Archives for January 2015

Belgian Stoneware

stoneware 3Rob has been shopping in Belgium for at least 15 years. He has a considerable affection for the topography and natural landscape, as it reminds him of Michigan. The garden ornament has a solid and unaffected feeling about it. Many of the things he buys there have their roots in agriculture-cisterns, troughs, and the like. The pot pictured above comes from a pottery whose work he greatly admires. This will be the third year we have offered these Belgian stoneware garden pots. The come in three colors-taupe, gray, and black. The shapes are simple.  Though the shapes are smooth and graceful, the surface texture is gritty and rough, in a subtle sort of way.

pots 4That gritty texture and surface is typical of stoneware.  The name stoneware comes from the dense and hard quality of the clay body. This clay body, or type of clay from which a pot is made, has natural characteristics that result in pots more like stone than fired earth, or terracotta.  Stoneware pots are fired at a high temperature, and do not absorb water much after the firing. This inclination to repel water after firing makes this type of clay, and this type of pot, perfect for our climate.  Water that is absorbed by a pot which is them subjected to freezing can result in breakage.  Water expands as it freezes. This freezing action can shatter or break a clay pot. Anyone who has ever inadvertently left a machine made Italian terra cotta pot outdoors over the Michigan winter knows from whence I speak.  This stoneware is frost proof- this is great news for anyone who likes terracotta. Clay pots are made the world over. Clay dug from the ground in Philadelphia is very different than the native clay of southern France, or Italy. Not all clay is of a natural stoneware type. Pots made from stoneware clay bodies are of interest to us, and gardeners in our zone.

stoneware 2Some potters mix their own clay, or choose a clay body/mix that has been made available commercially, that suits their interest and intended use.  Porcelain is the material of choice for an artisan interested in a very fine and formal clay that can be thrown very precisely, and very thin. These large thick walled Belgian pots are made to hold many hundreds of pounds of wet soil without complaint. The natural clay is a friendly visual companion to plants that go in that soil. The texture is just enough, and no more. The gritty surface of this stoneware is a result of adding grog to the stoneware clay body. Grog refers to clay which has been fired, and then ground into hard particles of various sizes. Those particles are then mixed into the fresh wedged wet clay body before the pots are thrown.  As wet clay is incredibly heavy, there is a limit to how large and tall a pot can be thrown, before the clay starts to collapse from its own weight. In addition to providing great texture, both visual and tactile, grog helps provide the construction of a big pot with a little structure. The grog particles have been fired.  They will not absorb water, and melt.  Grog stiffens the wet clay, so larger forms can be thrown at one sitting.

Belgian stoneware 8Even so, very large stoneware pots may need to be thrown in stages. The lower portion may need to rest, and begin to harden, as in leather hard, before the pot can be made any taller. This accounts for one reason why large handmade pots are much more expensive than smaller pots that can be made in one sitting or throwing session. Another reason-the volume of clay consumed.  Very large French terra cotta pots are incredibly thick. Thin walled, large pots would not likely survive the heat of the firing. There may be many hundreds of pounds of wet clay in one pot. I would bet that clay bodies are sold by weight, and that weight can make it expensive to ship them. Of course as the water evaporates out of the pot, the weight is much less.  How a pot is dried, and how it reacts to the firing is a topic of much study.  Pots that have taken days to throw that break or explode in the kiln is a big loss in materials and time.  The cost of breakage becomes part of the cost of those pots that survive the firing.  stoneware rock collectionThese stoneware “rocks” are forms that can be used as a sculpture or seat in the garden.  The shapes are all beautiful, and different.  They have an aura about them, as they have gone beyond function to another level.  I am sure every gardener would perceive and use them differently. Nor would they appeal to every gardener.

stoneware 14These pots seemed quite contemporary in form and color when I first saw them, but I have since learned that what they do best is take on the quality and character of their environment.   I have seen them used successfully in modern, and even quite traditional architectural settings. One client with a classic 1920’s English tudor style house has a pair of these pots at the front door.  They look great.  They do not impose, or attract undue attention. They are simply and beautifully made. They look great, planted up. The statement they make when they are empty-sober and strong. I am not surprised that Rob would have them, a third time around. To follow are some of his pictures of the two containers that came in last week.  You can tell from his pictures, how much he likes them.

