Messing About

A good client whom I really like from Ypsilanti drove up this afternoon with his Mom.  He was after materials for both of their winter pots.  In the course of our conversation he told me he not only liked reading Dirt Simple, he was surprised and appreciative that I explain how I do things. No doubt how I do things is based on many years of experience with what does not work so well, interspersed now and then with a few good ideas.  My thought process, my construction process-I have no reason not to share that.   Should anyone decide to take on assembling their own winter pots based on my advice-this makes me feel like a useful human being.  Most people share and teach at one time or another in their lives-their kids, their friends, their family-doing this means something.  It means something to me too, and it feels great.  Gardening is a messy, dirty, exhausting business; should you be game, I am more than happy to coach.

I like selecting a palette of materials with a client.  We have a discussion-a relationship.  A little bit of me, and a lot of them makes for a good cocktail.  Whatever I have inside that prompts me to suggest putting this with that-I am happy to share that. Having a shop full of possibilities makes the process fun.  

The reality of beautifully constructed winter containers can be daunting.  To follow are the facts.  I construct everything in my studio-garage; putting an arrangement together on site in freezing temperatures and late fall winds is tough to do promptly, and impossible to clean.  The mess of the green discards is enormous. We have giant surfaces set up for the season to hold all the materials; the concrete floor obligingly holds no end of trash-it can be knee deep by the end of the day.      

We whittle down every evergreen stem. This takes lots of time and effort. The big idea here?  The above ground representation is vastly more showy than the below ground anchoring.  How we anchor, and prepare a winter pot to last the six months until April requires what I would call work.  For a tight fit, we sharpen the stems.       

Everyone on my crews has a job. Forms, centerpiece construction, the stuffing of the greens-my two crews are 8 people.  They produce work astonishingly fast. They spend a lot of time planting shrubs; this knowledge furnishes their construction with cut greens with a finished product that looks natural and believable.    

This mixed evergreen winter blanket destined to warm a large round pot-It is beautiful, is it not?  Should you have a mind to do it yourself, we observe these gweneral rules.  We buy greens that are boughs, not the short pieces that are great for holiday floral arrangements.  We aim for a low and wide overall shape-the greens are anywhere from 8-16 wider than the container all the way around. We green the edges of the form first, and work towards the center.  

Materials chosen for a centerpiece-our process is to collect materials, and tag them with a name.  The amounts needed for each element is based not only on the size, but the location of the container.    

The actual construction involves the numbers of bunches, the placement of picks, the overall shape. Relevant to the construction- great evergreen material, concrete wire, bamboo stakes, big zip ties, mini zip ties, foam forms.  A conterpiece of this size has a stout bamboo stake which goes deep into the container.  Additional anchoring with bamboo or steel is done during the installation.  

These boxwood sculptures have a lush look.  Once they are dropped into their winter pots, there will be not hint of all the mess and hard work-just a graceful reminder of the garden that will be handsome to look at during the winter months.

Quiet, Please.

DSC06434Were someone to ask me to name my most favorite winter pots ever, no doubt this pair would immediately come to mind.  These varnished Belgian oak boxes put together with precisely spaced countersunk screws quietly remind me of a double breasted band uniform replete with brass buttons; dignified and all put together. The noble fir and douglas fir greens are generous and wide.  The pale bleached willow sticks have a collar of natural stick stacks that have absorbed moisture from the air, and arched over-naturally. These pots have the most fabulously artless hairdos. Bottlebrush snowflakes hang here and there. Just enough structure meets weathering natural material.  The good proportions of top to bottom please me.            

2007 Mondry Holiday 12-6-07 (5)Though I personally have a mind to fend off the winter vigorously, I am lucky to have clients who do not mind the stillness of the winter season. They tell me: quiet, please. Represent me softly-naturally.  Douglas fir and boxwood make such a great mix.  A few stems of acrylic pussy willow adds just a little sparkle to the red twig.  

