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.

The Winter Pots: Constructing A Centerpiece

A customer in the shop yesterday remarked that the beauty of a winter or holiday container begins and ends with gorgeous fresh cut branches. I am inclined to agree. Our first delivery of fresh cut branches arrived just in time for our winter open house weekend. The tall sized second year red twig dogwood that came in has plenty of lateral branching, and astonishing height. It is clear our grower had plenty of rain this season. All of our branches are farm grown, and harvested when they are at their peak of size and color. Graded by height, they are tied off in bunches of 10 stems each. Every brightly colored and glossy surfaced branch bunch is our call to set up and begin constructing centerpieces for our winter pots.

Do all of our winter and holiday pots have a tall branchy element we would call a centerpiece? No. But there are plenty of reasons that a tall twiggy element makes visual sense in a container. Shrubs are readily identifiable in the landscape. Post the fall leaf drop, they are a tall and multi-branched presence in the winter landscape. A branch centerpiece repeats that shape and texture. Many of our tall branches have astonishing color. Red, cardinal,  black and yellow twig dogwood,  and flame and curly copper willow endow containers with a strong dose of vibrant and natural color. A vertical centerpiece is a pleasing contrast to the lower and more horizontal elements. A robust centerpiece can provide great scale and proper proportion to the container to be filled. Some height in a container can provide plenty of visual action at eye level, or from a distance. Last, but certainly not least, my zone is very hard on live plants in containers. Few can survive our harsh winters with their roots in a contained area above ground. The cut branches are especially welcome in containers on properties too small to grow large shrubs specifically for winter color. They are equally welcome in commercial settings where the landscape is sparse.

Any vertical element in a winter pot of ours needs to be constructed such that it shrugs off the gale force winds, snow, and ice prevalent in my zone. A centerpiece gone over in 6″ of snow will be very difficult to make right. Anyone who has tried to stake Annabelle hydrangeas in full bloom that have gone over in a heavy rain knows exactly how providing structure after the fact is very difficult to make work. The anticipation of trouble is not the most creative or interesting part of the job, but it does enable every gesture to come.  Very large centerpieces required for very large pots need the the most in the way of thoughtful construction. Thoughtful does not imply difficult. Preparing just takes a little time. This centerpiece of red twig dogwood will be placed in the center of a pot 36″ in diameter, and 36″ tall. This calls for an armature, or metal frame that will provide support to a host of very tall branches. Every gardener knows how much living wood can weigh. Shrubs and trees have an extensive network of roots that keep them upright. Cut branches need another scheme that can provide strong support. A pot of this size will need a bold centerpiece of considerable volume and height in order to appear proportional to the size of the pot. There is no need for a centerpiece to be under scaled. An armature does not need to be custom welded. The armature for this centerpiece is a tomato cage, repurposed for the winter season.

Each branch of this red twig, every bit of 8 feet tall, is zip tied with 8″ zip ties to every horizontal ring the tomato cage. This tight profile makes it easier to handle the centerpiece while it is under construction. We have spaced the branches as you see, as there are other elements yet to come.

A round of faux red berries are zip tied in to the spaces between the red twig dogwood. The top layer of zip ties have been clipped off, so the dogwood branches are free to arch out more gracefully. We have left plenty of open space between as we plan to light the interior of the centerpiece.

The long legs of the tomato cage will be pushed down as far as possible into the soil in the container. The bottoms of the twigs will also be below ground. Once that soil freezes, those steel rods and the bottoms of those branches will not move. But we will add 2′ long steel rebar in 4 or 5 spots that is secured to the tomato cage both above and below ground. This will provide that last and most serious measure of security.

Smaller centerpieces do not require but a single armature. All of the elements in these centerpieces have been arranged around a stout bamboo pole. It is essential that the centerpiece be zip tied in 2 spots, so the twigs do not shift. In the left centerpiece pictured above, the top of that pole is visible half way up the centerpiece. Once we center this in the pot, we will pound that bamboo stake down into the soil of the pot.

