Planting Spring Pots

My penchant for planting containers for spring is based on several factors. At 30 years old, it seemed like an infinite number of springs were ahead. If I skipped planting fall bulbs, or spring pots, or a rose or a tree, there would always be next year. Or the year after that. In a blink of an eye, 30 became 50.  And with it, the dawn of the realization that though spring will probably roll around ad infinitum, my springs that had a beginning in 1950 would eventually come to an end. This is not gloomy talk. It means I am more interested than ever in observing and participating in every phase of the gardening year. I especially do not want to miss one moment of the spring season. Given that every plant in the landscape will break dormancy and grow, there is a lot to see over the course of that 3 month period. There are lots of ways to experience the spring season-why miss out on any of those opportunities?

Planting containers for spring seems even more attractive in cold weather zones like ours. Winter leaches out of our ground slowly. When that ground does thaw, it is wet. Milling around a garden when the soil is sopping wet is ill advised. My shoes, backed up by my weight, do a great job of squeezing the oxygen out of the soil, and compacting it. Compacted soil can be quite brick-like. As I like my plants to have friable soil that encourages good root growth, I stay out of the garden in very early spring. Spring containers make it easier to resist getting in to the garden too early.

It used to be that a vast majority of seasonal plants were of the summer season type. Now a gardener can find plants suitable for containers in every season. The most obvious choice is spring flowers bulbs.  Forced tulips, daffodils,hyacinths, grape hyacinths and crocus adapt very well to pot culture. The tulips in the shop garden are but 2 inches out of the ground. It will be at least a month before they start to bloom. A pot of emerging tulips faced down with violas already in bloom in a container is a sight for winter weary eyes. The best part of spring flowering bulbs in containers is how beautiful they are in every stage. It is a pleasure to be able to watch a hyacinth at close quarters come out of the ground, bud up, and bloom. The leaves and buds are juicy, and every bit as beautiful as the flowers.

It used to be that most seasonal plants offered for sale were only suitable for summer containers. That has really changed. Great plants, and lots of them, are available for container planting in every season. Right now at the shop, Rob has hellebores, pansies, violas, alyssum, primrose, rosemary and lavender topiaries, sweet woodruff, and sweet peas.  In short order, spring vegetables and herbs will be available for pots. Pansies, lettuce and parsley can be planted up to stunning effect. A hydrangea on standard can look a little bleak in a spring container, but the buds will swell soon, and the spring leaves are beautiful.

Fresh cut twigs can provide a lot of color and scale to spring containers. This straight copper willow not only has vivid color, that color is lively.

Pussy willow is a great twig choice for pots.  The fuzzy catkins covering the stems are charming.  Cut pussy willow twigs will often root in a spring pot, bringing leaves after the catkins have faded. Pussy willow would be a poor choice of a shrub for my garden, as it grows so large. Having the cut stems in a container is a way to enjoy them without making any commitment to a long term relationship. And speaking of long term relationships, it is a pleasure to have the opportunity to try something new in containers every spring.

We will be starting our installations of spring pots this coming Monday. It will feel good to be gardening.

faux grass and Belarina series double primrose

white hyacinths

sweet woodruff and faux grass

tropical ferns and pansies

maidenhair ferns and Belarina primrose

grape hyacinths, primula denticulata and oxalisspring pot with helleborus, grape hyacinth, violas and sweet woodruff

spring pots with eucalyptus centerpieces

pansies and violas

lettuce and pansies

Tomorrow, the last Saturday of our hellebore festival will feature Rob’s collection of topiary plants – his best ever, I think. Thinking spring containers, we are.

New Year’s Day, 2019

Dear friends of mine dress their home and table for the Christmas holidays in a way that never fails to astonish and delight me. I have written about their holiday at least three times before, but I knew this year would be special. They spent the last two Christmas holidays visiting family in the US and abroad. They would be home this year.  M and I started talking about this year’s holiday in June, like we always do. I could say that talking goes on intermittently into the fall, but in fact, I am a listener, happy and intrigued to be privy to how his ideas evolve and gel. I am sure M2 is equally involved in this process. He is the more reserved of the two. The both of them are head over heels involved in the arts and design. They also have a sincere and passionate love of the landscape – this is how we came to meet, and fall for each other. Their holiday begins with the tree. Though they have an outstanding collection of vintage glass ornaments, the tree is always very different.

Their love of nature and the garden is always a substantial part of their tree.  They live on a large property in the country. Most of that property is wild. This year’s tree is chock full of the seedpods from butterfly weed, and assorted other weedy dry stems. The addition of the wild remains of plants foraged from their own property took a few intensely felt weekends. I truly admire and respect that they are able to set aside the demands of their professional lives, and give their all to the design and creation of this tree. It is a tour de force on so many levels.

I knew M had a plan to add clementines and persimmons to the mix. He later added mini Kishu mandarin oranges and kumquats.  I had my doubts about how that would work, but I kept that to myself. At the same time, I knew he was shopping every grocery store and farmers markets in his area for those orange fruits.   I greatly respect his eye. All it takes to be open to anything is the intent to be open.

