Archives for February 2013

Shades Of Gray


We are firmly entrenched in the gray zone now.  It’s February in Michigan.  Just about everything is one shade of gray or another.  The gray skies,  dirty snow, salted surfaces and relentless cold-an off key ode to gloom.  The trunks of the trees, the bare branches and the remains of the perennial garden have taken on that gray cast.  Relentless rain and fog for days gave way to temperatures in the teens.  I have leaks in the roof at Branch.  The backflow preventer at Detroit Garden Works failed-the leaking water was masked by the rain.  Now that it is 14 degrees, that water is transformed into a mountain of ice.  I can see every breath I take-great.  We lost power at home-what can be done for that?  We went to bed at 8:45pm, under a mountain of blankets.  The digital clock I have had since I was 19 was dead by morning.  The dogs want no part of going outside unless, much to my annoyance, I go with them.  This is by way of explaining that I have no gray walls, furniture or towels.  No gray car.  No gray boots, scarves, socks, dresses or sweaters.  But how this galvanized metal tray looks against the concrete floor in the shop-not bad.


Lead is another word for gray, as in the phrase “leaden skies”.  Lead garden ornaments are among the earliest ever made.  It is remarkable how many from centuries ago still survive.  Lead is a soft, very dense and heavy metal.  You can dent it with a pencil.  Not the least of its attributes is its longevity.  Many garden ornaments eventually succumb to the weather.  Wood rots.  Iron rusts.  Concrete cracks.  Lead however,  is forever.  This cistern is several centuries old, and bears many scars-the story of which I will never know.  But it still holds water-perfectly.


Lead has a very low melting point, making it an ideal metal for casting.  Lead toys were once common.  But now that the health hazards of breathing lead dust or ingesting lead are well known, its manufacture and use is confined to architectural materials and garden ornament.


This picture is a detail from a lead square from Bulbeck.  Bulbeck Foundry in England manufactures very fine quality lead objects.  Contemporary lead ornament is incredibly expensive.  The price of the raw metal is astronomical now; I rarely buy lead for the garden anymore-the price is too dear.  I have a small collection of lead ornament-my supply has been steadily dwindling.  The day I have no lead to offer will be a sad day indeed.  This particular shade of gray is softly beautiful.  A lead pot is an elegant and permanent addition to the garden.


Galvanized metal-just what does this mean, exactly?  Steel and iron rust from contact with the air, and with water.  Rust eats away at the metal.  Eventually, unprotected steel will disintegrate.  Galvanizing is a process by which a coating of zinc is applied to steel.  Galvanized metal has a characteristic gray color.  Galvanizing is a process commonly applied to buckets, farm tools, screws, troughs, screens, and garbage cans.  Farming and industrial objects were coated with zinc to make them more weather worthy.  I have seen countertops made from solid zinc.  While solid zinc sheeting is very expensive, this metal is inert and non-toxic.  Zinc coated buckets and troughs are reasonable in price and quite durable.


That gray color that is galvanized gray acquires a beatiful patina as it ages.  Rob is fond of those utilitarian objects that pertain to industry or agriculture that might find a new home in the garden.  Farm buckets planted with herbs enchant him in the same way as a galvanized trench drain might be repurposed as a garden shelf.  This old galvanized table top reveals its age.  Those places where the galvanizing has worn through are rusting.


Galvanized metal containers that have been always used indoors can be easily moved outdoors.  We have repurposed both steel chocolate vats and industrial tubs for the garden.  A galvanized container planted for the season is at home in the country as it is the most contemporary of settings.  This galvanized bakery box could hold tools, or be planted. I could see it filled with water, and home to a lotus. This shade of gray has possibilities.


I have a collection of galvanized metal flower buckets-they are very useful when I am conditioning flowers for a wedding or event.  This vintage bucket, graced with a brass tag identifying its origin, is a beautiful object in and of itself.  A collection of these buckets-yes, he spoke for all of them. Though I am not a fan of gray February days, gray as in galvanized is a good looking gray.


Every gardener is interested in ornament for the garden that is rugged, and easy to look after.  Galvanized metal is virtually maintenance free.  A large galvanized tub is relatively light weight-compared to lead, concrete or stone.  If I plant such a tub, I drill a number of holes in the bottom for drainage.  The zinc coating may eventually wear through to the base metal.  Some of the sheet metal window boxes at the shop will need replacing this year, as the zinc is worn through, and the steel is rusting out.  But those boxes were inexpensive to purchase, and lasted 15 years.


The bottom of this large vintage galvanized tub has a beautifully aged surface.  It is large enough to provide a home for a sizeable herb or flower garden.  Hung on a wall, it would be a visual discussion of what can be beautiful about gray.



