The 2020 Winter Pots Part 1

I have been writing about the design, construction and installation of our winter pots in great detail for a good many years. I have done so for several reasons. First and foremost, I believe the transmission of knowledge and process is something every person should do, if they are able. I also think that our approach to the work is unique, in that we treat the arrangements as sculpture. To see the sculpture in them is to understand how we design and make them. I am all for beautiful winter pots in evidence everywhere. Beautiful container sculpture in the winter landscape enriches everyone who sees them. All of the elements have to be integrated at a finished size-as winter pots do not grow. They endure, over 4 or 5 months of the toughest weather we have – the winter.  Like a great landscape, a great winter arrangement depends on it’s interior structure. But designing the structure comes after all of the other design decisions are made. Consider every element your would ordinarily consider, designing a container-as in color, shape, texture, line, mass, volume, and proportion. But my first consideration is always the materials.

I am certainly a spoiled brat when it comes to materials. Rob shops all year round for what ends up being a whole store’s worth of beautiful materials. I can do all of my shopping in one convenient location. (yes, Deborah Silver and Company purchases its materials from Detroit Garden Works) I can find faux picks of every description and style, from astonishingly natural berry picks, to glamorous gold plastic grasses. The picks come in all lengths, most of which can be fluffed out, shortened, elongated via a bamboo stake, or cut up – depending on the intended design. What is available to me, and everyone else who shops the Works? There is a wide array of natural fresh cut willow and dogwood branches in a variety of colors, textures and heights. One of my favorites are the densely twiggy and dark alder branches. Magnolia branches in varying lengths and leaf sizes are a specialty of the house. Fresh cut greens include the giant leaved German boxwood, noble fir, pine, juniper, incense and Port Orford cedar, and variegated boxwood-by the bunch or by the case. Rob buys in a considerable collection of exterior lighting that can easily be integrated into a winter arrangement. There is nothing quite like a pair of winter pots lighting the landscape. So what materials will get chosen for a particular pot?

The materials I choose has everything to do with the taste of the client. Everyone likes something different. Sometimes I just stand in the shop and watch what people pick. Since one of my crews does the display at the shop for holiday and winter, I have plenty of time to become acquainted with what we have available. More often than not, what I do at home has to do with what materials are left the end of December. I really don’t mind this, as something beautiful can always be done with beautiful materials.

But where I do make decisions about materials has to do with how they relate to one another. Some colors are eye catching or rhythmic together. Very dark colors paired with white make for some drama. Similar colors make for subtle relationships. All the same color can shift the focus from the color to the overall form of the arrangement. Some color pairings cancel each other out, or vigorously clash. All colors are beautiful-they just need proper accompaniment. And who decides what’s proper? It’s a matter of taste. If I see a client going off the road and into the weeds, I will say something. That’s part of the job. But plenty of times I have been surprised to see what I never thought would work very well turn out lovely. That’s why more than one pair of eyes on a project can be a good thing.

This collection of red and white materials contrasts strongly, but I know that once it is outside, and nestled in a bed of noble fir, it will look festive. Once the greens have a dusting of snow, it will look like a holiday is going on. A consideration of materials is very much about how those materials will look outdoors in their intended home.

Even though I have lots of choices for materials, it does not mean I want to use all of them in the same pot. Once materials are chosen, it’s time to edit out those materials that don’t add something significant to the relationshIps established by color, shape, texture or mass. Editing is the most difficult part of designing. If there are 10 materials you can’t do without, do 2 or 3 containers instead of one.

There is certainly something to be said for a huge mass of one material. In the case of these blueberry colored picks, the subtle color will not read unless you use lots, and the pot is likely to be viewed up close. 20 of these picks out in the side yard will not read. Nor will a hundred. The small size and moody color will go gray with the distance. Up close to the front door, the subtle color can be appreciated.

Natural materials have a vibrancy and glow that cannot be replicated with a faux pick – no matter the skill of the manufacturer. I like to design around natural materials in one form or another. Most of the winter containers we do are predominantly natural materials. They are after all, an expression of the winter garden. But that is not to say that a little outright fakery might not be just the thing to bring an idea to life. Or that the investment in a collection of faux berry stems could not grace winter pots for a number of years to come.

