The Winter Pots: Constructing A Centerpiece

A customer in the shop yesterday remarked that the beauty of a winter or holiday container begins and ends with gorgeous fresh cut branches. I am inclined to agree. Our first delivery of fresh cut branches arrived just in time for our winter open house weekend. The tall sized second year red twig dogwood that came in has plenty of lateral branching, and astonishing height. It is clear our grower had plenty of rain this season. All of our branches are farm grown, and harvested when they are at their peak of size and color. Graded by height, they are tied off in bunches of 10 stems each. Every brightly colored and glossy surfaced branch bunch is our call to set up and begin constructing centerpieces for our winter pots.

Do all of our winter and holiday pots have a tall branchy element we would call a centerpiece? No. But there are plenty of reasons that a tall twiggy element makes visual sense in a container. Shrubs are readily identifiable in the landscape. Post the fall leaf drop, they are a tall and multi-branched presence in the winter landscape. A branch centerpiece repeats that shape and texture. Many of our tall branches have astonishing color. Red, cardinal,  black and yellow twig dogwood,  and flame and curly copper willow endow containers with a strong dose of vibrant and natural color. A vertical centerpiece is a pleasing contrast to the lower and more horizontal elements. A robust centerpiece can provide great scale and proper proportion to the container to be filled. Some height in a container can provide plenty of visual action at eye level, or from a distance. Last, but certainly not least, my zone is very hard on live plants in containers. Few can survive our harsh winters with their roots in a contained area above ground. The cut branches are especially welcome in containers on properties too small to grow large shrubs specifically for winter color. They are equally welcome in commercial settings where the landscape is sparse.

Any vertical element in a winter pot of ours needs to be constructed such that it shrugs off the gale force winds, snow, and ice prevalent in my zone. A centerpiece gone over in 6″ of snow will be very difficult to make right. Anyone who has tried to stake Annabelle hydrangeas in full bloom that have gone over in a heavy rain knows exactly how providing structure after the fact is very difficult to make work. The anticipation of trouble is not the most creative or interesting part of the job, but it does enable every gesture to come.  Very large centerpieces required for very large pots need the the most in the way of thoughtful construction. Thoughtful does not imply difficult. Preparing just takes a little time. This centerpiece of red twig dogwood will be placed in the center of a pot 36″ in diameter, and 36″ tall. This calls for an armature, or metal frame that will provide support to a host of very tall branches. Every gardener knows how much living wood can weigh. Shrubs and trees have an extensive network of roots that keep them upright. Cut branches need another scheme that can provide strong support. A pot of this size will need a bold centerpiece of considerable volume and height in order to appear proportional to the size of the pot. There is no need for a centerpiece to be under scaled. An armature does not need to be custom welded. The armature for this centerpiece is a tomato cage, repurposed for the winter season.

Each branch of this red twig, every bit of 8 feet tall, is zip tied with 8″ zip ties to every horizontal ring the tomato cage. This tight profile makes it easier to handle the centerpiece while it is under construction. We have spaced the branches as you see, as there are other elements yet to come.

A round of faux red berries are zip tied in to the spaces between the red twig dogwood. The top layer of zip ties have been clipped off, so the dogwood branches are free to arch out more gracefully. We have left plenty of open space between as we plan to light the interior of the centerpiece.

The long legs of the tomato cage will be pushed down as far as possible into the soil in the container. The bottoms of the twigs will also be below ground. Once that soil freezes, those steel rods and the bottoms of those branches will not move. But we will add 2′ long steel rebar in 4 or 5 spots that is secured to the tomato cage both above and below ground. This will provide that last and most serious measure of security.

Smaller centerpieces do not require but a single armature. All of the elements in these centerpieces have been arranged around a stout bamboo pole. It is essential that the centerpiece be zip tied in 2 spots, so the twigs do not shift. In the left centerpiece pictured above, the top of that pole is visible half way up the centerpiece. Once we center this in the pot, we will pound that bamboo stake down into the soil of the pot.

The bamboo stake is an essential element of our centerpiece construction.   A 1″ pole requires a saw to make it shorter. That pole is rarely more than 3′ tall. It is light weight, and astonishingly strong. Every element we plan to add to a centerpiece gets arranged around this pole.  Once that pole is driven down into the soil in a pot, it will provide all the ballast that centerpiece needs to stay upright.

A number of bunches of tall pussy willow, and a generous number of faux berry picks will be kept perfectly vertical all winter long – courtesy of the pole.