Henderson Holiday 2005 (1)Intermittent snow in December dusts everything with white. This is beautiful winter weather-not the hit you over the head winter that is to come. The winter sculpture in this pair of pots demands nothing and expresses everything of a world gone silent. 

Kayes #1This client refurbished her front door in brushed stainless steel at my recommendation. This very contemporary Francesca del Re pot, and its winter dress, simply expresses the colors and shapes of her season. The color echoes what already exists in her hydrangeas and yews.

Payne (15)

Big window boxes can speak softly, despite their size. Brushy, with pale accents-this is a choice.  My recommendation?  Decide in advance the feeling you wish to convey, and choose the materials accordingly.  Accidents of nature are sometimes astonishingly good-other times, not so good.  If I can spot what has gone wrong, chances are it can be fixed.  Sometimes I have to see to know.

DSC05665This pair of English stoneware pots from the Hode Pottery are frostproof-no need to bring them in.  The simple trivet stands reveal the shape of the pots from top to bottom. A pot with a base larger than its opening benefits from a treatment like this.  Twigs, cones and boxwood make for a dressy, not noisy display.


Growing boxwood in pots is not easy. They need attention all year round.  They may need watering in a January thaw, and by March, regular water. The rootball of a well-grown boxwood is not much smaller than the top.  They will only prosper in pots large enough to give their roots room to grow.  Pots this size are much better filled with cut boxwood stuffed into a foam form.  All the beauty of boxwood without so much responsibility.   

Mondry Holiday 2005

I like everything about nature’s palette.  The blues and greys of the stone, steel and snow. Twig, stem and leaf brown, with a dash of evergreen. What I see here is just enough celebration to take the chill off.

Making Changes


Creed 2 (12)

By now you should know some things about me.  Though I may be discussing a before and after landscape, an annual planting scheme or a garden renovation, what I am really talking about is change. The years change a landscape, a garden evolves, a collection of pots means an annual garden can have all the charm of a new dress with somewhere fine to go. Though the season has changed, I am still gardening.  No kidding yes, I believe what people devise to celebrate winter outdoors is gardening.  Much of my garden has gone to sleep, and needs me not to disturb it.  I have no interest in seed catalogues-yet. 

Creed 2 (4)

In much the same way that I change the annuals in my pots every year, the winter season is a chance to do something different.  I like so many things, and I like even better second chances. Much in my own landscape has been in place for many years; my holiday garden is one place I can easily make changes.  This client is of like mind; she favors contemporary expressions, and she is receptive to new things.  Several years ago the red wood shaving balls and the twig squares got her attention. She has a beautiful collection of Francesca del Re Italian pots.  They are clean lined and beautifully colored.  The intensely red woodshaving balls atop those twig stands proved to be the foundation of her holiday display.  The same materials, in different configurations, a design discussion.

Creed 2 (3)

Though this vintage faux bois planter is her odd element out, it takes to this contemporary holiday treatment just fine. It is such a strong piece visually, its stands alone.  I have few clients for whom I design and build terraces in the front yard.  She suggested a front entrance terrace would give space and feature her pots and garden furniture; she was right. 


Last year, we put the red under wraps.  Tall twig stick stacks in cream and green became the organizing element. The sparkling gold money plant picks made for a simple and strong foil for the nests of noble fir covering her pots.  Sinamay is a loosely woven plastic fabric shot through with metallic threads.  Absolutely weatherproof, this ribbon like material will keep its curvy shape whatever comes out of the sky. Individual sticks from a stack were placed in a decidedly sculptural way in the faux bois planter. 

DSC_0037The walk to the front door is kept company by an overscaled concrete planter of our manufacture.  The stick stack frames the house numbers on the wall.  A walk that does not immediately appear to lead anywhere needs a strong signal-come this way, please. How the weather works on these twig stacks is a hand over which I have no control. They gracefully open and bend with the weather in a way I  could not duplicate.  Two parts a client, two parts nature, and one part from me-looking good.

