Archives for November 2010

Holiday Lighting

There are those qualities that Rob is known for; his dry sense of humor, his razor sharp eye, his formidable knowledge of garden ornament, his patience. Any garden, anything related to the garden gets his interest.  He rarely shifts out of first gear, but he is ready and able to run his first gear up to better than 10,000 rpms-he can furthermore sustain that level an amazingly long time.  Though he spent countless hours engineering this holiday, I can count on him to disappear for a few days while the store is being outfitted for the holidays.  I know where to find him.  He’ll be parked in the garage, surrounded by lights, forms and natural materials.  It just looks like mayhem.  He stuffs his space with materials, tries lots of various combinations. He finally makes peace;  the materials and his creative process make for something you do not want to miss. He not only has ideas about how to light the garden for the winter, he has a mind to translate those ideas into sculpture.

This year, the plant climber, tuteur or topiary form that supported a mandevillea over the summer will have a second life at the holidays as lighted sculptures. The tuteurs-we design, and manufacture them.  He is happy for you to load one up in the trunk of your car so you can take it home, find a great spot in the garden or container, and plug it in. But he also makes sure to have the materials available for anyone who wants to make their own.  This means light strands with brown cords, light strands with bulbs in varying sizes and colors.  Red berry LED lights.  Strands of clear C-9’s. C-7’s in interesting colors. Garland lights-these strands have the lights close toether on the wire-perfect for lighting a tuteur. Pearl lights, snowball lights-LED battery operated flower lights.  Blanket lights and intermittently twinking lights. I am sure there are lights I have forgooten to list.  Light covers, and lots of weatherproof decorative garlands help make for a great daytime look for the lighting.

What he imagines and creates from a simple strands of lights is truly original; no where else do I see anything like it.  Part of the best of what Detroit Garden Works has to offer at the holidays are his light sculptures.  He is doing his best to have plenty on hand for our holiday open house, this coming weekend.  As much as I wish he was in a display-making mode, lighting is a critical element in the holiday and winter garden-so I am patient about the time he puts to it.

Light strings are readily available almost everywhere now.  My interest in holiday lighting was fast forwarded at least 15 years ago-by a breathtaking display in Washington DC.  Rob and I were there to look at doing flowers and props for an event.  A series of trees on the water were densely and completely wound with mini lights; every trunk, and most every branch was ablaze with light. The terrace in the center had no snow whatsoever; there were so many lights, the heat melted the snow.  Hanging from the branches, light spheres. At the end of the long drive back from Washington, we stopped and bought a truckload of mini-lights.  We spent the following 2 days doing up one old apple tree in my orchard in similar fashion. That tree was a lighthouse-it directed my course all winter long. Unlike the tree wrapping, these light bars of Rob’s are simple and fast to make.  A galvanized pipe from the hardware is wound round with lights, and slipped over a piece of steel rebar sunk in the ground. Simple, and beautiful.

Another year, Rob would wrap farm augurs with varying sizes of round lights, and hang them from the big branches in the lindens on the drive.  A steel hook was welded to one end of the augur, and wrapped with foam to prevent injury to the bark of the trees. Overscaled light ornaments read well from a distance, and most of the work of it can be done indoors.  The late fall weather has everything to do with how many people light their gardens.  No one wants to stand outside when it is 20 degrees, trying to put up lights.  If November is mild, I know there will be plenty to see in the neighborhood come December.

Gold and platinum plastic ball garlands were zip-tied to a light garland of clear and white mini lights.  This looked festive draped over the shop gate.  It can be tough and forbidding to navigate the winter dark-holiday lighting can make it easier for guests to find the door.  Even just a small but concentrated amount of lighting can make an entrance walk and garden look inviting.

This wood bench stands out at night, thanks to the light garland.  Red berry LED lights look great paired with chartreuse and opaque white mini lights. I have had excellent luck finding mini lights in every color and size imaginable-including chartreuse- at English Gardens. Their holiday lighting and ornament shop at the Royal Oak location on Coolidge is great.  When I have a last minute or unexpected holiday decorating job, I can count on them to help me out with materials.

One year Rob wrapped styrofoam topiary forms with lights-they are easy to secure with fern pins from a florist supply. This pair went home with a client; their front porch, door, and entry gardens glowed all winter.  When I came in March to put them in storage for the summer, they were not really ready to let them go.  Funny, that.

