Archives for 2020

A 2020 Winter Container: Start To Finish

Every winter container project presents its own unique set of challenges. Those challenges may relate to location, armature construction, materials or design. But getting the scale and proportion right is always the most difficult. A winter arrangement that is under scaled relative to the size of the intended container will always look out of proportion, no matter the beauty of the design and materials. Part of the remedy is keeping the size and location of your intended arrangement in mind during the fabrication process.

As alluded to before, we do not construct our arrangements on site any more. Transporting materials to a job site involves a lot of packing up and unpacking. And a trip back to the shop if you are short of something you need. The materials you didn’t need have to be repacked for the trip home. Working in a cold environment slows the work down, and makes concentration on the work difficult. Sweeping up debris from a cold surface is usually unsatisfactory. But the ease of fabricating in a studio comes with a down side – getting the scale and proportion right. A collection of photographs of the container and the location, as well as experience, play a key role in getting an arrangement to proper scale. The above two pictures were taken the first year we did this project.

The arrangement will be placed in a fountain that is central to a fairly large formal garden. The focal point is a steel light ring that is 5 feet in diameter. The ring, designed and manufactured by Detroit Garden Works, is welded to a steel base with four long rod steel legs.  All of the construction would be done in a dry floral foam armature which fits snugly into the fountain basin. The lower four inches of the dry floral foam form will sit below the rim of the fountain. The upper four inches provides a stable receptacle  for all of the materials-including the legs of the light ring. Not seen in this picture is a large hole in the center of the form that allows for the fountain jet which sits up above the rim of the basin. This form allows all of the materials to be inserted at the maker’s discretion. At whatever angle or density they like. It permits the greens to be arranged in a more believable and natural formation. There is only one way to stick greens into a container of soil, and that is up and down, or on a slight angle. The form permits for sideways or strongly angled placements. The dry foam is forgiving of a maker who needs to stick a branch three times before finding just the right spot for it.

Dry floral foam was traditionally used in the construction of silk and dry arrangements for the home. Unlike oasis, which is a single use water absorptive mechanism for temporarily holding cut flowers, dry foam forms can be used a number of years in a winter container, provided careful handling. It does not absorb any water. A form with a tight fit acts as a waterproof lid on the container during the winter season. The cut greens and twigs will retain their color throughout the winter without any water. Rain in January will be shed, rather than given entry into the pot. We reuse forms over a number of years, as repairing them is simple. We only use premium grade and length cut evergreen branches, which means several things. It does not take as many to create a lush look, as each branch is lush in and of itself. A long length of boughs coming out of the form permits a size that is appropriate to the scale set by the container. We also remove the needles at the bottom of each bough, and sharpen them. This insures a tight fit, and makes as small a hole as possible in the form.

A large arrangement that is liberally stuffed with twigs will be saturated in color, but the look at night may go dark. Rob has made a specialty of twiggy light apparatus that can be a virtually invisible part of those natural twigs. This helps to convey the color and form of those twigs in the dark hours-of which we have many. The light ring will create an aura all around that centerpiece at night in a dramatic and welcome way. The worst of the winter is the darkness.

Farmed red twig dogwood features smooth glossy bark, unmarred by injury or twig dieback. This is a byproduct of a single year’s growth on the stems.  Older stems from a red twig dogwood shrub loose color and luster. This new growth is red twig dogwood in its most brilliant coloration. In order to emphasize that dark wine red color, we added faux berry stems of a matching color. It is hard to get the color red to read in the winter landscape unless there is a lot of it. A large container arrangement suffers if there is too little material, or material that is too small. The berry stems are a different form than the vertical red twig, a different texture, and present a different shape. But that mass of color will read as red over a great distance.

We do work with the lighting on, so the placement of the light is as even as possible. The contrast of the mass of lights on the ring to the dots of lights in the twigs will add another dimension to the visual impact of the arrangement.

The transport to the site required a pick up truck, as the light ring was too tall for a box truck. A gloomy drizzly day illustrates how dark red is all the darker and less red in the absence of bright light. The arrangement had a large thin piece of plywood slipped underneath it, to prevent the form from cracking or breaking. Providing all over support to the form is essential to keeping it in one piece. No one wants to make repairs at this stage.

