Choosing Containers

Strictly speaking any object that can hold soil and permit water to drain away constitutes a container. The choices are infinite, really. A container planting that considers the size, shape and style of the container as an essential part of the overall effect is especially beautiful to my eye. A choice of container represents a gardener’s point of view as much as the plants they choose. If a cottage garden, and the notion of farm to table enchants you, then a collection of vintage pails, washtubs and crates planted up with flowers and herbs will help to make that point of view visually stronger. If the architecture of your home is clean, crisp and contemporary, then pots of that ilk will look right at home.

If a whiff of history is your idea of a great fragrance, then antique or reproduction antique pots will serve your point of view well. If a planting that flows over the edges of a pot all the way to the ground represents your style and and sense of beauty, then go for simple containers that afford plenty of planting square footage for your sprawling plants. This is all by way of saying that taking the time and effort to find containers that strongly appeal to your aesthetic and style of gardening is time well spent. An enthusiasm for your containers is infectious. It will not only inspire your design and choice of plants, but it will be an insistent call to keep your plantings healthy and growing.

Choose containers that are suited to their placement. Pots on the front porch need to be proportional to the size of the porch an entry way. Front porch pots and plantings that compliment the architecture and can be seen from the sidewalk are welcoming. Pots on an outdoor dining terrace should be scaled such that the plantings are near eye level to seated guests. Containers that screen an untoward view get a leg up from some extra height and width. A container on an outdoor dining table should be low enough to encourage conversation back and forth. A container set in the landscape needs to have sufficient size and interest to stand out, and command attention. A great pot can provide a little pomp and circumstance to an awkward garden transition.

I recommend containers with substantial planting area. A decent amount of dirt space means an idea about color, texture, mass and contrast can be thoroughly explored. This is not to say that a tall oval glazed pot with room only for one 8″ pot can’t carry the day. It can. It is the gardener that has to choose the pot that best represents the style they wish to convey. I like lots of room, so I can put together a collection of seasonal plants that have enough room to grow up together, interact, and shine. Big containers mean a big soil mass. Large pots make it easier to maintain a sufficient moisture level throughout the heat of the summer. A pot that will forgive you if you are late taking up the hose is a pot worth having. Small pots that need water several times a day would not work for me. I work long days, and coming home to a container whose plants are flopped over from lack of water makes my stomach churn. Water stressed plants stress me. Big pots?  Bring them on.

Knowing the gardener in you through and through should inform your choice of pots. A beautiful pot is a sculpture that invites the addition of plants to complete its beauty. Or not. A beautiful pot, sitting empty in a landscape, can be breathtaking. Great pots can be addressed by a gardener any number of ways. But no matter the planting or the not planting, that pot is an ornament for the garden that should be a treasure.

A collection of great pots can be had all at once, or assembled over a period of time. Some great pots are inherited, or come from a county flea market. Others have been stowed away in a shed, unused, for years. Still others can be repurposed from a kitchen or barn. The pots pictured above are made from recycled tires.

Recycled containers, especially those made from galvanized metal, are a favorite of Rob’s. They are a great addition to a cottage style garden. They look equally at home in a more contemporary setting. The steel in these vintage containers is much thicker and more weather resistant than sheet metal containers being manufactured now. Will these eventually show signs of the galvanized layer wearing thin?  Probably. But considering that these are already in excess of 40 years old, I don’t see that happening any time soon.

Vintage and reproduction pots can have just as much charm as antique ones-especially if they have been outdoors long enough to have acquired a patina of lichens or moss.  The lichens on the rim of this vintage pot will spring back into action, as soon as they are exposed to weather.

Weathering is an inevitable consequence of being outdoors. Any surface which absorbs water can provide a foothold for colonies of small plants. For those gardeners who like a clean look, choose pots with a surface that resist the weather. Glazed or enameled pots do not absorb water from the outside. They can easily be cleaned with soap and water. Pots that do not absorb water do not breathe.  This means water only evaporates from the surface of the soil that is exposed at the top. This is a good choice of container for the gardener who has a long list of responsibilities besides watering every day. I helped such a gardener pick pots some years ago. She fills a collection of waterproof containers every year with waterlilies, lotus and floater plants.