Light garlands and bars in containers means you will enjoy them long after the winter daylight fades. This sounds like an excellent idea to me.  Should you live in my area and have the chance, stop by over our holiday open house weekend-November 13 and 14 and see what Detroit Garden Works has to offer for the holidays.  This includes what Rob has put together in the way of lighting.  Stop by; I think you will be delighted.

At A Glance: Holiday Shop

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.

Behind The Scenes

The work involved in transforming Detroit Garden Works for the holidays and winter began last January.  A week long intensive shopping trip was followed up with short side trips and lengthy decision making about what to order-this went on all spring long.  We shop ahead, so we have what we want when the season turns.  Our holiday revolves around a gardening point of view.  Of course we have amaryllis.  New this year are the vases made especially for growing amaryllis, and the glossy chartreuse hat boxes frosted in faux white amaryllis-a beautiful package for that gift of life inside-a single large aromatic bulb, brimming with the promise of holiday flowers.     

No amount of advance planning prepares you for a client that needs a vastly overgown hedge of burning bush removed.  I could not bear to throw all those mature branches away.  Rob set a good many of them in this Belgian oak box, and trimmed the resulting tree for the holidays with ornaments and garland.  This boxed tree occupies what I would guess is 144 square feet-the shop is almost 10,000 square feet. Ten times this space needs attention.   

It takes several days to decorate my small house for the holidays-10,000 square feet needing display is a daunting task.  Some people fuss about holiday decor in early November, but it takes many hands and many weeks behind the scenes to get everything ready.  No matter what I buy for this holidays, I have an idea in mind-that idea asks for some detail.  Display work is much about arranging any given object in such a way that what you loved about it so much to begin with is clearly expressed.  These simple red-beaded wire trees-how airy, festive, and delicate.  Displayed in tandem with a solidly cast and detailed sculpture from Garden Traditions-a good mix. Discovering what works well together is the fun of it.  Unpacking and placing what seems like many thousands of small objects is the work of it.

What possessed me to buy four stained glass windows from a garden antiques dealer?  The leaf shapes, the textured glass, the color-irresistable. I went on to do some considerable conservation on them-these windows are extraordinary, and were worth the expense.  Someone will fall for them.  In the meantime, a curtain of platinum garlands are weighted at their ends with glass icicles, and displayed in front of these windows.  Indoors or out, glass drops, icicles and prisms can endow your winter with a lot of sparkle.  

I have not one problem in the world with faux grass picks, or faux seed and berry stems.  Should you ask, my idea of real is every gardener’s committment to their gardening life.  Any gardener who collects and constructs a winter arrangement from both real and faux materials-that gesture is real.  That creativity is real.  The love of the garden is as real as real gets with me.  I am all about horticulture, science, good gardening practices-and so on.  But I want a winter holiday with a little theatre.  These picks can help out with that.   

I have to admit I value anything which reflects light in the winter season.  Michigan goes grey early, and persists with that grey a long time.  Lighting is a critically important factor in holiday display-as you can count on gloomy skies.  This glittery-I am all for it.  Chocolate and platinum-these two colors are great together.  I could use this garland inside and out-I like that possibility.  Though we have great ornaments for holiday trees, we do try to equally focus on materials that can be used outdoors.    

Howard accompanies me, and stays close wherever I am working in the shop.  He seems to know when I will be in a spot briefly, or for a long time. He is watching my face here-he knows I am trying to organize the opening gestures in this space.  He has a shop dog’s incredible patience for the process.   

My clients respond to any representation of a bird in the shop.  Everyone who gardens respects and delights in the birds. From the geese to the hawks to the hummingbirds, the robins and the gold finches- and on to the cedar waxwings in transit-no small part of my feeling of success with my garden has to do with my bird population.  I firmly intend that my landscape be a haven for any bird passing by.  A glass or wood bird hung in my window reminds me of this. Birds at the holiday-essential.  

Our outdoor display is changing over as well.  Our stick stacks have arrived.  Copper curly willow, yellow twig dogwood, black willow-these vibrantly colored natural stems add much to a winter container.   This fiery red twig dogwood reminds me; to everything, there is a season.