A Belated Valentine

I suspect it has been better than 10 years ago that Rob bought a small collection of oversized kraft paper mache cherubs that had been used for display at a holiday vendor showroom, and had them shipped to the shop. He asked me if I was interested. Yes I was. The purchase cost was nothing. The shipping was something else, as I recall. I was delighted with them. We hung them from the ceiling with fish line, and attached lighted holiday garlands to their hands. The flying cherubs elicited plenty of comments. In subsequent years, I white washed that kraft paper. We sold a few.  Rob loaned some to a restaurant he liked for Valentine’s Day. Six months later, we got them back. The years went by, like they always do.

Then the story of their history gets blurry. The last photo I can find of them hanging in the holiday airspace at Detroit Garden Works is 2012. Is it possible they have been in storage for 6 years?  In January, Karen brought the last 3 remaining cherubs down from the roof of our tool room. She was charged with organizing and repacking all of the boxed holiday items for the winter. We store all of our holiday items on that roof. The three remaining paper mache cherubs were stashed in the far back of that space in plastic bags. Karen took them down, and brought them to my office. What would I like to do with them??

I was astonished and more than a little distressed to find that the putti had come on hard times. Feet and hands were completely detached, wings were askew-some sections had big dents. One cherub had broken upper arms.  I have no idea how this happened. Frankly, I don’t want to know, as I have this inexplicable fondness for them. What is the attraction? They have typically chubby baby boy figures, and astonishing swirling donut like hairdos. The hands and feet are webbed. Their tummies are substantial. Their only garment is ill fitting, and not very stylish. But they have benign and charming faces. And they have wings-what gardener doesn’t fall for a winged creature?

Cherubs have been the subject of countless garden ornament sculptures for centuries. Some represent love, even amorous love. Some depictions are mischievous and Puckish. Some cherubs are reminiscent of children, and innocence. Others bring angels to mind. It is not my intent to write about the origin and history of putti, cherubs and angels in garden ornament. A February project to my mind is less about study and scholarship and more about diversion.  My paper mache babies were in disrepair, and needed to be put back together.  I used fabric and hot melt glue to to reattach the hands and feet. I filled the dented elbows and tummies with light weight spackle.

Suffice it to say that my repairs were not museum quality. The repair joints were lumpy and clumsy – painfully obvious. More obvious was a need for me to cover my repairs with a decorative element that would disguise my inept repairs.  Left over from the holiday season were a number of bunches of dried integrifolia. A California supplier provides dry bunches of branches from this tree. The leaves cling tightly to the branches, even outdoors, exposed to our winter weather. The juvenile foliage is toothed and sharp.  The mature leaves are smooth and quite strong. The stems last a a very long time in their dried state.

I spent a number of hours stripping integrifolia leaves from their branches, and sorting them by size and shape. Some leaves dry flat.  Others dry with an up curve. Others curve down. Applying those leaves over my amateurish repairs would add another dimension to the surface of my cherubs. Now was the perfect time to take this project on, as I had both the time and inclination.

Buried in a box in the office were a number of packets of single mulberry paper flowers. I bought them years ago, with no particular use in mind.  I just liked them.  At last, a place to use them. These paper flowers were perfect for covering the cut ends of those integrifolia leaves. The renovation of the cherubs took on a life of its own. How I have enjoyed reinventing these paper mache sculptures. Pictured above, cherub 1.

From the beginning, I had the idea that I would ask Wayne to spray paint these cherubs all one color, once I was done. Now I am not so sure that they wouldn’t be just fine in their present green and white state. I have time to think about the final finish. Cherub 1 got a full head of integrifolia hair.

