Sailing Close To The Wind

I recently ran across some pictures of holiday containers from the year 2000. The year 2000? I was faint with surprise. It is impossible to believe that we have just finished our 21st season designing, fabricating and installing winter arrangements in pots and containers, but indeed we have. I would have guessed we had 10 years into it, at most. It seems those decades flew by. How is it possible to have sustained a keen interest in the work for that many years, much less kept it fresh and innovative?

Of course one’s approach to the work evolves with experience. In the early days we installed all of the materials in containers on site, in very cold and otherwise inhospitable conditions. All of the materials were inserted into the soil. It took a few years to rewrite that protocol, but now all of the work is done indoors, in custom made forms that are saved and reused from year to year.  If you read here regularly, you have heard all about this before. We have a broker of excellent repute and outstanding service supply us with evergreen boughs of incredible size and heft. The picture above and below tell the story of those greens. The dry, preserved and faux materials we are able to add to our arrangements have become more sophisticated and more wide ranging over the years. The materials themselves suggest and inform the design. Great materials enable great work –  so all my best to you, and thank you, Rob. But what the 21 years we have in to designing and fabricating the winter pots got me to thinking about has to do with aesthetics. The art and sculpture of it, if you will.

In the beginning we had our mandate – even though we may not have been so conscious of it. Being gardeners, the most beautiful arrangements of greens would of course be those arrangements that most closely replicated the natural arrangement of greens in living and growing evergreen trees and shrubs. Those arrangements engineered by nature have evolved to maximize the health and well being of the plant, and future generations of that plant.  Our goal was to arrange cut greens to look as though they were part of a live tree, and growing. We would try to copy nature in exacting detail. There are winter containers we have done that appear to have evergreen shrubs growing in them. We’ve been asked about how to water them more than just a few times. Clients would admire that we were able to make our winter containers look real. Though nature’s works are extraordinarily sculptural, they are after all, nature’s works, and not ours. How would we improve on what nature had already done?  We wouldn’t.  But we could interpret, celebrate and document our relationship with nature in any number of ways.

Considering the possibility of arranging greens in a not necessarily natural way was uncharted territory. We needed to go in that direction, but that process was like sailing a sailboat directly in to the wind. A sailboat is able to make forward progress into a headwind by a process called tacking. The boat is moved across the wind by turning the bow towards and through the wind in one direction, and then back across the wind in the other. This zig zag movement, if it is skillfully done, has a strong vertical component. It produces forward motion towards a desired destination. If the turning into the wind is of a slight and subtle angle, rather than a sharp 90 degree turn, it produces a phenomena known as sailing close to the wind. Meaning a very small change can make forward progress possible. To anyone reading who truly is a sailor, I apologize for this shallow discussion of tacking. But even a oversimplified version of it helps to explain how our work has evolved creatively.

What are our headwinds? Being reluctant to entertain change is the strongest. Sometimes a lack of imagination or a loss of interest can whip up a stiff headwind. The arrangement pictured above was notable for us, as we deliberately inserted the evergreen boughs adjacent to the centerpiece in a vertical position. It was the first time in at least 15 years –  taking that tack. The very first picture in this post illustrates that clearly. The moment we were able to set branches at a horizontal angle in a rigid foam armature, we abandoned ever setting branches vertically again. We were free from the demands imposed by constructing arrangements in the soil. But one set of freedom enabled another kind of prison-not  assessing each project on the merits. We made this small incrementally small change in our construction protocol for this pot ostensibly to conceal the faux stems of our faux picks. But the consequences of this small change-the impulse to go vertical in this pot – proved to be substantial.  The overall shape was very different-gorgeous to my eye. Natasha did an incredible job setting the greens in this pot. Stunning. Her attention to detail and understanding of mass, volume and shape is obvious.

The following photographs detail the construction of winter arrangements for a set of window boxes that we did last year. It is clear from the pictures that the greens have been set at angles that respond to the geometry of the light ring in the center. The light ring was lined with a heavy weight boxwood garland, that visually connects to the shaped boxwood that follows the radius of the bottom of the light ring. How the boxwood is installed makes the light ring look integral to the arrangement-in a sculptural way. Boxwood would not grow like this, but it might live like this were it trimmed. That would endow the boxwood with the evidence of the human hand. Noble fir branches would not grow like this either. It is clear that this arrangement is of a different sort. And it is definitely not a representation of a noble fir tree.

There are those who might say that the evidence of the human hand is greatly inferior to the hand of nature.  I don’t subscribe to that notion, as I do not see the two forces as comparable. They are relatable, integral to one another, but different. Equally interesting. Equally essential.

