Shades Of Gray


We are firmly entrenched in the gray zone now.  It’s February in Michigan.  Just about everything is one shade of gray or another.  The gray skies,  dirty snow, salted surfaces and relentless cold-an off key ode to gloom.  The trunks of the trees, the bare branches and the remains of the perennial garden have taken on that gray cast.  Relentless rain and fog for days gave way to temperatures in the teens.  I have leaks in the roof at Branch.  The backflow preventer at Detroit Garden Works failed-the leaking water was masked by the rain.  Now that it is 14 degrees, that water is transformed into a mountain of ice.  I can see every breath I take-great.  We lost power at home-what can be done for that?  We went to bed at 8:45pm, under a mountain of blankets.  The digital clock I have had since I was 19 was dead by morning.  The dogs want no part of going outside unless, much to my annoyance, I go with them.  This is by way of explaining that I have no gray walls, furniture or towels.  No gray car.  No gray boots, scarves, socks, dresses or sweaters.  But how this galvanized metal tray looks against the concrete floor in the shop-not bad.


Lead is another word for gray, as in the phrase “leaden skies”.  Lead garden ornaments are among the earliest ever made.  It is remarkable how many from centuries ago still survive.  Lead is a soft, very dense and heavy metal.  You can dent it with a pencil.  Not the least of its attributes is its longevity.  Many garden ornaments eventually succumb to the weather.  Wood rots.  Iron rusts.  Concrete cracks.  Lead however,  is forever.  This cistern is several centuries old, and bears many scars-the story of which I will never know.  But it still holds water-perfectly.


Lead has a very low melting point, making it an ideal metal for casting.  Lead toys were once common.  But now that the health hazards of breathing lead dust or ingesting lead are well known, its manufacture and use is confined to architectural materials and garden ornament.


This picture is a detail from a lead square from Bulbeck.  Bulbeck Foundry in England manufactures very fine quality lead objects.  Contemporary lead ornament is incredibly expensive.  The price of the raw metal is astronomical now; I rarely buy lead for the garden anymore-the price is too dear.  I have a small collection of lead ornament-my supply has been steadily dwindling.  The day I have no lead to offer will be a sad day indeed.  This particular shade of gray is softly beautiful.  A lead pot is an elegant and permanent addition to the garden.


Galvanized metal-just what does this mean, exactly?  Steel and iron rust from contact with the air, and with water.  Rust eats away at the metal.  Eventually, unprotected steel will disintegrate.  Galvanizing is a process by which a coating of zinc is applied to steel.  Galvanized metal has a characteristic gray color.  Galvanizing is a process commonly applied to buckets, farm tools, screws, troughs, screens, and garbage cans.  Farming and industrial objects were coated with zinc to make them more weather worthy.  I have seen countertops made from solid zinc.  While solid zinc sheeting is very expensive, this metal is inert and non-toxic.  Zinc coated buckets and troughs are reasonable in price and quite durable.


That gray color that is galvanized gray acquires a beatiful patina as it ages.  Rob is fond of those utilitarian objects that pertain to industry or agriculture that might find a new home in the garden.  Farm buckets planted with herbs enchant him in the same way as a galvanized trench drain might be repurposed as a garden shelf.  This old galvanized table top reveals its age.  Those places where the galvanizing has worn through are rusting.


Galvanized metal containers that have been always used indoors can be easily moved outdoors.  We have repurposed both steel chocolate vats and industrial tubs for the garden.  A galvanized container planted for the season is at home in the country as it is the most contemporary of settings.  This galvanized bakery box could hold tools, or be planted. I could see it filled with water, and home to a lotus. This shade of gray has possibilities.


I have a collection of galvanized metal flower buckets-they are very useful when I am conditioning flowers for a wedding or event.  This vintage bucket, graced with a brass tag identifying its origin, is a beautiful object in and of itself.  A collection of these buckets-yes, he spoke for all of them. Though I am not a fan of gray February days, gray as in galvanized is a good looking gray.


Every gardener is interested in ornament for the garden that is rugged, and easy to look after.  Galvanized metal is virtually maintenance free.  A large galvanized tub is relatively light weight-compared to lead, concrete or stone.  If I plant such a tub, I drill a number of holes in the bottom for drainage.  The zinc coating may eventually wear through to the base metal.  Some of the sheet metal window boxes at the shop will need replacing this year, as the zinc is worn through, and the steel is rusting out.  But those boxes were inexpensive to purchase, and lasted 15 years.


