A Reindeer On The Roof

Deer in the garden is a sore subject for those gardeners who are plagued by the destruction they wreak on every plant shrub and tree in the landscape. What they don’t eat, they trample. They even rub the bark off of trees when they are rutting, for Pete’s sake. Preventing deer from demolishing the garden is the subject of page after page of essays on Google, and countless books and videos. But the grapevine deer sculptures that Detroit Garden Works has stocked for a number of years have their fans. The life size bucks and does come in standing, grazing, and seated poses, just like the fawns. They look terrific in any spot in the garden asking for a representational sculpture fashioned from a natural material. The grapevine is wound around a substantial steel armature, and should survive outdoors for many years, providing they get a yearly application of a penetrating oil based sealer.

Who knows what possessed me to put a deer on the roof, but there is a certain Buck that has been near and dear to me for many years. That personal association aside, Christmas folklore is full of references to a certain St Nicholas circumnavigating the globe in a reindeer drawn sleigh, bringing gifts to children world wide on Christmas Eve. It is a story that delighted me as a child. Apparently I can still be enchanted by it. Winter and holiday containers and displays bring an element of delight to the landscape that has gone dormant, and quiet. It was not so far fetched to cast the grapevine deer as a grapevine reindeer.  A holiday diorama in the making, if you will.

The roof at Detroit Garden Works is home to eight planter boxes, each of which are five feet long. They were fabricated from heavy duty sheet metal – there is not one thing fancy about them. These painted metal hold soil, plants, and an irrigation system. The magic is what gets grown in them over the summer. We intended to bring a little magic to the winter season that is at hand.  Our reindeer was secured in the center via steel rebar pounded in at an angle. On an angle? A gusty wind could pull steel rods set vertically out of the soil in a matter of moments.  The steel set on a steep angle is weighted down with a thick layer of saturated and frozen soil. A wind strong enough to uproot that buck would be a rare wind indeed, and most likely would take the box as well. We took every precaution to keep that reindeer in place. Of course we needed lots of lights. And a thicket of twigs. As the soil was frozen solid, we made foam forms, buttered them with lights, and stuck them with medium height pussy willow. Each one of these forms was additionally secured with angled steel rebar and concrete wire. Suffice it to say there is a lot of rebar on the roof right now.

All of the irrigation tubes and emitters were pitched over the sides of the boxes. There was plenty of additional work involved in making it possible to flip the switch on the lights.

A simple evergreen garland, wound round with garland light studded grapevine was attached to the leading edge of the boxes, and down the sides of the building.

My crew was keen for a group portrait. Why not? These pictures do not really reveal all of the work that went in to moving this project along to this point. They were caught up in the fun of it, and committed to seeing it through.

The view at dusk made it clear we needed to do more. The thicket of twigs needed to describe the entire width of the building. We had run out of pussy willow, so what now?

The light burst collar on the deer did not illuminate the sculpture. It spot-lit the neck. The twigs were in silhouette at dusk, and invisible come dark. We regrouped.

Phase two of the fabrication and installation asked for a burlap ribbon collar. The light collar did not read during the day, and was a too strong blob of light at night. Karen obliged with the fabrication, and Joe got the collar attached in just the right spot, and at the right angle. We had to rethink the lighting.

Attaching multiple light bursts to the front edge of the twigs might do a better job of illuminating the thicket at night. It was certainly worth a try.

Lengthening the twig thicket proved to be easy. The last few bunches of black dogwood, mixed with lots of alder branches made a believable transition from the more formal and vertical pussy willow stems to a more wild and natural look. A thicket spanning the entire width of the roof seemed more deliberate and finished.

The multiple light bursts did a great job of illuminated the face of the branches at dusk.

The burlap ribbon collar on our reindeer read plainly and properly, both day and night.

much better, this.I know if Rob is photographing something, he likes it.

Who knows if St Nicholas will require the last minute services of our reindeer buck tonight, but I am sure he will have no problem spotting him from space. The Works is ready.

At A Glance: Recent Work

To follow are some visual highlights of our winter work. I will not fault anyone who cannot wade through them all! My group produced a prodigious amount of work the past five weeks, and I am pleased that every winter project we had is finished. We are better than halfway through the Detroit Garden Works winter garden. Then it will be time to do my pots at home.


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Very pleased with this year’s winter pots and such.

