Archives for November 2010

Turning Up The Volume


I was at market Saturday morning at first light, shopping. The market is full of beautiful greens, wreaths, integrifolia, Christmas trees-and everything else to go with-including these feathered cardinal ornaments.  I ran out of all of the evergreen holiday wreaths I ordered-I needed to shop for more. I was impressed; what was available at market this morning is first rate quality.  The greens are fresh, and each wreath is stuffed full.

There are all kinds of reasons to shop local farmers and merchants-no one disputes that a vital local economy is good for everyone.  Vegetables and fruits that have to be shipped suffer the consequences.  Tomato varieties that ship well are grown more often by farmers dependent on shipping to sell their produce- than tomatoes that just plain taste good fresh off the vine.  I could see that idea at work this morning.  A grower whose materials I shop in the spring  comes to market in early winter with hand made wreaths, roping and greens. 

All of the locally made wreaths had such astonishing volume.  The wreaths I have shipped to me are stacked up and tightly baled in twelves.  This prevents shipping damage.  This shipping process turns my wreaths into wreath pies-they are pressed flat.  A wreath should not be a two dimensional pie of evergreens-it is a three dimensional sculpture.  The shipping process means I have to add greens to restore the volume that once was.  Or perhaps these wreaths are made to be flat-so they occupy as little shipping space as possible, and transport easily.  However, a reasonably priced base wreath that ships economically suits what I do.

I buy wreaths in bulk from my greens supplier.  No one comes to me for a fresh wreath they can take home and hang on a door-end of story.  They come to me for a wreath that has some individual elements added to it. I get a direction, a color scheme, a style idea from a client.  My base wreaths are a foundation, not a road ready green sculpture.  No two that I decorate are just alike.  Some may feature bracket fungus and moss.  Some may glitter in the low winter light.  Others may be just plain fun.  Some are meant to delight kids. 


   What I collect from the field, what I buy and glue or wire in-anything goes.  I like any beautiful natural material, and any beautiful not natural material.  More than any other form of gardening, holiday gardening encourages exuberant free expression. My holiday garden is not about life and death-it is about celebration.  If my neighbors choose to have a trio of lighted snowmen in their front yard, who am I to criticize? A wreath is a holiday diorama of a manageable size.

But back to my visit to market this morning.  My pie-faced wreaths-I add more greens to them-after I have glued in all of the other elements.  This is a step I need to take. I like a wreath that comes off the page, and speaks volumes. Never mind that a magnolia wreath has no end of leaves stuffed into it-I always buy bunches, and add leaves where I think that wreath needs more dimension. Not everyone can articulate why this looks good, and that which looks rote-but people have an uncanny ability to discern the difference.  I like being a member of that group, The Differences. This means I may have to go back in, and make subtle changes. 

Dan Prielipp’s concolor and noble fir wreaths at market this morning were sparse, but beautifully volumetric. So much air.  Concolor fir has a big, rangy, open texture-his wreaths capture that perfectly.  I could have taken a bunch of them home, and hung them everywhere.  They would look great wired to the back of a garden bench, or laid over a sundial.  His mixed noble fir-boxwood wreaths are the natural equivalent of an inflated intertube you would feel utterly confident riding downstream.  His greens and wreaths are available in all sizes and shapes, and his range of material is good.  The Oakland County Farmer’s Market-he is there Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.  Everything fresh, everything hand made-and local.  Nothing has been smashed flat to ship.

 Do not take this to mean that a pie of a wreath cannot be redeemed.  It can.  That part is up to you.  Hang it up, and put your eye to it.  What is your pleasure?  Build a wreath that talks about that. Welcome to my home-that is what a wreath says.  No matter your persuasion or point of view, I will be interested in what you have to say.

Winter Pots: Old, New, and Favorite

Should you be the person who hybridized the red twig dogwood cultivar “Cardinal”-many thanks for your efforts.  I have just as many thanks to the branch farm that grew this dogwood.  These fiery stems are stout and, and unblemished; these branches are the brilliant red you only get from fresh growth.  I was never so diligent cutting my dogwood back to the ground-mainly as the shrub would look like heck most of the following season.  I like using multiple bunches of professionally farmed twigs, when I have big containers to fill.    

It is tough to go wrong, if your materials are beautiful.  A well grown perennial takes root fast. A big juicy tulip bulb will mean big juicy flowers in the spring.  What fistful of beautifully grown fresh flowers looks bad in a vase? All of the materials in these two pots were beautifully grown; this lends a formal and elegant air to the arrangements.    

The work involved in creating any container garden makes me ask in advance for good materials. This applies to any plant-whether it be a perennial, a tree, a shrub, or a bunch of cut roses. I tell clients all the time that the effort to plant an evergreen with an undersized rootball and dead leader is exactly the same as the effort it takes to plant a healthy plant.  Every spring I see rows of 6 foot arborvitae that deathly shade of orange brown.  If you do buy marginally healthy plant material, then make the committment to baby them along.

