Shear Pleasure: Topiary

 

Gardeners have been pruning plants just as long as they have been growing them. It isn’t too hard to figure out why. A broken tree limb or dead cane on a rose needs to be cut off, as dead branches are just plain unsightly. A wild hair of a shrub branch hanging over the walk can and should be trimmed out of the way. The branches of lilacs, roses, hydrangeas and other woody plants that cross over one another have the potential to damage one another. Every branch of every plant moves, given the natural flow of air. Bark that gets worn down to bare wood endangers the health of that branch. Healthy shrubs, meaning properly pruned shrubs, have a branch structure that permits the free flow of air and light. Sometimes a little intervention helps to encourage healthy growth. I am sure you have noticed, that in the wild, there is as much dead as there is living going on. Some branches can be infected by disease. Removing that diseased portion helps to insure the health of the rest of the plant. Some plants eventually grow in to each other’s space. Some pruning can be best described as refereeing.

Lilacs are woody shrubs that greatly benefit from a pruning overhaul. Removing the 3 largest branches at the ground level every few years of a mature and sizeable lilac keeps the plant youthful. This is a shrub that greatly benefits from a turning the old growth over. New branches that sprout from the ground level will grow fast, and bloom profusely. Old branches become leggy, woody, and tall, and produce few blooms. Old unpruned lilacs are notable for their abundance of dead branches, thick woody growth, and pitifully small and sparse blooms 15 feet or more above ground. Regularly pruned lilacs are more compact, and bloom heavily. Great looking lilacs require regular pruning. Once a year to shape and rejuvenate. And a second time to remove the dead flower heads. Other shrubs, notably oakleaf hydrangeas, do remarkably well with no intervention whatsoever. I have a single shrub almost 25 years old that I have never touched with a pair of pruners. It is lovely, and blooms well every year. Some plants decline with pruning. I would not prune an American dogwood except to remove a dead branch. Excessive pruning on maple trees expose ordinarily shaded branches and trunks to the glare of the sun, resulting in scald.

To prune or not to prune, and how to properly prune for health and well being, is a topic with considerable coverage on line.  Any gardener wanting a consultation on pruning practices for any given plant can find numerous articles available to read. General articles about pruning are invariably too general. Not all plants respond well to generic pruning. This seems obvious to me, but apparently not to all. A good look at any landscape where every shrub cultivar is pruned to the same shape and size will tell that sorry story. The human hand armed with hedge trimmers set to a one size fits all is not about gardening. This is about a spring housekeeping chore executed by an unwilling and irritated housekeeper. A once a year housekeeper, mind you. The results are visually embarrassing, and can endanger the plant. That said, gardeners have been pollarding trees and coppicing shrubs for centuries. Every story has at least two sides, does it not? Once you have read about how to prune a plant for health and well being, decide what you believe. Or sign up for what appeals to you. Or follow a plan that seems most logical and sensible. As a first and a last resort, adapt what seems in keeping with your style of gardening, and wade in. Plants are remarkably resilient. I have seem them recover and flourish in spite of very heavy handed and misguided pruning.

This is by way of saying that no one needs my opinion about how to prune. My pruning practices are the result of decades of experience. By this I mean, trial and error. It is not a bad way to learn. Plants are incredibly tolerant of almost everything you have to dish out. My pruning practices work for me-and not necessarily others. A gardening friend of mine cuts her spireas and other fast growing deciduous shrubs to the ground in the spring-so they don’t get out of hand and grow too tall. I am sure no pruning article would recommend this, but it works for her. If you have a mind to try this, prepare ahead for a look you might not like. There’s always next season. Or try it by a half. Or try it with one plant. I have pruned hydrangeas by 2/3rds and  by 1/2. I have left them unpruned. I have given them shag haircuts. They still perform beautifully. As if they were unaware that I had done anything.  If they are woody and leggy, I prune some branches harder than others, to encourage some green sprouts at the base. This year, I have not touched them. I prune based on what I am in the mood for.

If you like to prune for the shear joy of pruning, then topiary plants are a perfect plant. Topiary is the art of pruning plants into various geometric shapes. Some plants take well to regular shearing, and respond to training better than others. The myrtle topiaries in the pictures above are woody shrubs. They are not hardy in my zone. A summer outdoors in a fairly sunny place can be followed by a winter indoors in a spot with decent light.  Training them to grow into a a single trunk takes a bit of skilled work, and a good bit of time. Rob buys plants already trained into topiary forms every spring. Taking over the care of an existing topiary is infinitely easier than starting from scratch. They are irresistibly delicious to any person of a gardening bent. That said, no myrtle topiary will tolerate going dry. Do not buy them if you are not a watering sort.

