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.

 

Rise And Shine

We designed and installed the landscape here in 2015, part of which included a large blue stone landing linking the driveway to the front door. I always appreciate the opportunity to design the hard surfaces at the front door. Too often the walk and porch are too narrow, and any steps too shallow. The front door certainly asks to be a focal point of a home.  That generously paved space made it possible to place a quartet of good sized steel planter boxes from Branch in concert with the door. The pots get planted in the spring, and are updated for all of the seasons to come. The winter is perhaps the most dramatic of all, as it should be.  The Michigan winter is very long. The days are short and gray, and the nights come early and are black dark. Rob’s lighted steel tree forms on rod steel legs were installed directly into the pots – a request from my intrepid clients. A pair of seven footers in the back pair, and a pair of five footers in the front do an astonishingly good job of introducing light into the winter airspace. The resulting glow is warm and atmospheric. The lighting in the containers accomplishes something that traditional landscape lighting rarely does. It creates an opportunity for theater in the landscape.

Is theater a good quality in a landscape? Of course. Divine theater is created in the landscape by nature in countless unanticipated ways. That theater is what gives rise to those perfect moments in the garden. An unforgettable moment that will probably never be repeated is what gardeners garden towards. That is landscape theater at its best. Every gardener has their own version of that experience. Pictured above is a property that had major regrading and a new driveway last year. The landscape would have to wait until spring, as would the landscape lighting. As a temporary measure, we wrapped galvanized pipe with LED string lights. The pipes were threaded over steel rebar that had been sunk deep in the ground. The lighted pipes were not fancy, but the repetition of them on a wide sweeping curve was ruggedly sculptural. And they lit the driveway enough for a walk to the mailbox for the morning paper. Contemporary lighted landscape bollards from Louis Poulsen are due to be installed this month. They will light the way in a much more formal way. They are a permanent lighting solution that will be more about function than theater.

There came a time when Howard was of an age that he could not navigate the steep steps going down into the garden from the deck. Lighting those steps with landscape lighting would certainly have helped me find my way up and down. But it would have been of no use to him, or our relationship. The lighting from the container pictured above made it possible for him to see me in the garden, and for me to see him. I had no worry that he would attempt the stairs, as he could see me. This moment was certainly theater. It told a story. I have this picture, and a very good memory.

No doubt these lighted containers at the end of the driveway are handy for illuminating the car door handle in the early morning, and a welcome home at night. There is a landscape down light in a nearby tree that no doubt makes the area easier to see at night, but the pots on the wall loaded with strings of lights at the base are more cheery and inviting than instructive. Landscape lighting that features specific objects or places in the landscape dictates the scope of the interaction. Designing and placing seasonal lighting in containers is a kind of gardening. They are as much celebration of the time as they are a reaction to it. It can organize a space or frame even a dimly lit view. They are a reason to view and visit the garden, despite the dark, cold and snow.

As the winter season soldiers on, the benefit of lighted winter pots intensifies. The visual interest and comfort they afford is difficult to ignore on a late January afternoon.

Our first lighted containers were designed specifically to celebrate the holiday season in December. It is a short bridge to cross, taking the concept of holiday decorating outdoors. The above container arrangement certainly draws on that history. But as remarkably different this holiday container is from the surrounding landscape, it is the light that brings the arrangement to life. It was remarkably time consuming to attach strings of lights vertically to a collection of branches. But that light transformed the view. The formal foreground landscape in contrast to the naturally chaotic background is a visual discussion easy to pass by in the winter. The lighted pot gives pause as much as pleasure.

The lighting materials available now are light years ahead of what we worked with 15 years ago in presentation, durability and economy. Most notable is the recent advent of twig lighting of various types and sizes. In any given winter season, Rob will carry 10 or 15 different styles. The come with pointed ends that can be inserted in the soil or a form. The lights are securely affixed to the faux twigs, and the entire assembly is covered in a waxy waterproof material. Embedded in a natural twig centerpiece, the lighted effect is enchantingly simple to achieve, and satisfying to look at. The string lighting typically put in the greens are not especially effective in lighting the centerpiece materials, unless those lights are applied with a very heavy hand. On occasion we will wrap a centerpiece with string lights at the base multiple times. But there is a limit to how far that light will migrate from its source.

There is also a limit to the height of manufactured twig lighting. The lighting technology is certainly there. But shipping an object that is too large or tall to go UPS or FedEx means it has to go freight. Shipping via a freight carrier is very expensive. So certain garden staples-like topiary forms, plant climbers and twig lights are either limited to a shippable height, or come in pieces that have to be put together by the end user. We only ship our full height topiary forms once in a while, as the cost is so great. We really make them for our local clients. So in the container pictured above, Rob hand wound string lights up each branch to get the height he wanted. It was well worth the trouble. These lights can be seen from a long way away. The globe shape of cherry lights is a welcome change from the the typical pinpoint of light of most light strands.

