Beauty

A client came in last week wearing a tee shirt that had the word BEAUTY printed across it. A few days later her Mom came in, wearing the same shirt.  I have no idea as to the origin, intent or meaning of that word having been printed on that shirt. I did not ask. But it did set me to thinking about beauty. And how the pursuit and appreciation of it has been a life’s work, and the source of so much pleasure and satisfaction. Like many others, I came to be a gardener from an intense interest and fascination with the natural world. The visual drama of an emerging leaf, the impossibly intense blue color of a delphinium flower, the fragrance of a mock orange in bloom, the shape of an ancient beech tree-everything about the life of plants provides vigorous exercise and engagement to all of the senses. It is not at all unusual to know of a gardener swooning over this or that flower. So normal in my circle and probably yours. The beauty of nature provides a profound pleasure for the heart, hand, and soul, if you will.

A definitive explanation of what constitutes beauty is next to impossible, as it does not exist in a vacuum. A beauty designation is entirely arbitrary and fiercely personal. There is a unique relationship between the observer and the observed. What is seen and what is there to be seen. There are those gardeners who adore green flowers or spring ephemera, and those who wax poetic about hot pink peonies, yellow dahlias and red hibiscus. There are others that would be hard pressed to name a plant they don’t like, just as there are those who think that a beautiful landscape would by definition be confined to hellebores and beech trees. Zinnias are most beautiful to me in large part as they remind me of my Mom. Everyone has their own closely held ideas about what is beautiful.

What constitutes beauty in a garden is a topic of endless discussion. Gardeners and designers of gardens fiercely debate the fine points, and acknowledge their common ground.  I admire some gardens and landscapes more than others, as some are more beautiful to me than others. Whether it be plants, houses, landscapes, art, books, music, bridges or… garden pots, a need for beauty has always been an integral part of the human experience.  It is as simple and as complex as that.
It has been my good fortune over the years to come in contact with ornament for the garden of great beauty. I owe most of that exposure to Rob, who has been shopping and buying for Detroit Garden Works since before it opened in 1996. It is our 25th year in business this year. I find it remarkable that a modestly sized garden shop in the Midwest has not only survived for that long, it has prospered –  buying and selling objects and plants of beauty for the garden. That beauty designation by Rob might include something smart and forward thinking. Some other item might be redolent of the earthy odor of history, sassy and off center, or strongly evocative of a farm garden. His is a very discerning eye, and his range of expertise in his field has been amassed over a long period of time. Opening the shop all those years ago was about wanting to share that aesthetic with other gardeners, and make beautiful garden ornament available to others.  That is what we do – celebrate the beauty of the garden.
Which brings me to a discussion of these pots.  They are of French manufacture. A poterie that has been in business since the late nineteenth century has evolved from a company making terra cotta roof and drain tiles to a fine art studio creating pots of great beauty for the garden. The poterie was built but 300 meters from their clay quarry. There is precious little about them that is not to like.  The sculptural shapes are classically French. The designs date back centuries. Each pot is hand made, and signed by the artisan who made it.

The pots are made via an ancient process. Heavy rope is coiled around a wood form that describes the shape of the pot being made. The clay is pressed onto and into that rope form, until the desired thickness and shape is reached.  As the clay dries, it shrinks away from the rope form. The rope is unwound from the wood form, and will be reused making the next pot. The success of this incredibly simple process depends on a potter of great skill and experience to make a pot of uniform thickness and integrity that can withstand the great heat of the firing process.


This particular finish is a tour de force. The top third of the exterior of the pots, the rims and interiors of each, is drenched in a thick creamy and lustrous glaze that looks good enough to eat. The body of the pots has a thinly applied ceramic matte patina comprised of many shades of cream, taupe and gray. There are places where the red clay body shows through. The cloud like appearance and texture of this finish is hard to describe. I like that. Any object whose beauty defies description will continue to enchant. The surface of each pot is its own painting.

The contrasting surfaces are as appealing to the touch as they are to the eye.
This picture makes it clear that each pot is hand made. Each one of these olive jars is subtly different in shape and size than its neighbor.

The pattern of the rope inside survives the glazing and firing process.
The stamps
The collection of medium olive jars


The tear drop jarre

This is indeed an extraordinarily unusual and beautiful collection of pots.

Rise And Shine

We designed and installed the landscape here in 2015, part of which included a large blue stone landing linking the driveway to the front door. I always appreciate the opportunity to design the hard surfaces at the front door. Too often the walk and porch are too narrow, and any steps too shallow. The front door certainly asks to be a focal point of a home.  That generously paved space made it possible to place a quartet of good sized steel planter boxes from Branch in concert with the door. The pots get planted in the spring, and are updated for all of the seasons to come. The winter is perhaps the most dramatic of all, as it should be.  The Michigan winter is very long. The days are short and gray, and the nights come early and are black dark. Rob’s lighted steel tree forms on rod steel legs were installed directly into the pots – a request from my intrepid clients. A pair of seven footers in the back pair, and a pair of five footers in the front do an astonishingly good job of introducing light into the winter airspace. The resulting glow is warm and atmospheric. The lighting in the containers accomplishes something that traditional landscape lighting rarely does. It creates an opportunity for theater in the landscape.

