Archives for October 2012

Lighting The Side Yard

I really don’t have a back yard.  My property occupies a corner.  A front, on two sides-that is a corner lot.  I am sure that lack of a private back yard influenced the original design and configuration of my driveway.  Made of brick, (I have replaced the deteriorating original brick with concrete brick) it is incredibly wide at the street. (picture those 1930’s Packards turning in)  The drive narrows like an hourglass to a little over 8 feet wide, half way up.  That narrow gap was an effort to provide a little privacy to the side yard.  After 16 years of twice daily practice, I am able to get my Suburban out 99% of the time, without scraping the wheels on the retaining walls. 

A pair of cast iron bloodhounds on concrete pedestals are awash in decent sized and fairly mature beds of hellebores-a favorite perennial. I look forward to seeing this every day-coming and going.  This makes it a natural candidate for some landscape lighting of the celebratory type.  I will soon be coming home after dark, and I don’t want to give up the view of my dogs.   

This first pass- the light is too close, and too hot.  The intense light creates shadows that make the dog look threatening. That is not my intention.  The idea is that I get a welcome home.  The winter season would be bearable, but for the gray and the dark.     

A pair of Galaxy magnolias are planted in the narrowest part of the drive.  They have been there long enough to make a green arbor of magnolia branches overhead.  That narrow spot is the darkest spot on my property.  A big stand of dark green Picea Mucrunulatum and taxus densiformis make this moment in my landscape feel like a black hole in the winter.   

I don’t mind some stronger light here.  It helps me to get through the driveway isthmus without incident.  OInce the magnolias have dropped their leaves, the light be be much more subtle.  This landscape lighting helps me navigate. 

A friend found these Arts and Crafts style vintage light fixtures for me-they are perfect on either side of the garage.  They are always on.  Summer and winter.  Day and night.  I never tire of seeing them.  Early on a spring morning, or late on a summer day, they let me know they are there.  

Once the skies go dark, they help light my way.  Good landscape lighting is as much about function as beauty.  Though no light could ever possibly be as beautiful, in all of its variations, as natural light, the invention of electricity did indeed change the landscape. 

A flight of stone stairs begin at the driveway, and end in the upper level fountain garden.  My giant old Norway maple is a benign host to 3 spotlights that light up the drive where I park, and those stairs.  This light from above illuminates my path to the garage door, and to the upper garden, should I decide to go that route.  This lighting is not so much about a favorite landscape feature as it is about safe passage. 

Buck shut the fountain down yesterday.  It is clogged with leaves, and the weather is too chilly to linger here.  This is my most unfavorite day of the gardening year.  Water in a garden is enchanting.  serene.  sparkly and lively.  I hate having to give it up.  Next weekend he will drain the water from the fountain.  I have always disliked the coming of the end for this garden. 

Lighting from high in the Princeton Gold maples makes it easy for me to keep track of the Corgis after work.  The lighting also transforms this garden into another garden particular to the season.  My bedroom has a window that looks out on the fountain.  All winter long I keep the shade half up, and the window slightly open.  The lighting will allow me to enjoy this part of my garden, no matter the weather.

I do have a flight of stairs to the rose garden.  The stone is rough, and uneven.  For months after my knee replacement, Buck helped me walk up these stairs.  My new knee now-perfect.  But I would not walk up there stairs in the dark. 

Buck and I usually have dinner late-7:30-sometimes 8:30.  I take the Corgis out for a final constitutional, after dinner.  Milling around in the complete and utter dark with them-not my idea of a swell time.  I love these downlights in my maples.  Lighting a landscape might help provide more of what you need from a great garden than what is apparent on a summer day.  My idea?  Light, whether it be from the sky, or the end result of an electrical connection, is an important element of landscape design.  The landscape at night-a different sort landscape experience.    



Lighting The Landscape

The landscape lighting I have at home was confined to some path lights along my front walk-nothing else.  The path lights had all but disappeared into the boxwood, given how much it has grown since those lights were installed.  In the summer, it is easy to see and navigate the steps coming up to the front door.  Once the days get shorter and the weather cold, I am not out here.  But every time we have company in the late fall or winter, I worry that someone will trip and fall.  Last winter, two older dinner guests fell into the boxwood.  They thought it was hilarious-I was mortified.  It was time to call a lighting person.  Lighting the landscape serves multiple purposes.  It helps provide for safe passage, it provides security, and it can add another dimension to the late fall and winter garden. 


My front porch is enclosed; their are 4 porch lights on the inside.  This is not much help to someone walking up the steps to the front door.  The glare from the inside light made the porch steps and front door even darker.  My first request-a pair of small spot lights mounted on the underhang which would illuminate the door.  That warm light from these two small fixtures does a good job of saying “we are expecting you”.  Second on my list-the path lights buried in the boxwood.