This client will not be lounging out much this winter, but that is not for lack of company.  Materials for winter pots especially need to be well grown and fresh-they have a very long winter ahead of them.  Greens cut too early and shedding needles in November-not a good sign. Shake before you buy, or cut at home. Fresh silver dollar eucalyptus fades to a papery taupe fast; it does not hold its fresh blue color.  That is fine for some-but maybe not fine for you. This preserved lilac and purple eucalyptus bravely shrugs off the winter.  Long about February 20 I will like this a lot. 

Stick stacks-how I love them.  It has been several long years I have done without them. The stems are shaved into squares-that process makes them absorb water unequally on each surface-they fan out and curve unpredictably when they absorb water. Every year I hope I will find a source for them again.  I take that back, I don’t hope.  I look long and hard for them.  Ting-those incredibly tough and wiry palm stems-easily survives our winter.  They may not be native, but they obligingly fit into a midwestern winter color scheme. 

I like dressing a summer topiary form in lights for the winter season.  The red faux money plant picks will reflect that light at night.  Some daytime sparkle is good-but nighttime sparkle is more than welcome. The dark red dogwood stems-I do not know the name of this cultivar.  I just know the color seems right.

I don’t know a cultivar name for black twig dogwood either.  But I do know these purple black stems pair well with cut magnolia.  The lead squares, the black dogwood, the dark green magnolia leaves with their rich brown obverse-a striking foil to this house clad in white painted wood.  Should you favor an arrangement made from dark materials, place them in front of something lighter. Dark materials need some lighting. 

RA2, these few sentences are for you.  I know you could barely bring yourself to drain your fountain for the winter.  This does not mean you have to tarp it.  See, this fountain has a winter life ahead of it.  Given its size, the foam that securely holds the cut greens requires a circular support of exterior ready plywood. Curly flame willow provides lots of volume without the need for so many stems.  The lights in the mixed into the mixed evergreen stems-stick around. This will look even better later in the day.

These two Belgian wood planters-still one of my favorites though I did them many years ago. Three stiffly vertical bleached willow bunches are surrounded with an equal number of  giant stick stacks.  How those stacks curved so beautifully, unexpectedly and asymmetrically-I had nothing to do with that outcome-but I sure do like it.  The natural bristle snowflakes-a winter ornament of perfect scale, and completely in keeping with the overall arrangement.  Handsome.

Shopping The Yard

Rob shops the yard for the holidays.  This means he is tromping through the fields, the gardens, the roadside ditches, the 7 acres at Branch and the neighborhood park for inspiration for the holidays.  That which nature discarded, the perennials, annuals and roadside weeds that never got cleaned up or cut back-grist for his mill.  These steel plant climbers got covered in grapevine and brown corded lights and light covers-have you seen them?  The combination of the sturdy plant climber, the textural vine, and the light-they say Happy Holidays from the garden.   

There are lots of perennials I have no problem passing by, but I do like butterfly weed.  The orange flower heads beloved of gardeners and butterflies alike are modestly good looking.  The stout stems and big leaves make the plants a standout in an uncultivated field populated with grasses and Queen Annes lace.  The seed pots are spectacular in shape and color; that celery green is delicious. 

But by far and away my favorite state of butterfly weed being is the mature seed pods.  The seeds in the pod, each one attached to its own private kapok aircraft, hopes to become airborne, fly, and eventually land in a spot friendly to germination.  When I had land, one highlight of my gardening fall was the launching of the butterfly weed seeds.  Rob collected these stems for me from the far side of the guard rail on the exit ramp for Telegraph.  To preserve them in this state just preceding liftoff-a little artist’s fixative.  What fixes the pastel to the page will keep these seeds from flying all over the room every time the heat comes on.  This fixative works with other seedheads as well.  

Butterfly weed is not all that Rob finds in the ditch.  A steel hoop from a farm wheel becomes a light ring.  A galvanized bucket that no longer holds water can certainly hold dry floral foam.  A garden shed is a good place to find tools and materials that might have a new life used in a decorative way.  A too rusted pair of pruners or shears, the old wood garden stakes you haven’t the heart to throw away,  the leather holster for your pruners that has never been used-these things have decorative possibilities. 

Multiple strand jute rope, makes a fine bow or tie-back for some holiday garland. A fresh garland from market can be made more generous and personal with the addition of twigs, cutting from a yew or holly, echinacea seed heads or rose hips, tufts of rosemary or moss. Would that fresh fruit would last outside the entire season, but dried orange slices and lemon wedges do just fine. Marlene had them at the Oakland County Farmer’s market last Saturday.   

Nature has her own idea of decorative.  The deeply furrowed bark of this old willow is a home to a mature tutu of climbing hydrangea. I might like this seasonal display better than the summer-their living arrangement is beautiful to see.   No amount of engineering on my part could create this-but I do have the option of making a note to plant a tree with hydrangea first thing come spring.  I doubt the hydrangea would mind one bit, should you have the idea to snip a few branches for a wreath. 

