Archives for November 2009

Home For Thanksgiving

Aug 12 036We spent over a week tearing apart a thirty year old landscape for this client.  They had decided that though their kids were grown and gone, they would stay, and renovate both the inside and out of their family home.  They had not ever spent much time outdoors; a very small back yard with no privacy from neighboring terrraces and play structures kept them indoors.  New screening, and an enlarged gravel addition to their terrace opened the door to a new living space for them.  The finishing touch-a collection of Italian style, English made concrete planters.

Nov 22 093Their children are all coming home for Thanksgiving; they asked if I could dress the pots in their winter coats in time. They are very excited at the prospect of their kids seeing how their home has been transformed in the past 3 months, and the landscape is part of that.  Four of the five pots on the rear terrace would be planted for winter.  As they have little in the way of outdoor lighting in the back, we installed lights in every pot.  The electrician just installed outdoor plugs for them yesterday, in time for the holiday gathering. 

Nov 22 100

We stuffed this long and large rectangular planter with a mix of boxwood and incense cedar.  I like mixed greens in large planters for greater interest.  The fan willow centerpiece is backed up with yellow twig dogwood; the pairing makes each individuall element look better. 

Nov 22 105
Straight flame willow, and red curly willow have a very similar color, but a very different texture.  These orangy brown twigs stand out against the bigger landscape gone grey.  The blue of the noble fir contrasts strongly with those flames sticks; the planting looks warm and robust.  The leaves of Magnolia Grandiflora have a beautful felted brown obverse; the shiny green leaves change up the texture.

Nov 22 099Preserved and dyed eucalyptus provdes a leafy texture much like the magnolia.  The chocolate brown color is surprisingly lightfast outdoors.  The container looks dreesed for the weather; the colors perfect for the Thanksgiving holiday will go on looking good as winter settles in. 

Nov 22 108The pots are positioned to provide good views of the outdoors from the inside.  I will move pots from a summer location to a winter one, if need be.  I spend a lot more time looking at my garden in the winter from indoors; I am outdoors as much as possible in the summer. These pots can help alleviate that cooped up feeling invariably creeps up on any northern gardener.    

Nov 22 090After the rear terrace pots were installed, they called-could I please do three more.  Though they plan to replace these front door pots in the spring, they are not the center of attention here.  Red bud pussy willow and dark purple eucalyptus make a formal and quietly beautiful statement at the door.  My landscape crews construct and install all of this work; they do such a beautiful job. Clients who have winter pots done for the first time are surprised at what a difference they make.  I hear about how nice it feels to have something beautiful to look at outdoors at this time.

Nov 22 086The side door has the same pot as the front, but a different treatment.  As variety is a very precious commodity this time of year, I avoid repeating  the same materials everywhere.  These snow branches are all plastic; they look just as good up close, as they do in this picture. I try to include a third, mid-level element in all the winter pots; just sticks and greens is a little too spare for my taste.   

Nov 22 112
This is my idea of warm holiday wishes from the garden.

Eastern Standard Solar Time


IMG_0069The watch I have had strapped to my wrist my entire working life is a marvel. In spite of the heat sweat water and dirt, it churns on. This little workhorse enables me to to organize and schedule any number of things. Being off or behind schedule can be trouble; ahead of schedule-this I like. Around January 15, I take it off for 6 weeks, and let my internal clock handle the day. Landscapes have long been host to various mechanisms for telling time.  The old clock face pictured above was salvaged from a monumental public timepiece in a Belgian town square, due for refurbishment after many years of service.  

IMG_0192Sundials vastly predate the invention of watches and clocks; ancient cultures told time via the position of the sun in the sky. The device needed to be positioned in a sunny place in the landscape. As they are big chunky scientific instruments, people constructed them to be beautiful, as well as utilitarian.  The dial portion of a sundial is small and unassuming. A flat plate was engraved or otherwise etched with a clock face. The triangular shaped gnomen set into the plate would cast a shadow from the sun, onto a different mark on the plate for every hour, or portion of an hour, of any given sunny day.

IMG_0193The engraving on the plates was often quite elaborate.  This plate is engraved with the hours in Roman numerals; each numeral is further subdivided into increments of an hour.  This plate is a  beautiful drawing about time.  The name and date- Thomas Grice,1705 might refer to the artist who engraved the plate, or the person’s garden to whom this sundial belonged. 

IMG_0195As the sundial needed to be placed in a level spot with the gnomen, or needle, set due north when the sun was directly overhead, the base needed to be sturdy, stable, and equally as lovely as the plate.  This handcarved stone baluster sets the plate at  50 inches above grade-right at my eye level.  Inscribed in spidery script, ” Let others tell of storms and showers/I’ll only tell your sunny hours”. 

