Some Thoughts About Design

Late in December of 2012, we were gearing up to install the winter pots and lighting at Detroit Garden Works. Central to that display were 6 tall narrow concrete pots that had been fabricated at Branch. They were the devil to address, no matter the season. How so? Despite their height and heft, the top opening was a paltry 11″ by 11″. Barely enough space there to say hello, much less make a statement. Making a statement in the landscape involves a grasp of scale and proportion. This is a way of saying that every gesture you make will read better if it is generous enough to hold its own in a natural environment. Tomato cages had prongs only 9″ apart-they would easily fit down into the pots. 100 stems of copper curly willow were zip tied in 2 places to each form. When you compare the volume and square footage of twigs at the tip top to the space occupied by the prongs at the bottom, it is easy to see how something of great scale can be fashioned from an opportunity created by a tool, device or armature. Absent a tomato cage, some bamboo stakes or stout branches held in position with wire could accomplish the same thing. Absent a stash of copper curly willow, pruning debris, or the skeletal remains of weeds in the field could create the same shape. The human species is one of very few that comes standard issue with the ability to make and use tools. And the gift for improvisation.      Nature is an awe inspiring and implacable force.  As is, on a smaller but surprisingly determined scale, the evidence of the human hand. That intense interaction between forces over the the landscape and garden has held my interest for a half century. That time seems short to me, for as much as the laws of nature continually and unpredictably assert themselves, a landscape and garden continually presents a fresh opportunity to respond and interact with the out of doors. Some interaction is characterized by defiance, as Henry Mitchell so famously once said. Other relationships forged over design are marked by surprise, discovery, or dismay. Add a dash of regret and a sprinkling of wrong thinking – you get the idea. Such is my anecdotal evidence that a landscape imagined and created by design can be a very long and satisfying affair.

I was hardly prepared for the outcome of the willow stacks, once they were placed. The thick glossy and architectural willow stems en masse were cloud like from even a short distance away. The repetition of the pots visually strengthened and clarified the the idea. The blue gray skies made that orange colored willow all the more vibrant. In no way did that color blend in with or repeat an existing color. It was a dramatically contrasting element. The verticality of the willow was in opposition to the long lengths of boxwood. The willow soared over a largely horizontal landscape. All this from some willow zip tied to a tomato cage. The success or sleepiness of any designed element in a landscape is revealed the moment it is put in place. It is simple to see what reads well once nature has had a chance to work on it. It is very hard to anticipate what will work in advance. Designers do drawings and make models, but the longer I design the more I am convinced that drawings are most useful for the parameters they set, and what they suggest. Drawings are certainly of use In this case, I made a decision about how to handle the pots, and was prepared to revise and adjust, once they were placed.

By landscape elements, I mean plants of every description size and habit, water, hard surfaces, structures, pots, ornament and sculpture. It is difficult to place some of these elements and then revise. How painful to move a walkway, or increase the size of a terrace. No one ever promised that a successfully designed landscape and garden would be easy or formulaic. But a willingness to revise the design of a landscape indicates great respect for the point of view exerted by natural world. Be advised that nature will have eventually have a say in it all. Design as you will, plant and place – the critique from nature will follow shortly. That critique will be dispassionate, and likely maddening. Relishing that interaction will make every gardener a better designer. And every designer a better gardener.

Light is essential to life. Landscape design mindful of lighting conditions for plants and for people is good landscape design. Every gardener in my zone is aware of how the short gray sunless days reiterates that the garden has gone dormant. I would rather design my way around that situation rather than go dormant.  Good design directly addresses as many scenarios as possible. Even the dark daunting days.  Nature always suggests how I could better accomplish that by looking over the work. A landscape lighting design for the winter landscape is design fueled by need. Nature obligingly provides the dark days. A good designer is willing to take that cue, and shine. Lighting by design makes every landscape engage the dark in a way that is friendly to people.

I have been designing and installing a winter garden for Detroit Garden Works for the past 15 years. Every year is different. But no matter the specifics, I know that garden has to withstand the worst of what nature has to dish out. The wind, cold and snow can blow away all and everything that is not secure. Any landscape element needs to be constructed with strength and longevity in mind. Make to last.

Once the wind quits blowing, the effect of the snow dust on the willow is enchanting. Since the weather makes itself known in a different way each and every day, landscape design which showcases that unique natural phenomenon produces a landscape that is revitalized daily. Well, sometimes vitality. Sometimes mortality. The same result can be had by placing plants in conditions in which they thrive. Nature will be in charge of how plants prosper, or fail. These cut natural materials cut nature out of a portion of the winter relationship. I will not need to worry about how the twigs and greens will prosper and grow. The winter seasonal display is  a rare opportunity for a designer to express themselves freely. Nature provides the frosting.

