A Construction Plan

A pair of simply wrought steel cone forms can provide a sturdy armature for no end of garden projects. That precise form is orderly and pleasing set in a garden where chaos usually reigns. Any lax growing perennial or annual vine would appreciate its stability and strong shoulders. Another summer version features planting at the base, and the form presiding over all as sculpture. Topiary forms in winter containers supply instant height and presence. One year, my 6′ tall steel cone form served as a Christmas tree. Would round with grapevine and lights, I added glass berry clusters and birds. How I loved bringing the garden indoors for the holidays. Last year, this pair of mine, wound with its grapevine intact, and lights, were the focal point of the winter pots on my driveway. They made a big statement from the deck above. What to do with them this year that is different and interesting? So much of the work we do begins with an idea. What comes next is a plan for construction.

It seemed like an idea worth pursuing to line the interior of those steel forms with flame willow. Those straight copper colored stems lining the form would greatly change the look of it. It is my pleasure to have the fabricators at the Branch Studio give me a hand for our holiday and winter installations. Sal has constructed with incredible precision no end of garden boxes, gates, pergolas and sculpture in steel as the senior fabricator at Branch. He was the perfect person with whom to discuss a construction plan. If you read my essays routinely, you know we begin the construction of a winter arrangement with a dry floral foam form constructed to fit the pot in question. After marking where the legs of the topiary form would go through the form, Sal inserted a tall bamboo stake in the center. The bamboo was a marker, indicating the location of the top of the steel form.

Our initial thought to insert each stem inside the form and attach it with zip ties seemed awkward and too time consuming. Creating an interior willow form that the steel form would slip over made more sense. Sal was able to determine the sticking angle by making sure the top of each branch would touch the center bamboo stake. As no two objects are ever exactly the same, we tagged which steel form would partner with this specific willow form. Why the gap in the above picture? Sal left an opening, so he could stuff the interior with boxwood. Once the boxwood layer was finished, he would add the last of the flame willow. Such is the order of events. One of the most important aspects of a construction plan for winter container arrangements is figuring out the most comfortable way to do the work. The most comfortable way is invariably the most efficient way to move a project along. We don’t build rocket ships, we built winter container arrangements. Sal determined the spacing and angle for each stem by eye, not by measurement. The work doesn’t need to be perfect, it needs to be believable and delightful.

The tall dark green cylinder capped in red on the layout table proved to be key to the next step. It is an oversized roll of thin self sticking plastic wrap. We use it to wrap fragile items in the shop for shipping. Sal tightly wrapped the top half of the willow tower before lowering the steel tower over the top of it. Typical of his construction, the willow tower was a tight fit inside the steel.

The plastic was easy to remove, and each of the freed willow stems was re positioned. The tops of the branches are very pliable, as they are fresh cut. The top of each stem was pulled out of the steel form. That branchy finial surrounds the topknot of lights.

Leave it to Marzela to figure out the last construction detail. How would we remove the bamboo stake from the center of the willow form? I did not think ahead to that moment. Push it through the bottom of the foam form, of course. As our foam is manufactured in 2″ thick sheets, 24″ by 36″, we have to piece a form for very large pots. This the seam in the above picture. We hot melt glue 2 layers of the foam together to make a 4″ thick form. The lower layer of foam will go into the pot, the top layer of soil having been removed. The top layer of foam permits greens to be inserted horizontally. For very large pots, we make the upper foam larger than the lower. The foam sitting on the rim of the pots provides extra strength and stability to the form.

Marzela is our chief greens person. She has a gift for stuffing the forms with greens in a volumetric and convincing way. These forms have been filled with mountain hemlock. It is the most durable of all of the cut greens. Though these cut branches will take the full brunt of the western winter sun and weather for months, they will be just as green in March as they are in the above picture.

At the last, Colin checks the LED lights on the form. They still work fine, going into their third year of service. The tiny bulbs emit an astonishing amount of light. They will do a great job of illuminating the form at night. He is also adding a string of mixed berry lights – new to us this year. Translucent globes of varying sizes emit a soft glow.

A generously long string of them will emit a glow strong enough to define the form at the bottom. I suspect that at night, neither the globes nor the wires will be visible. Just the light.

The daytime look is not that bad. The silver wires on the light strings are glaringly obvious, but the main view of the pots will be from afar.

A project like this is possible given the many pairs of skilled hands that contributed their part to the end result. And there is satisfaction in having made something that works as a group.  Marzela will get the rest of the greens done in short order this morning. I think we will be able to install them today.

