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.

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.

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.