It took four people to lift the arrangement, and set it in the fountain. The crew splits up after this moment. One group handles all of the electrical hookups, and one handles the final finish. All of the cords will be shallowly buried in the gravel, and hidden in the existing shrubs. Any material that has been jarred out of place during transport will be put to right. It takes a number of skilled people to create and install an arrangement of this size, start to finish.

Once an arrangement is set in place, Birdie will know what spots need a tune up. She brings a tool kit, and plenty of cut greens.

Part of what she does will include hiding the electrical mechanisms still inside the pot. At the base of the arrangement is a row of large wine red beaded balls on picks. She will reset those so they make a perfectly straight line around all four sides of the centerpiece.That very dark red at the base provides some lift and breathing room between the red centerpiece, and the greens. It also gives the impression that the centerpiece is floating.

Just the thing – making a massive and weighty centerpiece appear to hover.

It is amazing how such a large arrangement, easily 6 feet square and as tall, does not look so big, once it is set in place. It just looks like it is the right size.

The 2020 Winter Pots Part 1

I have been writing about the design, construction and installation of our winter pots in great detail for a good many years. I have done so for several reasons. First and foremost, I believe the transmission of knowledge and process is something every person should do, if they are able. I also think that our approach to the work is unique, in that we treat the arrangements as sculpture. To see the sculpture in them is to understand how we design and make them. I am all for beautiful winter pots in evidence everywhere. Beautiful container sculpture in the winter landscape enriches everyone who sees them. All of the elements have to be integrated at a finished size-as winter pots do not grow. They endure, over 4 or 5 months of the toughest weather we have – the winter.  Like a great landscape, a great winter arrangement depends on it’s interior structure. But designing the structure comes after all of the other design decisions are made. Consider every element your would ordinarily consider, designing a container-as in color, shape, texture, line, mass, volume, and proportion. But my first consideration is always the materials.

I am certainly a spoiled brat when it comes to materials. Rob shops all year round for what ends up being a whole store’s worth of beautiful materials. I can do all of my shopping in one convenient location. (yes, Deborah Silver and Company purchases its materials from Detroit Garden Works) I can find faux picks of every description and style, from astonishingly natural berry picks, to glamorous gold plastic grasses. The picks come in all lengths, most of which can be fluffed out, shortened, elongated via a bamboo stake, or cut up – depending on the intended design. What is available to me, and everyone else who shops the Works? There is a wide array of natural fresh cut willow and dogwood branches in a variety of colors, textures and heights. One of my favorites are the densely twiggy and dark alder branches. Magnolia branches in varying lengths and leaf sizes are a specialty of the house. Fresh cut greens include the giant leaved German boxwood, noble fir, pine, juniper, incense and Port Orford cedar, and variegated boxwood-by the bunch or by the case. Rob buys in a considerable collection of exterior lighting that can easily be integrated into a winter arrangement. There is nothing quite like a pair of winter pots lighting the landscape. So what materials will get chosen for a particular pot?

The materials I choose has everything to do with the taste of the client. Everyone likes something different. Sometimes I just stand in the shop and watch what people pick. Since one of my crews does the display at the shop for holiday and winter, I have plenty of time to become acquainted with what we have available. More often than not, what I do at home has to do with what materials are left the end of December. I really don’t mind this, as something beautiful can always be done with beautiful materials.

But where I do make decisions about materials has to do with how they relate to one another. Some colors are eye catching or rhythmic together. Very dark colors paired with white make for some drama. Similar colors make for subtle relationships. All the same color can shift the focus from the color to the overall form of the arrangement. Some color pairings cancel each other out, or vigorously clash. All colors are beautiful-they just need proper accompaniment. And who decides what’s proper? It’s a matter of taste. If I see a client going off the road and into the weeds, I will say something. That’s part of the job. But plenty of times I have been surprised to see what I never thought would work very well turn out lovely. That’s why more than one pair of eyes on a project can be a good thing.

This collection of red and white materials contrasts strongly, but I know that once it is outside, and nestled in a bed of noble fir, it will look festive. Once the greens have a dusting of snow, it will look like a holiday is going on. A consideration of materials is very much about how those materials will look outdoors in their intended home.

Even though I have lots of choices for materials, it does not mean I want to use all of them in the same pot. Once materials are chosen, it’s time to edit out those materials that don’t add something significant to the relationshIps established by color, shape, texture or mass. Editing is the most difficult part of designing. If there are 10 materials you can’t do without, do 2 or 3 containers instead of one.