I did run out of mulberry paper flowers, so a search on line took me to a company who sells many versions of them. The daisy type flowers are more appealing to me than the roses. They arrived in bunches, each flower attached to a short length of paper covered wire. I glued through my first order of 400, and my reorder arrived in no time. Should you be interested:   

The arrival of the polar vortex in Michigan was a sure sign to stay home. I can say that one of the deciding factors for my choosing landscape design and installation as a career was the idea that I could stay home in nasty winter weather. I took two cherubs, all of my materials and my glue gun home with me. I never ventured to work for seven days. I was busy, in a leisurely sort of way. I knew that viciously cold weather was out there, but I ignored it, but for taking the dogs outside.

I set up shop in my dining room. The peace and quiet meant I could concentrate. I recall a 20 minute period when I felt stir crazy, but that moment soon passed. Every inch of those cherubs got some attention. Cherub 2 got some integrifolia leaf eyebrows and eyelids, and some hot melt glue eyes. A mulberry leaf flower applied backwards improved the shape of the nose.

The cherubs needed  some elevation off the table surface in order for me to work on them. The integrifolia leaves are fairly tough, but dry foliage is brittle. A cardboard box kept the cherub aloft. More cardboard did a fine job of keeping hot melt glue off my dining room table.

A very good time was had by all.

hand detail

cherub 2

Cherub 2 aloft in my office. Rob gave me a hand drilling holes for screws, washers and toggle bolts. Given how they are finished, they will always need to be in the air.

cherub 3

I plan to keep them in the airspace for the foreseeable future. Part two of the project coming up next-you’ll see.

Survival

Several weeks ago my neighborhood in Michigan featured a weather extravaganza of substantially below zero temperatures with wind chills approaching -30 degrees, followed promptly by several days in the fifties. Astonishing, this. Nature is as extraordinary as it is unpredictable. Though I have observed and taken note of natural phenomena over a lifetime of seasons, I regularly experience nature up to something I have never seen before. How I love this. What I have never seen before in the landscape and garden not only keeps me interested, it teaches me. I like adding this and that to my body of experience. Yes, I will always and forever be a student of nature. There really isn’t any other choice, is there?

Those interminable few days I felt imprisoned by extreme cold were followed by days warm enough to be outdoors with or without a jacket. I cannot ever remember a time when 50 degrees felt more delightfully warm and invigorating! How I enjoyed that brief episode of tolerable winter weather. That warm moment had a frigid one hot on its heels.The early morning just days ago was notable for the 1/4″-1/2″ of ice coating every surface, much of which still remains tonight. Yesterday and today?  Rain, freezing rain, sleet, snow, and wind on a loop that kept repeating. A whole winter’s worth of nasty weather, one version after another, hour after hour.

The bitterly cold weather was not a hardship for me. The National Weather Service had advised in advance we had a polar vortex set to dip down into our zone. I took heed of that prediction. My house, constructed and outfitted specifically almost a century ago to provide shelter did what it was designed to do. I had a warm space, with hot and cold running water and electricity. I was lucky in that regard. So many people lost power. I did fully gear up to take the dogs outside, but our exposure to a hostile environment was as limited as I could make it. Out and in, we were, as fast as having old dogs would permit.  A limited exposure to terrifying cold temperatures meant we survived without incident. Terrifying cold? Not the usual thing, but not that unusual either.

The details? A down 3/4 length coat that zips up above the neck. A hood on that coat with a velcro closure. A fuzzy warm headband. Flannel lined jeans. Merino wool socks. Shearling lined winter boots. A wool scarf wrapped around my shoulders and face. And wool gloves underneath wool mittens. Did I forget anything? All of this for an exposure to seriously below zero temperatures for less than five minutes. I do indeed have lots of information and gear to comfort and protect me in bitter cold conditions.  But what about the landscape outside my door?

