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: 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.

later

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.

 

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.

 

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.