Path lights direct the light down and to the side.  Light shining into the eyes of someone walking up would make the trip even more difficult.  The metal hats direct the light where it needs to be.  Once the new risers were installed, the front walk was illuminated such that anyone could walk up comfortably and confidently. 

The lighting designer suggested lighting the walls of the front of the house.  That fire brick from the 1930’s is lovely.  Washing the walls with light at night features that architectural detail, and the relationship of the house to the landscape.  These wider fixtures illuminate a wider area than a spot light, or path light. 

Placing the fixture in the right spot can be tricky.  The fixtures in my landscape are strictly utilitarian.  They are only as big as they need to be, and they are black.  I did not want to see them during the day.  Not only do they need to be hidden from the daytime view, they need to be the right distance and angle from the wall so as to wash the wall with light.  A wall drenched with light might be a good idea for a commercial building or a theatre production, but can easily overwhelm a residential landscape. 

I have a container planted with a yew topiary at each end of the house; they  I did want to softly light them.  A pair of fixtures can be seen at the bottom of this picture.  As the fixture needed to be disguised in the boxwood, I needed two lights in order to get the light to cover the pot evenly. 

The light on the right brushes the boxwood a little too harshly.  The bottom of the pot has no light.  For obvious reasons, a landscape contractor has to do the work of the installation during the day.  This makes it very important to contract with someone who is willing to look at the job at night, and make any necessary changes. 

The original path lights on risers solved the issue of lighting the walk.  Though I do not have very many people coming to my front door, how this looks at night is attractive and warm.  The best antidote I know of for the winter blues is some light. 

I also have 4 pots which face the street.  They are perfectly visible in the summer, but I fill them with twigs, greens, and other materials of the season for the winter.  Though I put lights in my pots, an evenly applied landscape light on the face will permit those pots to be seen all winter.  Given that it is dark here by 5pm in the winter, that lighting will be much appreciated.  Though I am not out there in the winter, I drive by my house every day on my way to the driveway.

For some years I have been pruning the yew hedge on the street side of the pots so the entire pot and planting could be seen, top to bottom.  This pair of spotlights are unobtrusive during the day, but will be very effective at night.

On the first go around, it seemed to me that the lights were too close to the pots, and the wattage too high.  This look might be great around the holidays, when too much light is enough to make you smile, but for an average gloomy winter day, it is too bright.  We have since moved the lights further away, and dialed down the wattage.

The light is too strong here too.  There should not be any light pattern on the wall; the light itself should be dim, and even.  The light on the topiary is so strong that the color is washed out.

From this picture I have been able to make changes.  The front porch lights will stay as they are-strong in a downward direction.  The path lights do the job they need to do, in the same downward direction.  The lighting on the walls and pots-much too strong.  A lighting scheme needs as much simplicity as a good landscape scheme.  Subtle and useful lighting takes time and patience to achieve, but I think I am going to be happy with the results.






Buck’s Charisse Box

I am so very pleased that one of our Branch boxes is featured in an article written by Marian McEvoy in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal.  Even though I have already written about it on the Detroit Garden Works facebook page, there is a story behind the design, development and fabrication of a container for a garden that might be of interest.      

First off you need a building-a studio.  That studio needs tools both big and little.  A few five ton bridge cranes have turned out to be very helpful.  But most of all you need people who can turn an idea into an object. I have always wanted to design and fabricate beautiful containers and ornament for the garden.  A container that can withstand any climate or season, from the salt air in Florida to the heat in Texas and the cold in Minnesota, is a container that can provide many years of service.  Given that lead, that classic material for garden ornament, sculptures and containers has become incredibly costly, steel with a finish that brings the color of lead to mind seemed like a good idea.  The Charisse box is not so easy to fabricate.  The frame and handles are made of both tubular and solid round lengths of steel.  Welding one section to another requires a lot of cutting and precise fitting.  Sal, Dan and Buck fabricate for Branch, but these were Buck’s to make.    

Each box is assembled from a lot of pieces that need to be cut fairly close to perfect.  Mistakes in the length and angles of a piece, times many pieces, can add up to a box that bears no resemblance to square. The only square stock in the frame is a diamond, welded from curved lengths of steel.  Buck’s other boxes have a simple and solid design.  I was interested in making one box that was a more graceful.  Making steel look graceful is not so easy. 

