Archives for November 2012

Winter Preview


The close of the gardening season in late fall means the winter gardening season is not far behind.  The winter season at Detroit Garden Works had a very simple beginning 10 years ago.  Why does any gardener need to look at and live with empty pots all winter? We began slowly, with a selection of coppice wood twigs, fresh cut greens of every description, and weatherproof berry picks.  People liked that idea, and were game for more.      

Now we offer a wide selection of materials for winter containers, both natural and weatherproof.  Materials for holiday and winter both inside and out fill the entire shop from the first week of November until the middle of January.  Though we try to carry a wide range of materials that appeal to gardeners of all kinds, we usually have an organizing metaphor or scheme for each season.  This year-the forest floor.  Lots of things get moved around, and every surface gets washed, before we set the stage.  This year, big branches were wedged or wired between the floor and the ceiling. The major and big items get placed. 

Weeks later, the details begin to fall into place.   

Once the trees were set in place, we needed a forest floor.  We collected the leaves that fell from my magnolias at home the day they fell.  Leaves that have just dropped still have moisture in them, and are flexible.  Of course we intended that our floor would flow over the edges of the shelves.  This meant that many of the leaves needed to be secured to our floor forms with fern pins.  Jenny and I must have gone through a box of a thousand.

Why all this fuss?  The sourcing and cutting of a collection of giant branches and dragging them inside,  the collecting of the leaves and arranging them made a believable home for everything that we had shopped for.  The shop is not just a shop.  We hope it is an experience of the garden.  Though the short red berry picks and the muslin mushrooms came from different places, they both had a home to go to that made visual sense.

Though there is an incredible variety of objects, they all look as though they belong.  We never open a box, and set it out on a shelf.  The intent is to show how those materials can be used, and to what effect.  And that we celebrate each season in turn, as it deserves to be celebrated.

If you garden in Michigan, a sense of humor about the winter to come is a handy thing to have.  These felt birds with their caps and scarves make wry reference to the cold that is surely on the way.  Filling the front porch pots with an arrangement of materials, decorating a tree outside with lights and a tree inside with berry picks, making a wreath for the door-energizing, fun, creative-satisfying. 

Decorating my yard for the holidays is a form of gardening.  Though I am not digging holes, and watering, I am designing with the intent that my winter garden embraces the season, and be beautiful.  Good gardens have a lot going for them in the winter.  The evergreens are beautiful in the snow.  The dry heads of the hydrangeas will persist most of the winter.  The dark angular shapes of the trees in their bare state are striking against a moody winter sky.  To this I mean to add a little cheer.

I am thinking I might want a big twiggy branch for a Christmas tree this year.  The bare branches are so easy to load with  lights, garland, and ornaments.  The shop this season is spectacularly twigged out.  Should you live nearby, our winter preview starts this coming Thursday evening at 5, and continues throughout the weekend.   

Our forest floor is by no means all of what we have going on.  It will take every bit of the time left between now and Thursday night for our group to get every last spot looking its winter best. Should you live too far away to visit, I will post lots of pictures in hopes you can get a feeling for our winter gardening ideas.

A celebration of the garden is always in order.




Coppice Wood

Coppicing is a traditional method of producing long straight woody stems by cutting a tree or a shrub back to the ground.  Many varieties of woody plants respond to this drastic treatment with vigorous growth-from the ground.  Coppice wood was used to provide firewood in European countries where the number of trees were vastly outnumbered by a large population requiring fire for cooking and heat.  Shrubby trees wre planted on the perimeters of farms; regular coppicing produced densely twiggy living fences.   

The new shoots emerging from the stump of a tree grow long and straight.  The juvenile growth is vigorous, and the color is vibrant.  In England, the coppice wood from the sweet chestnut tree is still used to make fencing and fence poles for livestock and poultry.  The sweet chestnut is coppicied on 12 to 18 year cycles, and then harvested to make fencing and gates.  The poles come from coppice wood which is allowed to grow upwards of 30 years before cutting. 