These gold plastic grass picks do beautifully mimic the form and airy texture of real ornamental grasses, with the added attraction of a little winter show and shine. The technology and manufacturing behind the production of these picks is sure evidence of the human hand. And they can be used year after year. The durability outdoors is truly remarkable.

green and white fuzz picks

These.platinum picks would be beautiful with fresh cut poplar or beech branches.

concord grape picks

snowball picks on very long stems

short stemmed blueberry picks

Not the least of my embarrassment of riches is a giant heated garage, with room to fabricate even the most complicated arrangements. Having a warm space to construct is the ultimate luxury. A bitterly cold environment is not an ideal place to work. Even an unheated garage provides shelter, so concentrating on the making is possible. I can always tell when my fabrication crew is focused on their work. The talk drops off, and I doubt they hear what is going on around them. Providing an environment that is friendly to the work is essential to what we do. I say that, as we do hundreds of winter container arrangements every season-in a fairly short period of time. We need a place to be to do all that.

For those who do their own winter pots, it is possible to set up a temporary work station in a garage, or on an enclosed porch. Maybe there is a spot outdoors that is out of the wind. A decent place to work invariably results in more thoughtful work. It is likewise important to properly position the work. I would take the time to elevate the piece I am working on, rather than bend over it or sit on the floor. The set up time is time well spent. A favorite client has us lay down a tarp near her front door, and bring her pots inside.  Once she has filled them, we take them back outside and place them. That service from us helps to enable her to enjoy making her winter pots. For pots that are impossibly heavy to move, consider constructing in a liner that can slip down into the pot, out of view. Anything done in too big a hurry tends to look hurried. Making the effort it takes to provide for a place to work indicates that the work has importance. This is why people have sewing rooms, music rooms, garden sheds and potting benches. They provide a place to work.

We did pop these centerpieces in their intended containers in short order. We do drive slender bamboo stakes down through the arrangement in 3 or 4 places, so a gust of wind does not carry them off. Larger and heavier centerpieces have a different construction protocol, which I will address in part 2.

Our first container arrangement of the season, ready for winter.

Fall Front And Center

Just think about it. The summer gardening season begins to wane, and every passionate gardener begins to fret. The letting go is not easy. I know I dig in my heels and ignore the obvious signs of the passing. Letting go is actually incredibly difficult. Just the thought that close to a year will pass before summer comes again is just cause for a gardener’s grief. But nature has a way of scooping up the remains of the previous season, and recasting them in a dramatic reinvention of the season to come. Any gardener who has observed the process of leaves abandoning their juicy green for a whole host of fiery fall colors understands this: The evolution of a summer season into the fall is an extraordinary pageant. The anticipation of a new and exciting season to come helps mitigate the loss of the old one.

We plant lots of containers in celebration of the fall season. I am often asked about how long they will last. That question always seems tinged with an unspoken belief that the fall is a shorter season than the summer. Just as the winter season is perceived to be longer than the spring season that follows it. How gardeners adore the summer and dislike the winter. What comes in between the two is short lived, and therefore inconsequential. Well in fact, each season lasts a full three months, which is certainly a long enough time to enjoy them all. Though a beautiful landscape matures and provides interest in every season over many years, planting seasonal pots and displays are satisfying in the moment to create and enjoy. Beautifully planted and tended containers enhance any given season in a very personal way. Suffice it to say that Detroit Garden Works had 2800 various cabbage and kale grown for our fall season-we have very few left.

For some, the fall season is a favorite. Hot sticky weather is a thing of the past. The air is crisp, and breathable. The play of long low shadows against the landscape is especially beautiful. And of course there is the color. The most gorgeous in full bloom perennial garden in June is glorious, but a landscape in full fall color is spectacular. There is vibrant color everywhere you look, from the tops of the tallest trees, to the hostas coloring up on the ground. The evergreens in the landscape stand out in strong and stoic contrast. The last hurrah is nature’s most beautiful opera. I hear trumpets, don’t you? We try to express the bounty of the harvest with lavishly constructed centerpieces, and a variety of cabbage and kale grown to enormous size. Overstuffed pots are a very good look this time of year.

David is every bit of 6′ 3″ tall. That gives you an idea of the size of his creations pictured above. We have added some cream colored faux seed head picks and orange preserved eucalyptus to the mix.  Bunches of bare sticks provide a framework to hold all of the other elements aloft.  I have no idea how much these pieces weigh, but they are too heavy for me to pick up. They will be secured in the container with steel rebar and concrete wire.

The centerpieces are scaled appropriately to the size of the container. Large containers can make a huge statement in the landscape, but to fill them takes lots of material.