At A Glance: A Winter Party


I so welcome a chance to do cut flower arrangements for a party in the winter.  Flowers-who would elect to do without them!  At the moment,  I am a gardener without a garden.  This means I am wringing my hands over the dormant season.  I welcome any chance to step out of the gray.  This occasion-a 70th birthday.  The clients-their viewpoint is decidedly contemporary.  This rubber vase of theirs-astonishing in scale, material, and color.


My interpretation speaks to the vase, as it should.  Lots and lots of dianthus Green Trick, and 100 stems of copper willow make something of this extraordinary vase.


The honoree of this particular birthday is a man.  He stands every inch of 6′ 6″, and has a heart many times this size.  What would I do for him?


The choice of flowers had everything to do with what might delight him.  The color choices-entirely about the environment in which they live.


My part in this is but a very small part of the celebration.  Many friends and family would attend.  The occasion, the environment, the food-the community-all of these elements would provide atmosphere for a very special and important occasion.


As for me, it was a shock and a delight to have an occasion to have flowers in sight.  Flowers in hand.  Flowers to arrange.  How I miss the flowers!  The long standing relationship with my clients-memories accompanied this work.  Garden oriented work in February-I treasure this, given this desolate part of the year.  Arranging flowers for this party, these particular people, did me a world of good.


Gardeners, florists, and farmers-none of us are so far apart.  This is my read,  on this February day.

Italian Terra Cotta Pots

Italian terra cotta pots

There are few objects in the gardening world with the iconic status of a clay pot.  The phrase terra cotte can be literally translated from the Italian as “fired earth”.  Clay is a type of dense mineral soil characterized by a reluctance to drain, and a sticky texture.  Never mind the science-every gardener knows what it is to plant into heavy clay soil.  Backbreaking.  Firing clay – slowly heating it for an extended period to a very high temperature – results in physical and chemical changes that are irrevocable. Fired earth makes objects of great service, from drain and roofing tiles to garden pots.  The fired earth is porous, meaning it will both absorb and give up water.  Why is it that a plant in a clay pot will dry out in the blink of an eye, when my clay based soil holds its water forever?  I do not know the answer to this, but I do know the porous quality of terra cotta pots is friendly to the development of good strong roots.  Container grown plants thrive in clay pots.


Some of the earliest clay pots in Italy were used to store olive oil.  This shape exists to this day.   Modern clay pots are manufactured in several ways.  Machine formed terra cotta-I have lots of those ubiquitous 8″ diameter pots.  I have bought myrtle topiaries, dahlias, and lavender planted in them.  They come in an astonishing range of sizes-from bulb pans to azalea pots to long toms-love them all.  They are a symbol and a tool for growing. These pots are inexpensive-they are mass produced, and fired at a fairly low temperature.  Knock one over and it will break. A machine made terra cotta pot left outdoors over our winter will absorb water from the ground and air.  When the water in the clay freezes, it expands.  Frozen water that expands can shatter a pot.  Machine made terra cotta is fine year round for mild climates that do not routinely experience below freezing temperatures like we do.  Treasured terra cotta pots in my zone need to come in for the winter.


Hand made terra cotta pots are not so common any more.  Many of the most  beautiful are made near Impruneta,  in Italy. Different potteries have different styles, but they all have that characteristic pale orange color that originates with the clay.  Some hand made pots are thrown on a wheel.  Others are formed by pushing the clay into a rope form using methods that are centuries old.  A handmade terra cotta pot is easy to spot.  The color, texture, and form is quite unlike any machine made terra cotta.   In a garden, the color of terra cotta is as ubiquitous and as neutral a  color as green. In this sense, neutral means expected, appropriate.  I cannot think of any plant whose beauty would be compromised by a planting in a terra cotta pot.  Funny, this.  My orange purse attracts attention.  A terra cotta pot in the garden seems so natural it is almost invisible.  Terra cotta pots in the garden-a given.


Prior to the invention of grocery stores, people grew their own fruit trees in pots, and wintered them indoors, or in an orangerie.  At that time, if you want to cook with lemons, or eat oranges, a citrus tree in a terra cotta pot was the only way.  The terra cotta pot provided a viable home for a plant far away from home.  A lemon tree in an Italian terra cotta pot is a beautiful addition to a garden, no matter where you live.  Though I like containers of different style and period, terra cotta is my material of choice.  I like the history.  I like the idea that they are fashioned from dirt and fire.  I like how my plants thrive in them.


I do not mean to suggest that terra cotta pots are only made in Italy.  Far from it!  Every gardening culture produces garden pots from fired earth.  The pot pictured above-French made. We make terra cotta pots in the US.  Whichford pottery in England makes incredibly strong and serviceable terra cotta pots.