The fresh cut twigs which arrive at the shop in early November are grown by farmers who plant their shrubs in rows or blocks, like crops.  Large fields are harvested in rotation, so every year there is a crop of long straight stems.  Many of our twigs come from varieties of salix, or willow. Every gardener knows that the new or current year’s growth on a red twig dogwood shrub has the best color.  Mature stems become woody, and the color dull.  The new bark of coppice wood is lively.  Newer cultivars of the redtwig dogwood have better and brighter color.  The coppice wood of this redtwig dogwood cultivar is known for its especially brilliant color. 

Once the leaves fall, those twigs which are ready are harvested, sorted by length, bundled and shipped.  Most bunches are 10 stems, except for the curly willow.  The winter color of curly willow stems is subtle, but no so its shape.  The curving and curling stems provide lots of volume-these voluminous bunches are usually 5 stems.  5 stems of this gracefully airy and unpredictably curving willow can endow a winter container arrangement with lots of rhythm and movement.

Coppiced yellow twig dogwood is brilliantly yellow green.  The twigs will be color fast the entire winter.  Used in a winter container, it is not unusual for the stems to root, and leaf out in the spring.  Though but a very few of the leaves are still clinging, the branches are vibrant at a time of year when most all else in the garden has gone dormant. 

Flame willow is a striking coppery orange in color-quite unlike the bark of the trees and shrubs that grow in my garden.  This warm cinnamon color is a standout in snowy and gray weather.  This variety of willow is much more handsome in its twiggy state than it is as a green-leaved shrub. 

Japanese fan willow was cultivated from a fasciated, or flattened natural stem.  Many perennials and shrubs will exhibit this peculiar characteristic.  Some azaleas that exhibit densely twiggy growth were propagated originally from fasciated stems.  Fan willow is noted for its exotic shapes and forms.  No two branches ever look the same.

Curly copper willow exhibits much the same habit of growth as the green curly willow.  However the striking color means it will take fewer branches to make a statement in a winter container.  Our coppice wood has arrived at just the right time.  The cold temperatures outside will help keep them fresh, and the surface of the bark glossy.  Thought the color will survive the winter perfectly intact,  the warm weather in the spring will eventually dessicate and shrivel the stems. 

But there is a place for dry stems in winter containers.  Dead wood branches that have shed their bark can be beautiful in a winter arrangement.  Bleached natural branches are dramatically pale in color, and are visible from a great distance.  

The coppice wood-just one element of many that goes into a beautiful winter container arrangement.



Gray Day

The fire that was our fall has burnt itself out, but for a few embers here and there.  Those embers are largely the heat that is generated by passionate gardeners.  The plans to plant bulbs.  How to store the cannas.  What they feel they must try-next season.  A new house requiring some semblance of a landscape before the snow flies.  But the fact remains that the leaves from our shop wall of boston ivy fell in unison overnight, making a crispy heap all along the base of the wall. The skies have been rainy and gray all day-the wind brisk and cold.  The color in the garden this late-muted, and dry.     

My small rose garden is but a shadow of its summer self.  The last few flowers on the Sally Holmes roses are droopy, the petals punctuated by rose pink markings from the cold rain.  The asparagus, weighted down by the cold rain, is grudgingly turning yellow.  Along with my Parrotias, it is the last plant in garden to succumb to the fall, and turn color. Once the asparagus turns, I know the gray days are soon to come.

Buck shut the fountain down a week ago.  Dry maple leaves floated on the still surface.  Many more maple leaves have sunk to the bottom,  turning the water brown.  The decomposing leaves stain the stone.  He drained the pool yesterday.  I am in no hurry to go see it-empty.  Closing the fountain is every bit as emotional day as that day when we open it in the spring.  The opening and closing-part and parcel of gardening in a zone that has four seasons.