It is not as if anyone could fault the winter landscape at the shop without the pots and lights. It would be equally dour and dormant as all else within view. But the landscape, pots, lights, gray skies and snow from 2012 tells a story. A story I am happy to tell again.

Fire and ice

winter landscape lighting

winter’s night

Why am I blathering on about design at such length?  Because it is January. I have time to. You do too.

 

Do Not Go Gently

No gardener in my zone goes gently into that night we know as winter. Should you live in Georgia or Tahiti, I imagine the garden goes on year round. I am sure come mid February, I will be longing for another place to be similar to the aforementioned. Those of us in northern zones dread the inevitable. The weather goes cold. Cold enough that every deciduous plant sheds its leaves. Cold enough to deeply freeze the ground and frost it with snow. With the cold comes brief gray days, and long dark nights.. The cold and the dark has that aura of endlessness about it. It is a tunnel that takes months from which to emerge. The not gardening season has arrived.

A mild December for us followed a very cold November. This means our first taste of winter is about the fog. The 40 and 50 degree daily temperatures hovering over frozen ground made for one beautifully foggy day after another. Not to mention very friendly conditions for installing winter container arrangements and lighting. The installation of pots and lighting at home come last. I was pleased that none of us were working there in 20 degree weather. The evergreens have taken on that olive/bronze winter color, as has the grass. Grass? It is a broadleaf evergreen in my winter garden.

That warmer foggy weather made it so easy to take picture after picture. It also endowed all of my pictures with a color saturation that parallels my visual experience. What you see is what I saw. If you live in my neighborhood, I am sure you see me out there touring the garden routinely. Spring, summer, and fall. The winter tours go on until the snow that is deeper than my boots are tall. The foggy early winter weather has been unexpected, and exceptionally beautiful.

The mature flower heads of the limelight hydrangeas are spectacular right now. Funny that I have never thought that hydrangeas were worthy to plant for their winter interest, but interesting they are right now. The color and texture is a standout. The flowers will persist well into March. The color of the early winter hydrangea flowers is a version of cinnamon that is repeated in the the flame willow, and the obverse of the magnolia leaves. The pot pictured above is English made concrete in the classical Italian style. This weatherproof terra cotta wil endure the winter.  All of that burnt orange color contrasts and resonates with the winter color on the boxwood. This is an unusual version of early winter that is worth savoring.

The garland over my door and porch windows will stay in place the entire winter. It will last as long as need be. It has a wintry, as opposed to holiday look.

I do have a cut evergreen tree in the pot in my side yard. My crew sinks the trunk into the soil. The tree is stabilized with concrete wire guy wires attached to four pieces of steel rebar sunk into the pot. The tree is loaded with LED lights which will light up this side garden all winter long. The arborvitae in the foreground, the boxwood and the grass provide green to this scene all winter long. The bare branches of the Princeton Gold maples are sculptural-especially in this New Year fog. The brick approach, the gate, the steel edger strip, the chair and the pot are all good examples of how objects stirred into a garden mix can create a little magic, no matter the season.

This lighted tree was a celebration indeed from before Christmas and through New Year’s. But it will keep on singing throughout the winter. Yes, I keep the lights on. I enjoy them as much during the day as I do at night. That subtle twinkle helps to stave off the gray. The daytime winter side garden view is a much muted and moody version of the summer. It seems appropriate to that season when the garden goes dormant. Once winter approaches, I am so pleased to have lots of evergreens.

I did spray all of my boxwood late this fall with VaporGard. It is an all natural product fashioned from pine resin that coats every leaf with a resinous wax. Properly applied, it stays in place all winter long.  Broad leaved evergreens can suffer in a winter that is exceptionally cold and windy. Their thin broad leaves transpire with no opportunity to take up water from the roots. They can be severely damaged over the course of a bad winter. This coating helps prevent undue evaporation from the leaves. Juicy leaves are good looking and healthy leaves over the dormant season. Of course I watered my evergreens until very late in the season. That waxy coating is much better looking and more effective than burlap.

My garden is an at home real time version of nature. I am sure there are other places where the beauty of nature is more spectacular and showy, but this suits me just fine.

The view in from the street

The view out

The view from above

The warm temperatures have meant I have been able to tour after dark. Evening in the summer garden is a great pleasure. But an after dark experience of the winter garden is a once in a while experience. The seasonal lighting makes it easier to navigate in the dark.

A new dusting of snow creates beautiful shadows.

