Up On The Roof

Those of you who make a practice of visiting Detroit Garden Works are aware that we have planter boxes on the roof. Eight rectangular heavy gauge sheet metal boxes span the entire width of the front of the shop. Designing and maintaining the planting for those boxes is a challenge. The weather conditions up there are extreme. It is always hot, windy, and completely exposed to whatever nature has a mind to dish out. Furthermore, whatever gets planted in them has to make some sort of impression from the ground. How are impressions made from afar? Light or pastel colors always read better at a distance. Large leaves are helpful. But the biggest impression to be made in this instance comes from the mass. This is 40 linear feet of boxes. The mass possible in these boxes is always in my favor, if I take advantage of it.

The design is not the only issue. Growing and maintaining plants on the roof has its own set of issues. It isn’t very practical to drag a hose upstairs, so we do have automatic irrigation in the boxes. You would think that would eliminate all of the water worries, but it doesn’t. The need for water changes all the time. Its very difficult to determine the moisture in the soil from the ground, although I personally can spot wilted plants from a long ways away. We have to get up on the roof to groom the pots, and feed them, so it is easy to check the water in person. Chelsea was up there to dead head the green and white plectranthus, and she noticed that the soil was bone dry in a number of places.  It was easy to figure out that some of the micro mist heads had become clogged. Once they were cleaned, the water was flowing again.

The box is planted with two rows. The back row is planted with bouteloua gracilis “Blonde Ambition”.  Commonly known as blue grama grass, or mosquito grass, this hybrid of the species has chartreuse flower heads which gives way to blond seed heads. Those seed heads that resemble mosquito larvae hang from only one side of the flowering stalk. This makes for a horizontal seed head that is as beautiful as it is unexpected. Hardy in zone 3, it is happy in dry to moderate moisture conditions. The seed heads hold through the fall, and in to early winter. For the full rundown, see the entry from the Missouri Botanic Garden website:     Between each grass is the annual blue salvia cultivar, Cathedral Sky Blue.  Salvias are not especially showy, but the color of this cultivar is captivating. Mealy cup sage, or salvia farinacea, is notorious for sporting lots of foliage, and less in the way of flowers.  The grama grass is a perfect companion. It all but obscures the foliage of the salvia. The airy seed heads hover over the the more dense and static salvia flower spikes. I was not expecting the combination to be so appealing.

 The row closest to the street has green and white plectranthus, and white petunias, alternating.  The plectranthus has thick juicy leaves, so this plant is fairly well suited for drier conditions. Petunias, once established like the heat, and moderate water. The plectranthus is already cascading over the edge of the boxes, and hopefully the petunias will grow and ride the wave of plectranthus. We usually have our first hard frost late in October, which means we have almost 3 months more time to go with this planting.

It is easy to see in this picture that white flowers have the best visibility of any color in the landscape. That white will help to draw attention to the cloud of seed heads behind them. The salvia is tough to see from the ground, but it does read as a pale heliotrope blue haze.

The plectranthus is beginning to wind its way into the grass. We will edit that, if it seems to be smothering its neighbors. I do not anticipate much of that, as the front of the boxes faces south. But there will come a point where we let it all go, and watch what results from nature’s free for all. The 4th quarter of a container planting can be its most interesting phase. Once a planting reaches its mature size, its overall shape will have a sculptural element, in addition to the color and texture.

This may not be the most showy of my roof box plantings, but it is most certainly my favorite ever.  I like how loose and informal it is. I love the color. I have David to thank for these pictures up on the roof-I do not go up there. Climbing up to the roof of the Works on an extension ladder is not for me.  How it looks in these photographs makes me think I may want to bring this scheme downstairs somewhere.

There is something about this that makes me glad to be a gardener. And appreciative of the opportunity to plants these boxes differently every year. I suspect Rob really likes them too.   

