rush outside; it is snowing heavily, crazily-fast and furious.  I take lots pictures.  I have friends and colleagues who are professional photographers.  They would not dream of taking their camera out in the rain, or the snow.  I have a different take.  My camera is a tool whose images help me see, design, record.  More importantly, I am not a skier, bobsledder or figure skater.  Taking these pictures-winter recreation.  So far, so good.       

Strong winds blew over the outermost concrete pots in front of the shop-this is a first.  These pots weigh 600 pounds when they are filled with dirt.  Not long after that gust, heavy snow began to bury them.  No matter how patiently and efficiently I design, nature holds and is not shy about playing her trump cards.  Any exposure to nature-a sobering experience.  Anything that blowqs over in a storm stays put, until the wind moves on to some other city.   

Frozen water in the air-a natural experience should you garden in the snow belt.  Any landscape needs to have room for that big natural gesture that defines their zone.  Gardeners in northern climates know what I mean.  Early freezing.  January thaws. Chilly Mays-snow flurries early in June.  Unexpected winds.  You gardeners in Oregon, California and Georgia-you have your issues-different than mine.    

The entire landscape at the shop has gone to white, taupe, and black.  The red glass holiday balls are way past that holiday season, but they comfort me in February.  That color is a relief.  It was also interesting to find out that ornament meant for a tree indoors is perfectly happy outdoors in extremely cold and wintry weather.  Not that I needed to see any more snow, but heavy snow in the air is not only beautiful, it is entertaining.    

Red tulips dominate my spring neighborhood landscapes.  I am not there yet-spring is a long ways off.  But this dash of red keeps a certain fire burning.  I was relieved that above freezing temperatures had removed the snow load from the boxwood. Just in time for more snow.    

That relief was short lived.  After close to an hour outside, I realized I had locked myself out of the shop.   I walked many blocks to a friend with a phone; Buck picked me up, and took me back to the shop.  The corgis were glad to be rescued-but not nearly as glad as I.  Sorry to say-my winter persists.       

It does not really seem like news at all, but this is what we have going on-10 inches of unexpected snow.

Holiday Diorama


I have one room in the shop from which I removed the solid roof, and installed the roof of an abandoned glass house.  Many years later, 15 creeping fig plants have completely covered the walls. In early spring this space provides protection for tender plants.  The summer sun shining down and through the glass roof endows this space with heat.  This hot space encourages the fig, tender begonias, tropical ferns-not to mention all of the gardeners that appreciate this growing space.  A concrete fountain built from an old French design sits on top of the one place we could not remove the concrete floor next to the wall for the fig; an old concrete waste oil tank sits below the surface.  So we built over it; the sound of the water in the space is great. I have water, light and plants in this room, year round.      

When the growing season closes, Rob makes the moves it takes to move on. How can this green wall be transformed?  He invariably has a big idea I do not see coming.  Hundreds of white birch sticks have been stashed in the garage for better than a month-waiting to be transformed into a birch forest holiday diorama.  If you are wondering if we really talk this way-holiday diorama-the answer is yes.  What you give a name to helps to endow an idea with an identity.  Brooklyn Botanical Garden is a name that says science; La Foce speaks to romance and magic.  

Chocolate terra cotta squares-they are Rob’s idea for a home for the birch.  How can we get those heavy branches to sit up straight?   My landscape superintendent Steve Bernard suggested Rob might sink those birch branches in washed sand.  This worked perfectly.  Every birch stick is standing tall; anyone wanting a birch stick for there own holiday will have no problem lifting out the sticks of their choice.  Steve made his contribution to the display early on. 

Rob knew to buy stout white birch poles, silver snowflakes in various materials and sizes, and snowballs.  Putting them together in this particular way involves introuducing the materials to each other, and to a space.  This is a romantic description of what is really about persistence.  He hauls materials all over the place until he sees something that he likes.  So much of successful design involves persistence and patience. 