Is theater a good quality in a landscape? Of course. Divine theater is created in the landscape by nature in countless unanticipated ways. That theater is what gives rise to those perfect moments in the garden. An unforgettable moment that will probably never be repeated is what gardeners garden towards. That is landscape theater at its best. Every gardener has their own version of that experience. Pictured above is a property that had major regrading and a new driveway last year. The landscape would have to wait until spring, as would the landscape lighting. As a temporary measure, we wrapped galvanized pipe with LED string lights. The pipes were threaded over steel rebar that had been sunk deep in the ground. The lighted pipes were not fancy, but the repetition of them on a wide sweeping curve was ruggedly sculptural. And they lit the driveway enough for a walk to the mailbox for the morning paper. Contemporary lighted landscape bollards from Louis Poulsen are due to be installed this month. They will light the way in a much more formal way. They are a permanent lighting solution that will be more about function than theater.

There came a time when Howard was of an age that he could not navigate the steep steps going down into the garden from the deck. Lighting those steps with landscape lighting would certainly have helped me find my way up and down. But it would have been of no use to him, or our relationship. The lighting from the container pictured above made it possible for him to see me in the garden, and for me to see him. I had no worry that he would attempt the stairs, as he could see me. This moment was certainly theater. It told a story. I have this picture, and a very good memory.

No doubt these lighted containers at the end of the driveway are handy for illuminating the car door handle in the early morning, and a welcome home at night. There is a landscape down light in a nearby tree that no doubt makes the area easier to see at night, but the pots on the wall loaded with strings of lights at the base are more cheery and inviting than instructive. Landscape lighting that features specific objects or places in the landscape dictates the scope of the interaction. Designing and placing seasonal lighting in containers is a kind of gardening. They are as much celebration of the time as they are a reaction to it. It can organize a space or frame even a dimly lit view. They are a reason to view and visit the garden, despite the dark, cold and snow.

As the winter season soldiers on, the benefit of lighted winter pots intensifies. The visual interest and comfort they afford is difficult to ignore on a late January afternoon.

Our first lighted containers were designed specifically to celebrate the holiday season in December. It is a short bridge to cross, taking the concept of holiday decorating outdoors. The above container arrangement certainly draws on that history. But as remarkably different this holiday container is from the surrounding landscape, it is the light that brings the arrangement to life. It was remarkably time consuming to attach strings of lights vertically to a collection of branches. But that light transformed the view. The formal foreground landscape in contrast to the naturally chaotic background is a visual discussion easy to pass by in the winter. The lighted pot gives pause as much as pleasure.

The lighting materials available now are light years ahead of what we worked with 15 years ago in presentation, durability and economy. Most notable is the recent advent of twig lighting of various types and sizes. In any given winter season, Rob will carry 10 or 15 different styles. The come with pointed ends that can be inserted in the soil or a form. The lights are securely affixed to the faux twigs, and the entire assembly is covered in a waxy waterproof material. Embedded in a natural twig centerpiece, the lighted effect is enchantingly simple to achieve, and satisfying to look at. The string lighting typically put in the greens are not especially effective in lighting the centerpiece materials, unless those lights are applied with a very heavy hand. On occasion we will wrap a centerpiece with string lights at the base multiple times. But there is a limit to how far that light will migrate from its source.

There is also a limit to the height of manufactured twig lighting. The lighting technology is certainly there. But shipping an object that is too large or tall to go UPS or FedEx means it has to go freight. Shipping via a freight carrier is very expensive. So certain garden staples-like topiary forms, plant climbers and twig lights are either limited to a shippable height, or come in pieces that have to be put together by the end user. We only ship our full height topiary forms once in a while, as the cost is so great. We really make them for our local clients. So in the container pictured above, Rob hand wound string lights up each branch to get the height he wanted. It was well worth the trouble. These lights can be seen from a long way away. The globe shape of cherry lights is a welcome change from the the typical pinpoint of light of most light strands.

This window box at the shop from 2019 stuffed to overflowing with the stems of the dogwood “Midwinter Fire” is handsome during the day, but true to its name at night. Most of the lighting action comes from a pair of 50 foot strands of Lumineo brand garland style string lights sprinkled on the surface. The low cut branches of magnolia obscures the wiring during the day. The lighted ring is a contrasting, precisely geometric shape whose outline is clearly visible at night. This lighted container says nothing about a holiday, but it says everything about the designed winter landscape.

That same box assembled this year features twig lighting placed in the thick of the sticks. Exterior lighting from years ago was so much about the profusion of cords and wires that the daytime look was terrible. One had to spend an inordinate amount of time concealing the works, or choose to celebrate either the day or the night.

Not much in the way of electrical trappings is apparent here. These twig lights are integral to small white stems, the color of which pairs well with fresh cut twigs of a lighter color. And in this case, faux white berry stems. The walk to my office door will be well lit and visually lively, morning and night, the entire winter.

This cut Fraser fir tree in my side yard container is secured with 4 pieces of steel rebar pounded down in to the soil, and galvanized steel guy wires. Given that LED string lighting draws so little in the way of electricity, they can be made in long lengths. Rob carries strands that are over 100 feet long each. This makes lighting a tree much more simple and efficient. This is all the light I will have in my side yard all winter, and it is all the light I need. The tree is visible from every window facing my south side landscape, and from the street as I drive up after work. I will not take it down until the soil in the pot thaws in March.

LED lighting produces just about nothing in the way of heat. This means the mountains of snow we are sure to get will glow from the inside, rather than melt. We do indeed take winter container lighting seriously. It is rise and shine worthy.

At A Glance: Recent Work

We are just about halfway with our holiday and winter container work. To follow are some pictures of what work we have done-and an associated before photo that gives a little insight into the studio process. 9 people are involved in every project from the start to the installation. Enjoy some of the highlights of their work.


I am very pleased with what has been done, and intrigued to see what is yet to come.

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.