There are times when I regret I turned in my five acres in for a city lot.  I would guess that the Ilex Verticillata still there is loaded with berries.  The advantage to my winter berry?  No wading through the swampy ground to cut them. The rosa multiflora way at the wild back of that property-I made many a wreath from their long supple red, green and red violet canes.  Ditto the rosa rubrifolia, and rosa complicata.  The London Plane has no doubt shed giant pieces of bark by now.  I am sure there are abandoned bird’s nests there, like always.  The gold finch nests-tiny and incredibly beautifully made. The apple tree twigs were perfect for making small tabletop trees; the multiple spurs make for plenty of places to hang little ornaments.  The poplar tree branches are equally spectacular for their smooth grey-green bark, and big green buds formed in anticipation of next spring.  �
A park down the street from the shop is littered with thousands of white pine cones.  Their peachy cream color is distinctive, as is their long narrow and curving shape.  The resin you will no doubt get on your hands smells like the holidays-and I am sure the Parks and Rec people will be happy that you lent a hand to their cleanup efforts. 


The bleached stems of ornamental grasses make great decoration, although I spray the seedheads.  If you have grown chasmanthium, you know it will seed anywhere and everywhere-the seed heads drop at the slightest provocation.  A little fixature will keep them glued on, but still dangling like a charm. 

The fruiting body of this fungus spells terrible trouble for this tree.  By the time these appear, little can be done to cure the infection.  But deadly can also be beautiful.  I have quite a collection of bracket fungus; they dry rock hard.  Some are decades old-the appearance has not changed one bit. 

This bunch of cirrus dusty miller looks much the same as when it was alive; the leaves have dried a silvery, felted white.  One client for whom I planted these in the fall-his pots look great, although I am sure the dusty miller succumbed to the frost long ago.  There are so many materials to be had, should you shop your garden.  Switch on your visual vacuum cleaner-you never know what you might pick up.

Messing About

A good client whom I really like from Ypsilanti drove up this afternoon with his Mom.  He was after materials for both of their winter pots.  In the course of our conversation he told me he not only liked reading Dirt Simple, he was surprised and appreciative that I explain how I do things. No doubt how I do things is based on many years of experience with what does not work so well, interspersed now and then with a few good ideas.  My thought process, my construction process-I have no reason not to share that.   Should anyone decide to take on assembling their own winter pots based on my advice-this makes me feel like a useful human being.  Most people share and teach at one time or another in their lives-their kids, their friends, their family-doing this means something.  It means something to me too, and it feels great.  Gardening is a messy, dirty, exhausting business; should you be game, I am more than happy to coach.

I like selecting a palette of materials with a client.  We have a discussion-a relationship.  A little bit of me, and a lot of them makes for a good cocktail.  Whatever I have inside that prompts me to suggest putting this with that-I am happy to share that. Having a shop full of possibilities makes the process fun.  

The reality of beautifully constructed winter containers can be daunting.  To follow are the facts.  I construct everything in my studio-garage; putting an arrangement together on site in freezing temperatures and late fall winds is tough to do promptly, and impossible to clean.  The mess of the green discards is enormous. We have giant surfaces set up for the season to hold all the materials; the concrete floor obligingly holds no end of trash-it can be knee deep by the end of the day.      

We whittle down every evergreen stem. This takes lots of time and effort. The big idea here?  The above ground representation is vastly more showy than the below ground anchoring.  How we anchor, and prepare a winter pot to last the six months until April requires what I would call work.  For a tight fit, we sharpen the stems.       

Everyone on my crews has a job. Forms, centerpiece construction, the stuffing of the greens-my two crews are 8 people.  They produce work astonishingly fast. They spend a lot of time planting shrubs; this knowledge furnishes their construction with cut greens with a finished product that looks natural and believable.    

This mixed evergreen winter blanket destined to warm a large round pot-It is beautiful, is it not?  Should you have a mind to do it yourself, we observe these gweneral rules.  We buy greens that are boughs, not the short pieces that are great for holiday floral arrangements.  We aim for a low and wide overall shape-the greens are anywhere from 8-16 wider than the container all the way around. We green the edges of the form first, and work towards the center.  

Materials chosen for a centerpiece-our process is to collect materials, and tag them with a name.  The amounts needed for each element is based not only on the size, but the location of the container.    

The actual construction involves the numbers of bunches, the placement of picks, the overall shape. Relevant to the construction- great evergreen material, concrete wire, bamboo stakes, big zip ties, mini zip ties, foam forms.  A conterpiece of this size has a stout bamboo stake which goes deep into the container.  Additional anchoring with bamboo or steel is done during the installation.  

These boxwood sculptures have a lush look.  Once they are dropped into their winter pots, there will be not hint of all the mess and hard work-just a graceful reminder of the garden that will be handsome to look at during the winter months.