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.

 

 

Flip The Switch

Our winter/holiday installations take place during the day. During regular business hours. But we do endow most every project with some night light. As much as we dare provide for. We guess as best we can about the placement and intensity of light in the winter containers. They provide both container and landscape lighting. Our zone has as much darkness as light over the course of the winter. This means the night view is equally as important as the day view.

The Lumineo LED string lights are an innovation that has made for just about worry free temporary lighting outdoors. They draw about 1/10th of  the electricity needed by incandescent light strings, But even though you can walk on the bulbs without breaking them, they do need careful handling. Each strand has a function box. Push the button, and a pattern of flashing or blinking lights can be all yours. Ha! Each strand also has a transformer, that dials down the voltage at the outlet. The wire going in and out of the function box, and the wire going in to the transformer can come loose, if it is stretched too far. We usually reinforce that connection with electrical tape. Early winter rain is the bane of winter lighting, as water and electricity do not mix.  Water that seeps into a function box and corrodes the wire inside can cause flickering, or an irreparable short.

Our electrician advised that we leave all plugs and connected open to the air, as encapsulating them in a zip lock bag means that any water that gets inside is trapped, and will not evaporate. Water gaining access to the connection between a plug and extension cord bodes ill. The fit of one to the other is not always a tight fit.  We generously wrap those connections with electrical tape. The best quality and stickiest tape we can find. We also prop up the connections so nothing rests on wet soil. We leave the tags on the lights.  They list how many lights are in a given strand, in case we do need to make a replacement.

A careful job handling the wiring means you can enjoy those lights all season long. We do run the lights around the clock. Timers can produce a surge of power when the lights go back on that can damage the string. The manufacturer recommends that given how inexpensive they are to run, dispense with a timer.

At 4pm, we have dusk, and by 6pm it is dark. As in black dark. Winter lighting can punctuate, highlight, and mitigate that dark.

the view from inside out

The view from the street is warm and inviting.

A pair of French pots dressed for winter

night light

The cooler toned lights in the greens, and the warmer white lights in the pussy willow and pine cone picks is especially effective at dusk.

This centerpiece has a 36″ tall light burst inside, which helps to illuminate the branches from within. If you have ever attempted to gracefully run string lights upwards inside a twig bunch, you will appreciate this innovation.So cozy, this.

lighted pot at the end of the driveway, 2018

My winter pots are last in line, as they should be. It doesn’t worry me much, as I know I will be driving up to something like what I had in 2018 all winter long.

lighted winter container

Detroit Garden Works lighted window boxes 2018

It’s the season for a lighted and lively recollection of the garden.

 

Day And Night

My post from November 11 concerning the construction of centerpieces for winter pots included this picture of Sal finishing the job of strapping very tall red twig dogwood branches and red berry picks to a tomato cage. It was obvious that a centerpiece of this size was destined for a very large pot. The substantial centerpieces would set the tone, size and proportion for all else that was to come. But what is to follow next is not so much about the mass and proportion required by large pots, but instead a discussion of that most ephemeral of all landscape design elements-light.

Gardeners are very aware that every plant has specific requirements for light to thrive. A fern will not prosper in full sun any more than a succulent will prosper in deep shade. The quality of light in a specific spot in a garden can vary significantly over the course of the day. I will plant hellebores in sunny locations if I can provide them extra water. Some sun loving plants are still willing to perform in part sun. There is that dance, matching a plant to the existing light conditions. I have been guilty of pushing that envelope too far. I may want a plant in a certain location, but time will tell whether the risk I took is a reasonable risk. Too far over the light line, and I have a failing plant on my hands. Every living thing needs light, to one indeterminate degree or another. But placing the plants in proper light spots in the garden issue aside, everyone benefits from an extra dose of light over the course of the winter.

The winter containers are vastly easier to manage than a garden. The evergreen branches are cut. They will stay green the entire season, until warmer spring weather turns them brown. The cut dogwood branches will keep their color the entire winter, regardless of the light. Those branches may be inclined to push forth roots in the spring-astonishing, this. And the faux berry picks-they are faux. So the quality of light has no bearing on their performance. In sun or shade, they will provide visual service for years. The winter materials are not especially light sensitive. But we are! Winter container arrangements can provide any gardener with a spirit lift. I recommend them. An empty container over the course of the winter bothers me. I have no interest in being crushed by the winter season. I would rather find a way to celebrate it.

The quality of the winter light does affect people. Our winters are long, and feature snow, ice and wind.  But most significantly, they are gray. Even a sunny winter day is over by the late afternoon. For the entire winter season, we have equal parts of light and dark. Or equally parts of gray and dark. That lack of light is demoralizing, and can make even the most good natured person cranky. This is why we feel lighting the winter pots is an essential part of their making. They need to be beautiful day and night.

During the day, the color, texture and mass of a winter container provides visual respite from the landscape gone dormant. They push back against a garden that has gone quiet and frozen. It is not possible to recreate the spring summer and fall, but it is certainly possible to express remembrance. Every beautiful winter container makes me remember the beauty of the nature in full swing. The red twigs and berries are a welcome pop of color.

Dusk comes around 4pm every day in my zone. This is 5 more hours of dark than I have at the height of summer. Lighting in winter pots provide visual warmth, when there is little. They banish that relentless dark. They light the way to the door in a personal way. They can be an effective alternative form of landscape lighting. Night light is both cheery and dramatic. The invention of LED string and specialty lighting has revolutionized how we light pots. They require so little power that they are amazingly economical to run.

These pots at night are transformed by LED compact string lights. 1500 lights all on one strand that is 111.5 feet long. In the center is a Light Burst-a 3′ tall twig like contraption with moveable arms featuring an anchor at the bottom, and 240 brightly shining lights at the tips. Winter pots that are beautiful during the day need a mechanism for transforming them into their evening wear. This has never been easier to achieve.

Cozy as a campfire, these winter pots at night are every bit as striking as their daytime appearance. The pots do a great job of illuminating the driveway drop off.

electrifying, this.