IMG_0196As a time telling device, a sundial has become obsolete.  As a garden ornament, they are unmatched for their quiet beauty and dignity.  They are as at home in a kitchen garden as a formal boxwood parterre.  They refer to the ephemeral nature of life, and the repeating cycle of nature.  I have never seen them made of materials that did not suggest permanence.  Modern makers have expanded upon the traditional materials to include stainless steel, glass and mirror, but my favorites are the pieces dating from an age when they were still in use.   

It is hard for me to believe that this sundial and base graced an English garden in the mid nineteenth century.  It seems so unfazed by the 160 years it has been recording the movement of the sun in the sky.  Michigan is not know for its sunny days; sunny winter days are scarce indeed. I have no need of a sunny day to appreciate a garden ornament of this caliber. I am also interested in how this object was part of another place and another time; there are days when I long for just that state of being.  Garden spaces made from that longing have a special atmosphere about them that resonates with me.

IMG_0199This collection of English sundials vary greatly in their details, but all of them are remarkably intact, considering their age, and exposure to weather.  I am sure they will all find a new home in a treasured garden space.

Oct5a 017


The history of wreathmaking dates back thousands of years.  Round forms decorated with evergreens, berries and pine cones, symbolizing the harvest, are thought to have begun in ancient Rome.  A fall wedding I once did with a decidedly Shakespearean flavor featured wreath shaped headpieces for the bride, and her attendants.  A wreath constructed from fresh and beautiful materials from the garden speaks to the life that persists in spite of the onset of winter.  The wreath pictured above began with an unadorned circle of  the dried branchy stems of sweet huckleberry.  To this I added dry and steamed wood stems and twigs from many other species.  A tuft of dried grass at the bottom doubles as a bow.

2007 Larson, Bonnie Wreath for daughter (2)
I buy my evergreen wreaths already made; a mix of fir, juniper and incense cedar makes for a lively textured base. Lots of natural materials make great decoration for a wreath.  The mushrooms in this wreath are made of tree bark; the giant faux green acorns are a big textured accompaniment to the small brown real ones.  White berry stems cut into pieces, and natural reindeer moss highlight the natural cones. I buy barked wire by the roll, and weave it in and out of the greens. I like some decoration  that stands out and away from the flat circle of greens.  A coppery brown raffia bow completes the look.   


I have a commercial glue gun that I power up with industrial grade hot melt glue.  Scraping cooled blobs of this glue off of my layout table will rip the wood right off the surface; it’s tough stuff. The worst burns I have ever had came from this tool; the hot glue sticks instantly to your skin, and keeps on burning.  I try to remember to keep a glass of cold water on the table big enough to hold my whole hand; this helps a bad burn from becoming a horrendous burn.  The raffia in this wreath is wired to the wreath frame every so often, as are the natural material ornaments.

larsonThe grocery store is a great source for natural materials; you can find cinnamon sticks this time of year in the spice department. Nuts and dried fruits, sprigs of fresh rosemary-all these things look great.  Artichokes and pomogranites are easy to wire and attach fresh, and dry just fine. I avoid piercing any fresh material if I can; there is no need to invite rot. Forest floor litter can be a good source of materials as well-bracket fungus, cones, moss bits and twigs-all these things endow a wreath with a garden feeling.  

Larson_0009Some faux material is too awkward to wire.  In the case of this nest, and the bark birds, I pierce the back of the object, and glue in a florist’s skewer; kitchen skewers would work just as well.  Transparent materials, such as these skeletal leaves, gain visual weight when used in numbers. I can wedge the skewer into the woody branches of the evergreens.  I try not to push the skewer in too far; avoid making your birds look pasted on the greens. Transparent materials, such as these skeletel leaves, gain visual weight when used in numbers; these are wired and glued on a short skewer.  Loose and airy looks good.

Larson4Any faux berry stem needs to be tested for water resistance before it is used.  I learned this the hard way; five window boxes full of white styrofoam berries, gel coated in a clear red acetate, dissolved all over the greens and pavement in front of the store of one of my commercial clients. What a mess. A short piece of  dried kiwi vine chosen for its curl as a loose element to the mix. 

Larson _0003Ornaments made from natural materials are readily available.  As with any ornament or stem, I deconstruct some things so the proportions are good with the size of the wreath.  Sometimes I only need a wedge cut from a ball, or a portion of a stem.  A wreath is a little world that needs to be built accordingly.

Baumgartner (6)When the front door is a long way from the street, a shot of bright red makes a cheery statement from a distance.  Raffia bows have great texture and resilience to the weather.  The worst enemy of any wreath is not snow-it is rain.  A wreath subjected to a lot of rain can have a good bit of its original shape restored. Take the wreath to a dry place, and dry up side down, and face down; gravity will do wonders.

Larson (1)

Our mild November weather right now is perfect for collecting materials outdoors. A wreath on the door is not only a beautiful way to say welcome, it is a way in which to keep on gardening.

