Berried Treasure

It is not hard to believe that we will be beginning our winter and holiday containers and decor in another week or so. The past 10 days have been an intense effort to unpack and display in the shop all of the materials Rob purchased almost a year ago for this season. Our kickoff open house begins November 7-just a few days away. I like this moment. It requires looking at countless individual materials with the idea to put them together in a way that makes visual and emotional sense. The beginning is always about fits and starts, with a liberal dose of hand wringing. What seemed like a good idea on Monday gives way to another idea on Tuesday. But eventually we all settle in to the job at hand, and the work of it evolves and gets done. It is the very best way to become familiar with what is available to include in winter arrangements. As I most likely was a gardener from the first moment I took a breath, of course I favor natural materials from that garden for the winter pots. Rob addresses that basic need with an incredible collection of fresh cut farmed twigs in a variety of species and sizes. They come from all over this country of ours. Densely branched bunches of lustrous alder branches-we carry them. Sumac and poplar branches harvested from our collective properties are so sculptural. The glossy cinnamon gold colored flame willow branches both straight and branched always arrive first, as their leaves are the first to drop. Soon to come are the pussy willow, the copper curly willow, and the red and yellow twig dogwood. The premium cut greens of all types are equally as juicy and lively. Pairing those branches and greens with berry stems for winter containers is a natural. The fresh cut branches of Michigan holly, ilex verticillata, are drop dead gorgeous. However, they come with a steep price, and require some serious prep, if they are to survive the season. The ilex berries above, zip tied to a stout stand of fresh cut first year growth red twig dogwood, need a thorough soaking with VaporGard prior to their installation. This agricultural grade natural anti dessicant formulated from pine resin will keep the berries attached to the stems, and plump – for months. The centerpieces pictured above went to a client willing to go the distance to have fresh cut berried stems in their pots.

There are alternatives. The quality of the appearance and manufacture of faux berry stems has improved at an astonishing rate over the past 10 years. What used to be an embarrassing imitation of the real thing has become an entirely convincing expression of the beauty of berries. This new generation of faux berry stems are manufactured as much for durability as beauty. The color can be true enough to fool the eye. Or unabashedly dramatic. The stems do not disintegrate or discolor outdoors.

There is an astonishing artistry that is evident, both in the design and construction. Though these stems are faux berry stems, the evidence of the human hand is obvious. These materials make it possible for me to construct winter arrangements that can handle gale force winds, endless snow and relentless cold. Packed away for the summer, they will be equally as beautiful in year two or three. Many of them that Rob purchases are tall enough to be seen from a good ways away. The berry picks pictured above are unabashedly cheery – the prefect antidote to the landscape going dormant.

There is much to love about having choices in stem length, branching, and berry size. Choosing materials that are a proper proportion to the overall size of the arrangement is important. Do all picks need to be inserted into the soil or a dry floral foam base? No. If the perfect stem is not tall enough, they can be discretely zip tied to a neighboring natural branch. Picks with flexible branching permit an arrangement that is graceful.

Berry beautiful.

Red berry picks destined for outdoor pots need to be completely weatherproof. It only took one time seeing red berries disintegrate and run red on the sidewalk to drive that point home. We test all of our picks by soaking them in water, even if we have been told they are weatherproof.

44 inch long red berry picks in concert with a mass of cut red twig dogwood branches will make a statement in a container all winter long. That red will be strikingly handsome set in a landscape renowned for its gray and brown. It could be I enjoy the winter pots better than any other season. They most certainly last the longest. I will take my own apart in March, mostly from the embarrassment of seeing the snowdrops and the berry picks at the same time.    Red berry picks are the norm, but they are not the only game in town. It is great to be able to take your pick.

black and white

blueberry picks

golden ochre

green

cream berries with brown stems

fuzz ball style berry picks

short blueberries

I have yet to see a winter container that had too many berry picks, but even just a few adds a lot to the mix.If a project calls for lots and lots of berries, sticking them individually is a better strategy than attaching them to the twig centerpiece. Once a centerpiece reaches a certain weight, keeping it perfectly upright will require additional ballast. Hand sticking berry stems is more time consuming, but it can provide a welcome intermediary layer between the vertical and horizontal elements. Winter pots can be the most challenging to create, as nothing will grow or fill in. The day they are done, they are done.

Looking forward to the berries.

 

Winter Window Boxes

A good many posts ago, I described a window box as a hybrid vehicle. It is generally more expansive than a pot, but smaller than an in ground garden bed. A window box is an above ground defined space which is large enough to thoroughly explore an idea, and small enough to finish every square inch beautifully. I like any landscape project that is as beautiful and polished at the finish as it was from the design beginning. This means tailoring seasonal efforts to a size that celebrates aspiration, and acknowledges limits. Planting an area in the garden with seasonal plants leaves me cold. There is too much square footage to deal with. More on the knees work than I am willing to do anymore. Too much poor soil and poorer drainage than I want to address. Get me off the ground, please and thank you. A window box is the perfectly sized venue for a bigger seasonal gesture.

