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!

Part 2: The Landscape To Go With

landscape drawingMy last post dealt in detail with the process of relocating a driveway for my clients. It was a huge investment both in resources and time-from early spring until late summer. Good for me that my clients are incredibly patient people. The property features lots of trees of considerable age. There was no interest on anyone’s part to change that. The landscape would be concentrated near the house and new drive court. The open area once occupied by the old driveway would be a sweeping arc of grass similar in shape to the arc of the driveway – but larger.  That grass arc would be punctuated by a few strategically placed specimen trees. Those new trees would have plenty of space to grow to their mature size.

The drive court is of considerable size too. The house is a long way from the road. Though the climb up is at a much easier angle than before, it is still a climb. So a drive court that could accommodate visitors coming and going was of paramount importance to my clients. On the plus side, it makes an admirable makeshift basketball court, and it is easy to park out of the way of the garage doors. The landscape embracing the drive court circumscribes it in a large radius, the size of which was dictated by a pair of retaining walls installed in tandem with the driveway. I can safely say that the only flat space on this property exists inside the walls of the house. All other flat and navigable space had to be created.

I was interested that the landscape have a strong, simple, and largely evergreen accompaniment. The formal nature of it accomplishes two things.  It is in striking contrast to the natural landscape which surrounds it. And it would be fairly simple to maintain. Blocks of buxus “Green Gem” in alternating sizes would need a routine and accurately timed source of water, and a yearly pruning.  Planting these 9′ by 9′ square blocks in an arc created plenty of suspense for those of us who installed it. There was a lot of site work determining just the right plant placement. It has unexpectedly proved to be the ideal nesting spot for a turkey. Green Gem is very hardy in my zone, and it tolerates very cold and windy winters. On the top of the hill, hale and hardy was an important criteria for plant selection.

At the same time, project manager and driveway builder Ralph Plummer, owner and operator of GP Enterprises, was hard at work doing what he loves the best.  The placement and planting of large specimen trees. If you need big trees, there is no better source. I feel sure that there are countless landscape contractors in my area who use his services. He has the resources, equipment, and experience to place large material in the landscape.  As so many of the existing trees were of considerable size, large trees were called for. Though the London Planes he planted for me on this project were 25′-30′ tall, they are still dwarfed by the older trees existing on the property. London Planes are one of the largest shade trees native to North America, and these three will have plenty of room to grow. There is a thought to the future too. Trees, like any other living thing, have a life span. They would be the beginning of the next generation.

A Norway spruce of comparable size was planted in addition to the plane trees. The large lawn area would have all the dressing up it would need. Watering new trees in a lawn area is not so simple. Irrigation meant to water a lawn does not provide the deep soaking required by large trees of recent transplant. A drip irrigation zone for the sole purpose of keeping these new trees adequately watered was installed.  The lawn irrigation zones do not overlap and water the trees. This takes careful planning and installation-just the kind of thing for which Ian Edmunds Irrigation is well known.

Of course I was imagining what the property would look like with grass. But we were a good ways away from that moment, at this moment.

The big trees did provide some privacy to the house on the hill. I took this picture from my car, driving by.

The blocks of boxwood feature Venus dogwoods. Those trees will provide better and better leafy contrast and size to the boxwood as they grow. They like a fair amount of sun, and are hardier than either of their primary parent trees – the Kousa dogwood, and the pacific coast species cornus nuttallii. When happy, they will put on a foot of growth per year.

retaining wall backfilledThe retaining wall created a substantial planting space on the house side of the driveway. We were happy for the good soil and easy planting conditions.  Per the plan, the house side of the drive court repeated the boxwood and dogwood pattern of the opposing side, but added several other elements. A columnar spruce, picea cupressina, will grow every bit of 25 feet tall, with a mature width of but 6 feet.  It will give the chimney a run for its money. This is a large house without so much available planting space. A strong vertical plant will help the landscape keep up.

That spruce is surrounded with a mass planting of the dwarf red barberry. That dark wine red color is very friendly to the color of the brick on the house.

This small area between the front porch and the person door in to the garage was a high visibility spot that lacked any appealing features.

Once it was determined that the only traffic to this door was from the driveway, the new landscape was installed accordingly. The window in this picture is one of the few that look out on to the landscape. That view out is better now.

It was always intended that the retaining walls installed in support of the landscape would be softened by a double row of Limelight hydrangeas. The white flowers on the mature shrubs would provide a stunning backdrop to the boxwood on the upper level drive court. A change of level provides great interest to any landscape, large or small. The fact that they will describe the entire upper arc of landscape means they will read strongly from the road. All of the big trees had generously sized edger strip installed around them. No need for a mower to brush up against them, or a lawn trimming tool to damage the bark. Of just as much visual importance here is the shape and sweep of the grass to come.

By the time that we were able to complete the front yard landscape with plantings at the road, it was very late in the year. A group of white pines that my clients had planted on their property had spent the summer heeled in to protect them.  They were moved to a pair of large beds at the driveway entrance off the street. A number of additional white pines were added to the original group, and all of the trees were under planted with the spreading juniper, “Calgary Carpet”. I am not a huge fan of junipers, but this one has a beautiful horizontal habit, and a lovely sheen to the branches. Culturally, they would be a perfect companion to the white pines.

It was December when we finally got to mulching all of the plantings.  It was the least we could do, given that a rainy late fall meant the grass would have to wait until the spring.

A pair of pots were selected for the front door, and arrangements for the holiday and winter season were installed.

Early this April we were able to sod all of those bare dirt areas. What a relief.

A few months later, the sod has knitted and rooted in. There is no sign of all of the work that went on most of the previous year. All of the large trees seem remarkably good, considering they were transplanted less than a year ago.

