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.

Fabricating Arrangements For The Winter Pots

It is indeed that time again. This past Friday we swept out the garage at Detroit Garden Works, and set up our fabrication shop. The most useful and best part of the shop is its heat. Warm space to work makes for good and thoughtful work. So does good materials.  Rob works his heart out to be sure we have a huge selection of materials for our winter and holiday installations. His fresh cut twigs are the best I have ever seem. Farmed twigs, grown on great soil, mean all the dogwood and willow cut branches we have to offer have superior color and form. Every bunch features unblemished stems typical of the current years growth. Ron snapped up some very tall second year growth red twig which is equally as spectacular. Those glossy colorfully barked stems makes our winter container work easy. We construct forms that fit tight into the intended containers from large sheets of dry floral foam, layered up via hot melt glue.  One layer of foam goes below the surface. The upper layer gets stuck with greens, and whatever else we have in mind. At exactly the angle we like. Of course we save client’s forms from year to year. The above form is for a very large planter box. Note the exterior grade plywood at the bottom. That plywood enables us to transport this arrangement safely. As last year’s form had been reused for the past three years, we added a new layer of fresh foam to the top. The degraded foam goes to the bottom, into the pot.  The new foam gets top billing. This client has a decidedly contemporary view. Their winter container arrangements will follow suit. The center of this form was filled in with dark gray birch branches. More on that decision later.  David stuck every stem of fresh yellow twig dogwood, one stem at a time. I managed to capture him in the act. He is an accomplished fabricator. He knows to look to the airspace to tell him where he needs a branch. Once he claims a visual space for his branch overhead, he inserts that branch in that spot in the foam that puts his branch where he wants it. Does he ever look down at that branch is going into the foam? No. He is always looking at the overall shape from above.

I regret to say that our supplier of preserved and dyed eucalyptus has closed up shop. We bought out every bunch he had available, once we knew he was closing up.  We did have a few barrels of the color “Rain” available.  I liked the idea of those yellow twig branches faced down by this dark blue gray eucalyptus.

I decided to use the materials in a less formal way this year than last. This is a color palette I know my client will like, but changing up the style can make the most familiar materials look fresh and different. Winter arrangements with a simple and sculptural quality look great in all kinds of weather. In addition, this volume of branches will help to shed the snow, or at least keep it from damaging the overall arrangement. This is by way of saying that designing winter arrangements that can withstand snow is a good idea in zones that can rack up the inches in the winter. We will not dismantle this arrangment until mid March, so it has to be winter weatherproof.

This close up of the yellow twig set against the dark gray brown birch bunches on the interior illustrates how the effect of the color can be intensified by way of a contrasting backing. The addition of branches on the interior create the illusion that the form is tightly packed with yellow twig stems. The reality is quite different; there are just 2 rows of them. The matte birch stems also help make the yellow twig bark appear all the more glossy. A third reason for that dark interior?  In a subtle way, their darker color provide a transition from the dark of the blue gray eucalyptus, to the bright of the yellow twig.

A pair of round pots are further from the road, and nearer the house. I want the arrangements in the pots to appear brighter than the planter box. The interior branches in this case are whitewashed birch.

This yellow twig looks brighter yellow to my eye. That brightness will be compounded, once the arrangements are placed in the pots.

It made sense to stuff the rest of the form with variegated boxwood. This green comes to us in 40 pound boxes. The branches are long and densely twiggy. All of our greens are premium grade, like this.  It  means there is great scale, size and volume to every branch, and almost no waste. Greens intended for interior winter and holiday arrangements are generally small, and do not translate so well to use in pots.  We try to keep each stem intact, rather than cutting it up into smaller pieces. For a less formal arrangement, we let the natural grown branch be what it is.

The light gray branches are called natrag. That is the sum total of what I know about them, except that they have a very sculptural and exotic appearance.

The natrag was introduced into the arrangement only on the front and back.  They are so strong visually that more of them would dilute their overall effect.

The arrangements were done and ready to be installed this morning. In the foreground, the forms for our next project. My landscape crew generally handles the installation.  They have a great eye for positioning plants in the landscape.  This skill translates into installing these arrangements so they look like live plant material. If you look at the larger arrangement in the above picture, you can see that the blue gray eucalyptus looks almost black at the base. Part of the design was to deliberately create a shadow, and a sense of depth between the boxwood and the eucalyptus.

How we do this is very difficult to photograph, so suffice it to say that there is a 4″ wide band of incense cedar that is installed flat to the base of the form. An incense cedar moat, if you will. That space is what creates the shadow.

The eucalyptus and boxwood are both fairly tall. The cedar is inserted into the form on a horizontal angle, so it is barely an inch tall. I will post pictures of the finished installation tomorrow. For anyone who is new to our work, or has questions about the construction, I have posted many times over the past 9 years about them. You can click on and read my November posts from past years, if you are so inclined.