This container lights the stairs from the deck down into to the back yard at night. Of course I would want it to look good during the day. Those tall twigs are Japanese fan willow. The short brushy twigs? alder.

I can see my way at night going up and down. Milo is on the upper and I am on the lower. Such is our evening outing. He is on the elderly side now, so some of my tours he waits out. I can hear him barking for me, no matter where I am in the yard.

The lighted tree in the side garden tells a different tale every hour of the day and night. At dusk it begins to glow.

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas wrote a poem called “Do not go gentle into that good night” in 1947. Pictured above is my garden sculpture version of that poem.

lighted pots in the front yard after dark

night light

the front door after dark

Eventually I ended up inside the front porch.

Welcome to my house, winter.

 

 

A Reindeer On The Roof

Deer in the garden is a sore subject for those gardeners who are plagued by the destruction they wreak on every plant shrub and tree in the landscape. What they don’t eat, they trample. They even rub the bark off of trees when they are rutting, for Pete’s sake. Preventing deer from demolishing the garden is the subject of page after page of essays on Google, and countless books and videos. But the grapevine deer sculptures that Detroit Garden Works has stocked for a number of years have their fans. The life size bucks and does come in standing, grazing, and seated poses, just like the fawns. They look terrific in any spot in the garden asking for a representational sculpture fashioned from a natural material. The grapevine is wound around a substantial steel armature, and should survive outdoors for many years, providing they get a yearly application of a penetrating oil based sealer.

Who knows what possessed me to put a deer on the roof, but there is a certain Buck that has been near and dear to me for many years. That personal association aside, Christmas folklore is full of references to a certain St Nicholas circumnavigating the globe in a reindeer drawn sleigh, bringing gifts to children world wide on Christmas Eve. It is a story that delighted me as a child. Apparently I can still be enchanted by it. Winter and holiday containers and displays bring an element of delight to the landscape that has gone dormant, and quiet. It was not so far fetched to cast the grapevine deer as a grapevine reindeer.  A holiday diorama in the making, if you will.

The roof at Detroit Garden Works is home to eight planter boxes, each of which are five feet long. They were fabricated from heavy duty sheet metal – there is not one thing fancy about them. These painted metal hold soil, plants, and an irrigation system. The magic is what gets grown in them over the summer. We intended to bring a little magic to the winter season that is at hand.  Our reindeer was secured in the center via steel rebar pounded in at an angle. On an angle? A gusty wind could pull steel rods set vertically out of the soil in a matter of moments.  The steel set on a steep angle is weighted down with a thick layer of saturated and frozen soil. A wind strong enough to uproot that buck would be a rare wind indeed, and most likely would take the box as well. We took every precaution to keep that reindeer in place. Of course we needed lots of lights. And a thicket of twigs. As the soil was frozen solid, we made foam forms, buttered them with lights, and stuck them with medium height pussy willow. Each one of these forms was additionally secured with angled steel rebar and concrete wire. Suffice it to say there is a lot of rebar on the roof right now.

All of the irrigation tubes and emitters were pitched over the sides of the boxes. There was plenty of additional work involved in making it possible to flip the switch on the lights.

A simple evergreen garland, wound round with garland light studded grapevine was attached to the leading edge of the boxes, and down the sides of the building.

My crew was keen for a group portrait. Why not? These pictures do not really reveal all of the work that went in to moving this project along to this point. They were caught up in the fun of it, and committed to seeing it through.

The view at dusk made it clear we needed to do more. The thicket of twigs needed to describe the entire width of the building. We had run out of pussy willow, so what now?

The light burst collar on the deer did not illuminate the sculpture. It spot-lit the neck. The twigs were in silhouette at dusk, and invisible come dark. We regrouped.

Phase two of the fabrication and installation asked for a burlap ribbon collar. The light collar did not read during the day, and was a too strong blob of light at night. Karen obliged with the fabrication, and Joe got the collar attached in just the right spot, and at the right angle. We had to rethink the lighting.

Attaching multiple light bursts to the front edge of the twigs might do a better job of illuminating the thicket at night. It was certainly worth a try.

Lengthening the twig thicket proved to be easy. The last few bunches of black dogwood, mixed with lots of alder branches made a believable transition from the more formal and vertical pussy willow stems to a more wild and natural look. A thicket spanning the entire width of the roof seemed more deliberate and finished.

The multiple light bursts did a great job of illuminated the face of the branches at dusk.

The burlap ribbon collar on our reindeer read plainly and properly, both day and night.

much better, this.I know if Rob is photographing something, he likes it.

Who knows if St Nicholas will require the last minute services of our reindeer buck tonight, but I am sure he will have no problem spotting him from space. The Works is ready.

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.