Lemon cypress is a very large vertically growing evergreen tree that is very tolerant of pruning. They make great topiary plants at a young age. Shear away. I had a pair that I shifted up into larger pots every year for 5 years. At that point, I had to let them go. I had no winter storage that could handle them at 5 feet tall, and 2′ wide. But the five years I had them was a relationship I treasured. I learned how to clip each branch individually. The time I spent clipping was relaxing and absorbing. It was a challenge to clip evenly to a finished and beautiful shape. I most certainly would grow them outdoors if I could, and I would prune them on a larger scale.

All of Rob’s topiaries are in a fairly shaggy state right now. I like this state of a topiary best of all-the anticipation of the haircut to come. I have been known to study a topiary for a week before I break out the shears. I see gardeners do this all the time. Their boxwood spheres and cones, their juniper spirals, their Christmas trees, their lantanas,  their lindens and their hornbeams – the pruning is an event.  Topiaries do demand regular pruning. They demand all of what you have available to give them. That is part of their charm.

Rosemary makes for an ideal topiary. They take well to pruning. The clippings can be added to the cooking du jour. The smell of the cut stems is strong; piney and divine. The oil from the stems perfume both the hands and the shears. The fragrance of rosemary is treasured by gardeners.

Lavender is marginally perennial in our zone, provided a long list of requirements are met. I have planted countless numbers of them, most of which perished within a few years. Lavender topiary in pots provide a way to enjoy lavender without all of the pitfalls that come with an in ground planting. Like rosemary, the cut stems perfume the air all around it. The flowers are modest in size and color, but a lavender in full bloom is glorious. A lavender topiary in full bloom is a cause for celebration. Likewise, a beautiful topiary plant. Beautifully grown and trimmed topiaries are strong evidence of the gardening hand. How I admire the work and dedication that goes in to them.

If you haven’t yet, try one. If you do grow topiaries, bravo.

 

 

A Lighted Winter Arrangement

A request to turn a limestone fountain into a container for the winter is not the usual thing, but why not?  The dimensions were not overwhelmingly large. Nonetheless, 45″ by 45″ is a lot of territory to cover. The real test would be producing an arrangement of sufficient size to be properly proportional to the container. A fountain, that is. The client was also interested in a substantial lighting plan that would have height, width, and a good deal of intensity. We went for broke with four 140 light count light bursts. The light you see in the above picture would be magnified 20 fold in the dark. Incredible to believe that a lighting device drawing so little power could deliver so much light. And light 3 feet off the surface. Later we added 9 mini light bursts to the mix. Read on for details. The form is 8″ thick-enough to fill the entire watery area of the fountain.  And substantial enough to hold a five foot diameter light ring, and hundreds of cut red twig branches, picks, and greens. The hole in the center of the form? This gives the fountain jet a place to be, undisturbed.

A decision was made about what portion of the form would be twig covered. I do that based on my experience as a landscape designer. Designing landscapes means dealing with space, in all three dimensions. A tape measure and an instinct for proportion is the best I have to offer.

The red twig dogwood stems at the center would dictate the dimensions of all of the other elements. The light burst would be buried in this forest of twigs. The day time appearance of the arrangement is just as important as what happens after dark. David is particularly skilled at setting cut branches in such a way that the overall shape is natural and graceful. Perfectly shrubby. Perfectly ethereal. Love his work. By this time, the stems of the light bursts are beginning to disappear. He works with the lights on. Doesn’t that make sense?

A channel has to be created for the prongs and base of the light ring. Some stems are removed, only to be put back in once the ring is in the proper spot. This ring is 5 feet in diameter, and difficult to handle. We like to install it when the arrangement is partially done. We had a branch road map, if you will. It might seem intuitive to install the ring first, and work around it. But that ring is rigidly geometric – not the look we were after for the branches. We make the forest first, and fit that geometric light element into it. Forest first. Always. We could have used a second foam layer for the ring, but I am glad we did not. The ring is at the right height for all of the other elements, sitting in the main form. A second layer of shorter alder branches faced down the red twig. My client and I agreed that the picks she had chosen for the arrangement should be backed up by the more subtly colored alder. A triple layer thicket of alder created a place for the picks to be.

The stems of the faux picks disappear one by one into the alder. The color relationship between the red twig and the picks is made more subtle, given the transition provided by the alder.  Fresh cut alder branches are beautiful. The brown bark is punctuated by the green and red tips and buds. The branchy structure of these stems contrast with the mostly vertical red twig stems. The relationship in color, texture and mass between these two twiggy materials is a good one. Any natural twiggy material helps to integrate faux materials into the mix. Sometimes the best element to introduce into a winter arrangement is a little congestion. Some integration. Integrating materials in a winter container requires great skill. A patch of this and a patch of that, all over, can be very hard on the eye.