The result is unique to them, and their point of view. Stunning, every square inch of it.  Their history, interests and passion for the arts and the garden resulted in a holiday expression of great beauty.

This New Year’s Day, I am thinking about those projects this past year that truly engaged me. Those projects that speak to the best, most inventive, and imaginative. And those projects that are created by the love of the landscape on both sides of the design equation. I have many to thank, and much to be thankful for.

As for the holiday created by my friends- thank you. It is a feast for the eyes, the heart and the soul.

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The buche de Noel, a culinary creation of theirs – exquisite.

Winter Window Boxes

A good many posts ago, I described a window box as a hybrid vehicle. It is generally more expansive than a pot, but smaller than an in ground garden bed. A window box is an above ground defined space which is large enough to thoroughly explore an idea, and small enough to finish every square inch beautifully. I like any landscape project that is as beautiful and polished at the finish as it was from the design beginning. This means tailoring seasonal efforts to a size that celebrates aspiration, and acknowledges limits. Planting an area in the garden with seasonal plants leaves me cold. There is too much square footage to deal with. More on the knees work than I am willing to do anymore. Too much poor soil and poorer drainage than I want to address. Get me off the ground, please and thank you. A window box is the perfectly sized venue for a bigger seasonal gesture.

A landscape client with a new house signed up for four window boxes on stands in the front of her house. Branch made them to my specifications. Though the window boxes were fabricated this past summer, it was not until November when the landscape was ready for their installation. Meaning we would address them for the winter season. We made forms for the boxes, and fabricated the winter arrangements in our shop. Dry floral foam forms were a vehicle for a collection of sparkly white picks, cut magnolia branches, faux white berry picks and noble fir. Presiding over all, a three foot diameter light ring.

We do as much of the work as we can, in the shop. We like the better part of the work to be done in a warm space. The construction is faster, and more thoughtful. All of us want to focus on the project at hand, rather than enduring the cold conditions on site. This work included creating the arrangement, and dressing the greens with lights. This layout table was large enough to hold two arrangements at a good height for working.

Each form was moved outdoors once it was finished. The cold temperature outside favors keeping the greens fresh. The palette of materials is simple. The volume and texture of the noble fir does a great job of showcasing the magnolia based centerpiece. A form this long needs support when it is moved, although all of the woody stems of the evergreens helps strengthen it. Though the form is long and narrow, we took great care to provide a rolling shape from back to front.  A good winter arrangement needs to supply a finished shape from the beginning, and create the illusion of motion and rhythm. Though most of these materials are natural, they will not grow. Creating a sense of growth from cut materials informs the best of winter container arrangements.

The form is slightly smaller than the interior dimension of the box, so it was easy to drop it in.

The pots look over scaled for the windows, but that will change once the new shutters are installed. The boxes and their contents have a very formal and dressy look, which is in keeping with the architecture.

After dark, the lights define the shapes and volumes. The view at night is important in my zone. We have a lot of short days and long nights ahead.

By this time next year, this landscape project will have landscape lighting. But for now, the window boxes provide some welcome illumination.

Every year we fill the window boxes at Detroit Garden Works for the winter season. This year, our winter and seasonal pot obligations ran long. On December 21, my crews had gone home for the holidays, and our storefront boxes were still bare. My crew had a long and arduous season, so I was not about to have them fret over the shop winter window boxes. And our supplies of branches and greens were low. Happily, our supplier emailed Rob that he had a late cutting of a new branch for him – were we interested? It did not take long for him to send 12 bales of Midwinter Fire dogwood stems our way. The form in the above picture has its fair share of holes, as this is its third season. But with a few minor repairs, it was ready. My part in the process of our winter pots is the design. My crew does all of the construction admirably well. But given that there was a time when I designed and fabricated, I was sure I could do that again. The idea was simple. Embed a light ring in a thicket of dogwood branches.

Christmas Eve day, the shop was open, so Karen had time to me a hand sticking the greens on the front face and sides of the forms. Rob and Scott helped trim the bottoms off the thickest branches. I set a row of branches close together across the back of the form, and 2 lengths of a 33 foot long light strand in front of them before starting the next row of branches. 4 rows of branches separated by four rows of lights. The branches are pushed in all the way to the bottom of the form.

The work of it was integrating each new branch into the neighboring branches. As they were fresh cut, the stems were pliable. A pair of thick wool gloves made that work easier. There was no need to cover the back of the form, as the window box hugs the window. The bottom layer of foam goes into the box. The soil had already been lowered a corresponding amount. The top layer on the front and sides holds the greens. Short stems of magnolia would separate the greens layer from the twig thicket. The large brown and green leaves not only separate the similar textures of the greens and twigs, they conceal the mechanics of the light source from view.

Though my crew would have sailed through this fabrication, it took me two days. No deadline was looming, and I wanted to enjoy the process. No twigs cover the lower portion of the light ring. The ring disappearing into the thicket and re-emerging at the top implies the thicket has depth. I would consider how to finish that spot once the boxes were installed.

