Archives for January 2012

The Garden Obelisk

 A classic obelisk, as exemplified by the ancient Egyptians, is a narrow tapering four sided affair whose top is pyramidal.  Ancient obelisks were usually carved all of a piece.  The obelisk known as the Place de la Concorde was one of a pair given as a gift from Egypt to France the the late 1820’s.  This single piece of red granite some 75 feet tall, and weighing 280 tons, was erected in Paris in 1833.  Its mate is still in front of the ruins of the temple at Luxor.  Too heavy to move, the French government formally returned it to Egypt in 1990.  This single obelisk is true to the narrow definition of such a structure; it is a landmark and monument that organizes a vast space awash in French history, and is visible from all Paris.  The base of the obelisk is inscribed with information about the mechanics of moving this sculpture from Luxor to Paris-an incredible feat, given the rudimentary technology of the time.  It is indeed an appropriately grand and monumental sculpture.  In the distance of this photograph taken by CB Margineaux, the Eiffel Tower. 

This iconic structure is one of the wonders of the modern world.  It is instantly recognizable.  Much has been written about its sculptor, the engineer Gustave Eiffel.  To my mind, it is the most extraordinarily inventive,  strikingly beautiful, and imposing garden obelisk ever created.  The phrase “tour de force” comes to mind.  It was the tallest monument in the world when it was built. The epic story of its design, engineering, and creation is the subject of an epic book “Gustave Eiffel: De Tour Le 300 Metres”, written by Bertrand Lemoine, and published by Taschen. Who would have a such a book, including reproductions of the original construction drawings?  Buck, of course.        

 Why this rudimentary discussion of the the much documented and much admired monuments that dominate the landscape of Paris? I have a great passion for landscape ornament.  I buy and sell-new, vintage, and antique ornament.  I have studied their history, and familiarized myself with their classic forms, though I welcome any new take or invention.  I design landscapes with places for garden ornament.  I design and manufacture garden ornament.  This is the long way of saying that ornament for the garden has held my critical interest for a very long time.  This pair of iron obelisks and bases was offered for sale at   Though they have a much smaller scale than the obelisks in Paris, they are still very serious and dignified.  The ball feet that separate the obelisk from the base is a very graceful gesture, in contrast to their classical stature.  They have a texturally dense and important surface.  They ask for a large space, and a very formal garden.         


This pair of obelisks from the same site are pared down version of the previous set.  They have weight via the thickness of the metal, but are much less demanding visually.  They have a more modern look, and appeal.   Try as I may, I cannot find exactly where I saw these-perhaps from (which is an excellent blog, if you have an interest in antiques and their provenance).  



This steel wire obelisk is slight – airy.  Its formal shape would work well in my city garden, without overpowering the space.  The vertical members that terminate in small spheres stop short of creating too much steely congestion at the top.  Tom Chambers, the person who designed this obelisk and many others-I admire his work.  He understands  much about the power of a very simple gesture.  I could readily place this obelisk in a garden.  Its size, proportion, and aspect is both modest and distinctive.     


An obelisk made of wood is markedly different from those grand monuments made from stone or steel.  This design, and the sizes of the individual wood members interpret the garden obelisk on a personal and clearly human scale.  From the Egyptian obelisk at the Place de la Concorde to this obelisk in a meadow garden-a change of venue. This garden asks for an obelisk such as this.  Great design is so much about proper scale and proportion.  I like the looks of this.  It is up to the gardener to choose ornament that reflects an authenticity of place. This obelisk is made by and available from   

This pared down 2″ by 2″ cedar stick obelisk is beginning to strongly suggest the vegetable garden. Directions for building wood garden obelisks can be readily found on line.  I would not place this obelisk in a classic French potager-but my exposure to such a place is not all that frequent.  I have plenty of clients who have become quite interested and committed to growing food at home.  This obelisk begins to address their utilitarian issues. My point here?  A classically proportioned and very tall stone obelisk in my city garden, or my client’s vegetable gardens, would only be a monument to my lack of critical thinking.  I need to scale, proportion or choose an obelisk that feels right for the garden.  It is a good thing that there are many from which to choose.   

These issues drive my design work.  I can be grand.  I can secure and plant a collection of peonies that describes a century of hybridizing.  I can amass and grow on a collection of hellebores, or magnolias.  I can plant a pinetum, with all of the attending documentation.  Or I can scale back, and be driven by the dirt.  This trio of obelisks look great, and provide triple the support to a grove of tomatoes.

 These bamboo obelisks with their grapevine ball topknots make reference to a grand tradition-just a reference.  Interpreting history and  tradition in an appropriate way is part of my job.  These bamboo obelisks are simple, but they work.  This garden has lots to look at; the pots and obelisks are just part of a bigger scheme.  

