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.

The Holiday/ Winter Preview Party 2018

Rob and his group did an incredible job of getting the shop turned over to the holiday and winter season to come. I know there are those that are grumpy seeing this in what rightfully is the fall, but it takes many days and many pairs of hands to get this all ready. Our one evening event of the year featured Rob’s lighting as usual, and pizza cooked up fresh on the driveway. The description doesn’t sound all the great, but sitting on the driveway in 40 degree weather, eating pizza right out of the oven – perfect.  To follow are pictures of the before during and after of that event, for those readers too far away to attend.  Our season kickoff open house goes on all weekend, and is a perfect prelude to the season to come. If you are nearby, we are well worth the trip.

antique bottle rack, lighted on the interior and decorated with green glass globes

picks and such

Dutch made artificial tree with 11,000 lights

fresh cut magnolia bunches

wood cheese boards and deer

red and white

swan cart

gold colored metal ornaments

rustic look

amaryllis in glass forcing vaseswood ornament

the shop

shop window with swan sleighs

lighted starbursts

a party

shop at night

lighting on the pergola


And this morning-our first snow!


A perfect day for a winter open house, don’t you think?

The Branch Studio In Philadelphia

Jackie A is the outside sales manager for both Detroit Garden Works, and The Branch Studio. If you have ever inquired about getting a light hoop shipped out to you, or a custom pergola built, you have probably had occasion to talk with her. A talented landscape designer in her own right, she has a particular interest in sourcing and placing fine objects for the garden and landscape. In addition to handling a steady stream of sales and arranging for shipping for those sold items all over the US, she is currently managing the payments, collections and shipping to the US of several containers packed with goods purchased by Rob in Belgium, Germany, France and England during his September buying trip for the spring of 2019. She is a very capable member of our staff, and we are lucky to have her representing us.   We made a decision some time ago to exhibit at the ASLA 2018 trade show, which closed yesterday in Philadelphia.  The American Society of Landscape Architects sponsors a yearly meeting for members which includes seminars and tours of interest, and a trade show. Branch is one of 350 exhibitors at this show. It is worthwhile to take Branch products on the road, so designers can get a look at them in person. Pictures don’t tell the whole story. There is something about being able to see the design, material, construction and finishing up close.
Jackie planned every detail of the trip, from deciding what objects she wanted shipped out to Philadelphia, and how she would arrange them, to a lighting scheme for the booth. As she and David would fly out, a computer loaded with a slide presentation featuring custom work previously fabricated at Branch, catalogues and brochures would also have to be shipped. She gave herself several months to pull it all together. As she is meticulous in her attention to detail, everything arrived as scheduled. As is typical for most convention centers, the uncrating and set up was done by Pennsylvania Convention Center staffers. I was especially pleased about Jackie’s decision to take a fountain to the show. I am sure there was plenty involved in putting a working fountain on display. It had to be reviewed and approved by the convention venue. Planning the electrical was an issue. It was a very good idea, to include a fountain in our display. Branch manufactures a number of styles of fountains. They come equipped with a pump, so once the fountain is leveled and filled with water, one only has to plug it in to enjoy it. In recent years Branch has started fabricating covers for the pumps, so the interior of the fountain is as finished and polished as the exterior. Branch fountains are substantial, and can make a big statement in a landscape or garden. Our fountains are not inexpensive, but clients see the value of them. The action and sound of water in a garden cannot be overestimated.

Once all of the major pieces were unpacked, Jackie and David were able to fine tune the display. A bank of LED lights was attached to the underside of the Stuart dining table. That light made it easy to see the steel base and Ipe feet. The boxes of Branch catalogues, brochures and cards all needed a place to be. Jackie did a great job of designing this small space. She made sure there was plenty of space for people to linger, and engage. Our galvanized steel containers, pergolas, fountains and ornament are unique in the garden ornament business. I am not aware of any other company that hand manufactures heavy gauge steel planter boxes, pergolas or fountains such as these. Each piece is painstakingly finished in a two step process involving commercial hot dip galvanizing in a molten zinc bath – with a lifetime of service in mind. Our steel ornament is weatherproof, and virtually rust proof. A little spot of rust where the galvanizing did not take can be put to bed with a dot of cold galvanizing compound. The design and manufacture of fine ornament for the garden was a dream of mine that the Branch Studio has fulfilled, one beautiful garden heirloom at a time. Not familiar with what we make at Branch?    

By Friday afternoon, our Philadelphia popup shop was ready for company. This is the fourth time we have exhibited at the ASLA show, and if the previous shows are any indication, it will take some time before we see inquiries. It can take a while before the right project comes along that would ask for our boxes or ornament. Designers have a lot of questions. Jackie was prepared with lots of answers.

Exhibiting on a national stage at a trade show attended by landscape architects was a meeting I welcomed. Branch is a grown up company, just barely hitting its stride. Ornament in the garden can endow a landscape with atmosphere. The Branch finish is very reminiscent of the look of that classic garden material, lead. Each Branch box comes with a reference to the history of garden pots, standard issue. That said, we have shipped out Branch products in their galvanized state, for those clients who favor the more contemporary finish that the powder coating process offers.

By no means is Branch an overnight sensation. We have 15 years behind us. 15 years getting our process, and our product line in order. This year, our lead times on custom orders have been at times 12 to 16 weeks out. Would that we could fill custom orders faster, but we work one project at a time. Branch Studio is busy. I am so happy about that. As for our pop up shop in Philadelphia, I thank both Jackie and David for their work putting the Branch Studio on the road. They will be packing up this morning, and heading home tomorrow.

And of course, many thanks to all of those people who have both expressed interest in the work, and spoken for it.