Archives for December 2011

Topiary Forms In Winter

Yesterday’s dawn was wet and foggy.  Beautiful weather like this is rare here in late December.  That fog was making the visual most of Rob’s light rings.  Formally drawn and constructed geometric shapes are so compelling in the landscape.  A circle has no beginning or end; it is complete.  It is a very stable shape; it completely encloses a space, or a view.  A working circle is a wheel, whose invention revolutionized how people live.  This lighted circle is working in a different way.    

It illuminates a space, and frames a view.  It is a topiary form of light.  The light is focused-a far cry from the diffuse light that comes from the sky.  We see very little in the way of sunlight this time of year.  A lighted garden is never so welcome as it is in the winter.  Expressions of topiary in the landscape has a long history.  Fruit trees trained into a two-dimensional shape are called espaliers, after the French monk who invented this method of pruning. The Chicago Botanic Garden has an extensive display of espaliered trees, and landscape sculpture created from living plant material.  Any plant grown and trained into a shape is a topiary.  This would include bonsai, the boxwood at Dunbarton Oaks pruned into continuous cloud shapes, the topiary guard house at Fluery-en-Biere, the topiary pyramids at Mormaire, the spectacular thuja pergola at Chateau de Hautefort.  A good part of their majesty is their age, and the faithful care they demand and recieve. 

A rigid topiary form is useful for training plants into a geometric shape.  Arborvitae planted in proximity to an iron arbor can be pruned into that arbor shape, given enough time.  Young fruit trees trained over an iron arbor will eventually mature into that tunnel shape, and no longer require support.  A row of trees pruned into triple cordons will eventually make a living fence that is free standing.  Vines can be trained onto a topiary form as well; we have had beautiful triple ball ivy topiary sculptures on occasion.  The rigid form is a guide that insures that the shape is pleasingly and regularly geometric.

Vines permitted to scramble over a topiary form is a different, but just as pleasing look.  Old trees can provide a very sculptural support for an old Baltic ivy vine, or a climbing hydrangea. A rock pile, or a gate post can give form and support to a clematis.  Willow or bamboo tripods are good for growing beans, tomatoes, or morning glories.  Topiary forms whose primary job is to provide support for a lax growing plant are called plant climbers, or tuteurs.  

For a number of years Monrovia sold juniper ring topiaries. They were surprisingly attractive, easy to keep trimmed, and they were amenable to being grown year round in pots.  Should you have to have a juniper, this is a pretty way to own one.  I have seen angel vine, myrtle, miniature ivy varieties, boxwood and pyracantha trained on a topiary ring.  Once that ring form is rotated in space, you have a spherical form.  The same aforementioned plants can be just as easily trained on these forms.  Vining plants can be wound on the ribs of the sphere, or allowed to scramble over and cover the form.    

A topiary form is the fastest way to grow a topiary. A 6′ diameter boxwood sphere takes a long time to grow into its finished shape.  The boxwood spheres at the corners of the boxwood rectangle in front of the shop are 13 years old; they came to me 30″ by 30″.  As they have no rigid form inside, they have to be hand pruned by eye into a sphere.  I leave this job to Mindy; my handpruned spheres invariably have flat spots.

A topiary form may also be the fastest and most striking way to create a light sculpture.  The only requirement-a sturdy form, and holiday light strings with brown cords. The light they cast this foggy morning convinced me a topiary form can mean as much to a winter landscape as it does to a summer one.  The pot on your front porch with a topiary form that provided a home to a mandevillea over the summer can light the winter landscape all winter long.  

Other people have had the same idea about Rob’s light rings.  He tells me this morning we have sold 58 of them this season.  They are so beautiful hanging from our trees on the driveway.

They do an incredible job of softly illuminating a wide area, and vividly illuminating an intimate place.  I am just now thinking we need some in the front windows of the shop.  I may be late getting to this idea, but the winter will be long. 

If your topiary forms that spend the winter in the shed, you might want to rethink that.  They could bring some light and warmth to your winter landscape. 

On this the darkest day of our year, what would I do without this light?


Gifts That Gardeners Give

I did write this past Sunday about gifts for gardeners.  Anyone expecting a list was surely disappointed.  Anyone who knows, lives with, or is a child, parent, friend or spouse of a gardener-I hope you were amused.  They are hard to buy for.  This is not confined to gardeners alone.  Anyone with a passion for anything knows what they need to add to their collection.  Would I buy something for Buck’s Harley?  No.  But in retrospect, I am reluctant to characterize a gardener as impossible to please.  In their defense, I will say gardeners know plenty about giving.  This should make them easy to give to.   

Gardeners watch and feed the birds.  They compost, and feed their soil.  They plant.  Not just flowers-they plant trees.  They spread the seed of the alyssum and foxglove.  They commit to raising and tending roses and peonies.  They grow food for their families.  They give flowers and tomatoes to their neighbors, and friends. They dress the dinner table with cut flowers.  They grow sunflowers to delight their children, and feed the goldfinches.  They give extra divisions of perennials to their friends.  Barring a willing friend, they leave their extra plants at the curb, with a sign that says “free”.  They are happy to share their experience, and advice.

Gardeners know how important it is to give.  They support their community gardens. They shop their local farmers market every week.  They exchange information with other gardeners.  They teach their kids about nature.  They take them to the zoo, and the petting farm.  They go to every softball game.  They vote yes for parks. 

Gardeners grow in terra cotta, stone, concrete, steel, and wood.  What plastic comes their way gets recycled.  They understand that they are stewards of their properties, not owners.  They give of their time and effort to insure a better, cleaner, more beautiful planet. 