The bamboo stake is an essential element of our centerpiece construction.   A 1″ pole requires a saw to make it shorter. That pole is rarely more than 3′ tall. It is light weight, and astonishingly strong. Every element we plan to add to a centerpiece gets arranged around this pole.  Once that pole is driven down into the soil in a pot, it will provide all the ballast that centerpiece needs to stay upright.

A number of bunches of tall pussy willow, and a generous number of faux berry picks will be kept perfectly vertical all winter long – courtesy of the pole.

Constructing the the winter pots in our garage was an innovation that took quite a few years to perfect. I would suggest that a warm place is the best place to fabricate a centerpiece, and all else intended to go in a winter pot. The best work gets done when your fingers are warm.

These centerpieces have the bamboo pole pushed up so it is flush with the bottom of the twigs. But it is in there. A tree stand is a great way to keep a centerpiece upright while it is being worked on. Positioning the materials at a proper height to work on makes for a better quality outcome.

Once this centerpiece is truly centered in the pot, it will take one person to separate the branches so another person can drive the bamboo down into the soil with a hammer. A centerpiece of this size will need some steel rebar pounded down around it. A number of rotations of concrete wire tightened with pliers will bind the rebar to the centerpiece.

Sometimes we insert the twigs one stem at a time into the dry floral foam that secures the greens. As the weight of the branches is spread out, there is no need for an armature.

steel topiary form acting as an armature for tall pussy willow stems

steel armature with twigs and berries inside

a winter container without a centerpiece.

3 identical centerpieces installed side by side for a rectangular container

one stick at a time

The steel topiary form in this winter pot is strictly ornamental, and not structural. It does provide a framework for lighting. The structural armature holding the centerpiece aloft is not visible once the container is finished.

Whatever will be the centerpiece of your winter pots, a method to construct and secure it is an essential element of the process.

 

A Holiday Color Scheme


Client’s routinely ask me for things I would never think of. That is just one of a hundred reasons why I like having clients. People know what they like, and they will tell you, if you ask the right questions.  This client is hosting a holiday event tomorrow. She called me well in advance to discuss what work she wanted done. I have done winter pots for her for quite some time-since we installed the landscape and gardens at her new house. But a request for a special holiday installation was not part of our history. After some discussion, I still felt unsure.  So I asked if she had a color scheme in mind. That question produced a lengthy reply that did not surprise me a bit. She had a color scheme in mind. Loved that!!!

A discussion of color is a bridge upon which a designer and client can meet. Most people have strong feelings about color. I admit to it myself.  Certain colors attract me-others leave me cold.  Some colors are not so swell on their own, but in combination with another color-all of a sudden there is an idea brewing. Most gardeners are big fans of green. But some like green with white.  Others like green with yellow orange and red.  Still others like their green limey, with a side of pale lavender or purple. There are infinite variations in color, if you consider all of the possible tones and shades. A client who speaks to a color scheme is a gift to this designer.

Make no mistake, I have more than my fair share of spectacular misses, trying to read what a client will like. Most landscape design projects are forgiving of what I miss.  A landscape project takes place over a long period of time.  Mistakes can be corrected. A point of view can be tuned up before the installation. A holiday installation is a brief moment in the gardening year. I take special pains to be sure I am on the right track.

The question about color proved to be a good question. My client was sure that she wanted a gray and white holiday outdoors, with some accents of maroon or claret red. I was surprised, and intrigued. Rob sees to my having an ocean of materials available to me-thank you Rob.  Once I started scouting the materials we had that available, I was able to put together a palette of materials that I thought would satisfy her request.

The installation yesterday involved garland on her low fencing out front, and her gates.  We spent a good deal of time hanging a garland over the entrance to the front door.

Gray and white, in a number of different forms and materials, would play a prominent role in the creation of the holiday and winter arrangements in a singular large stoneware pot, the planters surrounding her fountain.

We took particular care to hang the heavy garland with zip ties and wires.

The garland is asymmetrical and quirky-appropriate to the architecture of the front door.