There is certainly something to be said for a huge mass of one material. In the case of these blueberry colored picks, the subtle color will not read unless you use lots, and the pot is likely to be viewed up close. 20 of these picks out in the side yard will not read. Nor will a hundred. The small size and moody color will go gray with the distance. Up close to the front door, the subtle color can be appreciated.

Natural materials have a vibrancy and glow that cannot be replicated with a faux pick – no matter the skill of the manufacturer. I like to design around natural materials in one form or another. Most of the winter containers we do are predominantly natural materials. They are after all, an expression of the winter garden. But that is not to say that a little outright fakery might not be just the thing to bring an idea to life. Or that the investment in a collection of faux berry stems could not grace winter pots for a number of years to come.

These gold plastic grass picks do beautifully mimic the form and airy texture of real ornamental grasses, with the added attraction of a little winter show and shine. The technology and manufacturing behind the production of these picks is sure evidence of the human hand. And they can be used year after year. The durability outdoors is truly remarkable.

green and white fuzz picks

These.platinum picks would be beautiful with fresh cut poplar or beech branches.

concord grape picks

snowball picks on very long stems

short stemmed blueberry picks

Not the least of my embarrassment of riches is a giant heated garage, with room to fabricate even the most complicated arrangements. Having a warm space to construct is the ultimate luxury. A bitterly cold environment is not an ideal place to work. Even an unheated garage provides shelter, so concentrating on the making is possible. I can always tell when my fabrication crew is focused on their work. The talk drops off, and I doubt they hear what is going on around them. Providing an environment that is friendly to the work is essential to what we do. I say that, as we do hundreds of winter container arrangements every season-in a fairly short period of time. We need a place to be to do all that.

For those who do their own winter pots, it is possible to set up a temporary work station in a garage, or on an enclosed porch. Maybe there is a spot outdoors that is out of the wind. A decent place to work invariably results in more thoughtful work. It is likewise important to properly position the work. I would take the time to elevate the piece I am working on, rather than bend over it or sit on the floor. The set up time is time well spent. A favorite client has us lay down a tarp near her front door, and bring her pots inside.  Once she has filled them, we take them back outside and place them. That service from us helps to enable her to enjoy making her winter pots. For pots that are impossibly heavy to move, consider constructing in a liner that can slip down into the pot, out of view. Anything done in too big a hurry tends to look hurried. Making the effort it takes to provide for a place to work indicates that the work has importance. This is why people have sewing rooms, music rooms, garden sheds and potting benches. They provide a place to work.

We did pop these centerpieces in their intended containers in short order. We do drive slender bamboo stakes down through the arrangement in 3 or 4 places, so a gust of wind does not carry them off. Larger and heavier centerpieces have a different construction protocol, which I will address in part 2.

Our first container arrangement of the season, ready for winter.

Fall Front And Center

Just think about it. The summer gardening season begins to wane, and every passionate gardener begins to fret. The letting go is not easy. I know I dig in my heels and ignore the obvious signs of the passing. Letting go is actually incredibly difficult. Just the thought that close to a year will pass before summer comes again is just cause for a gardener’s grief. But nature has a way of scooping up the remains of the previous season, and recasting them in a dramatic reinvention of the season to come. Any gardener who has observed the process of leaves abandoning their juicy green for a whole host of fiery fall colors understands this: The evolution of a summer season into the fall is an extraordinary pageant. The anticipation of a new and exciting season to come helps mitigate the loss of the old one.

We plant lots of containers in celebration of the fall season. I am often asked about how long they will last. That question always seems tinged with an unspoken belief that the fall is a shorter season than the summer. Just as the winter season is perceived to be longer than the spring season that follows it. How gardeners adore the summer and dislike the winter. What comes in between the two is short lived, and therefore inconsequential. Well in fact, each season lasts a full three months, which is certainly a long enough time to enjoy them all. Though a beautiful landscape matures and provides interest in every season over many years, planting seasonal pots and displays are satisfying in the moment to create and enjoy. Beautifully planted and tended containers enhance any given season in a very personal way. Suffice it to say that Detroit Garden Works had 2800 various cabbage and kale grown for our fall season-we have very few left.