The centerpieces that seemed so large in the garage shop just seem proportional to the pots.

Not every centerpiece is of such a grand scale, and some container placements are in more intimate locations. But a smaller scale does not need to imply less impact.

Once these Osaka Pink cabbage color up, this container will come in to its own. The centerpiece is constructed of mahogany colored curly willow sticks, and two kinds of faux picks. Rob takes great pains to order in picks that have some reference to the garden. Some have very natural shapes, and others sport reproductions of seed heads that are remarkably evocative of the season. It is entirely conceivable that the cabbages will look fine in to January, as they are extremely cold tolerant. An ornamental cabbage in full color and coated with frost is quite beautiful.

This centerpiece is much more fanciful. This is for a household with children who are all in for Halloween.

The Halloween decor will look great with these pots.

This centerpiece is comprised of a bluish green preserved eucalyptus, arching stemmed picks studded with blue beries, and some rather stunning picks in the center representative of clematis seed heads.

Even up close, all of the elements are convincing.

fall pots garnished with Ruby Queen cabbages

blue door

It is a tribute and a indication of David’s great skill that is is able to achieve great height from bunches of bleached willow twigs that come 4 feet tall. It takes lots of patience and careful construction. In spite of all of the technical issues, he is able to create fall displays that appear incredibly graceful and natural.

brilliant, this.

fall container with Rosebud cabbage

Not all of our fall pots have centerpieces. There are places where they would not add much to the mix. These contemporary Belgian stoneware pots frame the view of the landscape and the front porch from the sidewalk. Everything about the beauty of this pot has to do with beautifully grown material whose care is entrusted to Lisa. She makes sure that the plants get adequate water and food. And the careful placement and intertwining of very large plants handled by Karen and Natasha. The leaves of mature cabbage especially can crack if improperly handled. They make what is a difficult planting look effortless.

To follow are a few pictures of some of our fall container arrangements. I hope you enjoy looking at them as much as we enjoy creating them. There is no need for containers to sit empty, once the summer season wanes.

Bewitching!

The 2020 Hydrangeas

The hydrangeas in bloom this year have been beyond gorgeous. I have never seen them better, and I have been growing hydrangeas for a long time. The object of my affection and admiration are white flowering varieties that bloom on new wood. Blue and pink hydrangeas that bloom on old wood – this would be the bigleaf hydrangeas, or hydrangea macrophylla –  are not truly bud hardy in my zone. Unless they have a mild winter, whilst mulched from the soil level to the tops of the branches, the flowering will be sporadic and disappointing. If yours bloom profusely and reliably in Michigan, then count your blessings. The whole point of hydrangeas in bloom is the sheer splendor that comes from abundance. A happy hydrangea is so loaded with blooms the slender stems of the shrub will bend over from the sheer weight and volume of them. If you must have blue hydrangeas in all of their splendor,  then pack your bags for Nantucket, and read no further. The Bobo hydrangeas pictured above have astonishingly good care. The entire bed is on drip irrigation – essential when hydrangeas are in full sun – and that irrigation is monitored and updated frequently. I am quite sure they are fertilizing in late winter/early spring. Some apply Hollytone, by Espoma, or a slow release balanced fertilizer. The reward is an ocean’s worth of greenish white flowers.

That is not all. Later in the season those blooms will turn towards pink, and then rose pink. The fall display is every bit as beautiful as that in late summer. Add the yellow fall color on the leaves, and you have a visual treat that is quite spectacular. A good shrub provides interest in the garden over a long period of time. Hydrangeas are particularly generous with a long period of bloom. I leave the flower heads intact over the winter – why not? That cinnamon brown color is strikingly beautiful. Of course there will be those blooms that break off and blow around, but that cleanup is manageable.