 These steel obelisks made at the Branch studio are a result of my knowledge of the proportions and history of obelisks, and my relationship with a treasured client.  Do these obelisks challenge the Place De La Concorde?  Of course not!  Garden challenges are almost always personal.  Great gardens are about a person with a well developed point of view, and a passion for gardens.  A  thoughtful designer might add a little something to that mix.  I made sure the obelisk was tall enough for a vigorously growing heirloom tomato.  There are very long steel prongs which go into the soil, and help keep the structure vertical.   The diamond lattice is large enough to permit the hands that pick the fruit.  I am intrigued by the history and diverse expressions of this form.  Perhaps I will try designing another.

Zero At The Bone

 The first week of January for me is all about a certain dormancy that comes with the finality of season coming to a close. If you are old enough to have fallen asleep in front of a tv, and woken up the static that came after the day’s programming was over, you get the idea.  My pause button is engaged.  I am still putting the last of the holiday half and half in my coffee, and dreaming.  That phase will come to an abrupt end, the first of next week.

Next week, Rob, Steve and I will be scouting and shopping in the US for what we need to add to the spring of 2012 in the shop.  The end of January we will clean and repaint as usual.  This year I have a hardscape installation scheduled for the same time. 

The Branch studio is in the middle of a fabrication project for a client in Fort Worth. 

 Another local client’s iron work is scheduled to be ready for installation in two weeks.  We will have steel garden ornament from Branch at the shop this spring very different than anything we have done before.



 Rob will be on his way to Italy towards the end of January, until mid-February. 

 A pair of containers are scheduled to arrive from France in mid February.  Are my winters sleepy, like my garden?  Not especially. 


The garden is quiet over the winter.  This means there is as much time to drift over ideas, as there is time to concentrate.  As much as I dislike the winter, I could not do without it.      


To the best of my knowledge, Roland Tiangco, a graphic designer about whom I know little except that he lives in Brooklyn, created this interactive poster in 2009.  I never feel so much at home as I do with my hands in the dirt.  I look at this work of his from time to time-regularly.  This work of his is extraordinary.  Every time I see it, I feel that zero at the bone.  Zero at the bone?  Shockingly good. As in the bouquet of butterfly weed seed pods Rob assembled pictured above.  Shockingly provocative.  If you missed it, take a look.

A much different zero at the bone event?  The house Richard Meier designed and built for Howard Rachofsky. I live in a 1930’s Arts and Crafts house of which I am quite fond.  But this house challenges my eye in every way.  Love the landscape-a lawn interrupted by what looks like corten steel.  The photographs by B. Tse are great:

Such is the winter work.  Providing for a spring that is zero at the bone.






Budded Up


I was in bed long before midnight New Year’s Eve.  I never worry that the new year will get held up at the checkpoint unless I am watching.  Buck and I had a quiet dinner.  I turned in early; that sleep was deep. Did anyone enlist my help or interview me about the a year coming to a close, and a new year on the horizon?  Why would they? I am just one person making my best effort to garden my way through a life.  Just one gardener in a group of many tens of thousands.  Sure enough, the year, the season turned over without a hitch.  I had coffee at 5:20 am, as usual.  Everything seemed this first day of 2012 as it did the last day of 2011.

It will take two weeks for me to reliably make the change on my check date to 2012.  I may spend some time wringing my hands over my one year older age.  And then there will be the dreaded winter.  But in spite of the cold and the grey, there are signs of life in the garden.

A bud is a protuberance.  It is a growth sent forth from a previous structure.  Many trees, shrubs, and evergreen perennials put forth budded structures in advance of winter.  In early fall, the dogwoods bud up in anticipation of spring.   It is easy to tell the leaf buds from the flower buds.  I water my dogwoods copiously in the fall in anticipation of that budding, but they respond to another voice.  My dogwoods flower heavily every other year.  The spring to come will be a on year-a dogwood extravaganza.  The buds tell me so.

The forsythia start setting their flower buds not long after they bloom.  Late summer or fall pruning means you are pruning off the flowers to come in spring.  Lilacs and rhododendrons need pruning immediately after they bloom.  The summer and fall they devote their energy to next year’s flowers. The budding-a sure sign of the miracle of nature.  These fat buds will swell in the spring, giving rise to large and showy flowering trusses.  The flower heads must be 10 times the size of the bud. 