Winter Pots For Ms. H

Every project we do for the winter season begins with a good deal of discussion. The winter containers for Ms. H is the subject of a particular discussion. That astonishing level of discussion on her behalf is simple to understand. We have a big love for her. This year, we had two issues to address. The forms were very long and narrow. This meant there was always the danger, and sometimes the reality that the foam would break in the middle. The fact that all four pots had steel light rings 3 feet in diameter inserted into the forms piled on additional stress. This made for a rather nerve wracking installation. It was a simple matter to split the long forms into two shorter ones. The forms could be stuffed with greens side by side, and labelled as to their position in each pot. In the picture above, Karen is detailing a plan drawing of the most significant innovation-a separate form for the light ring and all of its fixings would be set squarely on top of the spot where the pair of greens forms would meet. The half oval shape drawn on the form above would dictate the position of the light ring form. The widest point of that half oval would just about cover the spot where the two shorter forms come together. The swoop de do would be stuck with German boxwood. The rest of the lower forms would be stuck with Noble fir.  What??

It is much easier to explain this new construction protocol in pictures. I am happy to say it was entirely of David’s invention. He not only constructs winter arrangements, he is an expert at installing them. It took longer than I really want to admit for me to understand what he was proposing, but once I understand, I could appreciate the pure genius of it. The plan called for filling the interior of the ring with various picks. Why not have a separate form for the ring and its fixings? This would provide a stable base for the ring to travel in the truck. None of the picks would be disturbed trying to remove the ring for transport, and putting it back in exactly the right location during installation. The shape of the ring form was determined by the design and arrangement of the picks. The rear prongs of the ring would go through both layers of the mini form. The front prongs would rest on the lower form. If you are still unclear about the plan, don’t feel bad. David had to show me before I fully understood what he wanted to do. See the following picture.

The ring 2 layered form would sit on top of the 2 layered greens forms. That long curved upper form would cover the split forms which would be the bottom layer. Once set on top, the rear legs of the ring would be pushed all the way through both layers of foam and a little bit into the bottom forms. The picks are stable in the top two layers of foam, but they do not provide any structural connection between the two layers of foam, and the bottom two layers. Small diameter green bamboo stakes would be driven through all four layers of foam and into the soil in the pots. That would provide structural stability to the entire affair.

The top of the ring form would be stuck with German boxwood. That same boxwood would be used to cover the face of the upper form.

This rear view tells the story. The lower two layers of foam tell last years story. The very bottom piece of foam is wedged into the pot. The layer immediately above that has holes in it. Those holes are from the greens we stuck in last year. One of the advantages of using large scale evergreen boughs is that it does not take that many stems to create a lush appearance. This is why we are able to reuse the forms for a good many years. The forms are quite strong, as long as no undue stress is put to them.

The other critical design issue is all about the placement of the bottom of the ring. I like it to be set such that the bottom of the ring is visible, both during the day and at night. This placement and finish creates the illusion that the ring is floating. This means that the legs of the rings will need bamboo stakes or rebar zip tied to it, to both prop and keep it up at the desired level. I am not crazy about burying the bottom of the ring in twigs, picks or greens for another reason. Though the light sets are factory sealed, I don’t like them in a situation where water can collect and persist. If there is an electrical problem, I want easy access to the cord and transformer.

Karen does a terrific job of greening the lower forms. How she sticks them creates the illusion of a shrub growing. She does a terrific job of so many facets of the holiday installation.  How I value her work. Thanks, Karen.

The greens are heavy. They are composed of fresh wet wood, and water saturated needles. This explains the need for rocks and bricks to keep the forms from tipping over.

This table top was made from a full 4′ by 8′ sheet of plywood. This table holds 4 forms-enough for two of the four boxes. These lower forms, greened up, and punctuated with pine cones, are all ready to go to the installation phase.

This shop shot taken in process details how much work we do prior to an installation.

Once our fabrication group gets a project to this moment, we know we are ready for an installation.

The installed winter containers boxes to the right of the front door. Perfectly beautiful, to my eye.

The installed containers to the left of the front door. Be advised that we work very hard to keep the construction issues behind the scenes. The finished pots show no signs of what it took to get them to this point. Except the fact that they look deliberately composed, and finished.

Dressing the French pots in the back for the winter season was a new addition to this project. David did a great job of taking on a pair of winter container arrangements that asked for considerable size and scale.

Karen lending a hand securing the picks

A discussion of the transport scheme was lively, but the tops of these fresh cut pussy willow twigs had no problem bending over for the trip across town.

See what I mean?

Set in place, the scale of this winter arrangement works well with in this space. The materials reflect the landscape that can be viewed from this vantage point. The color is very friendly to the color in the glaze of this French bugadier. The pot is filled with gravel, so there is proper ballast to handle the height of the arrangement. The foam form provides another service. As it does not absorb water, it prevents water from getting in to the pot. This form is 6″ thick overall, so the lower 3″ is wedged tightly into the pot.

winter arrangements in the back yard

framed view

There is no doubt a viable, approachable, and beautiful winter season ahead in the garden. Every gardener needs to determine how they will handle that. I garden in every season. The winter pots help speak to that.

 

 

 

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.