This hedge of Limelight hydrangeas was planted for a client at their restaurant many years ago. I want to say at least 10 years ago, probably more. I am quite sure that they get watered; my clients takes great care of all of their plants.The soil is that typical Oakland County Michigan airless and non-draining clay-we planted them well above grade for exactly that reason. I have no idea what pruning and feeding care they get, but I can say their maintenance company was not permitted to work this year until May. So the spring care was fast and loose. Behind me in this picture is Woodward Avenue – a main road with 3 lanes going both north and south. It is packed with automobile traffic around the clock, in the 45-50 mph range. I would say the hedge is 25 feet off the road, and endures plenty of exhaust in the summer, and an equal amount of road salt in the winter. This commercial planting is stunning.

hydrangea Little LimeThis hedge of Little Lime hydrangeas is relatively new-it was planted 4 years ago. The flowers are at that fresh green stage, as they are just beginning to bloom. This exposure is westerly, which is a great location for hydrangeas. They need at least 6 hours of sun a day to bloom profusely. I am astonished at how many articles I read that suggest that hydrangeas do well planted in the shade. I have seen plantings in shady areas that range from sporadically blooming to passable, but I have yet to see a hydrangea thrive in shade. Of all the hydrangeas, the oak leaf is the most shade tolerant. Tolerant is the key concept here. No flowering plants, with a few exceptions, love shady conditions. They tolerate them. Find a sunny spot for your hydrangeas. These Little Limes get occasional supplemental water.

I get no end of questions about spacing. I have seen spacing recommended anywhere from 3′ to 8′. This hedge was spaced at 3 feet on center, with 2 rows of plants in staggered positions. The bed is 9′ in depth, and the Little Limes have filled that right up. An 8′ spacing on a Limelight hedge will produce a series of shaggy ball shapes. A closer spacing will produce a more uniform look to the hedge. I think spacing is primarily a matter of personal taste. If you are willing to wait a few years for a group of hydrangeas to grow together, then space them out. If you are after a densely growing hedge then space them closer. If there is a specific space to fill, then space to fit that particular space. Do I think one spacing is superior and produces more healthy plants than another – sun and water being comparable – ? No.

I have 2 blocks of Limelights at home that have been in the ground for close to 20 years. They were spaced at 30″. They have been healthy and heavy blooming every year. I have had Japanese beetle damage to the leaves, and scorch when I didn’t water enough, but they perform the same as a group spaced at 4 feet apart. I can vary the style and extent of my pruning every year, and not be able to see any difference in the blooming plants.  A good friend has planted and maintained miles of blocks of Limelights in the median on a major north/south road in my area.  They are the best blooming hydrangeas I have ever seen, in a year of great blooming hydrangeas.  I asked her about the care. They routinely feed with Hollytone, and they do water. The only difference this year was that they did not prune as hard as usual. Do I think this made the difference in the performance?  Maybe, or maybe not. Do I think the weather conditions were perfect?  Our season has been very hot and dry. Would I expect this to be great for hydrangeas? Not really.

Hydrangeas will tell you when they need water. Those big thin leaves clinging to the stems-as in the above picture of a hydrangea on standard – is a clear SOS. I do err on the side of water generosity, as I believe that plants stressed from being too dry perform at a less than optimal level. Newly planted hydrangeas need very careful monitoring for water. They grow so fast that most potted plants available for sale are root bound. If that root ball goes dry soon after planting, it is of no consequence how wet the soil is a foot away. The hose needs to be aimed directly at the crown of the plant.

This is all by way of saying that insofar as gardening with hydrangeas is concerned, various approaches to their cultivation can produce healthy and beautiful plants. They are so versatile in the landscape, as this pair of pots planted with Limelights can attest. Most and best of all, they are forgiving of neglect, and respond strongly to attention and care.

I have been enjoying them for weeks now.

A Good Year For Zinnias

Planting the summer garden in front of the shop this year was more about less than anything. Every supplier of seasonal plants was inundated with customers from the very first hint of spring. Plants I had custom grown, labelled sold, and roped off for gardens to be planted in June were a constant target of gardeners anxious to provide both beauty and interest to their outdoor spaces early in May. My plants needed feeding, watering, and a watchful eye. My grower sold through his entire June crop in May. He was not the only one. Astonishing, this. No wonder my stock of reserved plants looked inviting. I am not a fan of planting tropical plants in cold soil. But choosing to wait to plant had consequences. Needless to say, we were scrambling for material the entire month of June, and July was even worse. By the time all of our client’s work was complete, it was well in to July. So we planted the front gardens with what was left from what we had custom grown. Several varieties of white zinnias and angelonia “Steel Blue” would just about fill these steel raised planter boxes.

For the border, we managed to find some white petunias, and mixed them with the double pink cascade grandiflora petunia “Orchid Mist” – also custom grown for us. Those frilly petunia puffs are reminiscent of the tissue paper flowers made for homecoming floats in the 60’s. Given that association, it’s easy to see why those plants had not been snapped up sooner. Their habit of growth is awkward, lanky, and lax. The dead flowers persist on the plants for a long time. In spite of their shortcomings, I like double petunias. Every seasonal plant has their place in the sun. Paired with a stiff growing plant that can provide structure and support, double petunias in pink or white can be plenty gorgeous.