The front yard fountain had 5 curved Branch lattice boxes surrounding it. We plant those boxes for every season. For holiday and winter, we stuffed each box with noble fir, with a center ring of sparkly white picks, gray pod picks-and a dash of merlot dyed pods.

The fountain is shut don for the winter, but the surrounding planters make a big statement about the holiday, and the winter to come.

Though I would have never imagined a holiday decor scheme with white, gray, and a splash of maroon red, I was delighted by the outcome.

My client is a  serious gardener, through and through. This arrangement in white, gray and maroon per her holiday color scheme is my best effort to represent her relationship with the garden at the holidays.

Though this color scheme for the holiday is a first for me, I quite like the outcome.

The big idea here? Be confident in every idea you have about your garden. Or your holiday or your winter. Turn your imagination loose.

This late day November sun yesterday set the centerpiece of this winter pot on fire. Love the fire.

The Details

Better than twenty years ago, before a cell phone had been invented or a world wide web established, I would drive Rob to the airport for a buying trip to Europe. In those days we could have a cocktail in the lounge, and I could accompany him all the way to the boarding chute for a goodby. It was an emotional experience, that send off. The trip itinerary was sketchy at best. He had little idea where he was going, but that his plane would land in London or Paris or Brussels. Our main clues for overseas shopping came for foreign language magazines and travel books. I would be lucky to hear from him every 10 days for a few very scratchy phone moments. Few hotels had overseas phone service.

As anxious as I was to hear from him once he was abroad, he had his hands full, trying to locate his car and his lodging, driving in a foreign country, driving to shops that were either impossible to find or no longer in business. By the time he was able to call, I was beside myself with worry. He dealt with that in his usual bemused way. No one can dial down a fret fest better than he can. In retrospect, I incredibly admire his raw determination and courage. I doubt he knew at the time that he was charting unknown waters. Why would he? We were in the thick of trying to establish a shop devoted to fine objects for the garden. If you know Rob, you understand that his idea of fine objects and good design is never about money. Some things he purchases for the shop-ouch.  Others are eminently affordable. Witness the lighted winter pot detail above-all those weedy sticks came from the field next door. Add some lights, and voila.

Once he would return home, I would pour over his photographs. I was keen to absorb every detail. These were places I had never been. I wanted to experience his travels as best I could.  In those days, I studied his photographs with a magnifying glass. That close up view revealed so many of the details of the places he was seeing.  Those things that he arranged to have shipped home – that magnifying glass helped me to see those details that won him over. I cannot really explain this, but the magnifying glass helped make the photographs seem a little more real.

Our IT person extraordinaire Jenny explained to me how I could crop my photographs to make the details clearer. I will admit I have been playing around with the idea of magnifying certain details, given her instruction.  What I like is that I am able to focus on details that speak so much to the evidence of the human hand, and the relationship of one material, color, mass or texture to another.

This winter container arrangement was photographed in place after we installed it in the box.

The details are much magnified and easier to see now.

My crews are on a 6 day a week schedule right now. We have taken over the shop stock room for all of the construction. People who find there way back there are able to see how much time and skill it takes to put it all together. Then there is the installation phase, which we always hope is as quick and efficient as possible. The pictures of the finished work do not always do a good job of describing the details, both visual and physical. When it comes time to do this project next year, I will mark up the picture with the new design.

To follow are are some photographs of previous work under a digital magnifying glass. To any gardener who reads my journal, I suspect that the looks close up are the most descriptive view of the work. If you click on any of these pictures, you will get yet a closer look. Not all of them are in sharp focus-that is why I call them pictures and not photographs.

eucalyptus drifting down into the greens

a wreath on a second story window is artificial-“store bought”. We added 2 pine cone garlands in neutral colors on the edges, and spiced up the top.

winter berry

a layered look

grapevine deer with a holiday collar

white grassy picks

lighted

asymmetrical

glass drops in the rain

the natural shape and drape of the greens create an overall shape

detail

We get to see all the details up close, just like this.