David came in early late this past week to assess how our lighting scheme looked. Four light bursts, and four sets of three mini bursts on the perimeter of the red twig seemed to be creating the light my client was after. The light ring reads strongly.

Once I saw this, I knew David had successfully combined a powerfully wide and tall lighting scheme into an integrated arrangement of both fresh cut and faux materials. I doubt I will ever forget this project. Or this picture. The integration of every highly structured element into a gracefully whole expression is a skill that evolves, one project at a time.

Karen is sticking the last of the greens here.

in the studio

loading the winter arrangement

Of course I was not happy that this arrangement did not fit into our box truck. Some landscape person of note one said, “No matter what truck you choose to buy, it will not be big enough”. The box truck did not have a big enough box.

We did eventually load the arrangement into Dan’s pick up truck. I think he was nervous about transporting this arrangement, but he never said so. It was a work day, as usual. Fortunately we did not have far to go.

the final touches by Karen

hooking up the lighting

The good and happy end of a project, no matter how small or big, is cause for celebration. Am I celebrating?  Yes.

Hoop It Up: Lighting The Winter Landscape

The benchmark of our winter and holiday season is the seasonal lighting made available at Detroit Garden Works. Any current year’s collection becomes available towards the end of October. We measure all else we offer for winter gardens to clients by the effort we make to have something of value available to light the landscape. Providing for some light is never more urgent than it is in the winter months. The daylight hours are few, and mostly gray. That night that starts in the afternoon, and persists late into the following morning asks for intervention.

Rob Yedinak is entirely responsible for anything lighted we have to offer the winter landscape. He not only buys a variety of lighting materials, but he imagines and fabricates light sculptures from those materials. What he manages, to the delight of any gardener facing the dark days to come, is an engaging answer. His best known effort is a collection of steel circles wound round with LED string lighting. These light rings come in two versions. One style of hoop can be hung from a stout tree branch or pergola. It can be laid flat in a birdbath or pot. It could be hung against a wall or a garden gate. The hanging hoops come with multi strand jute rope. That jute helps to disguise the wire at the end of the light strand. It is a very simple and beautifully made lighted sculpture.

A later incarnation provided a four pronged steel base which enabled the ring to be securely installed in a pot, or in the ground. A free standing lighted sculpture, if you will. The above picture illustrates a 3 foot diameter ring installed as an integral part of a winter window box at the shop. Every element of that arrangement is stuffed into a dry floral foam base. I was interested that the lighted hoop be an integral part of the arrangement. A hoop on four legs made it easy to evenly sink those legs into to the foam base, and stuff branches, magnolia and evergreen boughs all around it. The very best part of this process is the ability to construct the arrangement in a warm and dry space.

Though we glue several layers of foam sheets together, that foam has no strength. It can hold hundreds of stems, and the spiked legs of the light ring securely. But unsupported, that foam will break. During the construction phase, it sits on top of a piece of plywood. We slide the arrangement off the plywood into the container just like a cookie coming off a baking sheet. This process does require very careful measuring to insure a good fit.

But the big story here is how Rob’s spiked and lighted hoops look at night. They appear to float over the arrangement. Thought we covered the foam with light strings before we stuck the branches into the foam, those circles of light are as distinctive as they are satisfying. They stand out from the glow.

This picture clearly illustrates the standing mechanism. The base is securely welded to the ring. This is a very large ring, so the spikes that go into the soil are wired to 4 pieces of rebar that go deep in to the container.

This lighted hoop is 5 feet in diameter. It does a terrific job of highlighting the centerpiece During the day, that steel hoop is very sculptural. The light rings add a whole other dimension to a winter container arrangement. The LED lights draw very little in the way of electricity. We have clients who run them in their garden all year round. To follow are as collection of pictures of winter arrangements featuring the hoops. If I had a mind to make just one winter gesture in the garden, I would hang or spike one in a spot where I could see all winter. It is a lot of look in a small and durable package.