The right pots? You’ll know when you see them, and can’t forget about them.

The Cloister Style Pergola, Part Two

You may not have read in November of last year a post about a landscape renovation that we have had underway since June of 2018. A part of this project in process involves the design and fabrication of a large scale cloister style pergola. The story behind the design and fabrication? Click here for the details.   the design and fabrication of a steel cloister The 2018 story concluded with that moment when 18 tons of steel sections and parts finally made their way to the site for installation. Of note was the fact that wet weather necessitated building a road back to the installation site. A structure of this size had to be assembled on site, so Buck engineered it to be put together and set up one section at a time. Just before Thanksgiving, a large boom crane moved in for the duration, as each section of the structure would be far too heavy to maneuver by hand.

It was slow going. The weather was bitterly cold and muddy. The finished size of this structure is 47 feet long by 36′ wide. I have no idea how many pieces there were in total, but there were enough to call the installation of this pergola a puzzle of enormous size. To make every section line up perfectly so it could be bolted to the previous section was daunting. The process made my eyes water.

Eventually the structure took shape. Seeing it go up was an experience like no other I have ever had as a designer. The model I built my client was the size of a piece of copy paper- 8.5″ by 11″. Of course the model did not at all describe the actual structure that was to enclose 1700 square feet. The model was a not so accurate expression of a structure as it was an attempt to express an idea of the landscape shot through with romance. What?? Romance is my middle name. Ha. As much as I admire classic French landscapes for their edited expression, and coolly compelling geometry, Italian gardens and landscapes have that element of romance that I find irresistible. As for this steel cloister, suffice it to say the design is as more about my client and her love of the garden than anything else. Though I had spent hours going over every proportion and detail, at some point I had to commit to a design. And a presentation of that design to my client. In May of last year, she decided to go ahead and build.

Cloister? In its simplest form, a cloister is a covered walkway. This structure has a six foot wide walkway all the way around the perimeter. That walkway is covered by roof panels constructed in an open and elongated diamond pattern. The cover will provide some shade, but will permit light and rain to come through. That pattern is repeated on the fascia panels at the top. There are 32 round columns, each of which is bolted to a concrete foundation that goes 42″ deep into the ground. Between each pair of columns is a pair of curved steel brackets. This curved detail compliments the roundness of the columns, and the solid steel spheres that ornament the structure.

Buck’s first drawing of the cloister showed square columns. The look on his face when I told him that I wanted round columns was an unmistakable sign that I was asking for the moon.  After he explained that engineering flat surfaces to perfectly line up and be attached to a curved surface would be just about impossible, I paused. The roof and fascia panels would be built from round rod, and each panel would feature steel spheres. The round columns would be essential in giving a structure of this size a graceful appearance. The architecture of this stately old home was not asking for an industrial look. Please? He relented.

Buck did a superb job of engineering, and his group did an equally fine job of fabricating. My client took this photograph and the following one after a snow storm this past winter. I was delighted to see how the snow outlined and described every detail of the structure. It will be a feature of the landscape every season of the year. As planned, the cover over the walkway was permeable to both light and water. In the immediate foreground of this picture is the roof of a very simple version of the cloister over the dining and grilling terrace that is directly adjacent to the house.

The snow made it easier to see the long diamonds and dots pattern on the roof, fascia panels, and the main entrances into the space.

Now that the long winter is over, we are back on the project. I have every confidence that come late May, this landscape will be ready for her to enjoy. We have little to do in the interior of the pergola. Bringing up the soil level to grade, planting the roses, installing the edger strip and grass is about it. The irrigation in this area is underway, and the tile for the fountain pool is due in May first.

This was the first time I had seen the completed structure since the work began. I was thrilled with how it looked. And incredibly appreciative to have a client who made it possible. Their are limestone stepping stones yet to come. I had the roses custom grown several years ago. Dan and David have been growing them on, so we would have plants of some size from the beginning. The furniture and pots for this area have been in storage at our landscape building since last September. Though I will probably post about this project again when the landscape is complete, this is a very special moment for my entire group. The best part?  Our client is pleased.