It was not surprising that we still had tall growing zinnias available in June. They cannot be planted too early in the greenhouse, as once the seed germinates, they grow fast. Timing crops to be ready when the weather permits and people want to shop is the black art of the greenhouse growing business. No planting crew wants to haul annuals to a jobsite that are 2′ tall in a four inch pot. I want my zinnias short and stocky. So the large growing zinnias were not available until later in the planting season. Few gardeners have the self discipline to delay planting a summer container until the zinnias are available.  Who would risk it, knowing the other plants to go with might be sold out by then. I am familiar with this logistical problem. If zinnias are well grown, and at a perfect stage to transplant, they are green. Meaning the plants are not in flower. A bench full of zinnias is an ocean of green leaves. If you are looking for a particular color, you have to read the tags. All these things work against the zinnias flying out the door. It is not really a May-ready plant.

For as simple as the big flowered tall zinnias are to germinate from seed and grow, they are heir to no end of troubles. If you are interested, see the following from the Handbook of Florist’s Crops diseases, pages 1-31.  common fungal and bacterial diseases of zinnias  Some growers want no part of this trouble, and chose to grow only disease resistant varieties such as the Profusion series. Gardeners don’t care for high maintenance annuals either. Lisa M, who does a terrific job of maintaining our seasonal plants and anything that grows on the shop property, prunes selectively to improve air circulation, squishes the sucking insects (notably grasshoppers) that transmit virus and disease via their chewing, and removes any leaves that show signs of bacterial leaf spot – and so on.

A well grown zinnia is a sure sign of high summer in the cutting garden. They don’t call the medium height zinnias “cut and come again” for nothing. They last impossibly long as cut flowers. Floret Flowers grows them by the semi truck load for the cut flower trade.   Floret Flowers   They come in just about every color imaginable, except for blue. They are old fashioned flowers, for sure. It is the one flower I can distinctly remember from my Mother’s garden some 60 years ago. Yes, the dahlia flowered varieties have a stiff and awkward look about them, but how I love their down to earth cheer and charm.

They are not at all showy like roses, dahlias, foxglove, peonies, delphiniums or orchids. They look most at home  with the daisies, sunflowers, feverfew and cosmos. The kitchen garden is an ideal place for them. It is tough to plant them meadow style with other looser growing seasonal plants in my zone, as they resent close quarters. Once you are not able to reach them to clean them up, the leaf spot, mildew and other mayhem will start to consume them. Someday I will try them with amni majus, Gaura lindheimeri, or the grass Bouteloua gracilis “Blonde Ambition”. The angelonia is a pretty decent partner. I would do that again.

A few weeks ago, the boxwood in front of the shop got their yearly haircut. The precision with which this is done is astonishing. M’s crew is a gifted lot, with an impeccable instinct for up and down, true and square. It’s as if the horizon line is embedded in their genes. The geometry of the boxwood is in sharp contrast to the zinnias.  Only a deftly pruned hedge of boxwood could make a planting of zinnias look graceful.

But the real purpose of this post is about the weather.  This year has been very hot and dry. Overall, the humidity has been low. Perfect conditions for growing great zinnias. Perfect conditions for growing all manner of seasonal plants that revel in dry heat. People may be wilting, but the seasonal flowers are very good looking this year. If you happened to plant some zinnias, that planting is exceptional right now. As no gardener has any control over the weather, the big idea here is about spending some time with the National Weather Service about their prediction for the summer in your zone, ahead of choosing what you will plant. The perfect time to grow zinnias is when a summer season will be perfect for growing them. If weather predicting sounds too tedious, then plant lots of everything. You are bound to hit the jackpot with something.

Those good years for crocus,magnolias, roses and hydrangeas are memorable. Memorable, as no gardener can count on a good year coming their way. All the terrible years for zinnias do not deter me from planting them. But this year, it was just about all I had available to plant. I do not think of the natural world as being the least bit just. This year I got lucky. lime and yellow zinnias

pink and orange zinnias

Benary Giant orange zinnia

  Pot full of zinnia “Zesty Fuchsia”

Container featuring zinnia Magellan pink

If for no other reason, stop in to see the zinnias. They are quite something this year.