The bottom of this large vintage galvanized tub has a beautifully aged surface.  It is large enough to provide a home for a sizeable herb or flower garden.  Hung on a wall, it would be a visual discussion of what can be beautiful about gray.




zinc watering cans

Courtesy of Wikipedia, zinc is a metallic/chemical element-the 24th most abundant of all of the elements as detailed on the periodic table.  It is an essential element to human health.  But its largest use by far and away is as a coating on steel which resists corrosion.  These watering cans are made of sheet steel, which is them submerged in a bath of molten zinc.  That thin coating prevents the steel from rusting.  Should you have an old metal watering can, chances are good that the zinc has worn away in spots, and the steel has begun to rust. Galvanized metal is a garden material common in watering cans, cattle and chain link fencing, chicken wire, tools, wheelbarrows-the list is long.     

This is a reproduction of an old French cabinet with zinc drawers.  This zinc has a decidedly bluish cast.  The sheet steel from which the drawers are made is very thin, and therefore light weight.  The distressed white wood frame and zinc coated drawers makes for a cabinet that is very light, good looking, and utilitarian.  What would I store in this?  Seeds, twine, replacement blades for my pruners, garden gloves-you get the idea. 

Zinc coated steel is such a familiar material in the garden.  This vintage English sink is kept company by a vintage handled bucket, and an oval washtub.  To the very far right, a vintage French wash tub.  The material is common in many cultures, for useful objects for farm, home, and garden. 

This very tall flat backed galvanized basket was originally used to gather grapes.  There are faint signs of rust where the moldings are applied over the body of the basket.  Imagine zinc heated to 800 degrees, transforming it from a solid to a liquid state.  A steel object is slowly lowered into this bath, and then slowly raised out and drained.  The coating is very thin, but thick enough to prevent rust.  Just about every activity in a garden involves water.  From the sky, from the hose, from the soil, from sweat.  Galvanizing greatly improves the longevity of steel outdoors.  Vintage and antique galvanized metal objects for the garden invariably show signs of rust.  Steel and water make rust.

The window boxes at the shop, and the boxes on the roof are made from galvanized sheet steel.  This year, I need to replace them.  After 11 years in service, the zinc has worn through in many places.  The failure of the zinc means a degradation of the steel.  In a word-rust.  The bottoms of my boxes are rusting out.  I need new zinc coated boxes.  These perforated zinc buckets show signs of rust, but not enough to worry me.  They look like they have had some use.  That vintage rusty look is a good one.

This is another reproduction of a cabinet from a French original.  5 drawers, and 10 cubbies.  Vintage style is easy to speak for, and assimilate.  My old buckets and watering cans-I would not dream of giving them up.  They have that comfortably worn look that reminds me of a favorite pair of boots-as does this zinc cabinet.       

These galvanized steel finials are also reproductions.  They have a gently and convincingly degraded coat of paint.  The design is great-saucy.  The reproduction part means that a number of gardeners could have them.  I have no problem with reproduction pieces in the garden.  I only have a problem if they are not visually convincing.  This surface is entirely convincing.  The designer for this company-she understands how a piece should feel, and she works very hard to endow, and construct her pieces with that feeling. 

This sideboard is hers. The wood console has a zinc coated steel top, studded with rivets. The column legs are reminiscent of Moorish design to my eye, though her original is a French piece.  Spring at the shop will feature garden ornament in a wide range of styles and periods.  But it will have a decidedly French flavor.  Great French glazed terra cotta, and French antique sculptures, urns, and vintage French pieces.   These reproduction pieces appeal to my love of all things French, but they also appeal to my interest in a designer who has a passion she is willing to see through the construction.  Outdoors, the wood in this console would continue to degrade.  There are those gardeners who greatly prize what we call weathered.  So place this console in the garden, and deal with the consequences.  Indoors, or on a covered porch, this table would lastingly and clearly speak to the garden-with a French flavor.   

I did buy a number of zinc coated steel cabinets and cubbies from her, from the French originals.  I fell for the garden like look, the blue grey of the zinc, the vintage feel, and the possibilities.  What would you store in drawer number 7?  Old letters?  Embroidery floss?  Garden tools?  Votive candles?  Dog treats?  A flashlight?  You choose.     

This vintage English garden table with painted steel legs and a zinc top (yes, solid zinc is available in sheets) has some new company-8 new galvanized steel garden chairs.  These chairs just arrived. The wirework of the backs and legs is a great foil to the sheet steel zinc coated seats.  Steel, galvanized with molten zinc, in this case, would enable a seated dinner party in the garden.  I truly like this idea.  I even more like the idea that any ornament in the garden has a name, an idea, an aesthetic, a point of view.  Passionate gardeners, I belong to their group.