stoneware rocks

stoneware collection

stoneware 11

Belgian stoneware 6My discussion of the clay is cursory. I am not a scientist, or a potter.  I just love these pots.  If you have a further interest, you can read more about clay at  Hammill & Gillespie


stone-walkway.jpgThis past fall I had a call from a great client from years ago. They bought a new house- recently built, and close to finished on the inside. The outside revealed a large piece of property  with dirt as far as the eye could see. The contractor on the house recommended a landscape architect-a landscape professional I happen to greatly admire.  My first visit to the site was during the installation of his complex and beautifully imagined walk from the driveway to the front door. A curved set of steps lead to a generously scaled landing, centered on the dining room window, and not the front door.  Had the walk been centered on the front door, the landscape would forever have looked off balance and lopsided. A bump out halfway to the front door would prove to be a perfect spot for a bench. The curved walkway falls within the center space, defined by the front porch and dining room window taken as a whole.  That walkway would be the dominant element of the front landscape.


stone-walk.jpgMy clients were a little uncertain about the complicated landscape that was additionally proposed.  I understand that uncertainty. Any landscape involves lots of time and commitment. They were concerned that the landscape proposed was too involved, meaning it would be in need of frequent and ongoing maintenance. I  understand this point of view. I reserve complicated gardens for clients who latch onto the idea of a complicated garden as if it were all they ever wanted from their life. Other clients, who love the landscape, may have kids and demanding jobs that drain time away from maintaining an intricate landscape.

096Consideration of the maintenance was a key part of the design for my own landscape at home.  I would make regular time to take care of my containers, and dead head a few roses. But I also wanted to relax in and enjoy my garden when I got home from work. These clients were of similar mind.  They both are busy working people, and they are raising a family. A very simple landscape that would look put together and elegant every season of the year would respect  the lives of my clients.  By way of contrast, a simple landscape would visually reinforce that stone walkway as the dominant element of the landscape.

Of great importance was the fact that the house was built on rather steeply sloping ground from side to side.  A stone retaining wall encloses that space, and isolates the remainder of the property from the front yard. The landscape would have a clearly defined space in which to be. As evident in the drawing in the first picture, the landscape beds are rectilinear and opposite in direction from the walk. The visual read is as though the landscape came first, and was overlaid by the walk.
Laying out all of the spaces in advance is the last step of a design. What is drawn on paper only rarely translates to the actual space perfectly. My drawings are not perfect, as I draw by hand.  I have also had more than a few surveys with inaccurate dimensions.  Trying the landscape on for size before you plant is a good idea. Once the plants are purchased, they may not be so easy to return.
099No decision was made immediately as to what would go on either side of the walk leading up to the porch.  There was no need.  Those spots could be handled in a number of different ways, each of which could be good.  I had a plan to suggest different pots for the porch, and move these urns to the side.  I would bring the new pots out, so they could try them on.

DSC_6022We did cover the new limestone walk with plywood and tarps. There was no reason to put put any more dirt on that walk than necessary. As we did this job fairly late in the fall, the temperatures were chilly, and we had had a lot of rain. We had a need for a considerable amount of soil to bring the grade up to the grade set by the walk. The pipes for the irrigation had already been set.  The irrigation contractor would finish the job just before we were ready to mulch the planting. We use ground hardwood bark fines, which deteriorates fairly quickly, and adds much needed compost to the soil.  The mulching will need to be done every year.

DSC_6023We did plant three Venus dogwoods-small trees.  The geometry of the ever green planting was strong enough from the start that larger trees really weren’t necessary.  I like planting smaller trees.  They take hold quickly and put on weight fast. The center rectangle would be grass.  As the grass would go right up to the trunk of the tree, it would have to be clipped by hand around the trunk.

DSC_6256A tree set in the lawn without a ring of mulch is a maintenance headache, but given that the rest of the landscape would take very little work to maintain, I splurged on the look.

DSC_6250My clients did decide on four Jackie boxes from Branch-2 rectangles, and two squares. The area between the box and the front wall was planted with white tulips, and will have annuals in the summer. The area underneath the window was planted with white variegated hosta.

DSC_6028The look coming up the walk-simple, but lush. The house has particularly beautiful architectural details.  The landscape will never obscure any of those.

beautiful-stonework.jpgThe area in front of the wall will be planted in the spring.  Either a low sun tolerant ground cover, or perennial-or mix of perennials.  A low wall is a challenge to work with.  While the base of it needs softening, a beautiful wall should be visible.  I have a few months to think that through.

