Holiday Diorama


I have one room in the shop from which I removed the solid roof, and installed the roof of an abandoned glass house.  Many years later, 15 creeping fig plants have completely covered the walls. In early spring this space provides protection for tender plants.  The summer sun shining down and through the glass roof endows this space with heat.  This hot space encourages the fig, tender begonias, tropical ferns-not to mention all of the gardeners that appreciate this growing space.  A concrete fountain built from an old French design sits on top of the one place we could not remove the concrete floor next to the wall for the fig; an old concrete waste oil tank sits below the surface.  So we built over it; the sound of the water in the space is great. I have water, light and plants in this room, year round.      

When the growing season closes, Rob makes the moves it takes to move on. How can this green wall be transformed?  He invariably has a big idea I do not see coming.  Hundreds of white birch sticks have been stashed in the garage for better than a month-waiting to be transformed into a birch forest holiday diorama.  If you are wondering if we really talk this way-holiday diorama-the answer is yes.  What you give a name to helps to endow an idea with an identity.  Brooklyn Botanical Garden is a name that says science; La Foce speaks to romance and magic.  

Chocolate terra cotta squares-they are Rob’s idea for a home for the birch.  How can we get those heavy branches to sit up straight?   My landscape superintendent Steve Bernard suggested Rob might sink those birch branches in washed sand.  This worked perfectly.  Every birch stick is standing tall; anyone wanting a birch stick for there own holiday will have no problem lifting out the sticks of their choice.  Steve made his contribution to the display early on. 

Rob knew to buy stout white birch poles, silver snowflakes in various materials and sizes, and snowballs.  Putting them together in this particular way involves introuducing the materials to each other, and to a space.  This is a romantic description of what is really about persistence.  He hauls materials all over the place until he sees something that he likes.  So much of successful design involves persistence and patience. 

The relationship of the materials is easy to believe; where there are snowflakes, snow balls cannot be far behind.  A visually successful arrangement is believable.  I do have a neighbor down the street with a life size lighted palm tree in her front yard-this would not be for me.  The contrast of texture, shape, and mass is pleasing. The white against the dark green of the fig wall looks good.

At the last minute, Rob had Catherine add stars to the mix. How this wall looks now could not be more unlike its summer appearance.  The dramatic change is enchanting.  Every person who sees it takes something away from it that is all their own. I had a lengthy discussion with one person about the cultural requirements of Himalayan white barked birch.  Another person planned to use a birch stick as a rod over her kitchen window, and hang ornaments from it like a valance.  Yet another planned to mass snowballs and snowflakes in a white washed vintage box on her front porch.  Our discussion was primarily about how she would light it.   

Of course we needed some lighting; daylight savings time means the dark comes early now.  White and chartreuse light garlands warm up the space on a cold and gloomy afternoon.  A midwestern summer garden can be sunny from dawn to very late in the day.  A winter garden is divided between day and night, and always about not so many sunny days.  A great holiday display takes lighting into consideration. 

Anyone can garden in the winter.  There are plenty of materials that can be arranged in those pots that held tree ferns over the summer. A favorite bench can be lit from the front with a spot light, or from below with strings of lights strewn on the ground.  Decorating a garden with holiday or winter lighting is an alternative type of gardening, but gardening none the less.  There are those gardeners that are relieved when a hard freeze puts an end to the season.  There is something attractive about putting the spade and pruners away for a while, but I like to keep on gardening.

Winter Green

KurnickWinter (2)
An evergreen is nature’s equivalent of an engineering miracle.  Evergreen needles are long, narrow, thick and waxy; their shape evolved specifically in response to one thing-the conservation of moisture.  Evergreens cannot take up water once all the available water in the soil freezes.  The needles thus have a minimum amount of surface area from which moisture can evaporate; such is how they stay green all winter. Even when cut, the needles stay green a long time.  Trees cut in August destined to be Christmas trees are still green in December, though they are beginning to dry.  Cut greens play a crucial role in our winter displays.  White pine has a gracefully informal look.  We stuff our forms with the branches curved side up, as they are pliable in stem, and soft in needle.  The very sculptural centerpiece in this urn rests on its pillow of white pine.  

2007 Payne, Lisa HOLIDAY 12-3-07 (10)Mixing greens makes it possible to hedge your bet. Cut evergreens are best in cold temperatures; the cold further slows the rate of water evaporation.  Though all the cedar species have attractive flat scaly needles, they are the first to dessicate if the late fall takes a warm turn.  Their loss of color from evaporation is less noticeable when they have more lively companionship.  Mixed greens add textural interest interest in volume.  This mix of Douglas fir, white pine, cedar and silver fir illustrates clearly how variable a natural green color can be.  

KurnickWinter (10) Fir species are instantly identifiable. The needles are arranged in the half round; the branches are flat on their undersides.  Douglas fir is one of my favorite evrgreen plants.  They will tolerate a little shade, and they are very disease and insect resistant.  They are commonly available as Christmas trees; their soft needles make trimming a tree easy on the hands.  As cut branches, they are remarkably long lasting.  Their bright medium green makes them a good choice for arrangements viewed from far away.  It is not unusual for me to clean out winter pots in April where the Douglas fir branches are still green. 