Constructing the the winter pots in our garage was an innovation that took quite a few years to perfect. I would suggest that a warm place is the best place to fabricate a centerpiece, and all else intended to go in a winter pot. The best work gets done when your fingers are warm.

These centerpieces have the bamboo pole pushed up so it is flush with the bottom of the twigs. But it is in there. A tree stand is a great way to keep a centerpiece upright while it is being worked on. Positioning the materials at a proper height to work on makes for a better quality outcome.

Once this centerpiece is truly centered in the pot, it will take one person to separate the branches so another person can drive the bamboo down into the soil with a hammer. A centerpiece of this size will need some steel rebar pounded down around it. A number of rotations of concrete wire tightened with pliers will bind the rebar to the centerpiece.

Sometimes we insert the twigs one stem at a time into the dry floral foam that secures the greens. As the weight of the branches is spread out, there is no need for an armature.

steel topiary form acting as an armature for tall pussy willow stems

steel armature with twigs and berries inside

a winter container without a centerpiece.

3 identical centerpieces installed side by side for a rectangular container

one stick at a time

The steel topiary form in this winter pot is strictly ornamental, and not structural. It does provide a framework for lighting. The structural armature holding the centerpiece aloft is not visible once the container is finished.

Whatever will be the centerpiece of your winter pots, a method to construct and secure it is an essential element of the process.

 

Berried Treasure

It is not hard to believe that we will be beginning our winter and holiday containers and decor in another week or so. The past 10 days have been an intense effort to unpack and display in the shop all of the materials Rob purchased almost a year ago for this season. Our kickoff open house begins November 7-just a few days away. I like this moment. It requires looking at countless individual materials with the idea to put them together in a way that makes visual and emotional sense. The beginning is always about fits and starts, with a liberal dose of hand wringing. What seemed like a good idea on Monday gives way to another idea on Tuesday. But eventually we all settle in to the job at hand, and the work of it evolves and gets done. It is the very best way to become familiar with what is available to include in winter arrangements. As I most likely was a gardener from the first moment I took a breath, of course I favor natural materials from that garden for the winter pots. Rob addresses that basic need with an incredible collection of fresh cut farmed twigs in a variety of species and sizes. They come from all over this country of ours. Densely branched bunches of lustrous alder branches-we carry them. Sumac and poplar branches harvested from our collective properties are so sculptural. The glossy cinnamon gold colored flame willow branches both straight and branched always arrive first, as their leaves are the first to drop. Soon to come are the pussy willow, the copper curly willow, and the red and yellow twig dogwood. The premium cut greens of all types are equally as juicy and lively. Pairing those branches and greens with berry stems for winter containers is a natural. The fresh cut branches of Michigan holly, ilex verticillata, are drop dead gorgeous. However, they come with a steep price, and require some serious prep, if they are to survive the season. The ilex berries above, zip tied to a stout stand of fresh cut first year growth red twig dogwood, need a thorough soaking with VaporGard prior to their installation. This agricultural grade natural anti dessicant formulated from pine resin will keep the berries attached to the stems, and plump – for months. The centerpieces pictured above went to a client willing to go the distance to have fresh cut berried stems in their pots.

There are alternatives. The quality of the appearance and manufacture of faux berry stems has improved at an astonishing rate over the past 10 years. What used to be an embarrassing imitation of the real thing has become an entirely convincing expression of the beauty of berries. This new generation of faux berry stems are manufactured as much for durability as beauty. The color can be true enough to fool the eye. Or unabashedly dramatic. The stems do not disintegrate or discolor outdoors.

There is an astonishing artistry that is evident, both in the design and construction. Though these stems are faux berry stems, the evidence of the human hand is obvious. These materials make it possible for me to construct winter arrangements that can handle gale force winds, endless snow and relentless cold. Packed away for the summer, they will be equally as beautiful in year two or three. Many of them that Rob purchases are tall enough to be seen from a good ways away. The berry picks pictured above are unabashedly cheery – the prefect antidote to the landscape going dormant.

There is much to love about having choices in stem length, branching, and berry size. Choosing materials that are a proper proportion to the overall size of the arrangement is important. Do all picks need to be inserted into the soil or a dry floral foam base? No. If the perfect stem is not tall enough, they can be discretely zip tied to a neighboring natural branch. Picks with flexible branching permit an arrangement that is graceful.

Berry beautiful.

Red berry picks destined for outdoor pots need to be completely weatherproof. It only took one time seeing red berries disintegrate and run red on the sidewalk to drive that point home. We test all of our picks by soaking them in water, even if we have been told they are weatherproof.