DSC_0047There is ample room on the terrace for this pair of Francesca squares.  Like all of the other pots, these squares are sparingly lit.  It is less than two weeks to the shortest day of our year.

DSC_0042Four Francesca flutes make for a striking holiday garden at the front door.  This Italian terra cotta is tough enough to withstand our vile winters; the ability to have terra cotta outside at this time of year is cause for celebration in and of itself.  Some contemporary expression is hard on the eyes, and lacking human softening; this can border on cold.  This is no time of year to add cold to the cold we already have.  I so like how she chose materials so soft in color, and so subtle in contrast-it was up to me to put them together in a contemporary way.  The interplay of contemporary and traditional elements is lively. 

What we have in store for this year; I’ll take pictures.

A Little Rouge

Lobsinger (8)I do have a memory of getting into my Mom’s rouge pot in an idle moment. Those bright red perfectly circular spots of red I applied to my face made her laugh. I was terribly offended, as I thought I looked beautifully dolled up.  All these years later I still like how a little rouge can doll things up; this is never more the case than in a garden gone wintry.  Red twig dogwood and preserved and dyed eucalyptus can enliven a winter garden like nothing else does. I am not a fan of red tulips, or red dahlias; the red flowers and the green foliage is a little too much excitement for me. But the excitement generated by rouge red, in a garden gone grey, brown and black ,warms me up.  

Lobsinger (1)Dark red eucalyptus and red twig paired with the blue needled noble fir is a dramatic color combination. Very dark colors are best in small spaces viewed up close, or places backed up by a lighter color.   The lighter orange/brown brick of this entrance makes that dark red read loud and clear. The big round leaves of the eucalyptus are a great foil to any needled evergreen branches.

Nodel Holiday 2005 (6)Bright red is all the more electric paired with a light green element. As no plant in the landscape has this form or color right now, I have no problem adding in artificial stems. Sometimes people ask how I could stand anything in a pot that wasn’t natural or real; it’s easy.  Gardens make people feel good; if an artificial stem helps make an arrangement a little better and the winter a little more tolerable, I am all for it. This contemporary arrangement is all the more contemporary given the obviously faux detail.

Packer (5)I am a fan of many shrubs and trees that sport berries in the fall and winter. However, they have a short lifespan, cut and in a container. The berries of Ilex Verticillata, or what we call Michigan holly, are spectacular but fragile.  The berries in these urns will look great all winter, and can be removed the beginning of March.  The boxwood might need a little floral dye sprayed on it by then, but I like keeping the pots intact until April sometime. 

Taubman_0006This wired and windswept winter display was entirely inspired by the floral arrangements of Jeff Leatham.  His floral arrangements for the Four Seasons Hotel Paris, the George V often feature flowers set in vases at startling angles. This out of vertical placement attracts attention instantly.  Each one of these dogwood stems were wired individually so the form would be kept intact whatever the weather.

DSC_0014Cardinal redtwig is a relatively new cultivar that shines.  It stands out so beautifully in front of the drab woodland background. We are sure to elevate the pot off the terrace surface, so water does not collect and freeze around the base. 

2008 Mondry WINTER 11-18-08 (4)I have good success using fresh silver dollar eucalyptus outdoors. As it dries, the color does become more subtly taupe-blue, but the big leaves are an invaluable texture.  The littleleaf euc tends to dry much faster and not to good end; I am not sure why.  Eucalyptus pods dry blue, and hold their color well. 

DSC_0022This pair of pots welcomes anyone who comes to visit.  They make a very strong reference to my client’s love for their garden, from a long ways away.

2007 Barrett Holiday (23)Likewise, this redtwig massed in copper pots, framing the view to a beautiful beech.  Placed at least 75 feet from the road, they make a clear statement to passers by. 

Kurnick (4)
It is good to have something in place and ready for this day.  This is exactly how I like my snow and ice.