 

Sunday Opinion: Scale And Proportion

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Whenever Buck does a CAD drawing for a project, or an object, he includes a drawing of Man 01.  For those of you who do not do design drawings on a computer, CAD stands for computer assisted design.  This line drawing of a man who is 6′ tall is stored in his computer as a “block”.  Buck has thousands of blocks stored in his computer. Those blocks are stored drawings of shapes and forms he uses over and over again.  Pasting a block into a drawing means he does not have to draw that portion from scratch.  An entirely new shape will require a drawing from start to finish.  A complicated design for an object to be made can take many hours to draw.
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I have watched him translate an idea into a precisely rendered drawing. Who knows how long ago it was that he learned the language of this two-dimensional design program.  It must be a long time, as his fingers fly over the keyboard of his computer faster than my eyes can follow.  I see lines drawn to precise lengths that connect to other lines, which finally, and exactly, describe a form.  Down to the last 1/64th of an inch.  Given a specific engineering inquiry, he can design to 1000th of an inch. This level of precision isn’t an issue for you and I.   What purpose does the man01 block serve?  This 6′ tall idea of the height and volume occupied by a man is size that is easy to recognize.  6′ tall isn’t short, but it isn’t tall, either.  Man01 is a average size guy.  When man01 is standing next to a planter box we are thinking of building, I have more than the dimensions of that box.  I have  a size and height that is familiar to me.  I can compare the size of the man, to the size of the proposed box.

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Anything that Buck makes at Branch, requires a drawing.  He has the drawings for our stock products stored in his computer.  The company that laser cuts our steel, or the company that rolls our steel in multiple dimensions, require those drawings to program their computers to cut or roll to our exact specifications.  Building an object successfully that involves a number of different people and operations doesn’t happen via a breakfast meeting or a conference call.  What is drawn on the page is an exact template for what will be built.

people-in-the-garden.jpgBuck makes those drawings with the help of a computer program programmed to precisely, and mathematically describe a form.  He drives the bus. He tells the computer what he wants to see. The many years he spent as an architect required a working knowledge of how to translate a design into a drawing.  Not just any drawing.  A drawing that would spell out to a contractor exactly how to build a house,  a stadium, a heating system, a plumbing plan, or a fruit cellar.  A bell tower, or a topiary form, or a bench.  But rest assured, a mathematically precise rendering of an idea of an object does in no way indicate that an object will be beautiful.

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Man01 is a gesture in a beautiful direction.  The proportion of a planter box for the garden is a key element of its design.  How a person would relate to the dimension and proportion of that box, whether standing or sitting, will influence how a gardener eventually views, and reviews, that form.  Every person has an idea all their own about what is beautiful and of interest.  Each person likewise has an idea of what doesn’t move them.  This makes garden ornament very difficult to design.  One way we broaden our appeal is by offering different sizes.  Comparing a set of possible sizes to the mano1 block helps us to decide what to build and what not to build.  The computer is a tool that helps with the decision making process.

in-the-garden.jpgMan01 is a symbol on Buck’s drawings for scale and proportion.  Woman01 is a scale I sometimes ask for from Buck.  5.5 feet.  But no matter the gender,  human scale is an element that should inform landscape design.  A good feeling for the scale and proportion of a property, the plants, and the people can produce visually interesting relationships.

friends-in-the-garden.jpgFriends for dinner in the garden is great fun.  Friends comfortable in the garden is an important part of design.

At A Glance: Recent Work

raised-steel-planter-boxes.jpgThis has been a very busy summer season for Branch.  To follow, pictures of a few of our early summer projects.  How pleased we are to have clients in our area.  And clients afar- northern Michigan, Chicago, Illinois, Texas, Connecticut, Florida, New York City, Long Island, California, Virginia, Louisiana, and Oregon.  This project in Grosse Pointe Michigan-raised planter boxes to be planted with cutting flowers.

Branch-Hudson-tapers.jpgmedium Hudson tapers

custyom-fountain-in-progress.jpgcustom fountain cistern under construction

Hudson-boxes.jpgHudson boxes

Drost-Landscaping.jpgBob Drost from Drost Landscaping in Petoskey.  He personally picked up 10 special order contemporary Branch boxes for a job last Sunday.

white-oak-and-steel-orangerie-boxes.jpgOak and steel orangerie boxes

elliptical-fountains.jpgA pair of elliptical fountains designed and fabricated for a landscape for a new house .

plant-stand-for-herbs.jpgLarge Branch plant stand for pots of herbs

custom-Hudson-fountain-cistern.jpgCustom sized Hudson style fountain with pump housing ready to be galvanized for a client in California

hemispherical-fountain.jpgUp side down hemispherical fountain, just about ready to be shipped to California

Hudson-boxes.jpgSteel Branch boxes and plant climbers-planted for the summer

large-Hudson-tapers.jpgLarge steel Hudson tapers ready to plant at a long lakeside country driveway

custom-curved-Hudson-planters.jpgHudson boxes custom made to fit a curve in a terrace

reproduction-Belgian-planters.jpgThese reproduction Belgian boxes in white oak and lead-we sent them to Florida a week ago.  Branch is busy.  Love that.