What plant could possibly be more dramatic about about the close of the gardening season than the hostas?  Once the cold infiltrates their stems and leaves, they collapse in a mushy heap on the ground.  Flattened-that is exactly how the late fall makes me feel.  It’s too late to garden, beyond the planting of the fall bulbs.  It’s too early for winter. It’s too early for a down coat, but its too late for a sweater.  It is way too early to wring my hands, and wish the season had been better.  It is too late to plant a few more anemones.       

We did redo a landscape on a small property last week; this renovation included a sizeable perennial garden.  If I plant perennials this late in the fall, I am sure to tromp down the rootballs firmly.  No rooting will take place now, and the frost coming out of the ground in the spring will want to heave those rootballs out of the ground.  We stamp every plant down firmly.  At the end of winter, when the frost starts coming out of the ground, we will check to be sure no plants have heaved up. 

Though we are still actively involved in the installation of landscapes, several of which are for newly constructed homes, the close of the gardening season is tough to take. Amazingly, we have not had a hard frost yet.  Down the street from me, a marigold border is flat out gorgeous.  Maybe it’s just my gray-colored glasses, but most of the landscape looks like it is grieving.

Astonishing how the leaves of the Boston ivy fall all at once, leaving their stalwart pink stems still attached.  These rosy stems defying gravity made me smile- in spite of that  cloud of gloom following me around.

The coming of the dark-I do not welcome it.  But there will be moments, experiences to come that I will enjoy.  The winter season in Michigan-who knows what nature has in store for this year.  Putting the shovel and the pruners away means there will be time for the holidays, the winter containers, the books – and the planning for the new season to come.  This was a very hard season-I am not so sorry to see it gone.  The April frosts that killed every flower on my magnolias, and the extreme heat and drought that challenged all of my summer gardening efforts-I am relieved to see that come to a closeIn spite of this griping about my summer season, I am sorry to see it gone.



Halloween Light

The new landscape lighting got done just in the nick of time-for Halloween.  What a difference it made!  Little kids in costumes with skirts ands pants that were extravagantly long could negotiate my steps with ease.  Those with big wigs, masks, elaborate costumes, and knit caps to ward off the cold, had some light to help them get to the door. 

The lights positioned outside the front door made it easy for me to see every costume, and every face.  Though one places a premium on scary at Halloween, a well lighted walk and destination makes for an experience of the landscape that is more fun for everyone.  The puzzled looks you see here-my French friend Matthias asking each trick or treater “who are you??”.  Each reaction was immediate, and unfiltered by a dark meeting place.

Though many of my pictures are blurred, they tell a story.  This is my once a year contact with the kids who live in my neighborhood.  This is their once a year interaction with me. The new landscape lighting helped all of us to see each other better. 

My arms are still aching from carving 6 giant pumpkins.  I will never again be fooled by the label-“carving pumpkins”.  I somehow thought these carving pumpkins would be thin walled-easy for a florist’s knife to handle.  This pumpkin had walls every bit of 2 inches thick.  Hours it took to carve them.  I did put 7 votive candles in each of my pumpkins-Buck thought I was nuts.  But I am used to the light from the pumpkins supplying all of my Halloween light.  Last year, the nest of gourds that I usually set my pumpkins on would not have been visible. This year, the light from the eaves makes them part of the show.  The work was worth it-it showed.  

The porch was a well lit place.  This was a good thing, considering that it was cold, and spitting rain.  It interests me that landscape lighting can provide so much atmosphere for an event-or a garden.  Last week, the lighting was friendly-all about illumination.  Halloween night it was all about a little drama.  The shadows cast by the lights-just as scary as the holiday.

Though the work of the carving was a lot, my pumpkin pots were looking good.  Lots of fire on the inside.  Enough light outside to reveal their shapes and stems. 

The look of this pumpkin without light from above would have told but half the story.  More kids asked about my pumpkins this Halloween than ever before.  Many kids asked me if they were real.  The lighting made all the difference to the presentation.   This exterior lighting is making the many dark months ahead seem less dreary.  Even intriguing. Some thoughtful landscape lighting-I recommend it.