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: A Visual Tutorial

To follow is a visual tutorial, from start to finish, of how we construct winter and holiday arrangements. We do rely on the armature for both fresh, dried, and faux stems and branches provided by dry floral foam. Once we create forms for a client, those forms are used for a good number of years. The forms you see in the upper left of the picture above are 4 years old. Yes, we patch them, when the forms get elderly.

the first gesture, for a new client.


The lines scribed in the forms indicate how wide the centerpiece will be.

These centerpieces under construction include a mix of faux berry and ball picks, and fresh cut magnolia stems.

An outer layer of fresh cut red bud pussy willow stems follows all around the centerpiece.

As David is doing here, always look up to determine where you want any element to land.

Karen took over the greening of these centerpieces.

Every fresh cut evergreen stem has been sharpened. The idea is to insure a tight fit between the wood and the foam. We have winter weather ahead of us. This means that whatever we fabricate needs to be winter hardy.Karen is gifted. She can assess the volume and mass of a centerpiece, and give that centerpiece a green place to be of proper proportion.

finished centerpieces ready for the installation

the centerpiece was constructed around a light burst. Lots of LED lights on a twig like structure with stakes in the bottom is such an easy way of lighting the vertical elements in a winter arrangement.   LED Lightburst

The right hand pot, installed.

The left hand pot, installed.

Start to finish, I could not be more pleased with the work my group turns out.


At A Glance: Other Holidays













No Roots

Oct 19b 010Our entire method of sturdily constructing an arrangement for a winter pot is predicated on one concept-you have to create the roots, and the trunk.  I rarely worry about my summer pots going out of kilter.  The roots of the plant secure them to the soil; plants grow upwards, towards the sun.  I do not have that luxury in the winter, and Michigan has more than its fair share of stormy winter weather.  So the mechanics of fastening all the materials  is really important to the longevity and beauty of the piece. Tall skinny pots like these get lots of gravel in the bottom; a large centerpiece can be a big sail in disguise, just waiting for a decent wind to get airborne. We then construct a form in which to secure all the materials-glued up with industrial strength hot melt glue-that sits tight in the container.  A loosely fitting form is just asking for trouble.  If you have ever tried standing up in a pair of ice skates that do not lace up tight over your ankles, you know exactly what I am talking about.

Oct 19bc 004These pots will have lights in the vertical dimension; a steel form provides stability as light strings are heavy.  They also make it possible to cleanly and crisply mimic a geometric form.  As light strings shapes are governed by gravity, a rigid form insures they will be representing the form you choose for them today, next March. 

Oct 19bc 003Winding the lights around a form is time consuming.  It also makes the removal of the lights tedious.  Zip ties make for an easy in and easy off. It’s also easy to spot in the above picture how close we space those zip ties; the closer, the better.  Light string wires have strong kinks and curves when they come out of the package, but droop they will, given time. They do not hold a graceful curve on their own; we are generous with the fasteners. The centerpiece is set through a hole in the center of the form; a stout bamboo stake at the center of the arrangement goes far enough down into the pot to insure it stays vertical.  There is something so wrenching about a listing centerpiece-who needs that in the winter? Oct 19bc 006The fantail willow is set into the form based on a determination of the front elevation.  When pots are placed such that they can be seen from all sides, we work in the round.  As the form will be covered in a skin of lichen mat, the form is shaved into a rounded shape.

Oct 21 003Once the form is covered in the lichen, we add a little icing to our lichen cake-just for the holidays. Gold leaves and a luminous red berry garland-yummy. These elements can be removed after the first of the year, so the pots look good throughout the winter. A client can use the lights in the winter-or not.  The topiary form has a decidedly dressy look to it, with the added attraction of absolutely no maintenance.  It will still look fine come next April, provided the construction is sound.  

Oct 21 001Getting the installation to match in a pair of pots is harder than you think.  I try to work on pairs side by side. Some pairs of pots that demand a very formal arrangement, I make sure that one person does both.  Everyone’s eye and hand is noticeably all their own. My rule of thumb-I work on the second pot, never taking my eyes off the first.

Nov 13 057
Day and night-never is that idea more evident than in a winter pot. In high summer here, daylight persists well past 9pm. Very shortly now, it will be dark at 4pm. Day length has everything to do with the onset of flowering in plants.  How I design the winter pots respects this science, in a parallel way.     

Nov 16 024Your winter pots are the best they will ever be, the first day they are done.  Unlike a landscape that fills out, and blossoms with age, there is no growing involved.  They need to be constructed tall, wide, and robust from the beginning. The winter is a season that can handle a little unedited excess, with a dash of over the top sparkly, with aplomb.