2008 Egren WINTER 11-19-08 (2)

Cut boxwood is a great choice for more formal arrangements.  As boxwood is a broad leaf evergreen, I wiltpruf the cut stems after I arrange them.  This liquid waxy emulsion helps to further slow the loss of water from the leaves.  Milky when applied, it dries clear.  Research has shown that late fall plantings of boxwood, yews and evergreen trees benefit greatly from a treatment of wiltpruf.   

Creed 2 (4)Silver fir branches are an icy blue color; it is all the more attractive paired with red.  These spheres are made from giant wood shavings that are dyed red.  The color is remarkable stable outdoors; there is little in the way of fading even in full sun.  We test any materials we think might go outdoors, to be sure they can withstand wet weather.

Lobsinger (2)Berried juniper, and noble fir contrast in texture, and compliment one another in color. Natural eucalyptus pods are quite blue, and weather to a soft grey. Chocolate and cream ting stacks complete the ensemble. 

ForbesWinter (1)This dried mood moss is soaked with a spray of moss dye before it goes outdoors.  In full sun, this treatment may need to be repeated during the course of the season.  The wood dowel trunk of this winter topiary is covered in mountain reed of a color similar to the rusty age on these vintage English painted steel boxes.  The top of the box is stuffed with a variegated boxwood known in the florist’s trade as oregonia.

2007 Kurnick Holiday 12-4-07 (11)
No matter which form or color of evergreen appeals to you, they all perform a great service during our winter months-in or out of the ground.


Nov 5 011Though I shopped this past January for the holiday, and most everything was here this past August, I am never ready for what it really takes to change seasons.  Have you ever?  Even the corgis have that slightly appalled look on their faces.  I am certain that the 10,000 square feet I have to deal with is secretly multiplying in the dead of night. It seems that everything needs to get moved-at least twice. Spaces have to be cleared-and of course cleaned-before they can be re-imagined. Sometimes it seems like my imagination will never ignite.  When that everything involves stone, steel and lead, I have been known to daydream about being in the stamp-collecting business.

Nov 5 004Rob likes everything imaginable in front of him all at once. The disaster that is his desk-loaded with messages, invoices, catalogues, notes, and all manner of other bits, spreads to the floorspace like a slime mold on steroids. This week he has been working away on the last of my leftover Halloween candy; the combination of his blood sugar level and his natural propensity to disorder defies description.  Suffice it to say, I am living in a universe tending towards dissolution.    

Nov 5 005The greenhouse fernery, so gorgeous a week ago, is now bulging with all those things that have lost their homes, and have no place to go.  An impossibly delicate terra cotta pot with applied roses from Espace Buffon in Paris is one of a hundred fragile items crowding my office conference table.  What floor space is still available makes walking through any room, objects in tow, nervewracking.  Should anyone out there know of a small scale hovercraft rated for interior use, please let me know.  

Nov 5 013The rear portion of the shop is a cavernous garage-at least it seemed that way when I bought the building in 1995. Today every square foot has something going on, and not in any particular order.  The arrangement of boxes so neatly shelved and stored has become completely unglued.  The corgis treat this space like a formula one course, fraught with hairpin turns and unexpected obstructions.  Great fun for them-not so much for me.  This space needs to be shovelled out soon,  such that we have room for the crew and materials necessary to construct of all our winter and holiday decor. 

Nov 5 021Progress has been made; certain big gestures are in place. Every box I unpack, I hope I remember what I was thinking when I bought ,works out.  My idea of holiday has everything to do with materials and references to the garden.  This part is simple. It takes a great deal of concentration to shop materials from 30 or better vendors such that you end up with a cohesive collection; this is only the beginning. Remembering what I had in mind over 10 months ago-even my notes don’t ring any bells.  The materials pile up faster than I can do display; just this morning a semi truckload of twigs arrived.  At this moment, the driveway is impassable.    

Nov 5 015
Though this scene smacks of a storage facility whose loading in has never been accompanied by any loading out, my clients seem to like this phase.  They amiably poke through everything, and have no problem asking to have a promising box opened for them-thank heavens. They even go so far as to say how beautiful everything looks-I think they feel sorry for me. This process takes a month anyway, start to finish.  I learned a long time ago, if you do not set a deadline, you will never be done. 

Nov 5 010Next week Thursday November 12th is our deadline.  We host an evening holiday preview and shopping soiree for our clients.  Our 4pm to 9pm event ran until 11:30 last year.  We serve a little something to eat and drink; lots of people come, and we have a great time.  We aim for picture perfect,  we are 6 days out and counting. I don’t see how we will be ready this minute, but somehow we will get there. Stop in, should you have a chance.

Nov 5 022
Now, where was I?