The magnolias and pachysandra bud up early in the fall.  You can spot their spring intentions in October, should you look.  I did walk my entire garden today-New Year’s Day.  My holiday obligations are done.  I have some time to myself.  Though the temperature was barely above freezing today, I was reassured, warmed by what I saw.  My garden has made plans for the spring.

All of my yews show signs of budding.  Those brown knobs contain the structure and the energy which will open up, and push new growth in the spring. In a good year, 8 inches of growth will begin and grow from each bud.  Each plant buds differently.  The structures, colors and forms are individual.  This means there is a lot to look at, even in the winter.  The winter is a tough time for me.  It seems to last at least a lifetime.  Todays tour tells me different.  Every tree and shrub has bet on spring.  I cannot really explain this, but I take great comfort from from the buds.   

 In embryology, the term budding refers to the process by which the living past gives life to the future. So simple, this sentence.  So beautifully complex and mesmerizing, the process.

 The new year finds sustenance from the compost of the previous year. Every plant has a plan to bud.  To emerge, in the spring.  It may seem that the winter is a long, quiet, and silent season.  But there is plenty going on out there. 

The roses look a little worse for wear, but for those bright red buds.  How they manage to look so juicy and alive in spite of the winter weather is nothing short of astonishing. 


A tree of heaven has many undesireable attributes, but that shiny brown leaf bud directly above last year’s leaf scar is quite beautiful.

This mass of forsythia is in a quiet stage of life, but inside a whole lot of yellow is brewing.

Ms. Indie

I had a visit from a very old client, and a great friend yesterday, December 30.  We have known each other a very long time; we have a relationship that has endured.  She is self effacing to a fault, and equally independent in her thinking and her gardening. This is a long way of saying we have been reliable friends for decades.  The moment she walked in the door, I could not take my eyes off her handbag. Did I know she made things such as this? No.  I persuaded her to let Jenny photograph it.  This hand knitted handbag is studded with no end of buttons and beads and holiday bits arranged in what amounts to a very personal celebration of the Christmas season.

My friend SW is very reserved.  Should you challenge that reserve, and should she decide to respond,  you would be graced with a completely unique and utterly independent view of the world.  Her landscape and garden is entirely of her own invention, but for some occasional coaching from me.  I see her infrequently; we have no regular social relationship.  But I am always happy to see her.  Her holiday visit-unexpected, and welcome.  We instantly had a topic of conversation.  I wanted to talk about that bag.  Nothing interests me more than heartfelt and original expression.   

Creative people of the utterly independent sort make my world a vastly better place to be.  People like SW expose me to ideas I would not otherwise be able to access.  As for you, Ms. Indie, your hand knitted and hand decorated holiday handbag is beyond gorgeous.  

I find it hard to believe that people do not flag her down in the grocery store or the library to talk to her about it, but she says not.  That might be attributable to shyness, or the reluctance to address a stranger.  I find any truly individual expression worthy of interest and acknowledgement.  This is one person’s vision and represention of the idea of celebration.  It has a quirky, funny, and visionary quality about it.   

Each button and bead has been collected with an idea in mind. The back of the bag has fewer B and B’s-I forgot to ask if she adds to this bag as she finds things she likes.  The holiday light bulbs sewn into the fringe-this is more than enough fun to make me laugh out loud.  The top of the bag reads just like a thick coating of snow.   

The handles, spirals and side decoration are skillfully fashioned.  Love that pink with the red.

Getting a good look at this bag was a treat.  I will confess I am a fan of handbags.  There are so many made with great style and interesting materials.  A daily bag permits me to haul around what I feel need carry.  This includes my camera, and may include a three inch pot of this, or a cutting from a troubled plant.  My orange bag is old and worn, and I would replace it with exactly the same bag if it were still being made, or if I could find a vintage copy in better shape than mine.  So far, no luck.  I love the color, and greatly appreciate the rubber bottom- the dirt from a garden wipes right off.  A gift of a clutch encrusted with rhinestone flowers I have yet to carry-I just look at it.  Would I carry a bag such as this-absolutely. This is much more than a place to stash a wallet and keys. It is a celebration she carries with her the entire month of December.   

 SW actually had another reason to stop by-she had a New Year’s gift for me.  The yummiest colored warmest hand wool and mohair knit mittens it has ever been my pleasure to own.  Of course I had to test drive them.  Not only are they comfortable and very warm, I could focus and push the shutter on my camera wearing them.

I am always glad that my Christmas gifts routinely include warm winter gear.  New coat, new boots, new hats-and now new mittens.  I hate being cooped up inside all winter-my friends know that.  New winter clothes help me gear up for the longest part of the gardening year.  Am I ready for winter, for the New Year?  Yes I am, in part thanks to you, Ms. Indie.