For some, the fall season is a favorite. Hot sticky weather is a thing of the past. The air is crisp, and breathable. The play of long low shadows against the landscape is especially beautiful. And of course there is the color. The most gorgeous in full bloom perennial garden in June is glorious, but a landscape in full fall color is spectacular. There is vibrant color everywhere you look, from the tops of the tallest trees, to the hostas coloring up on the ground. The evergreens in the landscape stand out in strong and stoic contrast. The last hurrah is nature’s most beautiful opera. I hear trumpets, don’t you? We try to express the bounty of the harvest with lavishly constructed centerpieces, and a variety of cabbage and kale grown to enormous size. Overstuffed pots are a very good look this time of year.

David is every bit of 6′ 3″ tall. That gives you an idea of the size of his creations pictured above. We have added some cream colored faux seed head picks and orange preserved eucalyptus to the mix.  Bunches of bare sticks provide a framework to hold all of the other elements aloft.  I have no idea how much these pieces weigh, but they are too heavy for me to pick up. They will be secured in the container with steel rebar and concrete wire.

The centerpieces are scaled appropriately to the size of the container. Large containers can make a huge statement in the landscape, but to fill them takes lots of material.

The centerpieces that seemed so large in the garage shop just seem proportional to the pots.

Not every centerpiece is of such a grand scale, and some container placements are in more intimate locations. But a smaller scale does not need to imply less impact.

Once these Osaka Pink cabbage color up, this container will come in to its own. The centerpiece is constructed of mahogany colored curly willow sticks, and two kinds of faux picks. Rob takes great pains to order in picks that have some reference to the garden. Some have very natural shapes, and others sport reproductions of seed heads that are remarkably evocative of the season. It is entirely conceivable that the cabbages will look fine in to January, as they are extremely cold tolerant. An ornamental cabbage in full color and coated with frost is quite beautiful.

This centerpiece is much more fanciful. This is for a household with children who are all in for Halloween.

The Halloween decor will look great with these pots.

This centerpiece is comprised of a bluish green preserved eucalyptus, arching stemmed picks studded with blue beries, and some rather stunning picks in the center representative of clematis seed heads.

Even up close, all of the elements are convincing.

fall pots garnished with Ruby Queen cabbages

blue door

It is a tribute and a indication of David’s great skill that is is able to achieve great height from bunches of bleached willow twigs that come 4 feet tall. It takes lots of patience and careful construction. In spite of all of the technical issues, he is able to create fall displays that appear incredibly graceful and natural.

brilliant, this.

fall container with Rosebud cabbage

Not all of our fall pots have centerpieces. There are places where they would not add much to the mix. These contemporary Belgian stoneware pots frame the view of the landscape and the front porch from the sidewalk. Everything about the beauty of this pot has to do with beautifully grown material whose care is entrusted to Lisa. She makes sure that the plants get adequate water and food. And the careful placement and intertwining of very large plants handled by Karen and Natasha. The leaves of mature cabbage especially can crack if improperly handled. They make what is a difficult planting look effortless.

To follow are a few pictures of some of our fall container arrangements. I hope you enjoy looking at them as much as we enjoy creating them. There is no need for containers to sit empty, once the summer season wanes.

Bewitching!

The 2020 Hydrangeas

The hydrangeas in bloom this year have been beyond gorgeous. I have never seen them better, and I have been growing hydrangeas for a long time. The object of my affection and admiration are white flowering varieties that bloom on new wood. Blue and pink hydrangeas that bloom on old wood – this would be the bigleaf hydrangeas, or hydrangea macrophylla –  are not truly bud hardy in my zone. Unless they have a mild winter, whilst mulched from the soil level to the tops of the branches, the flowering will be sporadic and disappointing. If yours bloom profusely and reliably in Michigan, then count your blessings. The whole point of hydrangeas in bloom is the sheer splendor that comes from abundance. A happy hydrangea is so loaded with blooms the slender stems of the shrub will bend over from the sheer weight and volume of them. If you must have blue hydrangeas in all of their splendor,  then pack your bags for Nantucket, and read no further. The Bobo hydrangeas pictured above have astonishingly good care. The entire bed is on drip irrigation – essential when hydrangeas are in full sun – and that irrigation is monitored and updated frequently. I am quite sure they are fertilizing in late winter/early spring. Some apply Hollytone, by Espoma, or a slow release balanced fertilizer. The reward is an ocean’s worth of greenish white flowers.