This picture taken in the shop after the construction was finished illustrates to my mind how a winter arrangement can be sculptural. It took a while to convince Birdie that it would be good and beautiful to install the long greens with an upward trajectory. Like angel wings. What an incredibly beautiful job she did. Ten minutes in, she knew exactly where she was going. Right into the wind.

It was a perfect moment, looking at these sculptures at days end when everyone had gone home. We would install them the following day.

Install them we did.

Recent Work


What is to follow does by no means represent all of the winter and holiday container work that was done this season, but it’s a start.  It will take a few more posts to talk about them all. But I could not be happier for the incredible, thoughtful and memorable work of staff from Deborah Silver and Co, The Branch Studio, and Detroit Garden Works.  They make it all happen, and I watch their process and their production with great respect and awe. There is a whomping lot of pictures to follow, all in celebration of the 2021 winter season in the garden.


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A Perfect Moment

By late January, winter has an immutable grip on my zone. It’s cold, but the cold is not the spirit breaker. Its the gray. All the imperceptibly different versions of gray. The massive and almost daily uni-cloud that covers the entire landscape from the sky on down. We have weeks and weeks of it yet to go. Michigan has an impressive number of cloudy winter days. That day after day gray, on top of the cold and wintry weather, is a serious damper for anyone who lives to be out of doors. Gray days and lengthy nights ask for a little intervention. Just in case you are asking why I still have a lighted tree on my deck January 21, this is the reason. That glow from the tree is warm and inviting. It banishes a bit of the gloom. And it casts what the winter has to offer in a positively beautiful light.

It is not too many for me – having two lighted trees. This one in my side yard illuminates the entire area. People often ask me what kind of lights I use. That doesn’t matter so much, although LED lights are certainly more economical to run. What really matters is using lights in sufficient quantity to provide the quality and extent of light you want. Though this is the south side, it is exceptionally dark in the winter. The surrounding arborvitae are every bit of 14 feet tall, and their foliage turns black/green in response to the cold. They are brooding and monolithic. The tree provides just enough light to bring this part of the landscape into a winter focus. On a gray day, the tree sparkles. I don’t visit this spot so often in the winter, but I see it from inside every day and every night. The light is an invitation to enjoy the landscape from afar. Its no secret that I believe lighting and winter containers are both essential elements of the winter landscape. How and when to provide it may be addressed in November and December, but what they provide is most welcome in January and February.

Lighted containers installed in the landscape in November and December are ready for the winter weather. Containers decorated for the holidays celebrate a specific event, but once those holiday elements are removed, a winter container is set to perform over the long haul. We will have wind, heavy snow and bitter cold along with the gray. Once in a blue moon, we have a snow unlike all others. The wet sticky snow falls slowly and vertically in windless and entirely quiet conditions. The total snow fall is but an inch or two or three. But it sticks to and steadily builds on every surface it touches. The quality of this kind of snow is such that it even sticks to vertical surfaces. I have never heard a weather news caster predict such an event, but air temperature and humidity play a crucial role. The science aside, it is a perfect moment in the winter landscape. No lighted winter container is ever more glorious than when clothed in snow like this.

The same is true for the landscape. A good design is both revealed and invigorated by weather. It is a vital element in the landscape over which a gardener has no control. Some weather is entirely destructive, but there is always the opportunity to re imagine and rebuild.  Whether it be rain or snow or fall leaves, or the drop of spent magnolia flower petals, a fresh coat of weather tells a story. In the above picture, the design elements of line, mass and texture are illustrated in a graphic way. The color of the light is in especially striking contrast to the somber surrounding landscape.

Fantail willow branches sport an infinite variety of curving shapes. The snow, and a strategically placed spot light, feature not only their shapes, the the overall shape created by their placement.

To follow are too many pictures of my visit to the garden that day. I was outside at 6:45 am, and back indoors by 8:15.

 

 

The towering maple in the far left background and the weeping Norway spruce in the right mid ground have probably been there better than 50 years. The arborvitae and foreground boxwood are about 20 years old. The Princeton Gold maples in the far background were planted in 2005. After that, the large container in the side yard. Next, the hydrangeas. The arbor and John Davis roses are probably only 4 or 5 years in. Did those climbing roses look at beautiful here as they did in full bloom? Oh yes. A lot of years came together in preparation for this perfect moment. It was indeed a very brief moment. This extraordinary snowfall melted away within a few hours. The relationship between nature, the landscape, age and the ephemeral keeps me designing.

 

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.