Cut Branches For Winter Pots

cut branches for winter containersI have said many times over the course of the 7 years that I have been writing this blog – no northern zone gardener needs to close up shop with the first really hard frost. We can appreciate the season, we can be inventive, and we can defend ourselves against the long dark time. A thoughtfully planned landscape features trees with interesting bark, structure and fruit that warm the winter view. The skeletal remains of shrubs and perennials provide visual interest. Evergreens in the landscape are ever appreciated over the winter. A successful landscape is as beautiful in the winter as it is in the other three seasons. Designing a landscape that is consistently lively year long has been a life’s work for me. Any winter garden can be stunning. Many gardeners have made an effort to create a dialogue with their landscape that goes on day after day, all year round. Seasonally planted containers are a personal and engaging way to keep the story of the garden alive. Beautiful winter arrangements in pots can make the most quiet winter landscape glow with color, texture, mass, and light. The energy expended creating arrangements for winter pots results in a surplus of electricity sure to light the winter months. The most simple and easy to achieve celebration of the winter garden is container design and installation. It can be different every year.  It can be as elaborate as you wish, or as simple as the meeting of lots of twigs and lots of lights. I recently posted on the importance of including lighting in those winter containers. Choosing the most effective means to light a pot of course depends on what you plan to put in them.  We start with the branches. We have a grower who grows shrubs solely for their cut branches. His cut willow and dogwood branches are strikingly beautiful. That first fresh cut branch delivery day is a good day for all of us. The colors are brilliant. The lengths are generous. Once we cut the ties, each branch bunch branches out.

curly copper willowThe curly copper willow may start out as a thick stem at the base, but at the top, the multiple curly branches delight my eye with their cinnamon color and exuberant mass. These dancing cut stems set into a winter container arrangement will endow any gardener’s winter with color, texture, rhythm – and vitality. Many of the fresh cut branches we set into winter containers go on to root, and grow on and out in the spring. I cannot really explain the intense pleasure I derive from this, except to say though the life of the garden cycles through the seasons, it is always alive in some form.

curly copper willowOne pot on the porch for winter-it is enough. The arrangement is as wide as it is tall. A winter container featuring curly copper willow is showy.

cardinal red twig dogwoodRed twig dogwood is a shrub common in my zone. It tolerates wet feet, and likes full sun. I do not have a spot big enough in my yard to grow red twig dogwood, but I am happy to have the cut branches available to place in winter containers. The hybrid red twig dogwood known as “Cardinal” features branches a much more brilliant red than the species.

red twig dogwoodThis picture clearly illustrates the color of the hybrid Cardinal red twig, as opposed to the darker red of the species. No matter your taste in red, our twig supplier delivers well branched bunches of a uniform size. Red twig shrubs specifically grown for cut branches are regularly pruned, as the current year’s growth has the best color.

red twig dogwood centerpiece for wintrerThese gorgeous fresh growth red twig branches will become part of a series of holiday/winter container arrangements we will install next week.

yellow twig dogwoodYellow twig dogwood is of equally brilliant coloration.  The bark is supple and glossy. Some stems verge on chartreuse. These stems can easily be incorporated into garlands, or woven into wreaths.

yellow twig dogwoodYellow twig has a way all its own of picking up the light from the sun low in the winter sky.

yellow twig dogwoodThis contemporary winter arrangement featuring that yellow twig is accompanied by a group of pale yellow faux ball picks, and a generous skirt of variegated boxwood.

yellow twig dogwoodThat yellow twig does glow in the late and low afternoon sun.

black willowThis black twig dogwood is reputed to be a very slow grower. It may be slow, but it is beautiful. My grower rarely produces over 100 bunches a year.

flame willowFlame willow is a strong growing shrub that grows very tall, and does not produce much in the way of horizontal branching. These tall vertical branches are a coppery cinnamon color. One bunch in a container is a statement.  Multiple bunches in a container will make anyone stop and look.  I always hope there will be flame willow still available when it is time to do my own pots.

red twig dogwoodThese winter container centerpieces featuring flame willow, faux red berry picks, and incense cedar are set to go in to a pair of winter pots we will install next week. The color is saturated and in dramatic contrast to the late November landscape.

alder branchesI usually have to remind Rob to buy me fresh cut alder branches. They are not showy in color or height. They are garden variety fresh cut twigs. There is plenty to like about a material that is ordinary as can be. They represent the winter garden in a more subdued way.

container centerpiece with alder branchesThese container centerpieces featuring fresh cut alder branches, cafe eucalyptus and preserved gypsophila will eventually grace a pair of winter pots.  The look is quiet, subtle, and wintry.

red bud pussy willowThe red twig pussy willow from our grower is spectacular. The bunches are better than 5 feet tall.  The medium bunches come in at 4 feet tall.  The red, green and brown coloration is so easy to to appreciate, and work with.

red bud pussy willowred twig pussy willow branches for winter

tiger branchesThese tiger branches are new to us. They are harvested from a desert plant noted for its silvery gray bark, segmented by black horizontal bands. They are stunning indeed. Our clients think so too – we just got in our third shipment. I like to have a wide range of branches available. Beautiful natural materials are an invitation to participate in a little winter gardening.