Terra cotta pots, no matter their age, period or origin, speak strongly to all that is right with a gardening life.  These containers fashioned from fired earth can provide a good home for treasured plants.  I could never stack my handmade terra cotta pots with plants growing in plastic pots, as in the above picture.  Beautifully made terra cotta pots are what I would call sculpture.  I have one antique olive jar in my terra cotta collection. I hold my breath from the time I take it outside until after it is planted.  But I think I understand what is at work here.  Terra cotta pots, even qntiques ones, are a part of every day life, not a precious object which needs reverential treatment.


This terra cotta yard in Italy is incredibly beautiful-do you not agree?  Would that my shop could look just like this. Terra cotta pots in the garden.  Casual grass.  Gravel paths.  This is a landscape that is about utility.


The majority of the pots I have at home are terra cotta, of the handmade sort.  Hand made terra cotta from Impruneta in Italy are fashioned one at a time.  They are fired at very high temperature for a very long time.  I have left them outside over my Michigan winter without damage.  But I would not recommend that anyone else do this-too many things can go wrong.  A blocked drain hole, a heavy winter rain, or falling tree limb can spell disaster.


Rob has bought all sorts of terra cotta over the years, from many different places.  They all have their distinctive style and color.  They all look pretty good to me.  My collection of terra cotta pots provides me with so much pleasure-I would not want to do without them.


These pots are very much a part of the Italian landscape-both formal and not so formal. They are equally at home in my landscape.  And on my terrace.  One vintage Italian terra cotta pot I go so far as to keep in my living room.


Terra cotta pots are weighty, and they will break.  They won’t wait for you to find a more convenient time to water the plants inside.  They are a nuisance to store.  The little ones multiply over time.  The handmade ones are expensive.  Though they are tough to clean, they look great once they have aged.  They come in light orange, medium orange, and dark orange.  All of this-fine by me.

Beautiful Materials


Regrettably, there are no plants in my life right now.  I think the high temperature for the day was 18 degrees, and the ground is covered in snow.  Not that I mind this-it seems so normal and ordinary.  I don’t do much in the way of plants to help my situation.  I will admit to an aversion to houseplants-plants inside any building besides a conservatory or greenhouse just seems wrong.  All of the plants at the shop are huddled together in the one room with a glass roof.  This is not an especially attractive look.  The heat is set at a very chilly 45 degrees.  The garage has a rag tag collection of boxwood topiaries we are wintering for clients, a few espaliers, and some red dracaenas I could not bear to part with. I will spare you any images of this pathetic scene.


Most of my landscape design efforts revolve around the plants.  Their mature size and stature.  What they require to grow.  The color of their leaves.  Their texture and fragrance.  Their longevity, and ease of cultivation.  Woody landscape plants require stewardship, and thoughtful maintenenace.  Perennials? Successful cultivation requires a lot of time and committment.  But there are other elements that go into a great landscape that involve materials.  Materials for walkway, driveways, and terraces.  Materials with which to make shelter.  Materials for pots and containers.  Utilitarian materials.  Materials to spring on the landscape-just for the sheer joy of it.  Keeping up with the beautiful materials that are suited for outdoor use is a time consuming job.  The best time to explore landscape materials is that time when the pressure to make a decision for a specific spot is a few months away.


Stone is a landscape material with no end of possibilities.  Sandstone chopped into regular shapes is a great material for retaining walls.  This porous stone is an ideal place for colonies of moss to develop and prosper.  Shaped and thermal finished stone is utterly civilized, and easy to navigate.  Natural stone has an irregular surface which is pleasurable to the eye.  Local stone fits in.  Vintage stone has an aura that affects every other landscape element.


Concrete is a material with no end of incarnations.  Concrete aggregate is a beautiful material fo a contemporary driveway.  Cracked concrete sidewalks grayed with age have a charm I cannot really explain.  Stamped concrete-I am not a fan.  I like concrete in the landscape that makes no bones about the fact that it is concrete, not stamped to look like something it is not. 


Wood, that material that comes from trees, is available in lots of species, surfaces, and finishes-some predictable, and some unusual.  This sidewalk was installed from ordinary pressure treated lumber, scored into brick shapes, and dyed with black aniline dye. 

Reclaimed materials can be just as exciting as new ones.  These early 20th century fireclay road bricks made a great terrace for a 1920’s English tudor style home.

Exterior rated glass tiles are a smooth and comfortable surface for a spa.

This building material was unknown to me until the moment I saw it.  What a beautiful surface it is for a contemporary home.  Most certainly this material would inspire the landscape design. 


This back porch of bluestone squares and dots features an unusual pattern installed with a common material.


This gravel terrace was finished in a thin layer of multicolored beach glass. 


A steel container with painted panels in alternating colors provides a big splash of color.

Donghia exterior fabrics

 Fabrics that can withstand the weather are of incredibly good quality now.  They resist fading and mildew.  This resin garden furniture from Gloucester would have a completely different look without all of the color provided by these fabrics.  Researching and choosing materials for the garden to come is a great way to spend some February time.