It took quite some time just to get the frame together, square and true.  Since the original Charisse boxes were made in 2005, changes have been made.  Though Buck does multiple CAD drawings for everything he builds, the finished box tells the tale.  Certain dimensions have been altered.  It takes more time than I ever thought it would to get the size and proportion of a box just where it should be     

The scrolled steel handles and diamonds came next.  The tops of the tubular steel has small steel shperes welding to them as a finishing touch.  Steel straps are welded to the bottom of the frame, to hold the steel box that would slip inside the frame.

The legs have an inverted flower detail.  Each leg has several of them welded together, for strength.

The bottom of the leg has a sleeve of thicker and larger steel, for stability.  This is a very heavy box, supported by very slender legs. 

There are plenty of details, and lots of curves. 

handle detail

snail scroll handles

the Branch Studio tag

The article is a very interesting and well written discussion of containers in the garden, and garden containers that will withstand fall and winter weather.  Containers filled with plants in the landscape in all of the seasons sounds appealing.  Something in the landscape to look at besides snow on the ground and gray skies is a good plan.  That Buck’s Charisse box would be on her list of beautiful and weather-worthy containers -all of us are really thrilled about that. – Hot Pots For the Chilly Lot




October Light

The picture I took of the sky this morning does not really capture that glowing gold and pink light that warmed everything in the landscape it touched. October skies have those moments that can take your breath away.  This beautiful light blew in like a sudden squall-I could see it would not last long.    

The field next door was awash in pink gold light.  So beautiful!  The intense quality of light in a sunny summer garden is very different than the filtered light of a spring shade garden.  The flat light that characterizes our gray Michigan weather is a far cry from this golden fall light.  When you design, think about what light will do for, or in spite of, your composition.

Light dramatically affects the appearance of a garden or landscape.  I read, and I look at no end of photographs of landscapes.  A landscape photographed under that very special and ephemeral October light looks dramatically different than a landscape photographed in the glare of the summer sun, or the gloomy light of winter.  Plan for both. 

I do think light is a key element in good landscape design.  Dark areas may ask for chartreuse leaves or white flowers.  Bright areas may ask for something entirely different.  Dark foliage and shapes may benefit from a sunny placement.  Great landscapes stand up to, and engage whatever light is the daily special.  In any event, a consideration of the light, no matter the season, should play a considerable part in the design process.  When I photograph a garden or landscape, I wait for that natural light that will make for the best picture.  But I cannot count on that light for more than a moment. 

The nicotiana in the shop garden has been delightful since late May.  Who knows why the planting was never plagued by aphids.  I amazed that they did not go out of bloom entirely during this summer’s scorching heat.  This level of investment in nicotiana was in spite of my better judgment.  Who has any idea how a plant will fare in any given summer season?  I bought a ticket with no options for a change or upgrade. I was lucky.  The nicotiana still looks beautiful.  In the light this morning, this mass of nicotiana looked great.  I was faithful about the water, and the care, but how they look in mid October-much about the nature of the season and the low light.

Our farmer’s market was similarly endowed by the gorgeous October light this morning.  Every pumpkin was on fire-irresistable in form and color.  Light does an incredible job of describing forms.  Hve the idea to assess the effect of light?  Look at your landscape every day, in all kinds of weather.  A tree viewed from the front side of the light appears incredibly different than a tree which is back lit. The low angle and intensity of the early morning golden light made everything in my immediate view look good-vibrant and juicy.    

Julie’s Floral at the Oakland County Farmer’s Market specializes in fine and unusual 4″ plant material, water plants, vines, dahlias, and topiary plants from the very beginning of the market summer season to the end.  They also grow cutting flowers.  The light this morning made their flowers glow.  Did I buy?  Oh yes.     

This group of pumpkin stacks looked especially good this morning. A stack of pumpkins is not so much my thing, though I would applaud the sculptural look of a 10 or 30 of stacks.  Set level, and in a shape or arrangement that enchanted my eye.  Some expression asks for lots. The sculptural look of these stacks this morning was much about the light.  

Chinese lanterns, or Physalis, mature in October.  Their color ranges from gold to intense orange.  Given the gold light this morning, I could not take my eyes off of them.  They glowed orange.  The rectangular shape and pale green color of the stems, in contrast to those orange lanterns, tell an engaging visual tale about the fall garden.   

Fall asters-their willing bloom and clear color make them a favorite in a fall garden.  This morning they were achingly beautiful.  That October light made me want to take all of them home. 

Marlene had bunches of peppers suitable for drying for sale this morning.  She is a first rate grower, horticulturist, and farmer.  She is an outstanding gardener and grower.  I can count on finding what I never expected from her.  The colors of her peppers were so brilliantly saturated.  Laying eyes on these bunches made me so glad that I had gotten up early.  How any gardener chooses to light their garden, and their gardening life- extraordinarily important.