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.

A Tree Of A Different Sort

Not every holiday tree necessarily needs to sport needles, and have a cone like shape, does it?  We did have a request from a client for an alternative and more sculptural version of the traditional lighted tree. I was happy to oblige, given that senior Branch Studio fabricators Sal and James indicated they were willing to give me a hand. The three of us were able to find a pair of young and one sided Bradford pear branches that fit the bill. Once they were zip tied together, I was sure they would provide a holiday twig tree of distinction. What is James doing here? He is holding the tree assembly, waiting for Sal to get our client’s container ready to hold that tree. I call this holding the flashlight. When two or more people join forces to get a project underway, some hands are active, and some hands are on standby, waiting to participate in the next step.  A project like this takes more than one pair of hands.

Our client’s cast iron container on legs was astonishing beautiful. But the open steel ribs needed a liner. Of a mossy type. We do stock moss mat that is perfect for lining pots. But this pot, as heavy and sturdy as it is, was not road ready for a moss liner, much less a fresh cut tree. Sal and I talked over a plan to get the moss mat to sit tight against the pot at great length. In the end, I left it up to him, as well I should.

That liner needed to fit smooth and tight, without any wrinkles. Often what looks effortless and natural takes lots of time and effort to achieve. Sal and James cut the moss mat, and draped it in as best they could –  to follow the contour of the container. They went on to add a layer to the sides and bottom an interior liner of coir mat that we buy on large rolls. The coir is fairly rigid and thick. It would provide some stiffening to the moss mat that would be visible on the outside. The green landscape tape on the outside? Written on it is the clients name. We have a busy studio this time of year. A mix up would not do. We have the notes from the client’s visit to Detroit Garden Works. David visited her residence, and took pictures of the location for this tree. Those pictures were always in view during the fabrication. Making sculpture in the studio for a specific space has inherent problems. Every maker has to keep the installation site in mind. We tag, flag, and review the pictures many times over the course of the making.

The only requirement is a well lighted space, lots of materials and tools, and some time. The form that would hold the tree would have to be built from the bottom up.

The moss mat exterior fabric lined with an inner layer of coir was not going to stand up on its own. Sal cut disks of foam slightly smaller than the interior diameter of the pot. He cut every disk in half, and hollowed out a spot for the tree trunks. Once the moss mat and coir was in place, he drove long wedges of foam into the space between the half discs. This pushed the outside circular edge of his disks tight against the walls of the container. Genius, this. He and James built an interior foam framework that would hold that tree, two inches up at a time, from the bottom to the top.

James injected the hot melt glue that would secure the tree in the foam form inside the pot.

Joe and David and I stepped back, and advised about the tree stems being perfectly vertical. We only had one opportunity to get this tree standing up straight, as once the glue cooled, there would be no moving it.

Once the tree was secured in the pot, Sal and James wound the branches round with lights. Of course a holiday tree needs lights. These cherry lights sport globes of a decent size, but the light is soft.

Near the end of the lighting part of this project, I can clearly see that Sal and James have been spot on with the execution of this project. The size and scale of the tree was good, and the pot looked great lined with moss.

The two of them attached 38 overscaled glass drops to the branches of this tree. That would be the only ornament on this holiday tree. At the end of the day, this twig tree was ready to load up and deliver.

David provided the final touch – a top dressing of short magnolia branches to cover the foam form. His take on how to place and style the magnolia was appropriate to the container. And to its eventual home. Just enough of the trunks of the branches were still visible, giving the impression of that tree form.I will confess I came in very early in the morning, just so I could see how this twig tree would look in its lighted state. In my opinion, the fabrication was perfection in every regard. A natural tree that would dry, and keep as long as the client wished to keep it. The light would be soft and glowing, perfect for an interior placement.

Sal and James made this, and they made it well. The ride in the box truck, tipped over onto a stack of bags of soil, and the ride up a freight elevator was uneventful. Best of all, the client is very pleased.

 

 

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.

 

Winter Pots For Ms. H

Every project we do for the winter season begins with a good deal of discussion. The winter containers for Ms. H is the subject of a particular discussion. That astonishing level of discussion on her behalf is simple to understand. We have a big love for her. This year, we had two issues to address. The forms were very long and narrow. This meant there was always the danger, and sometimes the reality that the foam would break in the middle. The fact that all four pots had steel light rings 3 feet in diameter inserted into the forms piled on additional stress. This made for a rather nerve wracking installation. It was a simple matter to split the long forms into two shorter ones. The forms could be stuffed with greens side by side, and labelled as to their position in each pot. In the picture above, Karen is detailing a plan drawing of the most significant innovation-a separate form for the light ring and all of its fixings would be set squarely on top of the spot where the pair of greens forms would meet. The half oval shape drawn on the form above would dictate the position of the light ring form. The widest point of that half oval would just about cover the spot where the two shorter forms come together. The swoop de do would be stuck with German boxwood. The rest of the lower forms would be stuck with Noble fir.  What??