This window box at the shop from 2019 stuffed to overflowing with the stems of the dogwood “Midwinter Fire” is handsome during the day, but true to its name at night. Most of the lighting action comes from a pair of 50 foot strands of Lumineo brand garland style string lights sprinkled on the surface. The low cut branches of magnolia obscures the wiring during the day. The lighted ring is a contrasting, precisely geometric shape whose outline is clearly visible at night. This lighted container says nothing about a holiday, but it says everything about the designed winter landscape.

That same box assembled this year features twig lighting placed in the thick of the sticks. Exterior lighting from years ago was so much about the profusion of cords and wires that the daytime look was terrible. One had to spend an inordinate amount of time concealing the works, or choose to celebrate either the day or the night.

Not much in the way of electrical trappings is apparent here. These twig lights are integral to small white stems, the color of which pairs well with fresh cut twigs of a lighter color. And in this case, faux white berry stems. The walk to my office door will be well lit and visually lively, morning and night, the entire winter.

This cut Fraser fir tree in my side yard container is secured with 4 pieces of steel rebar pounded down in to the soil, and galvanized steel guy wires. Given that LED string lighting draws so little in the way of electricity, they can be made in long lengths. Rob carries strands that are over 100 feet long each. This makes lighting a tree much more simple and efficient. This is all the light I will have in my side yard all winter, and it is all the light I need. The tree is visible from every window facing my south side landscape, and from the street as I drive up after work. I will not take it down until the soil in the pot thaws in March.

LED lighting produces just about nothing in the way of heat. This means the mountains of snow we are sure to get will glow from the inside, rather than melt. We do indeed take winter container lighting seriously. It is rise and shine worthy.

Lighted Steel Hoops

I don’t remember how long ago it was that Rob began experimenting with attaching lights to steel forms, but I would guess it was at least 10 years ago. There was a series of steel augurs, wound with rope lights, and hung from stout branches in the linden trees. Any farm tool was fair game. This was in the very early days of our winter and holiday season, so Rob haunted every store within driving distance for different kinds of exterior lighting.
There were galvanized steel pipes of varying lengths completely covered with light strands. They were threaded over a solid pipe that had been driven in to the ground. The quality of these incandescent light strings was on the poor side, and they furthermore required a lot of electricity to run. LED outdoor lighting was in its infancy, and the harsh bluish light was reminiscent of gas station bathroom lighting. Light to be interrogated by, as it were. There were winter arrangements that had lighting wound around the pots. There was a phase when he made his own lighting by assembling cords and bulbs bought one at a time. There were galvanized buckets with lights, greens and cones. Set it on your porch, plug it in, and celebrate the winter. Rob never was one for overly elaborate or complicated displays. He likes simple and casually striking. There were winter container arrangements that had light strings as mulch. Strands of C-7 and C-9 lights were piled high. Eventually we had to upgrade all of our existing exterior circuits to 20 amps each, and we added more circuits for good measure. We were lit.

Sooner or later, something solid was bound to come from all of his tinkering. The day he came home with a pair of vintage wagon wheels that he wound round with lights, and hung in the airspace in the shop, I could tell something was in the air. There was something about that circle of light that was as satisfying as it was fascinating. A client bought them both in short order. That winter, he spent a lot of time designing a steel hoop especially engineered to hold and securely capture the lights, and we manufactured them in different sizes.
A year later, he designed an integral stand for the rings. This meant they could be securely inserted into a pot, or in the ground. In the air, or in the ground-you can take your pick, or do both. By this time, he had found an LED lighting line that he liked. The lighted hoops were a winter decoration that could be enjoyed year after year. Three years in to the lighted hoop manufacture, he suggested that perhaps it was time to move on to another shape. I was incredulous. That circle of light was so simple, so visually striking and so easy to use, I couldn’t imagine him giving it up. So we have fine tuned the engineering, and continued to make them. Jackie has shipped them all over the US and Canada. To gardeners, and not gardeners. To designers, florists, and restaurateurs. A sure sign of a great design, they adapt instantly to any setting.

Clients for whom we do winter pots ask for them now, and we are happy to oblige. That ring of light features the fixings in a winter centerpiece in an elegant and stunning way.

Rob manufactures them in sizes starting with a 2 foot diameter, on up to a 7 footer. Pictured above is a 5 foot diameter light ring. Since the lights are on the outside of the hoop, we sometimes install string lighting at the bottom of the centerpiece, and or in the greens.

The sculptural quality of the hoops make them a design asset even during the day. I have no idea how many hoops Rob has out there now, but there are lots. Every time I see one, I think about his long term interest in lighting the garden and landscape in the winter. He tells me he enjoys seeing the work of others fabricating their own version of lighted hoops. It is a testament to a great idea that variations on this theme have sprouted in other places by other people. To follow are pictures of winter arrangements new and old that feature his light rings. They are all different in execution, and all the same in their successful effort to keep the winter dark at bay.

See what I mean?

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.