44 inch long red berry picks in concert with a mass of cut red twig dogwood branches will make a statement in a container all winter long. That red will be strikingly handsome set in a landscape renowned for its gray and brown. It could be I enjoy the winter pots better than any other season. They most certainly last the longest. I will take my own apart in March, mostly from the embarrassment of seeing the snowdrops and the berry picks at the same time.    Red berry picks are the norm, but they are not the only game in town. It is great to be able to take your pick.

black and white

blueberry picks

golden ochre

green

cream berries with brown stems

fuzz ball style berry picks

short blueberries

I have yet to see a winter container that had too many berry picks, but even just a few adds a lot to the mix.If a project calls for lots and lots of berries, sticking them individually is a better strategy than attaching them to the twig centerpiece. Once a centerpiece reaches a certain weight, keeping it perfectly upright will require additional ballast. Hand sticking berry stems is more time consuming, but it can provide a welcome intermediary layer between the vertical and horizontal elements. Winter pots can be the most challenging to create, as nothing will grow or fill in. The day they are done, they are done.

Looking forward to the berries.

 

Recent Work

We have but a few fall container projects yet to plant. It takes about 6 weeks to do them all. We have landscape projects that are on going, but planting up containers is a part of our service that we take seriously. The conversation generated with clients over containers is an important one. If I have been involved in providing a garden or landscape project, there is that moment when that project ceases to be mine, and they take ownership. I prepare clients for ownership as best I can. I specify plants that are proper for the conditions in which they are planted. I provide the terrace they requested with the shade of a tree, a pergola, or an umbrella. A discreet spot for the trash cans and bikes will earn a thank you. An irrigation system can make the maintenance of a planting easier. How new plants get watered is a critical requirement for new landscapes, so I spend more than the requisite amount of time to address that. Correcting drainage problems directly influences the longevity of all of the plants-both big and small. We install drainage, and we take great pains to address why it is such an important part of plant health. There are clients for whom I plant large gardens. I know that they know what will be required of them to maintain them. Other clients are relieved when I suggest that a well structured landscape of trees and shrubs will be enough. I do not have enough time left in my life to pass on my knowledge and experience with plants, but I certainly can pass along what I know about the specific plants I have planted.

Inspiring confidence in a client is one way of speaking to ownership. But I am not particularly a fan of pep talks. They are exhausting to give, and can be too much information all at once to absorb. It can be unsatisfying for all parties. Providing for success is a long term effort that goes beyond a design that is good and solid. Clients know the work we have done comes with a responsibility on their part. But there is another step beyond offering the counsel and information they need to nurture a landscape. Beyond ownership is a state of engagement with the natural world.

Very few of my projects do not specify and include containers. I have a reason for that. They are a bridge over which a client and I can meet, and forge a relationship over the beauty of plants. Containers stuffed with robustly flowering summer annuals, tropical plants, green plants of interesting shape and texture or favorite perennials at the front door or on a rear terrace stand out in the landscape. Container plantings are personal, in that they express the taste in color and style of the owner. They make a statement about what constitutes beauty. A beautifully planned and executed container is easy to fall for. A client who is able to be successful growing plants in containers becomes engaged in the process of making something grow.

A discussion of the value of the landscape and garden is, at the end of the day, a discussion. Anyone who comes to take that that value to heart over the process of making something grow in a contained area is more likely to evolve from an interested observer to a committed participant. I have seen this happen over and over again. In the course of planting containers on the roof deck of a local restaurant, I was approached about selecting and planting containers by an owner of a similar business nearby. Though it took some time to persuade them that the investment would be a good one, they took the plunge. Many years later, we are still planting their containers at their business. Their customers are vocal in their interest and appreciation. The care they take with the outside speaks to what one can expect to find on the inside. Later we went on to supply and plant containers at their home for every season.The landscapes in both places have evolved and grown. All of the plantings are beautifully maintained, as they have gone beyond ownership to stewardship. A primarily green landscape in October pictured above just a welcome dose of fall color and cold tolerant seasonal plants. This client called and talked about the beauty of her pots and annual plantings over the summer, and how much pleasure she got from them. They grew prolifically. Her friends and family talked about them all season long. We planted plants we felt would succeed, and provided her the bright color she likes. They were designed and planted specifically for her. Our conversation about summer containers was the prelude to a discussion of planting for fall. This client had a sincere interest in the landscape from the start, but the conversation has changed. The pots and the landscape have value.