LH winter 2014 (24)We did have time to squeeze in some winter pots. It is a little tough to see in the photograph, but the rectangular bvoxes sit on decomposed granite, for ease of maintenance.  I would not object however, to alyssum growing in the gravel.

DSC_6262Part 2 is set to come next year. But for now, the front of the house is entirely presentable.



A Quick Look At Some Stick Work

Federal Reserve Building (8)A  client who calls for work after the holidays is unusual, but we were happy to oblige.  We had materials, and there are months of winter yet to come. They had purchased these large scale contemporary birch faux bois concrete planters from Branch over a year ago.  The landscape is dominated by a single river birch.  An arrangement that would feature birch seemed natural.  We had just enough 3″ caliper poles to fill the pair of planters.  Bunches of white lepto came in handy for filling the gaps between the poles. Our last three cases of mixed evergreen boughs were just enough to soften the top of the pot with a thick blanket of green.

Federal Reserve Building (6)The ground plane of the landscape was done with groundcovers of various types in spaces dictated by a pattern of aluminum edger strip, and gravel.  The pattern established is graphically strong.  There were a few areas designated for a seasonal planting.  The concrete boxes had been planted with chrysanthemums for the fall.  What could be done in those areas that would have some height, volume and presence over the winter?  Our solution was to cut up some 1″ and 2″ diameter birch poles into random short lengths. Each piece had a hole drilled all the way through each end. Each of the poles were loosely attached to its neighbor with heavy gauge aluminum wire. The end result-a giant birch garland.

Federal Reserve Building (9)In order to get some height and mass, rolls of grapevine were stretched out and pinning into the soil.  The pinning was easy, as the ground was frozen.

Federal Reserve Building (5)We zip tied the birch garland to the grapevine where it seemed appropriate.

Federal Reserve Building (4)The large size bamboo poles was a vestige of a previous installation-not by us.  The client wanted to leave them in.  That was a good thing, as they were set into metal sleeves placed below ground.  Water had completely filled the sleeves.  The poles were solidly frozen into place by time we got there. I rather prefer the birch poles here.  They look like they belong in a winter garden in Michigan.  There is a certain authenticity to the materials used here.

Federal Reserve Building (3)In the background, the last of our big linden espaliers.  At 9′ wide and 12′ tall each, they mean something in front of this large commercial building.  Properly cared for, they will only get better looking as time goes on.  Funny how some very large commercial spaces devour almost every bit of the land they sit on. It takes the right material and a very strong design to work in a space like this.  I did not do the landscape design here, but I like it.

Federal Reserve Building (1)Hauling around four sets of fresh cut birch garland was the perfect installation for a 12 degree day.  We warmed up in a hurry. Once we were done, all we needed was some snow.  I wonder what it looks like now that we have a good snow cover.


Back From Atlanta

Atlanta-trip.jpgShortly after the holiday season comes to a close, Rob and I take a trip to Atlanta to shop for the holiday to come.  This might seem like less than a treat, to have the holiday go on until mid January-but I like the timing.  What just transpired at Detroit Garden Works is still fresh in my mind.  I am still familiar with the materials we had available at the shop for the holiday and winter installations done by the landscape company, Deborah Silver and Co.  What has just been on my mind makes early January is a great time to look for materials for the following season.  We always drive, as we may make side trips to look at plant material, or a pottery we have never visited in person.  Sometimes we find vintage or antique objects that would look great in the shop.  My 2004 Chevy Suburban with 120,000 miles still makes that trip without any complaints, and can carry plenty of odds and ends.  We have on occasion hauled big benches, concrete pots and plants.

Atlanta at nightAtlanta is a very long trip by car, but that time we spend discussing an approach for next year.  What direction we would like to take, and what things we felt were missing. It also helps to have a days separation from the previous work to the new work. People with shops all over the country come here for this week’s show.  I feel sure that each and every one of them will come away with a collection from their own point of view.  Despite the fact that many thousands of people are in Atlanta that week, we managed to run into buyers from four other nurseries and garden centers in our area.  Does this mean you will be seeing the same things in many places? Not likely.