The Hudson Box

It helps me to define something, should I be able to give it a name. I could write a book about places, landscapes and their names.  Detroit Garden Works-I named the shop by making a list of all those words that I thought best described what I had in mind.  My city, my love of what goes on locally, the garden-of course, and works-as in works of art, in the works, working garden, work it out-you get the idea.  My garden-Rob named it Corgi Run.  It is a perfectly apt description of a landscape designed to accomodate two boisterous dogs of very short stature without looking like a dog run with decoration.  The flowers are up high-as in roses, or containers, and the boxwood has corgi doors carved in their favorite entrance and exit spots.  I have grass-and only the most rugged groundcover on the ground plane. My beloved beech ferns are on an intermediate level; the hellebores are outside the fence. Corgi Run-the name says it all. I wanted to design a handsome box with rugged good looks that would be equally at home in a contemporary landscape as a more traditional one. Subtle, stately, engaging.  Naming it after Rock Hudson seemed just right.  The Hudson River landscape paintings-handsome, and distinctly American paintings.  OK, so I have an active imagination.  Hudson-what does that word suggest to you? Try naming the place before you design and plant it-who knows where that might take you.   

The Hudson box has but a few details-a generously large molding at the top ordinarily used in the construction of iron handrails, and two smaller and simpler moldings, my obscure nod to a classic Italian terra cotta double rolled rim pot. The simplicity of the design lends itself to the construction of lots of different shapes.  This particular rectangle fits the spot in a satisfying way.  Spots that need square containers, or rectangular containers seem to need just the right size-not just any size.  For years I had two round matching Italian terra cotta pots in this spot.  The round worked fine,I like the fitted Hudson box better in this space.

These squares were made to fit a specific space on a flight of cypress stairs.  The boxes are in lieu of a handrail-a simple be careful on the stairs.  The box in the background is home to an espaliered apple tree.  We lined the box with styrofoam insulating sheeting; the tree has lived over the winter in the box for three seasons now.  In this case, a very large box, capable of holding a considerable soil mass, seemed like a good idea for the health of the tree. The cypress deck is large and sparingly furnished-a big box works just fine here.

I rarely buy window boxes for the shop-what size would I pick?  No two windows are the same.  I like window boxes that go wide of the windows, so it looks like the window has something substantial to sit on.  This variation on the Hudson box with associated brackets were made for this specific window-and they look like it.  There are actually three separate boxes.  Part of this has to do with not placing too much stress on the wall when we hang them, but part has to do with the galvanzing process.  A zinc bath of some 800 degrees can warp steel that is not adequately captured by a frame.  Long boxes are particularly subject to damage.  Now we build long or large boxes from a thicker steel. 

This Hudson box was outfitted with plumbing, and makes a fine fountain. The box has legs, so the boxwood skirt does not obscure too much of the detail of the bottom of the box.  This year the boxwood covers the legs altogether.  Hudson boxes make beautiful fountain cisterns.   

Not every design looks so great in a very large size; this box is still graceful when it is large.  It anchors this side door entrance garden with ease.  My client plants for all four seasons; there is always something interesting going on. Driving up, she has a seasonal garden going on-dead ahead. The driveway garden-I have written before about the importance of the landscape that marks your arrival home.  I may not get to every garden every day-but I do indeed drive up every day. I want to like what I see, when I come home.        

The largest of my Hudson boxes to date-a cistern 4′ by 8′.  It was designed to be placed in an overscaled drivecourt.  Without going into any detail, my client shares a driveway with two other homes; a big drivecourt was needed to handle family and friends. The size of this cistern breaks up a giant paved space, with a garden object of interest.  

This big red SUV has nothing on this Hudson box cistern -does it? Exactly my intention.  Stately, handsome, graceful, bigger than life-this is how I remember Rock Hudson.  Buck’s construction is true, square, level. This cistern, though the planting is yet to come, shows no signs of him wrestling this 1800 pound object as he welded it. It is a garden ornament of grace and dignity-I cannot wait to see the three fountain jets, representing.      


This Hudson box is set in concert with a long and low window.  It features an ever so slight bow front.  Pictures of the summer planting to come.  The Hudson box-I am pleased with it.  Every one of these Hudson boxes were fabricated by Buck.  A Buck week-he deserves it.

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