Sunday Opinion:A Constellation Of Events

I have finally resigned myself to the fact that one of my Princeton Gold maples will not recover.  In obvious trouble for the past several years, I tried a number of remedies –  aerating the soil, adding compost, careful watering, soil testing, spraying for fungus-none of this made a dent in its decline.  In the beginning, I believed I could intervene; after all, I have 13 other maples that are thriving. Undeterred by the fact that it could not tell me where it hurt, I was sure I could, and would, figure it out.  In time, this belief that I could set all to right turned to exasperation; nothing was working.  When it was clear my homeowner efforts were going no where, I asked Westside Forestry to step in; surely they could fix the problem.  All of Tim’s years of experience as an arborist proved as irrelevant as my insistent belief that this tree would grow for me. I will admit that at one point I walked up to this tree, and gave it a swift kick in the trunk; my exasperation had turned to hopping mad.  A stand of beech ferns and helleborus angustifolia that had taken every bit of six years to get good would be laid to waste getting that tree out of the ground. Finally resigned to my failure, I have a replacement tree, ready to plant.  Not that I could stand to be there and watch when the exchange is made; I do not have that kind of grace in the face of defeat.

In retrospect, I think what proved to be the downfall of this tree was a constellation of events.  Not this disease, or that bug, but lots of smaller problems which in the end, in concert, proved overwhelming.  Perhaps the rootball was damaged at planting, and maybe it was planted a little too high.  Perhaps the extra water, and the mulch I put over the ball,  hoping to compensate for that too high planting, rotted roots.  Like a daily interest rate, my mistakes started compounding.  Pruning the top branches away from the electric line perhaps exposed the trunk to sun scald, and a stressed tree to yet more insult.  Lots of little things have a way of picking up speed, volume, and mass; the resulting bits of trouble get to be an event with a life of its own. 

Watching my garden fall down around me in high winds, or my cedars flattened by ice, or my hostas riddled with hail bullets-this kind of trouble is every day, ordinary garden trouble, over which I have no control, and eventually get over.  When I gloss over or ignore a problem as if it will resolve on its own-this is trouble that belongs to me.  I am lucky that the plants in my garden have an innate will to live; more than just a few suffer my bad moves, and survive in spite of me.  This why I so treasure anything that volunteers in my garden.  They get it right from the beginning.  A seed will not germinate until all the conditions it needs to survive are in place.  A favorable constellation of events makes for better than even odds that the seed will survive its most vulnerable moment.  Seeds are coated in all manner of armor, designed to preserve its viability until conditions are friendly to opening the door, and venturing forth. Such is my fondness and respect for the volunteers in my garden; they are programmed to stay dormant until all the stars are in proper alignment-no exceptions.  Then they grow for broke.   The nicotiana I grow from seed are always stretched, pallid in color, and hesitant to grow. The wrong choice of soil, the wrong light, the wrong temperature, the wrong water-all of these little things I either ignore or respond too late to, make for horticultural disaster.  There have been more than a few times I have deserved a ticket with at least 3 points attached, and a stiff fine. The nicotiana that self sows in the expansion joints of my sidewalk grows lustily, free of my poor excuse for care or erroneous assumptions about what constitutes nurturing.

I had a lengthy discussion with a client of the shop this week, over an antique Victorian era urn she had purchased over a year ago.  She said she had never been able to get anything to grow in it. Given that the urn had not ever provided her with a successful planting, much less any fun, she wanted to return or exchange it for another container.  Her assertion that the container was responsible for her lack of success left me speechless-where on earth could that idea be coming from?  She went on to tell me that she was not an expert gardener; she simply went to the nursery, she bought whatever appealed to her, and planted her pots.  This approach, which did not include pairing shade plants with pots in the shade, and sun loving plants in containers placed in sunny locations, had always worked for her. The urn, situated close to the north facing wall of her home, was refusing to grow her a good stand of petunias.  The combination of her naivete and arrogance took my breath away;  I kept digging.

She finally admitted to noticing that the soil in the pot was always boggy.  Victorian urns were frequently made with a bottom reservoir to hold drainage water well away from the roots in the soil. Slits in the sides of bottom bowl would permit water to escape, once it reached the overflow level.  As this is not a particularly efficient or thorough way to drain soil; Rob had drilled a hole in the bottom.  I asked what material she was using for drainage.  After a quizzical look, she told me the urn was too shallow to permit any drainage material; the urn was filled bottom to top with soil. Her decision to skip the drainage material-deadly.  There was no placating her with information.  She had no interest in hearing that annual plants do not root deeply, nor did she believe that petunias would not tolerate heavy shade and water logged soil. She brushed off my discussion of conditions as though none of that applied to her. I finally told her she bought an urn from my shop, not an urn programmed and magically endowed by me with all the gardening skills necessary to make something grow beautifully. I told her I would not take the urn back, but that I would coach her in the spring about soil, drainage material and plant selection. This was not so much the outcome she expected or wanted, but I could tell she couldn’t help but think about it.  We’ll see if she takes ownership of her own trouble, and comes back in the spring. 

I have on occasion been so like her.  But I have every opportunity to be a better gardener come tomorrow- should I decide to take that on.