The curving beds of Limelight hydrangeas will be blooming soon.

new landscapeThe landscape near the house is thriving.

The entrance beds are taking hold. All of the white pines survived their first winter in this spot with little damage. As for the tire tracks on the grass, I stand by the design of how the drive meets the road. I am sure the damage is from the latest set of trucks and equipment.

Under construction now, the back yard. What you see here is a temporary stone access road. More on this later.

A House On A Hill

It’s a rather quick and showy matter – to discuss container planting design, planting, and the eventual, and hopefully lush outcome. The satisfaction planting and growing them on is a pleasure of a single summer season. But landscape projects can consume months of work, and the progress can be slow. Any large landscape project that involves a number of contractors requires loads of patience. I am in year two of this particular project. I will admit that the first time I drove up to the house, and looked back down the driveway, I was rattled. A large piece of land featured a house built on top of a hill in the far rear corner of the property. That hill dropped away dramatically in every direction.  Substantial portions of the land were below the grade of the adjacent roads. Knowing as I do that human interaction with the landscape depends on some flat ground on which to stand, I was discouraged. I would go so far as to say it is an alarmingly difficult site. My clients were not the least bit concerned. They were in it for the long haul. They loved the house, and they were interested in making a home for themselves-inside and out. My first visit to the property was not their first. They were already well on their way to making their presence known, cutting down dead trees and shrubs, and hauling away debris. They had planted some white pines.

The driveway was in rather poor condition, and would have to be redone.  But to my mind, the location of the drive was a bigger problem than the condition of the surface. It was not particularly functional, as it came up to the house at a very steep and awkward angle. Keeping it ice free in the winter would be necessary for both vehicular and pedestrian traffic. But even in good weather, it was a nerve wracking haul going up, and a nerve wracking brake fest on the way down. The distance from the road was considerable, so adequate parking near the house was a must. The existing drive court was too shallow to permit parked vehicles and access to the garage at the same time. The drive was too narrow to permit 2 cars to pass on the drive. Lastly but not least, it did not provide a beautiful and unfolding presentation of the house on the trip up. I proposed moving the driveway altogether, to a location that was less steep. The sweeping curve would provide views of the property. And it would be wide enough for 2 cars to use the long drive at the same time.

See what I mean? A good bit of the property is covered in trees.  That wooded look was entirely appropriate, and with some pruning and care would thrive. There was very little in the way of designed landscape near the house, as the opportunities to plant were few. My clients decided they wanted to proceed with the driveway renovation, and the creation of a larger drive court at the top. The driveway contractor saw to having the plan engineered and permitted. That was not the most simple or speedy process.  The grades were extreme such that several retaining walls would need to be built to hold up that drive.

An enlarged drive court and a place to plant on the street side of it would require a third retaining wall. The amount of natural flat space all around the house was minimal.  The drive court was up there in the tree canopy.  A landscape buffer would keep a vehicle away from the drop off point. Fortunately, the soil was on the sandy side, making the earthwork fairly easy to do. Another advantage was that work was not held up by rain, and water drained off quickly. Working a site with heavy clay soil can be set back a week or better after a drenching rain. There would be a terrific amount of work to be done before there would be any talk of a landscape installation.

The actual construction was quite interesting. The new drive was completely staked out, top to bottom. Once laid out, my clients could walk it, and see how they liked it. The layout was extremely close to the drawn plan, as the permit was issued for a specific location and configuration. All the while that this work was going on, my clients were still able to use the old driveway for their comings and goings. It is easy to tell from the picture above that the slope of the new drive would be considerably less steep than the original.

Once laid out, the retaining walls that would shore up the driveway were constructed from giant blocks of ledge rock, set with the help of an excavator. It’s obvious in the above picture that that the driveway grade is considerably higher than the grade of the land where the trees in the background are planted.


This picture reveals how the house will come in to view half way up the drive. This is the welcome home, and the welcome to our home moment. It is tough to spot the old driveway off to the left, but it is still there.

Once the grade was satisfactory, truckload after truckload of gravel was delivered and dumped on the site of the new drive.

The heavy equipment up at the top of the drive signals that the last of the gravel has been laid. That gravel would be thoroughly compacted. Very shortly thereafter, the first 2 inch thick layer of asphalt was put down. The final two inches will not be installed until the landscape front and back is completed. The weight of heavy equipment can damage a drive. Once the new drive was drive able, the old drive could be removed.

A gravel base had been installed, and tamped for the drive court retaining wall. This is a great view of the level of the new drive court, set at the grade of the base of the house. The slope away from that drive court is not sustainable without some retention.

Slabs of ledge rock would be set in place one at a time to shore up the soil adjacent to the drive court, and create an 11 foot deep planting bed.

Once the wall was in place, the bed was back filled with soil. There would be room for a landscape to soften the size of the drive court.

Once the old driveway was removed, all of the open ground needed regrading. In the first picture in this post, it is easy to see that the old drive was installed on on a hill of its own.  Much of that soil under the drive was graded towards the new drive, and smoothed out. This is a very large area – thus the bulldozer doing the rough grade.

There are situations when starting over, and balancing the land forms will make all the difference in the world to the landscape outcome. I was actually thrilled to see the progress at this point. This was an enormous change, but all for the much better. The driveway contractor, Ralph Plummer, who owns and operates GP Enterprises, sent me the following statistics on the driveway installation.

– Removed 6,100 sq. ft. of asphalt.  Stripped 200 yards of top soil and re-installed it in low area along drive. Installed 400 yards of sand.-Added 500 tons of 21AA crushed stone and compacted in place. Installed 10,000 Sq. Ft. of asphalt on the first base layer. The new walls along drive took 184 tons of stone, in addition to 84 tons of existing stone that were relocated.  Whew.

Late last summer, we were ready to begin the landscape.