It is much easier to explain this new construction protocol in pictures. I am happy to say it was entirely of David’s invention. He not only constructs winter arrangements, he is an expert at installing them. It took longer than I really want to admit for me to understand what he was proposing, but once I understand, I could appreciate the pure genius of it. The plan called for filling the interior of the ring with various picks. Why not have a separate form for the ring and its fixings? This would provide a stable base for the ring to travel in the truck. None of the picks would be disturbed trying to remove the ring for transport, and putting it back in exactly the right location during installation. The shape of the ring form was determined by the design and arrangement of the picks. The rear prongs of the ring would go through both layers of the mini form. The front prongs would rest on the lower form. If you are still unclear about the plan, don’t feel bad. David had to show me before I fully understood what he wanted to do. See the following picture.

The ring 2 layered form would sit on top of the 2 layered greens forms. That long curved upper form would cover the split forms which would be the bottom layer. Once set on top, the rear legs of the ring would be pushed all the way through both layers of foam and a little bit into the bottom forms. The picks are stable in the top two layers of foam, but they do not provide any structural connection between the two layers of foam, and the bottom two layers. Small diameter green bamboo stakes would be driven through all four layers of foam and into the soil in the pots. That would provide structural stability to the entire affair.

The top of the ring form would be stuck with German boxwood. That same boxwood would be used to cover the face of the upper form.

This rear view tells the story. The lower two layers of foam tell last years story. The very bottom piece of foam is wedged into the pot. The layer immediately above that has holes in it. Those holes are from the greens we stuck in last year. One of the advantages of using large scale evergreen boughs is that it does not take that many stems to create a lush appearance. This is why we are able to reuse the forms for a good many years. The forms are quite strong, as long as no undue stress is put to them.

The other critical design issue is all about the placement of the bottom of the ring. I like it to be set such that the bottom of the ring is visible, both during the day and at night. This placement and finish creates the illusion that the ring is floating. This means that the legs of the rings will need bamboo stakes or rebar zip tied to it, to both prop and keep it up at the desired level. I am not crazy about burying the bottom of the ring in twigs, picks or greens for another reason. Though the light sets are factory sealed, I don’t like them in a situation where water can collect and persist. If there is an electrical problem, I want easy access to the cord and transformer.

Karen does a terrific job of greening the lower forms. How she sticks them creates the illusion of a shrub growing. She does a terrific job of so many facets of the holiday installation.  How I value her work. Thanks, Karen.

The greens are heavy. They are composed of fresh wet wood, and water saturated needles. This explains the need for rocks and bricks to keep the forms from tipping over.

This table top was made from a full 4′ by 8′ sheet of plywood. This table holds 4 forms-enough for two of the four boxes. These lower forms, greened up, and punctuated with pine cones, are all ready to go to the installation phase.

This shop shot taken in process details how much work we do prior to an installation.

Once our fabrication group gets a project to this moment, we know we are ready for an installation.

The installed winter containers boxes to the right of the front door. Perfectly beautiful, to my eye.

The installed containers to the left of the front door. Be advised that we work very hard to keep the construction issues behind the scenes. The finished pots show no signs of what it took to get them to this point. Except the fact that they look deliberately composed, and finished.

Dressing the French pots in the back for the winter season was a new addition to this project. David did a great job of taking on a pair of winter container arrangements that asked for considerable size and scale.

Karen lending a hand securing the picks

A discussion of the transport scheme was lively, but the tops of these fresh cut pussy willow twigs had no problem bending over for the trip across town.

See what I mean?

Set in place, the scale of this winter arrangement works well with in this space. The materials reflect the landscape that can be viewed from this vantage point. The color is very friendly to the color in the glaze of this French bugadier. The pot is filled with gravel, so there is proper ballast to handle the height of the arrangement. The foam form provides another service. As it does not absorb water, it prevents water from getting in to the pot. This form is 6″ thick overall, so the lower 3″ is wedged tightly into the pot.

winter arrangements in the back yard

framed view

There is no doubt a viable, approachable, and beautiful winter season ahead in the garden. Every gardener needs to determine how they will handle that. I garden in every season. The winter pots help speak to that.