Winter hardiness in plants is a big, wide, and fiercely debated topic. Annual plants are tropical in origin, and perish once the temperature goes below freezing. Perennial plants routinely die back to the ground. The life in their roots is protected by a mass of soil around them. They winter over in a dormant state. Lavender is a sub shrub. Those stems above ground are alive the entire winter. It is no surprise that sub shrubs in my zone can succumb to brutal winter weather. Anything living above ground in my zone is subject to punishing winter weather. The short story is as follows: Deciduous trees in my zone jettison their leaves in the fall, and shut down for the winter. They hibernate. Likewise woody shrubs. The roots below ground remain viable, but the production of chlorophyll goes on hiatus. The fierce winter weather and winds rarely bother the bare twigs of trees and shrubs. Those twigs are shut down, and buttoned up. Once spring is truly upon us, the buds set in late summer will begin to swell. Perennials in my zone die back to ground level, and wait for a call to grow in the spring. Evergreens? The broad leaved evergreens suffer in brutal winter weather more than any other plant. The picture above, taken in the spring of 2014, after the most brutal winter I have ever experienced, was all about digging up some dead boxwood that had been growing for better than twenty years in front of the shop.

I had no advance warning that we would be subjected to below and just above zero temperatures for lengthy periods. Every brutally cold day that went by was accompanied by an escalating worry. Evergreens of all types were damaged and killed outright in this once in a lifetime fierce winter. The gravelled spaces in the foreground of these pots planted with boxwood this picture show no trace of the plants that died from extreme cold and wind. A friend in the landscape maintenance business persuaded me to stand pat with all of the other damaged plants in this hedge. I am glad I took her advice. Five years after the fact, the south side of this boxwood hedge is all green. These damaged plants did indeed survive.

It takes a lot of exposure to gardening and observing that outcome before it becomes clear that every plant’s first and foremost goal in life is to survive. Species annual plants that most surely will die with the first hard frost will produce seeds. Perennials die back to the ground and go dormant-in an effort to survive the winter. Deciduous trees and shrubs quit producing chlorophyll, and shed their leaves prior to winter. Most woody plants start slowing down in August, in anticipation of the dormant season.  Needled evergreens under stress will set cones profusely. It astonishes me that an evergreen in decline will put huge energy to providing seed for the next generation. Survival can be all about the next generation. As for the here and now, those needles have evolved to present as little surface area as possible that might be damaged by desiccating winds and cold.

I may fear for the plants in my landscape in a bad winter, but they have evolved such to handle adverse conditions. Very few of them need me to intervene on their behalf. In conditions that are so bad as to threaten their life, there are things gardeners can do to provide their treasured plants with a leg up. Good drainage is a major component of winter hardiness. Even Japanese iris want a well drained winter situation. Burlap can help protect boxwood from desiccating winter wind and sun. VaporGard can provide a similar layer of protection.

But by and large, plants have very complex and astonishing mechanisms built in via evolution which are geared to protect their chances of survival. My contribution to that effort is minimal. This is a long way of saying that nature looks after its own. The best contribution I can make to my evergreens is to water them liberally before the ground freezes. An evergreen needle or leaf which is loaded with water prior to the frozen ground is a leaf that is better able to survive.

This section of my 25 year old boxwood hedge shows the sure signs of superficial winter wind and cold damage. This trouble can be trimmed off in the spring. What interests me more is that the substantial dead sections from the 2013 winter have healed.

The evergreens in this pot outside my office door are showing signs of damage from our extreme cold. How could they not? These are cut branches. They have no connection to a parent plant. There are so many ideas that can occupy  a garderner’s winter. My evolution as a gardener-on going.

The Light Rings

If my memory serves me correctly, it was 7 years ago that Rob wound strand lighting around a few vintage wagon wheels, and suspended them from the ceiling of the shop for the holidays. I doubt they were on display for a week before the lot of them was purchased by an enthusiastic client. Over the next several years he designed and redesigned custom made steel circles, carefully engineered and fabricated to accept lights that would hang from a stout tree branch. Of course the light cord was disguised by a substantial hank of jute. An extension cord run up the trunk of the tree would connect to the plug at the top of the branch. They were so beautiful. Arresting. A circle of light with with no visible means of support shining in the winter night. What could be more simple and more joyful? This version of winter lighting is spare and eminently satisfying, both in its shape, and installation. Tie the ring to a substantial branch, and plug it in. Winter gardening in my zone is all about the quality of the light. Not only the body benefits from vitamin D.