The relationship of the materials is easy to believe; where there are snowflakes, snow balls cannot be far behind.  A visually successful arrangement is believable.  I do have a neighbor down the street with a life size lighted palm tree in her front yard-this would not be for me.  The contrast of texture, shape, and mass is pleasing. The white against the dark green of the fig wall looks good.

At the last minute, Rob had Catherine add stars to the mix. How this wall looks now could not be more unlike its summer appearance.  The dramatic change is enchanting.  Every person who sees it takes something away from it that is all their own. I had a lengthy discussion with one person about the cultural requirements of Himalayan white barked birch.  Another person planned to use a birch stick as a rod over her kitchen window, and hang ornaments from it like a valance.  Yet another planned to mass snowballs and snowflakes in a white washed vintage box on her front porch.  Our discussion was primarily about how she would light it.   

Of course we needed some lighting; daylight savings time means the dark comes early now.  White and chartreuse light garlands warm up the space on a cold and gloomy afternoon.  A midwestern summer garden can be sunny from dawn to very late in the day.  A winter garden is divided between day and night, and always about not so many sunny days.  A great holiday display takes lighting into consideration. 

Anyone can garden in the winter.  There are plenty of materials that can be arranged in those pots that held tree ferns over the summer. A favorite bench can be lit from the front with a spot light, or from below with strings of lights strewn on the ground.  Decorating a garden with holiday or winter lighting is an alternative type of gardening, but gardening none the less.  There are those gardeners that are relieved when a hard freeze puts an end to the season.  There is something attractive about putting the spade and pruners away for a while, but I like to keep on gardening.

Shedding Light On The Situation

Kiriluk Christmas 2006 (1)This sassy arrangement of winter pots reminds me much of the client to whom they belong.  She has an eye all her own, and doesn’t mind using it; this makes it easy to design for her. Tall thin woven planters make a forest of the porch.  The distinct curving silhouette of the fantail willow makes a saucy statement up top in the large willow baskets.  Four smaller roughly woven grapevine planters get a topping of twigs, chubby grapevine wreaths and chartreuse netting.  Smashing.  

Kiriluk Christmas 2006 (4)Lighting the twig baskets themselves is unexpected and very effective. Multiple strings of mini lights with brown cords make it clear even during the daytime,  that strong seasonal lighting can create a special look all its own.  This big dose of lighting fun can’t help but make one feel better.   

Hudas (36)The summer plantings in these boxes, and pots are a welcome contrast to the stark and edited landscape. This picture makes me sigh just looking at it-this garden moment is a memory now. 

2007 Hudas HOLIDAY 12-13-07 (4)The winter demands a whole new set of materials. The effect is more formal, and more subtle.  The landscape still looks finished, even though the garden has gone down.  Having the energy to pursue a project at its end with the same energy evident that I had at the start has much to do with the success of a design. 

Hudas christmas 2006 (2)The lighting adds a dimension that responds to the fact of our quiet and dim winter season. Is there a need to give in-not so much. 

Baumgartner1 (15)The quiet and graceful arrangements in these containers rely on an interplay of color and texture.  The subtle reverie of pale blue eucalyptus and yellow twig dogwood contrast with the highly textured white pine.  The dusting of snow is so beautiful. Weather plays just as important a role here as it does in the greater landscape. 

Baumgartner1 (4)The lit topiary sculptures make another statement all together.  Dressed for an evening out, these topiaries have the added bonus of bathing the entire porch area in a warm winter glow.

chicago05 in store (6)The transition from fall to winter can be a bleak one. This old finial looks chilly, now that the leaves have dropped from the lindens.   

2008 store front 1-1-08 (12)
Fortunately nature has a way of providing her own special brand of winter light.  The white snow catches and reflects all the available light however litlle there might be-even at night.  Though I have been known to complain about the 6 months I have to spend gardening alternatively, in truth I would not give this season up.  The snow cloche-lovely.