A landscape client with a new house signed up for four window boxes on stands in the front of her house. Branch made them to my specifications. Though the window boxes were fabricated this past summer, it was not until November when the landscape was ready for their installation. Meaning we would address them for the winter season. We made forms for the boxes, and fabricated the winter arrangements in our shop. Dry floral foam forms were a vehicle for a collection of sparkly white picks, cut magnolia branches, faux white berry picks and noble fir. Presiding over all, a three foot diameter light ring.

We do as much of the work as we can, in the shop. We like the better part of the work to be done in a warm space. The construction is faster, and more thoughtful. All of us want to focus on the project at hand, rather than enduring the cold conditions on site. This work included creating the arrangement, and dressing the greens with lights. This layout table was large enough to hold two arrangements at a good height for working.

Each form was moved outdoors once it was finished. The cold temperature outside favors keeping the greens fresh. The palette of materials is simple. The volume and texture of the noble fir does a great job of showcasing the magnolia based centerpiece. A form this long needs support when it is moved, although all of the woody stems of the evergreens helps strengthen it. Though the form is long and narrow, we took great care to provide a rolling shape from back to front.  A good winter arrangement needs to supply a finished shape from the beginning, and create the illusion of motion and rhythm. Though most of these materials are natural, they will not grow. Creating a sense of growth from cut materials informs the best of winter container arrangements.

The form is slightly smaller than the interior dimension of the box, so it was easy to drop it in.

The pots look over scaled for the windows, but that will change once the new shutters are installed. The boxes and their contents have a very formal and dressy look, which is in keeping with the architecture.

After dark, the lights define the shapes and volumes. The view at night is important in my zone. We have a lot of short days and long nights ahead.

By this time next year, this landscape project will have landscape lighting. But for now, the window boxes provide some welcome illumination.

Every year we fill the window boxes at Detroit Garden Works for the winter season. This year, our winter and seasonal pot obligations ran long. On December 21, my crews had gone home for the holidays, and our storefront boxes were still bare. My crew had a long and arduous season, so I was not about to have them fret over the shop winter window boxes. And our supplies of branches and greens were low. Happily, our supplier emailed Rob that he had a late cutting of a new branch for him – were we interested? It did not take long for him to send 12 bales of Midwinter Fire dogwood stems our way. The form in the above picture has its fair share of holes, as this is its third season. But with a few minor repairs, it was ready. My part in the process of our winter pots is the design. My crew does all of the construction admirably well. But given that there was a time when I designed and fabricated, I was sure I could do that again. The idea was simple. Embed a light ring in a thicket of dogwood branches.

Christmas Eve day, the shop was open, so Karen had time to me a hand sticking the greens on the front face and sides of the forms. Rob and Scott helped trim the bottoms off the thickest branches. I set a row of branches close together across the back of the form, and 2 lengths of a 33 foot long light strand in front of them before starting the next row of branches. 4 rows of branches separated by four rows of lights. The branches are pushed in all the way to the bottom of the form.

The work of it was integrating each new branch into the neighboring branches. As they were fresh cut, the stems were pliable. A pair of thick wool gloves made that work easier. There was no need to cover the back of the form, as the window box hugs the window. The bottom layer of foam goes into the box. The soil had already been lowered a corresponding amount. The top layer on the front and sides holds the greens. Short stems of magnolia would separate the greens layer from the twig thicket. The large brown and green leaves not only separate the similar textures of the greens and twigs, they conceal the mechanics of the light source from view.

Though my crew would have sailed through this fabrication, it took me two days. No deadline was looming, and I wanted to enjoy the process. No twigs cover the lower portion of the light ring. The ring disappearing into the thicket and re-emerging at the top implies the thicket has depth. I would consider how to finish that spot once the boxes were installed.

Flipping the switch on the lights once the arrangements were done was great fun. We would indeed have a little midwinter fire.

Marzela and David came in the Thursday and Friday after Christmas. They fabricated and installed 2 projects we had not finished before the holiday. Karen, Rob and Scott joined in. We sometimes remove the light rings after fabrication, and reinstall them on the job. But in this case, it seemed vastly easier to just leave them in. They took care of all of the finishing work and electrical, once the forms were set.

Some of the finishing touches will only be seen by those who walk by or come over to take a closer look. We tried to address the near and far, and the day and night. The shop boxes are just the right size for that.

The pots on either side of the door are stuffed with fir and boxwood, and lit with a single 3 foot tall LED light burst from the shop. It came with a pointed metal stake that is easy to push into a form or soil.

Rob took this picture from the top of a 12 foot ladder, right at dusk. The look of them in the transition between day and night was subtle. The visual changes wrought by the light and weather come courtesy of mother nature.

I never thought about how they would look from inside my office, but I am enjoying it.