A later design of Rob’s included a four pronged mechanism that would enable the light rings to be set securely into the ground, or the soil in a container. This revolutionized my winter container design. How I love incorporating lighting in winter pots. The ring set in the pot encouraged a whole new avenue of design. A few years ago, he suggested that his lighted circles had run their course, and perhaps he should move on to another design or shape. I was incredulous. Those light circles had enchanted clients both near and far. A restaurant in Newfoundland Canada bought 7 of the largest size, and five of the medium size-for their outdoor dining space. They, and countless other design and private clients both local and nation wide have spoken for those lighted circles. Year after year. I suspect I will never tire of them.

A circle is a simple shape. It is a closed and regular curve that divides a plane into two regions. The interior, and the exterior. This from Wikipedia. The interior of this light ring is inhabited by a brightly burning light burst. The exterior is the greater landscape. The circle here is a means by which to focus on a particular albeit temporary feature-the light.  A circle has no beginning or end. It’s recognizable symmetry is a source of visual delight in nature, and in designed spaces of all kinds. The circle is the basis of all kinds of graphic design, of which the polka dot dress is a familiar example. The circle was also the basis for the wheel, which makes all manner of modern machinery possible. It is interesting to note that all circles are the same, except for their diameter, and the width of their border. Circles of different materials and sizes that intersect create other shapes.

The space between 2 endpoints marked on a circle is called a chord. I do not know the history of this definition, but I can attest to the fact that landscape designs that strike a chord with a client or a viewer are engaging, and emotionally satisfying. A circle is a complete entity unto itself. A circle comes standard issue with a sense of completeness. As in the rotation of the seasons.  Though I may not have so many words to put to the experience, circular shapes and spaces evoke a response. In laying out a curved area in the landscape, I start with a chord-or a section of a circle. This is fairly easy to do, with a bamboo stake and string. Finding the center of that circle which will produce the desired chord may take a while, but eventually there will be consistently curving line.

Taking the time to draw the chord on the ground helps to eliminate the squiggles. By squiggles, I mean those bed lines that curve in and out in rapid succession around this shrub and that tree – without an overall sweeping curve that is visually cohesive. It helps to provide focus to what landscape elements belong in the exterior of that partial circle, and what belongs outside. The light ring pictured above is made from steel, but that steel does not need to be that thick. Steel rolled into a circular shape is as stable and strong physically as it appears to be. The ring celebrates the centerpiece. The pussy willow that pushes past the edge of the circle creates a relationship between the geometry of one element and the natural form of another. Both materials are stronger visually given the form of the other. The ring also compliments the rectangular geometry of the planter box, and narrower and wider rectangle of the greens. The composition without the ring would be fine. But its presence completes the composition in a way that organizes all of the other shapes and materials.

Rob has the rings made in a variety of sizes, from two feet in diameter up to seven feet. The ring pictures above is five feet in diameter – a good size considering the size of this pot. The first rings were strung with strands of incandescent twinkle lights that had brown cords.  Now we use only LED lights, for longevity’s sake. The lights go around the outside of the ring, and each bulb faces out. We ship them out with and without lights, and we have made them in custom sizes for a particular application.

This ring is hung high in a window, so it can easily be seen from the street.

Led lights produce little in the way of heat, so the snow has collected on the inside lower edge of the ring pictured above. The contrast of the snow and the light provides a little welcome interest to the winter landscape, even during the day.

This is my first year with light rings at home. I drive up to them, and I can see them from the deck above.

The 6 inches of snow that fell yesterday just made them look better.

H sent me these pictures of her winter boxes last night. She is enjoying hers too.

I have indeed talked before about these rings recently, but the fact is we are looking at more weather that looks just like this for quite a while yet. These lighted circles make it easier to bear with the winter.

