A Restoration

Some garden ornament is so irresistable that you don’t mind doing some restoration. This very old French cast iron and porcelain vase is dated on the side-Paris, 1827. That it was 183 years old, of great size, and unusual in its construction and surface-this made it a very intrigueing and compelling object.  I arranged to purchase and ship it to Michigan from Florida-having only seen pictures. 

Though I expected to see considerable evidence of its age, pictures do not tell everything.  I was enchanted with its worn porcelain surface; the original pattern is so beautifully faded.  I had visions of it placed and planted in a landscape such that the benefit would be to everyone’s mutual satisfaction.  The sheer scale of it was exciting.  One of Rob’s pictures from Italy is of a massive Italian olive jar that served as a prop to an old climbing rose planted next to it. This vase brought the possibility of that level of romance to mind again. 

However, the vase had issues. The thick cast iron base plate had deteriorated considerably over its very long life.  Buck doubted that the trip from Florida had anything to do with the fact that the base was in pieces.  The bolts which fastened the base to the top had completely rusted through. It was just very old, and in need of some restoration. It took four people to get this piece over to the Branch studio.  Buck had a 1/4 inch thick piece of steel cut to make a new base; the restoration project would have to get in his queue-at the end of the line.  

He had the base drilled with holes, hoping that he could weld what was left of the bolts to the new base.  He  would work on it as he had time; the new base and feet got completed in fairly short order.  What was to come would take a lot more time, and be quite involved. It would have to wait until there was time.  Early this summer a landscape project came along that was calling for this vase. My client fell for it just as fast as I had; the restoration process picked up speed. 

The first order of business-getting the vase in a position and at a height where he could work on it. A bridge crane in his studio which can lift and move up to five tons at a time is a handy gizmo at a time like this.  He was able to thread straps through the bottomless pot, and set it on a work surface.    

The vase is comprised of six separate cast iron panels.  Each panel had two flanges which allowed each piece to be bolted to the next.  Construction of course was dependent on the technology of the time.  The inevitable spaces between adjacent flanges were stuffed with some kind of caulk which had dried, shrunk and otherwise deteriorated to an alarming degree.  Once the vase no longer had a bottom, realigning all the panels to recreate the original round shape was a challenge.    

With the pot stabilized on the table, the bridge crane would help him maneuver the base into place.  The process of fitting the new base to this piece took what seemed like days. 

Buck finally called this morning to say vase and base were one again. He was able later to weld the old rusted stubs of the fastening bolts to the new base.  He plans to finish the steel in dark grey automobile primer.  I know it will be beautiful.  The landscape installation is finished, and ready for the delivery and planting of this vase.  I cannot wait.

Some Thoughts on Spacing

Once there is a landscape plan in place, there is the matter of the plant count.  Determining a plant count has much to do with spacing.  I have read much about rules for spacing plants properly for optimal growth, but the issue is more complex than that.  For instance, if I am planting pachysandra, and space them at a foot apart, I need one plant per square foot.  For 500 square feet, I will need 500 plants, or about 10 48 count flats.  If I space them at 6″ apart, I need 4 plants per square foot, or 2000 plants, or about 40 48 count flats.  Option A asks for a modest up front investment, but I see a lot of time ahead devoted to weeding, the purchase and spreading of a lot of mulch, and a lot of water thrown on bare ground.  I also see a grim looking space for probably 3 years.  My solution?  Start a groundcover bed small and plant densely.   Enlarge it next year, or the following season- only that number of square feet you can plant densely.  My mature, healthy beds of pachysandra-individual plants are much less than an inch apart.

Spacing evergreens has everything to do with the desired outcome.  Should I plant a taxus densiformis in the middle of the lawn, and give it 50 years to grow, I will have a single plant of considerable size.  A hedge, or a mass of yews is more about a community. Sometimes I look at the distance between the rootballs.  The big idea here-everybody has their own subterranean digs. This may mean that the foliage touches.   

Plants are much more sociable than I.  I want my space. I was never so conscious of the need for my own space than after my knee replacement.  I was less than stable on my feet, and was not interested in an enthusiastic Golden Retriever broaching my borders. But plenty of plants do well planted in close quarters.  They are completely happy to relinquish their individuality, and become a part of a larger community.