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At A Glance: The Holiday At Home

holiday lighting (2)My holiday at home came very late in December. I do not even think of decking out my own home for winter until all of my work is done. That only seems fair. Buck and I are both used to the last minute nature of our holiday. This December 23rd, I was so glad to see my crew driving up and unloading what would hold down my landscape for the winter. Fortunately, the weather was so mild that the installation went fast. They were working. I was breathing a big sigh of relief.

holiday lighting (3)The Branch Studio people made short work of constructing and hanging the garland. As I like the garland hung straight across the top, we attach that section to a bamboo pole. The pole gets attached to the wall via screws that are set in the mortar, and concrete wire looped around the pole.

holiday lighting (4)the finish at the front door

December 23, 2015 004one of the four cast iron pots original to the house that are visible from the street.

holiday lighting (5)I have a very formal landscape. The tenor of the seasonal display is in sharp contrast to that sober and spare landscape. The contrast here is in form. The pots and garland are loosely made, and not all that formal. Contrast is a very important element in design. Too much of the same can be monotonous at best, or overwhelming at worst. Contrast makes each element look better. There is a lot of green here, but the textures vary.

holiday lighting (6)The grapevine garland is wound with lights. This will help to keep my porch well lit over the winter months.

holiday lighting (7)at dusk

holiday lighting (10)night light

holiday lighting (9)My front porch is lighted as best I can. If I have company coming,I want the way to the front door to be brightly lit. If I have a winter ahead of me, I want some entertainment and pleasure from the dormant landscape.

holiday lighting (8)Pots that are full up for the winter, and warmly lit make the quiet and dark a little easier to bear.

Nearer To The Last

winter container arrangementsMy entire crew was in today, after a 4 day Christmas break.We had a few late request winter container projects to do. They dove into the work, like they always do. We were down to the very last bits of the hundreds of cases of greens we had delivered in November. The day they arrived, I could not imagine that we would use them all.  Today we took a Korean fir Christmas tree that Rob had placed in the shop, and chopped it up for branches, so we would have enough. This client would get some very special greens. These two centerpieces with pussy willow and blue gray eucalyptus were already installed in my pots at home. They came back to the shop, to be integrated into a new scheme. My driveway pots will need another treatment. I am not the least bit concerned about having to redo them. There are always other choices that work.

December 30, 2015 013This client has a contemporary version of Nantucket style home.  She has a considerable interest in contemporary expression.  For a client like this, we work with materials in a different way.  A more sculptural way. The twigs in the center are artificial, and look like they have ice on them.  If we ever get some winter weather, they will be believable.

December 30, 2015 015No matter the aesthetic point of view governing a winter container design and construction, generosity is an important element.  Our winters are incredibly long, gray, and spare.  All the trees in their leafless state is a study in spare.  This means I like lots of whatever elements I choose to include in a winter container.  I greatly admire the lean chilly look, but what I really like is a warm and toasty response to winter. We shopped the field at Branch for these branches-we bundled lots of them up with steel wire. 4 bunches of a yellow green eucalyptus complete the look. This client has a fairly contemporary mindset as well.

December 30, 2015 017Winter color is the subject of no end of articles about the winter landscape. That color does not need to be rooted in the ground.  Willow and dogwood twigs, in their cut state, will endow a landscape stuffed in to a pot with great color the entire winter. I do not have room to grow yellow twig dogwood or copper flame willow on my small property.  But their cut twigs can energize a landscape gone over to the dark side. The appearance of the color inside the garage under fluorescent lights is a little jarring. Outdoors, on a cloudy day, that color will tone down considerably.

IMG_7765How I decide to dress a client’s containers for the winter-I cannot really explain that process even to my own satisfaction. I favor a subtle expression on this porch, as the architecture is so strong. Some yellow undertones are good with the warm color of the cedar shakes, and the wood pots.

IMG_7766These wood boxes are greatly over scaled for this front door. This was not my choice, but I have come around to like them. I like how much they make me think, before I do. Were these pots placed in a more open location, I would do them much larger. The space on this porch is restricted. How to make the arrangements large enough without them looking overbearing or obstructive is always a challenge, no matter the season. On occasion my client protests that the winter pots cannot be seen from the road. I don’t mind how much they blend into their surroundings. To my eye, the star of this porch is that dark blue lacquered door.

IMG_7772A rear porch has a pair of very large white boxes just outside the doors. Some years I try to match all of that white. As they are viewed from the porch windows that are close by, dark colors read equally as well.

IMG_7771Proper proportion is a design element that drives all of my design.  These greens are very low and very wide. Appropriate for these massive and simple containers. The dark blue eucalyptus has a cube of white eucalyptus underneath it.  This adds visual mass to that dark blue, while helping to bring out the blue color.