This client has one pot on her front porch. It plays an integral part in the appearance of her home from the street. Though the landscape is slowing down and will eventually go dormant, this pot planted for fall and later for winter is an expression of the garden year that will persist. Her interest in the planting of that pot is a symbol of an interest in the greater landscape.

A lush fall planting is a way to celebrate the harvest that comes at the end of the season. It anticipates all of the fall color soon to come from the trees, shrubs and perennials in the ground. Those who design and garden for themselves always seem to have some pots under cultivation. I like the fact that I can look at the container work of others, as I am able to get a glimpse of how they see the natural world. I am embarrassed to say I almost never plant pots for fall. That is 100% due to the fact that my crews rarely have time to plant them for me, given the work on deck to bring the landscape season to a close, and the winter and holiday season just a few weeks away. It is one thing to choose material, and design. It is quite another to make that happen.   To follow are more pictures of our recent work.

Welcome to our fall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

14 Hands

A designer emailed me around 11 one morning last week to ask if we could select 10 large pots, fill them for fall, and deliver them downtown the following morning. Of course it would involve making some changes to the plans we had for the day – that was the easy part. What would be tough is the fact that he is based out of state, and would be boarding a plane to Detroit in just a few hours. A computer is indeed a sophisticated communication device, but this would need to be handled via the picture taking feature on a phone.  First things being first, Rob and I tried to select a number of different styles of pots. Pictures of them were sent by text. And then pictures of plants and other fall materials. The first pictures got some commentary, and then nothing. We knew our client was in the air.

Around 2pm I considered an alternate plan for my crew for the rest of the day, but shortly thereafter we got the go ahead. One crew was charged with bringing the soil and bark from our landscape building, and the other filled pots with what materials were available at the shop. That gave David and Natasha enough time to construct the first few centerpieces. Once they were done, they could be set in the pots, and firmly secured with short steel rebar and concrete wire. Pots going to a commercial location need to be jostle resistant. Happily these hand made Italian terra cotta pots are very heavy, as the clay is so thick. They are fairly tall, but have a big footprint.

Charged with planting them as I saw fit was a big plus. There would not be time to make suggestions and wait for a reply. Nor would there be time for me to mull it over. Having to produce a lot of work in a short amount of time means making decisions so the work can proceed. My part in the project was small.  I decided to make three pairs of matching centerpieces, but all 6 pots would be planted differently.

You can tell when a crew has been working together successfully. Once the scope of the work is defined, everyone settles in to their part in making the project go efficiently. These pictures don’t reveal how the conversation moves from the work at hand to good natured banter, and back to the work again. David usually builds centerpieces alone, but this time Natasha was right there handing him materials when he needed them.

Karen took time out from planting to attach the concrete wire to the rebar, as she was in the right spot at the right time to do it. All of them participate in everything, even though their strengths may be different. My landscape crew plants lots of woody plant material, but they can plant ornamental cabbage just as well. Good planting practices are the same, no matter what is going in to the ground. Just like a tree or a shrub, a cabbage has a face. Taking the time to figure that out and plant accordingly is what makes a newly planted pot beautiful from the beginning.

The kale and cabbage will continue to grow, as long as they have sufficient water and feed. A cabbage whose lower leaves are turning yellow and dropping is a cabbage in need of some food. Even though it is mid October, we put osmocote in the pots. Like many downtown areas, ours will stay warm very late in to the fall from all the latent heat in the buildings, walkways and roads. It is entirely concievable that the pots will look good well in to December.

It is rare that we deliver pots already planted. Pots full of soil and plants are quite heavy, and awkward to move. It is much easier to bring the materials, and plant on site. In this case it would be loads easier to just deliver the finished pots and set them in place. Some commercial venues are not conducive to construction, and it can be difficult to clean up. We made sure all of the plants were thoroughly soaked before we planted. We would wait until the pots were placed to water in the entire pot. This made it a little easier to move the pots onto the truck.

The last 4 pots were low cast stone bowls. No centerpieces were called for. These stone salad bowls full of greens would be a good compliment to the tall terra cotta pots with their tall centerpieces. Though you see soil and debris on the ground, great care was taken to keep any soil away from the surface of the pot.

just about finished

As fast as they were planted, they were loaded on the truck. Each pot was packed in its own nest of bagged soil.

We were packed up and ready to go by 5:30 pm. The delivery the next morning was thankfully uneventful. I will be keen to see the entire display once it is done.