Why am I writing about lighted hoops for winter containers in October? Jackie has been steadily shipping them out all over the country for the past 3 weeks. Whether you are local or far away from the Works, if you have a mind to hoop it up this winter, you may want to contact her now.  Jackie@detroitgardenworks.com.  Further interested in sizing and pricing?  Lighted hoops from Detroit Garden Works

The Light Rings

If my memory serves me correctly, it was 7 years ago that Rob wound strand lighting around a few vintage wagon wheels, and suspended them from the ceiling of the shop for the holidays. I doubt they were on display for a week before the lot of them was purchased by an enthusiastic client. Over the next several years he designed and redesigned custom made steel circles, carefully engineered and fabricated to accept lights that would hang from a stout tree branch. Of course the light cord was disguised by a substantial hank of jute. An extension cord run up the trunk of the tree would connect to the plug at the top of the branch. They were so beautiful. Arresting. A circle of light with with no visible means of support shining in the winter night. What could be more simple and more joyful? This version of winter lighting is spare and eminently satisfying, both in its shape, and installation. Tie the ring to a substantial branch, and plug it in. Winter gardening in my zone is all about the quality of the light. Not only the body benefits from vitamin D.

A later design of Rob’s included a four pronged mechanism that would enable the light rings to be set securely into the ground, or the soil in a container. This revolutionized my winter container design. How I love incorporating lighting in winter pots. The ring set in the pot encouraged a whole new avenue of design. A few years ago, he suggested that his lighted circles had run their course, and perhaps he should move on to another design or shape. I was incredulous. Those light circles had enchanted clients both near and far. A restaurant in Newfoundland Canada bought 7 of the largest size, and five of the medium size-for their outdoor dining space. They, and countless other design and private clients both local and nation wide have spoken for those lighted circles. Year after year. I suspect I will never tire of them.

A circle is a simple shape. It is a closed and regular curve that divides a plane into two regions. The interior, and the exterior. This from Wikipedia. The interior of this light ring is inhabited by a brightly burning light burst. The exterior is the greater landscape. The circle here is a means by which to focus on a particular albeit temporary feature-the light.  A circle has no beginning or end. It’s recognizable symmetry is a source of visual delight in nature, and in designed spaces of all kinds. The circle is the basis of all kinds of graphic design, of which the polka dot dress is a familiar example. The circle was also the basis for the wheel, which makes all manner of modern machinery possible. It is interesting to note that all circles are the same, except for their diameter, and the width of their border. Circles of different materials and sizes that intersect create other shapes.

The space between 2 endpoints marked on a circle is called a chord. I do not know the history of this definition, but I can attest to the fact that landscape designs that strike a chord with a client or a viewer are engaging, and emotionally satisfying. A circle is a complete entity unto itself. A circle comes standard issue with a sense of completeness. As in the rotation of the seasons.  Though I may not have so many words to put to the experience, circular shapes and spaces evoke a response. In laying out a curved area in the landscape, I start with a chord-or a section of a circle. This is fairly easy to do, with a bamboo stake and string. Finding the center of that circle which will produce the desired chord may take a while, but eventually there will be consistently curving line.

Taking the time to draw the chord on the ground helps to eliminate the squiggles. By squiggles, I mean those bed lines that curve in and out in rapid succession around this shrub and that tree – without an overall sweeping curve that is visually cohesive. It helps to provide focus to what landscape elements belong in the exterior of that partial circle, and what belongs outside. The light ring pictured above is made from steel, but that steel does not need to be that thick. Steel rolled into a circular shape is as stable and strong physically as it appears to be. The ring celebrates the centerpiece. The pussy willow that pushes past the edge of the circle creates a relationship between the geometry of one element and the natural form of another. Both materials are stronger visually given the form of the other. The ring also compliments the rectangular geometry of the planter box, and narrower and wider rectangle of the greens. The composition without the ring would be fine. But its presence completes the composition in a way that organizes all of the other shapes and materials.

Rob has the rings made in a variety of sizes, from two feet in diameter up to seven feet. The ring pictures above is five feet in diameter – a good size considering the size of this pot. The first rings were strung with strands of incandescent twinkle lights that had brown cords.  Now we use only LED lights, for longevity’s sake. The lights go around the outside of the ring, and each bulb faces out. We ship them out with and without lights, and we have made them in custom sizes for a particular application.

This ring is hung high in a window, so it can easily be seen from the street.

Led lights produce little in the way of heat, so the snow has collected on the inside lower edge of the ring pictured above. The contrast of the snow and the light provides a little welcome interest to the winter landscape, even during the day.

This is my first year with light rings at home. I drive up to them, and I can see them from the deck above.

The 6 inches of snow that fell yesterday just made them look better.

H sent me these pictures of her winter boxes last night. She is enjoying hers too.

I have indeed talked before about these rings recently, but the fact is we are looking at more weather that looks just like this for quite a while yet. These lighted circles make it easier to bear with the winter.