One of my most favorite landscape moments-the arrival of the plants.  These 1.5″ caliper fastigiate hornbeams in 25 gallon pots would be planted as if they were the poles of a pergola. Carpinus betulus “Frans Fontaine” is a culitvar of fastigiate hornbeam which is slower and more densely growing than the species.  Even so, it will grow 30′-35′ tall, and 15′-18′ wide. I spaced them at 8′ on center, knowing they would grow together.  Someday there would be a green roof under which there would be shade.   

I had other reasons which influenced my spacing.  The house next door loomed over this side yard property.  Evergreens would have provided year round screening, but they occupy a lot of space at the ground plane.  My clients wanted to entertain in this space.  Given enough time, and spaced close together, they would eliminate this view of the neighbor.   

Carpinus are also very tolerant of pruning.  Decisions about spacing are specific to the species in question.  The vast majority of green spaces have not been planted by a person.  There are those wild places densely populated by plants.  No natural forest or meadow is at equilibrium; some plants are coming on as others are in eclipse.  Perhaps a lighting strike will “prune” a giant tree such that new plants can take hold around it.  Should you be interested in the exceptions to any gardening rule, visit any wild and untended space. 

Five years later, the new yews have grown together to make a mass.  The topmost row of yews had been transplanted from the front of the house; the new yews will eventually cover their bare lower limbs.  It sometimes makes more sense to underplant an old and ungainly shrub rather than tear it out.  These big old yews will eventually become part of a simple mass.Eight years later, the house next door has all but disappeared. As the carpinus grow taller, they can be selectively pruned on the underside to permit easy passage beneath them. 

The yews planted behind the carpinus are planted on a gentle slope that rises to the neighboring driveway. Though the shade has become considerable, they are green and well needled from top to bottom.  Allowing those densiformis yews to keep their natural shape is in large part responsible for their continuing health.  Yews do not respond so well to hard formal pruning.  Once all light is blocked to the interior of the shrub by a proliferation of growth on the exterior, those inner branches will go bare.  I have begun planting Taxus media Moonii in place of Hicks yews, as their natural growth is much more upright and formal. 

This is a great spot to sit.

Green And Good Looking

Our temperatures have gone back into the 90’s, topped with a big dollop of high humidity;  I am seeing signs of summer’s end in a lot of container plantings-including my own.  Crispy stems, mildew, and all manner of other trouble one can put under the heading of late summer malaise. Green plantings seem to keep their good looks, even when the late summer doldrums look more and more like the beginning of the end. To follow are some of my favorites this year.

Lime licorice, white polka dot, and a dracaena whose name I do not know-what a fresh look for August 30.

Lemon grass, variously underplanted with basil, parsley, and strawberries. 

King Tut, lime nocotiana, variegated licorice and cream petunias

Australian tree ferns, bromeliads, boxwood, pachysandra

Agave, datura metel

Eugenia topiary, parsley

datura metel, nicotiana mutabilis, gardenia standard, cirrus dusty miller, lime licorice

variegated ivy on standard, boxwood standard

Rosemary on standard, strawberries, fiber optic grass.  It is amazing how beautiful a collection of green plants can be, whatever the weather.

At A Glance: The Venus Dogwood

I was  fortunate to hear recently from Wolfgang Eberts in Germany; he apparently read my previous posts on the Venus Dogwood.  He tells me that this fabulous dogwood has proved to be very popular in Europe.  He accompanied Elwin Orton, the hybridizer of Venus, to the Chelsea Flower Show, where it took a well-deserved gold medal.  Wolfgang is a plantsman, and an European distributor of Venus.  His  nursery also sells other fine plants, including bamboo.  What fun to hear from him.  All of the pictures are courtesy of Wolfgang Eberts.

Wolfgang Eberts

from left to right; Wolfgang Eberts, Elwin Orton, hybridizer of Venus from Rutgers University, and Hugh Johnson-taken at Chelsea

trade show display of Wolfgang’s nursery about Venus

trade show booth

detail, Venus flower

fall color

Venus dogwood does not set much fruit here, but when it does, it is spectacular.  For more information on Wolfgang Eberts, try www.cornus-venus.com, and www.bambus.de.  What a pleasure it was for me to hear from him.