birdsThe America’s Mart is the largest wholesale market of its kind in the US. The registration for the Mart is a rigorous one-it is only open to businesses who can authenticate their business status, not individuals.  7 million square feet of space is host to thousands of vendors.  I have no idea how many people come every year, but all of Atlanta’s hotels, restaurants, streets, escalators and showrooms are jammed with people.  We make reservations for a place to stay a year in advance. Some vendors set up temporary shop, just for the week. We always shop the temporaries, looking for new sources, and companies new to the business.  In the holiday category alone, there are many hundreds of places to visit, and countless items which can be ordered for the upcoming season.  The choices are just about endless. Every garden center in our area has their own idea about how to represent the holiday, and will represent their own taste and interests.  This means the purchasing public has lots of different things from which to choose.

birdYears ago, Rob and I would go through every holiday vendor’s showroom, and make a second trip back to order. Given that we have been celebrating a holiday season for many years, we can now more easily spot those things that would work well and represent our interest in the garden and nature. We scout a showroom, confer, and order. The work of it is two fold.  It takes a lot of energy and concentration to spot those few things from thousands that have appeal, charm, or quality. It also takes the ability to keep track of what direction the buying takes, so the end result is a coherent collection.  Many showrooms forbid taking any pictures, for obvious reasons.  But most do not object to closeup pictures of items that are being ordered.

holiday 2015There is another good reason why the show is held in January.  Many vendors manufacture commensurate with the orders that are placed.  Certain items we have ordered will never be delivered.  Lacking sufficient demand, it will not be available.  Though the Mart will host another show this coming July, many things will be sold out. We only rarely shop this season on line.  It is too hard to get a good feeling for the color,  heft, sturdiness and quality of an item from a picture. We like to look in person, as liking what we recommend to clients is important. Great materials speak for themselves. We will shop on line with certain vendors whose product lines do not change much from year to year.   wreathGiven the big numbers of new things we saw this year, I would say that business has been good for our vendors.  In 2009 one of our favorite vendors went out of business-it was a a shock, and a big loss. I like it when their business with retailers is brisk, as it means more choices, and new designs. This wreath made with large pine cones that had been split in half was innovative, and handsome. Shopping with Rob can be a challenge.  He wants to be sure he sees, if even just for a moment, most of every showroom-not just the holiday showrooms. This involves miles and miles of walking-but I know my way around the Mart well enough to stop for a cup of coffee while he scouts.

holiday lightingHis instinct to scout paid off in a significant way for us this year. This showroom, which featured lighting such as you see above was located on a floor where the other vendors offered goods completely unlike this.  Had we not gone into an area which did not seem relevant to our business, we would have never seen this. If you know Rob, then you are aware of his keen interest in winter lighting of all kinds.  This was the find of the entire market week for him.  I have never seen him more enthused.

light bulbYes, we will have this lighting next season.  The timing of the deliveries is complex to set up, especially when you buy from 70 or more vendors like we do.  The first deliveries will start to trickle in towards mid July.  Spacing the deliveries means Scott will have the time to inventory everything, price it, and pack it back up. There will be thousands of items all requiring a lot of handling, even before we are ready to put them out. We like to have everything on hand, come mid September,as planning how we will display everything takes time.

LED light stringsAnother great lighting find-LED light string sets with a warm light much like the incandescent light we like. Rob had stood back from the early years of LED lights.  The light was so cold and unwelcoming. This light is warm and cheery. These strands are shatterproof-we watched the showroom staff drop them on the concrete floor, and walk on them. Astonishing, this. They are waterproof. They are guaranteed for 10 years. This will be a significant contribution to our light sculptures-ruggedly built light strands that do not require maintenance.

starsThe same company had a select group of ornaments that we liked just as well as the lights.

Atlanta 2015This was Sunne’s first trip to market with us. Just as enthusiastic as her name suggests, she was a great addition to our group. She spotted lots of things that I missed.  A third pair of eyes is good when you are shopping spaces jammed with all sorts of things. Plus she has a very good idea of what will be coming in.

Atlanta from the 18th floorThe view of Atlanta from the 18th floor of one building-spectacular.

IMG_2753In addition to holiday, we also shopped Halloween.  We do a little of that, just for fun.

shopping AtlantaWe also shopped showrooms specializing in vintage home and garden.

yellow chair 2We also shop the Gardens-2 giant floors devoted entirely to things for the garden. By day 7, the show was beginning to feel endless and overwhelming-as you can see! We buy only select things from these floors, as Rob buys most of the garden ornament, pots and furniture from other sources. Eight days, all day and into a few evenings-this was our longest show ever.  I feel confident that our holiday coming up this fall will be a particularly good one. That said, it is great to be home.