Flip The Switch

  Designing and installing containers for the winter season is very different than planting containers in any other season. Notably, nothing grows in a winter container. Though most of our materials are naturally growing materials, they are rootless. Cut branches, greens, berries and seed pods will be the same size, and occupy the same space in March as they did the day they were arranged the previous November or December. There needs to be enough materials to create an arrangement proportional to the container. A decent sized pot planted with a single coleus in May could be glorious by September, but winter pots need to be glorious the moment they are finished. Pots stuffed to overflowing with winter materials are also better able to handle our winter weather. Rob’s winter container pictured above maintains its shape and size despite the snow. A second crucial difference is the light.  Summer days are long and mostly sunny.  Winter days are gloomy, and dark after 4:30 pm. Designing a winter pot that addresses the darkness can be enjoyed 24 hours a day. Barely visible above is the firepower in the bottom of this container that will transform this winter arrangement once the day goes dark.

The look of a winter container during the day can be transformed by some light at night. Snow during the the day, and fire at night encourages a lot of talk. And a lot of delight.  I am not so interested in landscape lighting during the spring, summer, or fall. But having the lights on in the dark of winter is a .  And in my opinion, a must. I would encourage any gardener who takes the time to dress their pots for the winter season to consider lighting them. The lighting in this pot is simple. Lots of C-7 bulb size strands of LED lights set the entire arrangement on visual fire at night. The cost of running LED lights is so minimal, and the longevity of the strands is so good, how could anyone resist adding this element to a winter pot? The materials in this pot? Tree of heaven branches and weeds from the field next door to the shop.

Lighting winter containers calls for some thought to conceal the wiring. Arranging lights in the bottom of a container before adding the decorative materials means the only daytime sign that the pot has lights is the extension cord that hooks them all up.  An exterior rated cord with a three-way plug or light strip can accommodate a fair number of strings. For those without a source of electricity hear a container, a 50 foot extension cord carries power just as well as a 10 footer. That cord can be hidden in the landscape, or a green cord across the grass is unobtrusive, and likely to be covered by snow rather quickly.

The pot at night is warm and inviting. Winter pots placed at the front door, or next to the steps can be handy for lighting the way at night, or in the early morning.

Years ago the nursery manager who supplies us with woody plant material called to say he had 6 Lollipop crab apples that had not survived a summer drought at their farm-did we want to put them to use in some winter containers? We secured the trunks with steel rebar, and hung the branches with 9″ long glass drops. I did worry the glass might break on a windy day, but that fear was unfounded. The foam forms were covered with lights, and stuffed with fresh eucalyptus and noble fir. They did look beautiful during the day.

How they looked at night was another story altogether.  The bottom light illuminated the branches and the glass drops. This is the best example I have that illustrates how light can create a sense of volume in a winter pot.

Rob filled this pair of pots for me for winter a long time ago. Placed on the wall at the end of the driveway, they were a celebration of the winter season that greeted me at least twice a day. Even though the pots were fairly small, the display was generous in size. The pots are vintage American made stoneware from the Galway Company in the 1920’s, so they would not crack or break over the course of the winter. The floral foam into which Rob arranged all of the material does not absorb water. The foam effectively keeps water or snow out of the pots.

There comes a time when it is dark when I come home from work. The light at the end of the driveway helps light the way. And it is cheery.

The large concrete pot in my side yard always gets a cut Christmas tree that is loaded with lights.  I do not have any lighting on this side of the house, so I welcome that light as much as I like seeing the pot with something in it for the winter.  A cut tree is an easy way to create a winter arrangement.  It just takes some care to anchor the trunk so it stays upright all winter.

Do I run the lights all winter?  Yes. This is the view out of every window on the south side of my house.  I like looking at it all winter long. It provides some warmth and life to the dormant garden.

Rob has been working on this pot at the end of the driveway for a week or so-whenever he has a moment.

The lights he is adding are new to the shop this year. These mixed berry LED bulbs are large, and the light is soft, as the bulbs are translucent.

At 5:15 last night, the shop was ready for the evening hours.

This container features another new lighting device Rob ordered for the shop. An LED lightburst is 36″ tall, and has 28  waterproof”branches” wrapped with 140 lights.  What could be easier than adding one of these to the center of a bunch of natural branches? The lightburst comes with a pointed steel cap, which means it can also be pushed into the soil in a container. Lighting the twigs in a winter container has always been tough to do discreetly, and it takes a long time to suspend lights in the air. This makes quick work of it.

These pots also have the lightbursts in the twigs.During the day, there is no evidence of the mechanics, just a subtle glow at the top.

lighted pot of Rob’s during the day

a lighted pot of mine at dusk.  It’s enough to have made me want to flip the switch.

RED

There is nothing that provides a better shot of B-12 to a winter landscape than some red. And no material provides that color better in our zone than red twig dogwood. Some of the newer hybrids, such as “Cardinal” have an even lighter and brighter red than the dark red of the species. I love that red! If you are like me, you do not have room to plant and maintain a hedgerow of red twig dogwood. There are other options for red in the winter. The cut branches can endow a winter garden with a little electricity. It was our good fortune this year that Rob was able to secure 50 bunches of red twig branches that were 2 years old. This means they have great size, and are well branched. Pictured above are 2 of 6 centerpieces destined for some very large lead pots. We had just the pots for these large scale branches.