 

Cinderella

A client asked of we would be able to light a pair of London Plane trees that we planted on either side of her driveway near the road – for the winter season. Of course I said yes. But I should back up. To say that we planted them warrants further explanation. I asked Ralph Plummer, owner of GP Enterprises, to locate, secure and plant a pair of London Planes of substantial size at the street entry of a landscape I designed and installed.

He obliged with a pair of eight inch caliper Planes that topped out at nearly 30 feet tall. I like big elements in the foreground of a landscape composition. That size is a request to focus and a visual invitation. These giant trees frame the view ahead. I had been absorbed with the installation inside the gates. My client made a request to me for a pair of big framing trees outside those gates. I can assure you flat out that my best projects as a designer have a committed and passionate client as a partner.

So back to the lighting of these trees. Of course Rob backed us up at Detroit Garden Works with LED compact string lighting strands that were 110 feet in length, and featured 2000 lights each. We wound the trunks and major branches horizontally with these strands – lots of them. This day in November was 20 degrees. The weather was an enormous challenge to the work, but that is not news where gardening is concerned.

Our lighting via ladders took us up close to 20 feet. My client called to ask when were we coming back to do the rest? I should have known that the limit of our reach on our ladders was a self imposed limit. If the sky was the limit, I was going to need some help. Mike Shecter sent two of his people over with a lift. That machine enabled them to wrap both of the trees much closer to the top.

There are a few landscape companies in my area that offer holiday lighting, but that is a very specialized niche. The purchase and maintenance on a piece of equipment like this has to be very expensive. Not to mention the workman’s compensation policy on people who are working this high off the ground. I was happy to get some help with this project, and even happier that I do not own this machine.

Trees densely wound round with lights is not especially unusual. Many commercial businesses feature very elaborate lighting schemes for the holiday season.  I understand why. The light is dazzling, and uplifting. As in festival of lights. As much as I loved this look, something was missing.

We put together a pair of light garlands in our shop, featuring 100 feet of LED compact lighted zip tied to a corresponding length of LED strands with the larger C-7 size bulbs. As there was no way to draw or describe the installation of the garland, I was part of the install crew. We laid the garland on the ground, and dragged and pulled it until it described a large circle on the ground all around each tree. A ladder, a 6′ 2″ tall person, a 10 foot bamboo stake with a hook at the top, and 4 support people were all we had in the way of equipment.

The lowest point of each loop/swoop is just about 6′ 2″ above the ground. It was easy to have Colin stand underneath the loops so we knew how low to make them. As bright as they are at night, these lights are a little tough to see during the day. The tops of the loops were secured to lighted branches via a zip tie. Having learned this the hard way, I would recommend tagging the ends of each strand of lights with its own zip tie. The technology of these lights is amazing, but they are by no means perfect or foolproof.  If you have a strand go out that cannot be fixed with a new transformer, you want to know the location of the end of that faulty strand. Trying to find it on a cold winter’s day is exasperating, especially considering that this work is next to impossible to do with gloves on.

The gardens added a whole other dimension to the lighting scheme. What was impressive in its scope was now a jewel in the landscape. They have that aura of romance.

I posted this picture that David took the other morning at 8am on . Landscape designer Susan Cohan commented: “Cinderellas!” What a wonderful way to describe them! Though London Planes are stately trees with gorgeous exfoliating bark and luxuriously large leaves, dressed in lights and wreathed in garlands, they are the stuff of fairy tales. Wrought from a very static and hard material, the effect is graceful and dressy.

The snow a couple days ago adds yet another dimension-the warm fire contrasting with the cold ice and snow. Winter lighting and weather play off one another in a way that provides a lot of visual punch while the garden is dormant. They shine forth on all but the sunniest winter days. As sunny winter days are few and far between in my zone, I would not do without the lighted winter landscape.

Several of these pictures were taken by my client. I know she is enjoying them.

I am hoping they make her feel like Cinderella.

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