In the homestretch now.

Spring At Detroit Garden Works: An Addendum

As I was writing about the spring opening of Detroit Garden Works, it occurred to me that what the shop does best is reflect the taste and sensibilities of a wide range of gardeners. I have Rob to thank for that. Many years ago I made a landscape design call to a client whose house and art were of a contemporary ilk. On his rear terrace was a classical and traditional Smith and Hawkins teak bench. That disconnect made me blink. I suggested that he find some terrace furniture that more accuratetly represented his aesthetic.  So called contemporary garden ornament has been available for commercial projects for a long time-if you equate simple and functional with contemporary. I am thinking urban trash receptacles, bike racks and giant fiberglass cylinder planters. What was readily accessible to private gardeners was meager. Times have changed in that regard.

Shopping European markets has also made a big difference in the style of ornament we are able to offer.The Belgians, Dutch and French have been of a contemporary mind in the garden for quite a while. The containers pictured above are made from recycled tires from a manufacturer in France. They would look very disconcerting in my garden, but my client with the contemporary art collection would feel right at home with them.

I probably have said this before, but it is worth repeating. Any idea about period or style that you express indoors is fine to take outside. And advisable. A well done landscape does have an aura- an aura of genuine expression of some kind or another is unmistakable. A judicious selection of garden ornament is a strong and vibrant way to indicate an aesthetic point of view in the landscape.

A tree is a tree, with its own aura. That same species planted in a random grove in tall grass creates a different aura, driven by the aesthetic of the gardener in charge. A collection of that same tree planted in a grid could have a very formal aura-or a contemporary one. A garden ornament added to any one of these landscapes can organize and make the intent of that gardener clearer. This room at the shop is interesting, in that it takes traditional objects, and by association with more contemporary ones, gives those traditional ornaments a more contemporary aura. In the above picture, vintage French galvanized metal seed pans were lined up and stacked on a shelf against the far wall. The overall shape and grid has a very contemporary feeling, though I am sure the pans were originally used as a simple growing tool. The traditional glazed French jarre with a cream rim in the foreground is a very traditional shape. Paired with a vintage modern teak garden furniture set, the clean lines and simple shape of the container becomes its dominant visual characteristic.

On the walls in the background of this picture, a pair of antique French conservatory windows look at home in a more contemporary setting.  Their visual meaning is about their simple geometry, and not about their history. I would imagine the conservatory they came from was probably of a traditional sort.

The birdbath in the above picture is an antique piece from England. It is easy to imagine it in a classical English garden. But I suspect it could be right at home in a more austere and modern garden. To determine whether a classical piece might work in a contemporary garden, I try to ignore where or how the piece might have been used, and concentrate on its overall shape. The short version is to appreciate it in the abstract, and without preconceived notions.

The urn pictured in the opening above has a very traditional connotation and shape. Its visual aspect is in strong contrast to the concrete bowl planters placed on top of the wall. Each asks for a specific kind of garden.

I have seen lots of fish ornaments for gardens.  Some are whimsical.  Others are accurate to a specific shape and color of a kind of fish.  These French made steel sardine garden stakes have a sleek and contemporary look. They represent in the abstract the rhythm and sparkle of a school of fish in water. Rob has used these in contemporary container arrangements to great effect.

The vintage containers on this shelf have a decidedly modern feel.

This grill bears no resemblance to the Weber of my childhood. Contemporary fixtures for kitchens have been around a good while.  It is so great to see them becoming available for the outdoor kitchen. This Ofyr grill uses wood as a source of heat, and the top rim is a cooking surface as well as the grate.

This collection of grape gathering baskets have quite a history, but attached to a wall and planted in an architectural way, they could be a welcome addition to a contemporary garden.

This contemporary version of birds on a wire come from the same French company that makes our sardine stakes. They come with one, two, or three birds wide at the top. Oh the possibilities, for a contemporary garden maker.

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.

 

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