This client is interested that their pots represent the holiday as well as the winter. The red twig does well in either scenario. It can be dressed up with holiday style picks, or made more wintry with the addition of berries. In any event, the red twig will look just about as good in March as it does now. On more than one occasion we have found that the cut stems have rooted into the soil over the course of the winter. Amazing, that.

Like all of our centerpieces, the true center is a stout bamboo pole which will be driven down into the soil as ballast. Nothing worries me more than a winter centerpiece that gets blown over by our winter weather. I like winter pots that can stay the course until March. We make sure that the winter pots are as beautifully constructed, as they are beautiful.

It is a process – creating a centerpiece for a winter or holiday container arrangement. That second year dogwood had other materials added to it. It took plenty of time to get them road ready. If you have a pair of pots that need to be dressed up for the winter, it can be hard to tell how much material you need. More than any other season, filling the winter pots asks for a liberal hand. A skimpy display looks cold. An overflowing look is warm and inviting. No winter container arrangement grows. The look on the day you install is the the look you have all winter long. My advice? Take your own advice.  Start small, and see if an austere look is to your liking.  If not, add more.

This winter pot has a very tall centerpiece. Visible in the above picture is a length of steel rebar pounded through the foam and into the soil below.  Four of them will be wired together with concrete wire.  The steel provides more stability to a centerpiece that is tall and heavy. Another option to provide volume to a centerpiece is to hand stick each of a number of branches into a foam form or the soil, one at a time. If I were constructing pots on my own, this would be my technique of choice. Lifting and securing a big centerpiece is a job that takes a lot of strength. The eucalyptus in this arrangement is added last. It has an important job visually. It softens, integrates, and relates the vertical elements to the horizontal ones. Sticking each eucalyptus stem into the foam is too flimsy to handle a snow load.  So we zip tie, in two places, 4 or 5 stems to a small bamboo stake. Lots of them. The stake gets pushed through the foam and into the soil.

Arranging the materials is a matter of personal choice. Grouping like materials together into a defined shape or layer is a more formal look.  This densely layered arrangement will also keep its shape in spite of wind, snow and ice. We’ve been known to broom off a container arrangement after an exceptionally heavy snow. The width and density of the branches in the above container helps to break the snowfall. The red twig branches are admirably suited for this job. They will retain their flexibility throughout the winter. The faux red berries will slowly fade over the course of 4 or 5 months, but the red twigs will retain their gorgeous color for the duration.

Curly copper willow applied over red twig takes on a red cast. The colors do not mix to make orange. They interact.

The finished container features a number of shades of red. The base layer of noble fir features a ring of German boxwood at the center.

The foreground pot features dried red Asian willow, faux red berries and green preserved eucalyptus.

I have previously written that our supplier of eucalyptus closed his business.  We bought all of the red that he had left in stock, so Detroit Garden Works does have some available.

ready for snow

The last bale of the 2 year old red twig branches went in this pot, which measures 43″ square at the top. The mass of dogwood looks remarkably graceful, given that it has a very trim waist line. Ha. That was an engineering feat which makes for a satisfying overall shape. We did put a long string of pearl lights in the center, so that red twig will glow red at night. Dressing pots for the season is a way to keep gardening for a little while longer.

At A Glance: The Yellow Twig Winter Installation

The previous post was all about the construction of a winter arrangement for a pair of pots and a sizeable planter.  To follow are pictures of that installation. This is a look see post. I do not much see the need to write any more than what I have already written. Except to say that fresh cut yellow twig dogwood is a most beautiful material that I welcome to our winter season.

The following pictures capture the installation of what we constructed in the shop. Keeping that construction mess in the garage is just about the best idea I ever had. Fabricating arrangements outdoors in the freezing cold means the cold has the upper hand. Creating winter arrangements in a warm and wind free space makes for better arrangements. And so much less mess. Sweeping up outdoors in freezing weather outdoors is frustrating.

This front porch is neat and clean. All of the debris inevitable during construction was swept up off our garage floor, and deposited in our dumpster or in our compost pile, before we ever came to install.

We design and construct our winter arrangements such that they will still look this good in March of 2019. The winter is very long and tough in Michigan. We have endless snow, wind, and ice. So to follow is our answer. Equal parts beauty and durability.

Welcome to the winter on its way

The street view of a front door dressed up for winter.

Yellow twig dogwood is a material I treasure for winter. The low winter light sets those yellow stems on fire. To follow? A look at the yellow twig we have used in winter container arrangements in the past.  Enjoy!

yellow twig stuck one stem at a time

yellow twig wreaths

yellow twig centerpieces

winter pots

winter pot

winter pot

winter pot

contemporary winter container arrangement

the pot next to the bench

Few gardeners have the room to plant a stand of yellow twig dogwood. I know I don’t. But I love those cut branches of yellow twig dogwood placed in pots for the winter. They indeed make our long winter worth weathering.