Do Not Go Gently

No gardener in my zone goes gently into that night we know as winter. Should you live in Georgia or Tahiti, I imagine the garden goes on year round. I am sure come mid February, I will be longing for another place to be similar to the aforementioned. Those of us in northern zones dread the inevitable. The weather goes cold. Cold enough that every deciduous plant sheds its leaves. Cold enough to deeply freeze the ground and frost it with snow. With the cold comes brief gray days, and long dark nights.. The cold and the dark has that aura of endlessness about it. It is a tunnel that takes months from which to emerge. The not gardening season has arrived.

A mild December for us followed a very cold November. This means our first taste of winter is about the fog. The 40 and 50 degree daily temperatures hovering over frozen ground made for one beautifully foggy day after another. Not to mention very friendly conditions for installing winter container arrangements and lighting. The installation of pots and lighting at home come last. I was pleased that none of us were working there in 20 degree weather. The evergreens have taken on that olive/bronze winter color, as has the grass. Grass? It is a broadleaf evergreen in my winter garden.

That warmer foggy weather made it so easy to take picture after picture. It also endowed all of my pictures with a color saturation that parallels my visual experience. What you see is what I saw. If you live in my neighborhood, I am sure you see me out there touring the garden routinely. Spring, summer, and fall. The winter tours go on until the snow that is deeper than my boots are tall. The foggy early winter weather has been unexpected, and exceptionally beautiful.

The mature flower heads of the limelight hydrangeas are spectacular right now. Funny that I have never thought that hydrangeas were worthy to plant for their winter interest, but interesting they are right now. The color and texture is a standout. The flowers will persist well into March. The color of the early winter hydrangea flowers is a version of cinnamon that is repeated in the the flame willow, and the obverse of the magnolia leaves. The pot pictured above is English made concrete in the classical Italian style. This weatherproof terra cotta wil endure the winter.  All of that burnt orange color contrasts and resonates with the winter color on the boxwood. This is an unusual version of early winter that is worth savoring.

The garland over my door and porch windows will stay in place the entire winter. It will last as long as need be. It has a wintry, as opposed to holiday look.

I do have a cut evergreen tree in the pot in my side yard. My crew sinks the trunk into the soil. The tree is stabilized with concrete wire guy wires attached to four pieces of steel rebar sunk into the pot. The tree is loaded with LED lights which will light up this side garden all winter long. The arborvitae in the foreground, the boxwood and the grass provide green to this scene all winter long. The bare branches of the Princeton Gold maples are sculptural-especially in this New Year fog. The brick approach, the gate, the steel edger strip, the chair and the pot are all good examples of how objects stirred into a garden mix can create a little magic, no matter the season.

This lighted tree was a celebration indeed from before Christmas and through New Year’s. But it will keep on singing throughout the winter. Yes, I keep the lights on. I enjoy them as much during the day as I do at night. That subtle twinkle helps to stave off the gray. The daytime winter side garden view is a much muted and moody version of the summer. It seems appropriate to that season when the garden goes dormant. Once winter approaches, I am so pleased to have lots of evergreens.

I did spray all of my boxwood late this fall with VaporGard. It is an all natural product fashioned from pine resin that coats every leaf with a resinous wax. Properly applied, it stays in place all winter long.  Broad leaved evergreens can suffer in a winter that is exceptionally cold and windy. Their thin broad leaves transpire with no opportunity to take up water from the roots. They can be severely damaged over the course of a bad winter. This coating helps prevent undue evaporation from the leaves. Juicy leaves are good looking and healthy leaves over the dormant season. Of course I watered my evergreens until very late in the season. That waxy coating is much better looking and more effective than burlap.

My garden is an at home real time version of nature. I am sure there are other places where the beauty of nature is more spectacular and showy, but this suits me just fine.

The view in from the street

The view out

The view from above

The warm temperatures have meant I have been able to tour after dark. Evening in the summer garden is a great pleasure. But an after dark experience of the winter garden is a once in a while experience. The seasonal lighting makes it easier to navigate in the dark.

A new dusting of snow creates beautiful shadows.

This container lights the stairs from the deck down into to the back yard at night. Of course I would want it to look good during the day. Those tall twigs are Japanese fan willow. The short brushy twigs? alder.

I can see my way at night going up and down. Milo is on the upper and I am on the lower. Such is our evening outing. He is on the elderly side now, so some of my tours he waits out. I can hear him barking for me, no matter where I am in the yard.

The lighted tree in the side garden tells a different tale every hour of the day and night. At dusk it begins to glow.

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas wrote a poem called “Do not go gentle into that good night” in 1947. Pictured above is my garden sculpture version of that poem.

lighted pots in the front yard after dark

night light

the front door after dark

Eventually I ended up inside the front porch.

Welcome to my house, winter.

 

 

At A Glance: Recent Work

To follow are some visual highlights of our winter work. I will not fault anyone who cannot wade through them all! My group produced a prodigious amount of work the past five weeks, and I am pleased that every winter project we had is finished. We are better than halfway through the Detroit Garden Works winter garden. Then it will be time to do my pots at home.


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Very pleased with this year’s winter pots and such.

The Winter Pots: A Visual Tutorial

To follow is a visual tutorial, from start to finish, of how we construct winter and holiday arrangements. We do rely on the armature for both fresh, dried, and faux stems and branches provided by dry floral foam. Once we create forms for a client, those forms are used for a good number of years. The forms you see in the upper left of the picture above are 4 years old. Yes, we patch them, when the forms get elderly.

the first gesture, for a new client.

later

The lines scribed in the forms indicate how wide the centerpiece will be.

These centerpieces under construction include a mix of faux berry and ball picks, and fresh cut magnolia stems.

An outer layer of fresh cut red bud pussy willow stems follows all around the centerpiece.

As David is doing here, always look up to determine where you want any element to land.

Karen took over the greening of these centerpieces.

Every fresh cut evergreen stem has been sharpened. The idea is to insure a tight fit between the wood and the foam. We have winter weather ahead of us. This means that whatever we fabricate needs to be winter hardy.Karen is gifted. She can assess the volume and mass of a centerpiece, and give that centerpiece a green place to be of proper proportion.

finished centerpieces ready for the installation

the centerpiece was constructed around a light burst. Lots of LED lights on a twig like structure with stakes in the bottom is such an easy way of lighting the vertical elements in a winter arrangement.   LED Lightburst

The right hand pot, installed.

The left hand pot, installed.

Start to finish, I could not be more pleased with the work my group turns out.

 

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.