Flipping the switch on the lights once the arrangements were done was great fun. We would indeed have a little midwinter fire.

Marzela and David came in the Thursday and Friday after Christmas. They fabricated and installed 2 projects we had not finished before the holiday. Karen, Rob and Scott joined in. We sometimes remove the light rings after fabrication, and reinstall them on the job. But in this case, it seemed vastly easier to just leave them in. They took care of all of the finishing work and electrical, once the forms were set.

Some of the finishing touches will only be seen by those who walk by or come over to take a closer look. We tried to address the near and far, and the day and night. The shop boxes are just the right size for that.

The pots on either side of the door are stuffed with fir and boxwood, and lit with a single 3 foot tall LED light burst from the shop. It came with a pointed metal stake that is easy to push into a form or soil.

Rob took this picture from the top of a 12 foot ladder, right at dusk. The look of them in the transition between day and night was subtle. The visual changes wrought by the light and weather come courtesy of mother nature.

I never thought about how they would look from inside my office, but I am enjoying it.

 

 

 

 

 

RED

There is nothing that provides a better shot of B-12 to a winter landscape than some red. And no material provides that color better in our zone than red twig dogwood. Some of the newer hybrids, such as “Cardinal” have an even lighter and brighter red than the dark red of the species. I love that red! If you are like me, you do not have room to plant and maintain a hedgerow of red twig dogwood. There are other options for red in the winter. The cut branches can endow a winter garden with a little electricity. It was our good fortune this year that Rob was able to secure 50 bunches of red twig branches that were 2 years old. This means they have great size, and are well branched. Pictured above are 2 of 6 centerpieces destined for some very large lead pots. We had just the pots for these large scale branches.

This client is interested that their pots represent the holiday as well as the winter. The red twig does well in either scenario. It can be dressed up with holiday style picks, or made more wintry with the addition of berries. In any event, the red twig will look just about as good in March as it does now. On more than one occasion we have found that the cut stems have rooted into the soil over the course of the winter. Amazing, that.

Like all of our centerpieces, the true center is a stout bamboo pole which will be driven down into the soil as ballast. Nothing worries me more than a winter centerpiece that gets blown over by our winter weather. I like winter pots that can stay the course until March. We make sure that the winter pots are as beautifully constructed, as they are beautiful.

It is a process – creating a centerpiece for a winter or holiday container arrangement. That second year dogwood had other materials added to it. It took plenty of time to get them road ready. If you have a pair of pots that need to be dressed up for the winter, it can be hard to tell how much material you need. More than any other season, filling the winter pots asks for a liberal hand. A skimpy display looks cold. An overflowing look is warm and inviting. No winter container arrangement grows. The look on the day you install is the the look you have all winter long. My advice? Take your own advice.  Start small, and see if an austere look is to your liking.  If not, add more.

This winter pot has a very tall centerpiece. Visible in the above picture is a length of steel rebar pounded through the foam and into the soil below.  Four of them will be wired together with concrete wire.  The steel provides more stability to a centerpiece that is tall and heavy. Another option to provide volume to a centerpiece is to hand stick each of a number of branches into a foam form or the soil, one at a time. If I were constructing pots on my own, this would be my technique of choice. Lifting and securing a big centerpiece is a job that takes a lot of strength. The eucalyptus in this arrangement is added last. It has an important job visually. It softens, integrates, and relates the vertical elements to the horizontal ones. Sticking each eucalyptus stem into the foam is too flimsy to handle a snow load.  So we zip tie, in two places, 4 or 5 stems to a small bamboo stake. Lots of them. The stake gets pushed through the foam and into the soil.

Arranging the materials is a matter of personal choice. Grouping like materials together into a defined shape or layer is a more formal look.  This densely layered arrangement will also keep its shape in spite of wind, snow and ice. We’ve been known to broom off a container arrangement after an exceptionally heavy snow. The width and density of the branches in the above container helps to break the snowfall. The red twig branches are admirably suited for this job. They will retain their flexibility throughout the winter. The faux red berries will slowly fade over the course of 4 or 5 months, but the red twigs will retain their gorgeous color for the duration.

Curly copper willow applied over red twig takes on a red cast. The colors do not mix to make orange. They interact.

The finished container features a number of shades of red. The base layer of noble fir features a ring of German boxwood at the center.

The foreground pot features dried red Asian willow, faux red berries and green preserved eucalyptus.

I have previously written that our supplier of eucalyptus closed his business.  We bought all of the red that he had left in stock, so Detroit Garden Works does have some available.

ready for snow

The last bale of the 2 year old red twig branches went in this pot, which measures 43″ square at the top. The mass of dogwood looks remarkably graceful, given that it has a very trim waist line. Ha. That was an engineering feat which makes for a satisfying overall shape. We did put a long string of pearl lights in the center, so that red twig will glow red at night. Dressing pots for the season is a way to keep gardening for a little while longer.