That is not all. Later in the season those blooms will turn towards pink, and then rose pink. The fall display is every bit as beautiful as that in late summer. Add the yellow fall color on the leaves, and you have a visual treat that is quite spectacular. A good shrub provides interest in the garden over a long period of time. Hydrangeas are particularly generous with a long period of bloom. I leave the flower heads intact over the winter – why not? That cinnamon brown color is strikingly beautiful. Of course there will be those blooms that break off and blow around, but that cleanup is manageable.

This hedge of Limelight hydrangeas was planted for a client at their restaurant many years ago. I want to say at least 10 years ago, probably more. I am quite sure that they get watered; my clients takes great care of all of their plants.The soil is that typical Oakland County Michigan airless and non-draining clay-we planted them well above grade for exactly that reason. I have no idea what pruning and feeding care they get, but I can say their maintenance company was not permitted to work this year until May. So the spring care was fast and loose. Behind me in this picture is Woodward Avenue – a main road with 3 lanes going both north and south. It is packed with automobile traffic around the clock, in the 45-50 mph range. I would say the hedge is 25 feet off the road, and endures plenty of exhaust in the summer, and an equal amount of road salt in the winter. This commercial planting is stunning.

hydrangea Little LimeThis hedge of Little Lime hydrangeas is relatively new-it was planted 4 years ago. The flowers are at that fresh green stage, as they are just beginning to bloom. This exposure is westerly, which is a great location for hydrangeas. They need at least 6 hours of sun a day to bloom profusely. I am astonished at how many articles I read that suggest that hydrangeas do well planted in the shade. I have seen plantings in shady areas that range from sporadically blooming to passable, but I have yet to see a hydrangea thrive in shade. Of all the hydrangeas, the oak leaf is the most shade tolerant. Tolerant is the key concept here. No flowering plants, with a few exceptions, love shady conditions. They tolerate them. Find a sunny spot for your hydrangeas. These Little Limes get occasional supplemental water.

I get no end of questions about spacing. I have seen spacing recommended anywhere from 3′ to 8′. This hedge was spaced at 3 feet on center, with 2 rows of plants in staggered positions. The bed is 9′ in depth, and the Little Limes have filled that right up. An 8′ spacing on a Limelight hedge will produce a series of shaggy ball shapes. A closer spacing will produce a more uniform look to the hedge. I think spacing is primarily a matter of personal taste. If you are willing to wait a few years for a group of hydrangeas to grow together, then space them out. If you are after a densely growing hedge then space them closer. If there is a specific space to fill, then space to fit that particular space. Do I think one spacing is superior and produces more healthy plants than another – sun and water being comparable – ? No.

I have 2 blocks of Limelights at home that have been in the ground for close to 20 years. They were spaced at 30″. They have been healthy and heavy blooming every year. I have had Japanese beetle damage to the leaves, and scorch when I didn’t water enough, but they perform the same as a group spaced at 4 feet apart. I can vary the style and extent of my pruning every year, and not be able to see any difference in the blooming plants.  A good friend has planted and maintained miles of blocks of Limelights in the median on a major north/south road in my area.  They are the best blooming hydrangeas I have ever seen, in a year of great blooming hydrangeas.  I asked her about the care. They routinely feed with Hollytone, and they do water. The only difference this year was that they did not prune as hard as usual. Do I think this made the difference in the performance?  Maybe, or maybe not. Do I think the weather conditions were perfect?  Our season has been very hot and dry. Would I expect this to be great for hydrangeas? Not really.

Hydrangeas will tell you when they need water. Those big thin leaves clinging to the stems-as in the above picture of a hydrangea on standard – is a clear SOS. I do err on the side of water generosity, as I believe that plants stressed from being too dry perform at a less than optimal level. Newly planted hydrangeas need very careful monitoring for water. They grow so fast that most potted plants available for sale are root bound. If that root ball goes dry soon after planting, it is of no consequence how wet the soil is a foot away. The hose needs to be aimed directly at the crown of the plant.

This is all by way of saying that insofar as gardening with hydrangeas is concerned, various approaches to their cultivation can produce healthy and beautiful plants. They are so versatile in the landscape, as this pair of pots planted with Limelights can attest. Most and best of all, they are forgiving of neglect, and respond strongly to attention and care.

I have been enjoying them for weeks now.