 

 

 

 

 

From Start To Finish

Once in a blue moon we have a client who decides to buy new pots in December. The process from purchase to finish involves a series of steps, the first of which is the placement. Installing pots in a bed, rather than on a hard surface, is not all that usual. But in this case, I think my client made a great choice. Starting over is an opportunity. For her, and for me. It took us a few days to put everything together, but our idea was to stay on the project from start to finish.

These substantial pots were set to be placed in a pair of beds that once held some very unhappy plant material.  By large, I mean 36″ tall, and 36″ in diameter at the top. The first order of business was to level the ground they would sit on, and provide a way for the pots to drain. Given the size of the pots, elevating them on bricks seemed like a good idea.

There is measuring and more measuring involved in this phase, because none of us want to try and level or center a large pot that is full of soil, and a winter arrangement. Empty pots are the easiest to move around.

The centerpieces needed to be big and tall, to be proportional to the size of the pots. A group of tall birch poles would provide plenty of substantial height. We filled the pot with cypress bark mulch to the center rib on the outside of the pot, and set the birch poles directly on top of that bark. Having a very heavy centerpiece set this deep in the pot will help keep it secure and upright. Few things seem so forlorn as a centerpiece listing out of vertical from stormy winter weather. Once the centerpiece was set, the pot could be filled with soil.

It would not be possible to fill the pots with soil if we set the greens first, so the greens placement was out of our regular order. It came after the setting of the centerpiece. The top of this centerpiece would never fit through the hole just big enough for the birch in the center of the form. The copper curly willow we added to the birch was about 3 feet wide at the top. So we sliced the greens form into two halves. Marzela set the greens in a way that made it easy to cut through her work.

Of course cutting the form in half impacted its strength. The weight of the greens on the outer edge would eventually pull the form and every evergreen stem inserted in it to the ground. Gravity is a force to be reckoned with. The cut form needed some ballast close to the centerpiece.

We secured each half with a pair of long steel rebar poles pounded in at an angle opposite to the downward force of the heavy side.  The rebar sits above the form about 5 inches. Concrete wire was wrapped around the four pieces of steel several times.  This will keep the forms anchored, and just about foolproof once the soil freezes.

We added eucalyptus to that space between the greens and the centerpiece. That plum red is a beautiful foil to the color of the copper curly willow. We zip tied individual stems to a bamboo stake. That slender stake is much more successful an anchor than the individual stems. We also had the option of setting the stems at an angle out, rather than straight up and down.

We also added extra short stem of the willow to the base of the centerpiece, so the hole in the foam would be completely filled. Gaps between the centerpiece and the opening in the foam are an opportunity for the stems to shift. Shifting stems mean trouble.  Once the pot is finished, we look for a tight fit for every element. It should be clear by now that the engineering plays just as big a role as the design.

Once the pots were close to a finish, the lighting could be added. That lighting will do a lot to illuminate this front terrace.

I left the centerpiece visible from top to bottom from the road side view. That seemed like a good idea. We wrapped the centerpiece with its own string of lights. The lighting plays such a big part in winter pots. A few bags of soil covered the bricks elevating the pot. We were just about finished.

Our client felt a second pair of smaller Branch tapered pots nearer her front door would complete the look she was after. The last of this installation was about companionship. We were happy to oblige.

These smaller scale Branch pots near the front door completed the project. They are smaller, but just as robust.

picture perfect, in my opinion.

Recent Work

All of my group has been fabricating and installing at a breakneck pace since early November. That intensity has its ups and downs. By the end of a six day week, we are all tired. But the best part of an intense season are those great ideas that emerge. Design and fabrication is a big fluid situation ripe for innovation. I see that happening every day, from every member of my crews. They not only produce the work, they endow it. How I love that.  Would that I could express what it is like for us during this end of the year gardening season, but that would be a full length movie of interest to my group, and not so much anyone else. So suffice it to let the work speaks for itself.

English lead pot from Bulbeck dressed for the winter

Winter pot in blue and white

Layered winter pot featuring a stand u[p collar of German boxwood

trio of wood boxes dressed for winter

pots and garland

single London Plane tree lighted for winter

the pair of plane trees

Pink eucalyptus and copper curly willow

winter arrangement with faux bleached pine picks and dry okra pods

Jackie boxes ready for the holidays


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curly copper willow and cotton picks

magnolia and faux sedum flower picks

Himalayan white barked birch with a winter blanket

front porch box with a winter arrangement English urn dressed for the holidays

winter cheer for a local restaurant

Dry integrifolia and white eucalyptus mixed

a holiday and winter mix

natural

lighted winter container

Birch branches and red twig dogwood

red bud pussy willow, pine cone picks, magnolia branches and noble fir

lighted winter container with foraged tree of heaven branches

lighted topiary form with red and green

curly willow and red eucalyptus

yellow twig

red eucalyptus and icy red berry picks

red and green

5′ diameter light rings, green fuzz ball picks and red bud pussy willow make a bold statement.

A Michigan winter calls for a little gardening intervention.