IMG_7769I do want to speak to the beauty I see in mixed greens for winter containers. We have so many conifers that grace our zone. Conifers that grow in the Pacific northwest are represented in our mix as well. Many conifers that would suffer in our extreme winters thrive there. I suspect the long and fairly mild growing season out there means that conifers can bounce back and regrow quickly when they are pruned for cut branches. Our mountain hemlock comes from very high elevations, and are only available for a very short time in early November.  Once the snows come to the mountains, the trees are impossible to reach. Silver fir was in very short supply this fall, for the same reason. On any given winter day in Michigan, the evergreens greatly endow the landscape.

IMG_7782The driveway pots we plant up for all four seasons.  Spring, summer, fall and winter. No pot needs to go empty over the winter.

IMG_7784The color of the yellow twig is indeed more subdued when it is placed outdoors.  Even so, it is visually lively, in a landscape that has gone neutral in color.

IMG_7775
Flame willow is aptly named.

IMG_7779The 10 containers we fill for winter here add a lot of look to the winter landscape.

IMG_7785We are wrapping things up.

The Installation

holiday container arrangements 2 (1)I am always appreciative of how much of the construction of the winter pots we are able to do in the shop, once we get to the installation phase. The greens for this oval bronze container had been stuffed into a form several days ago.  We try to be very accurate about the size of those forms, especially given that they will last through at least 3 seasons. Once the centerpiece was set, we attached a collar of red sinamay. Sinamay is a polyester mesh available in various widths.  We run a wire through a length of mesh, folded in have, with long running stitches.  Once the wire is pulled tight around the centerpiece, it creates a wavy graceful collar that softens the transition from the greens to the centerpiece. Sinamay with a metallic thread is a simple way to say holiday, and is very simple to remove after the holidays. Marzela did all of the finishing touches.

holiday container arrangements 2 (7)We did have to shovel the snow out of the pots. Some pots had just the right depth of soil, once the fall plants were removed.  Others needed a little topping up.

holiday container arrangements 2 (5)Even though these centerpieces were large, it was a short and simple matter to cut through the foam holding the greens, drive the bamboo stake down into the pot, and add a few greens to the ragged edges. This gold sinamay adds a very festive and absolutely weatherproof holiday note. Sinamay is also known as decor mesh, and it is readily available, should you search for it on your computer.

holiday container arrangements 2 (4)This low rectangular arrangement was finished in its entirety in the shop.  We only added 10 stems of red twig to the center, once the installation was complete. This pot is festive and dressy.

holiday container arrangements 2 (6)Every pot got filled. If I have a container I do not intend to fill for the winter, I put it away. A container in the landscape that is left empty for the winter is a missed opportunity to garden. I have one very special, sculptural, and old French pot in my landscape that I never plant.  That empty pot, and the weather acting on it, has a significance to me that I cannot really explain.  Some garden ornament evokes very strong feelings, and that can be enough.  But all of these pots needed filling.  A winter life for a garden and its head  gardener can be a good life.

holiday container arrangements 2 (3)These concrete urns needed to be filled for the winter.  They are not especially fine pots, but there are six of them, and they punctuate a long terrace.  What we have in them is simple. Of particular interest is the choice of greens. Mountain hemlock branches are harvested from trees at very high elevations.  We have to take these greens early in the season.  I could not order them now. These trees are up high, and buried in snow by now. They are perfect for containers in exposed and windy locations. Even in cut form, they will stay green until the end of March.

holiday container arrangements (1)The pots and boxes in the back yard got installed today in fairly steady rain. Our high temperature today was 58 degrees-I will take that, and shrug off the rain.

holiday container arrangements (8)This client bought these French made orangery boxes from me in 2003. The oval medallion at the bottom of each side of the box details the year of manufacture. These French boxes, the history of the manufacture of which dates back hundreds of years, are very dear to my heart. There are no other garden boxes quite like them. They are as beautiful a box as ever graced a landscape. They inspired me to open Branch.   Though the oak and cast iron fittings are as solid as they can be, the paint has deteriorated. Weather takes its toll. We will restore them, at the end of the winter.

holiday container arrangements (4)There is not so much more to say about this installation, except that once a container arrangement comes out of the shop, and finds a home in the landscape, it is easy to see what they provide is like no other element. If you are a gardener, I would encourage you to add some pots to your landscape and garden. They are a challenge and a delight, year round.

holiday container arrangements (5)Landscapes with multiple levels of interest sustain the eye.

holiday container arrangements (2)I am not so fond of working in the rain, but today was different. My mind was on another topic entirely. The garden can be so satisfying, on so many different levels. Year after year. Moment after moment. This unusually late November warmth and rain was an experience I would have missed, had I not been out there filling the pots for the winter season to come. Some garden pleasures are so unexpected, simple, and so striking.

holiday container arrangements (7)rainy late November day

holiday container arrangements (3)the terrace in November

holiday container arrangements (6)This view out to the late November garden was beautiful. I have been working for these clients for going on 30 years. The holiday/winter pots fit right in. It was a perfectly rain soaked and fabulous November day.