I made this wreath as a Christmas present for two very dear friends.  They own a big wild piece of property, some of which is represented here. They are passionately committed to the landscape and garden; this we share. They also have a very special place in my heart. I did not really worry that they would not like this.  Everything came from the garden, including my point of view.  So gift your favorite gardener however you think you should.  By and large they are a generous and caring lot, meaning they will appreciate the gesture.    


Home At Midday

I had occasion to be home during the day today for the first time in weeks. This time of year, I usually leave for work in the dark, and come home in the dark.  My work for the season is finished. This means I have some time I can call my own.  While Steve was finishing up the very last of the landscape work, I went home to try to figure out what I would do for a Christmas tree.  Buck and I celebrate Christmas Eve, so I need to make a move fairly soon.  I was pleased to see my garden was holding its own, and hosting a little holiday display.   I am so happy for my evergreens in the winter. They mean I still have a garden, in late December.   

My home was built 81 years ago.  Vintage, it is.  I like a traditional holiday display that compliments the architecture-this I talked about yesterday.  Southern magnolia does a great job representing that feeling. I hang the garlands, leaf points up; magnolia curls as it dries.  These garlands will bulk up, the more they dry. The color and volume suits this old house. 

I do very little in the way of entertaining.  It is hard enough to find friends that understand and are willing to work around my work schedule.   My good friends come to the back door, or come through the garden gate at the back.  Those friendships are serious enough to welcome them to the back of the house.  But I still want my front door to look dressed properly for company. 

A magnolia wreath is a joy to decorate.  My wreath is decorated with bits and pieces left over from other projects, a stem of curly flame willow, some brown dyed bracket fungus, some pine cones, and a string bow in chocolate. Not so fancy, my materials list.       

My resin cherubs are not such a fancy material, but their shape and expression recalls lots of classical garden ornament I have seen over the years.  The detail and color is amazingly convincing.  Not everyone is a fan of the putti, the cherubs, and the angels, but I fell hard for this pair. 

My winter pots have lights-this is their holiday moment. I will run those lights much longer than I really should, and enjoy every minute of it.  I am just glad to see that the arrangement looks good at midday. 

Rob fixes a pair of pots for me in his own inimitable style that sit on the wall at the end of the driveway.  They are the first thing I see, when I pull into the drive during the winter.  These cream beaded picks are ablaze with light at night, thanks to a few strings of C-7 lights placed underneath them.  During the day, they still look great.  Bleached willow sticks, a few sprigs of flame curly willow, the cream picks and a ruffly skirt of magnolia-this looks as good at midday as it does when I come home after work.  I cannot really explain this, but these Galway stoneware pots beautifully dressed for winter mean all the world to me.  What fun to see them at noon time.

Home For The Holidays

I finished the last of this season’s landscape work, and the holiday decorating today.  This feels really good.  Tomorrow and Wednesday my crew will sort out a few minor glitches (this has mostly to do with errant timers, and a centerpiece that needs extra special reinforcement against a windy location) and put the shop yard to sleep.  All of the stone and concrete pieces outdoors will be put up on pallets.  The stone cisterns will spend the winter on pallets, upside down.  A pair of old boxwoods in terra cotta pots will come into the garage, as will the few small espaliers left over from the summer.  We still have warm weather in which to work-this has been the longest and mildest fall and early winter that I can remember. The work is winding down.


I can think about my own home for the holidays now.  The pots and lighting outside were finished a week ago.  My four iron pots out front have flame willow, fresh magnolia, and mixed greens.  The centerpieces are lit with garland lights.  These old iron pots came with the house.  Yes, they were very much a part of the decision to buy and move here.   


My crew installs fresh magnolia garland all across the entry and down the sides.  The magnolia has garland lights spiralled through it.  The two men who owned this house before me made a specialty of their holiday lighting.  There are hooks and screws placed in a very orderly fashion everywhere.  I could outline the entire house with lights, should that idea ever strike my fancy. 

This makes any holiday display easy.  For those of you who are afraid to put a brass screw in a wood front door for a wreath, I promise you will not undermine the integrity of that door, nor will you notice it the other 10 months of the year it is not in use. If you take the time to make it easy to decorate, you will decorate. 



 The architecture of my house is a hybrid betweeen Mediteranean style, and arts and crafts style.  I love every detail.  That architecture makes certain demands-from the landscape, the choice of plant material, color and mass.  I am fine with that.  Whomever designed this house, and the piazza style driveway, I respect. 


Richard’s blowmold figures would not work here.  The yellow brick and iron detail does not like white anything.   I would have a hard time making a contemporary holiday display work with a house of this age.  I have no problem with that.  I like a holiday display that is warm and traditional.  I like the smell of history better than any other smell in the world.

I have a pair of resin cherubs that I adore-Rob rolls his eyes every time I talk about them.  I have had them over the mantle, framing a mirror.  I have moved them all over the house.  I look at them all year long.  This is the first year I took them outside. 

My landscape crew and I figured out how to do the lights such that these cherubs have a hand in holding up the light garlands.  I am happy about how this looks.  It makes me happy to be coming home.

 I do much and many different things for lots of other people.  My pleasure is in creating and delivering a look that feels like home to them. What I choose for my own home I choose with the same care that I choose for others. It is important to me that my garden, my landscape, my walkways, my terrace, my hellebores, my evergreens, and my holiday decor look like home. 

Home for the holidays is a good place to be, indeed. I have a few more days to get ready.