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.

Snow Glow

Blue skies and fluffy clouds the likes of which are pictured above are a rarity in a Michigan January. It is a bleak time of year, featuring uniformly gray-sky days, a lengthy twilight, and long ink black nights for what seems much longer than a month. February will bring more of the same. If this does not sound very appetizing, you are right. It isn’t. For that reason alone, snow can be a welcome visual addition to the landscape. Not those mountains of snow that make shoveling, walking and driving a dangerous and exhausting full time job. A new two to four inch layer of fresh snow describes all of the shapes both living and not in the landscape with a precisely applied thick carpet of bright white. A little judicious wind can whip up some interesting snow shapes on fences, benches and sculpture. Snow is water vapor in the atmosphere that turns to ice crystals without ever passing through a liquid phase. Multiple ice crystals make snow flakes. That lightweight flaky stuff can enliven a winter landscape. At least the cold comes to some good.

Our snow came early, and persisted. 3 weeks of bone chilling cold made sure it was not going anywhere. Then a week ago, a few days in the high forties reduced the mass of it considerably. The landscape was going dark again. The light in my winter containers was welcome. Providing light for the landscape is never more important than providing it in the winter. Great landscape lighting can go so far as to illuminate the structure of the winter landscape during the gray and dark days. In its simplest form, it can light the way from here to there. Seasonal/temporary lighting can add a sculptural element to the winter garden.

I especially like a lighting component in winter pots. Not only does it illuminate the materials and shape of the winter container itself, that temporary glow spreads out and encompasses the immediate environment. New technology which has produced warm and flexible LED string lighting that draws little energy, is shatterproof and good for 50,000 hours means it has never been easier or more economical to boost the light in a winter landscape. Adding arrangements to garden pots for the winter season is a must have in my garden. Lighting them means is is possible to enjoy them day and night.

Weaving light strings into the greens in a winter pot, and piling them up at the base of a centerpiece is a fairly simple task. The results are striking from a distance outdoors. And they provide so much visual interest from indoors. One client likes us to wrap the bottom 7 feet of the trunks of 4 columnar gingkos that frame the entrance to her house. She runs those lights all winter long, as they illuminate the way, and say welcome to my door. Temporary landscape lighting done in November that can light the night until the days start to lengthen is a feature of my winter landscape.

Once we had more snow, that temporary lighting was providing snow glow. Each tiny LED light that is virtually invisible during the day was magnified by the snow at night. Ice crystals meeting LED string lighting-beautiful. I miss the digging, the planting, the watering, the staking, the dividing and all else that a landscape and garden provides as much as any other gardener. But the winter has its pleasures.

The snow glow emanating from my pots lights the surrounding landscape in places I can see from inside. Planning for good views out the windows in winter is just acting on one’s own defense. The gloom can be penetrating, as is goes on so long. Is this a substitute for a summer day in the garden?  No. But expecting it to only makes one long for another time and place. The winter is its own season, and there are things that can be done to make something beautiful of the dark. Winter is the only season of ours in which an expression like this is possible.

Our snow is melting again.  We have rain this morning. But there will most assuredly be more snow before the winter is over.

Though creating sculptures with temporary lighting is a winter activity with all kinds of benefits, permanent landscape lighting is a feature I would recommend to any gardener. I like my front porch lit at night. I like my sidewalk lighting just as much. My house is set almost 4′ above the grade at the sidewalk. I would not want guests to have to negotiate 3 sets of steps without proper lighting. Big pools of light come courtesy of the snow.

 Landscape lighting is all about trying to endow the winter season with some visual interest. This pot is on axis north and south with the sidewalk, and east and west with the den windows. That placement makes it possible to enjoy this from multiple vantage points.

Yesterday morning at dawn, my snow covered winter pots were, in my opinion, the best intersection of electricity and snow that I have ever devised. Fire and snow look good together.

Those LED lights can set a a landscape on fire. Inspired to walk through the snow on the upper deck, a long exposure reveals how bright that temporary lighting can be. I can see Milo in the yard-nice. This past summer, I took all of the landscape lighting out of the trees, and placed them facing up against the fence. That permanent lighting is much more subtle, and silhouettes the trunks of the maple trees and the branches of the yews. This is the best of both lighting worlds that I have to offer my winter landscape.

 

 

Okra Pods

We were able to finish all of our 2017 projects last week, save one, by last Thursday afternoon. That final project needs a decent sized block of time, so we will do it this coming week. This meant there would be time for me to get some pots done at home. Finding materials would be a challenge. Given that the supply of fresh cut greens is all but depleted, my only hope was 8  9 foot Frazier fir Christmas trees purchased to chop up for our last project to come. There would be enough branches from those trees available to do my two pots on the driveway. The Frazier fir would shake off all the cold and snow a winter season would have to dish out, and still look great next March. The skirt of green was available.

Our supply of fresh cut twigs was equally skimpy, but for two bundles of red bud pussy willow we put on reserve for our last project. I toured the shop at least three times before I focused on a pair of steel topiary cones that we had Missy cover with grapevine and brown corded incandescent lights. These topiary forms are 5.5 feet tall. The scale of them would be perfect for my 30″ tall and 30″ diameter Branch Hudson tapers, given that we had no branches available for the center. I had no use for those incandescent lights. There had to be another idea. While David was removing those lights, I toured the store for the 4th time. We had a case of 10′ long LED rice light strands on silver wire still available.  These lights would need their transformer and plug protected from the elements.  We could do that. As the lights seemed so minuscule (each light is truly the size of a grain of rice), I doubled up the strands. David and I took a few minutes to wind them around each topiary form in an informal spiral.

What next? The intersection of that vertical topiary form with that horizontally oriented bed of greens was bare, stark and dry. Awkward.  An intermediary element that would soften spot and provide visual interest would be a good idea. This part of the container would be at eye level, as my tapers are set on tall steel socles. I knew I would want to load up that interior level with Lumineo cluster lights, but those lights needed something at eye level to illuminate besides the bare legs of the topiary cones. Successful containers, no matter the season, need to be designed and planted as a complete and literate visual world unto themselves. The spring, summer and fall plants, and winter materials, play a considerable role in this. But it is the overall sculptural quality that makes a container garden complete.

We had plenty of bunches of dried okra seed pods on slim wood stems in the shop greenhouse. I love these pods-we always have them. We usually use them in fall and winter interior arrangements. The numbers of bunches available were sufficient for my pots. OK, bring on the okra. David and I faced all of those curving pods inward. Like a chrysanthemum flower, or an artichoke. We left the pods tall, so they would represent entirely above the level of the greens. The slight wood stems on the pods would not in any way obstruct the light at the center. Setting the levels for all of the materials for these pots was all about creating sculpture. Those stick bottoms are not visible unless you walk right up to the pots, and look over the greens.  Okra? Few on my crew had ever heard of okra. Over the course of building these winter pots, there was a discussion of okra the vegetable, as well as placing dry pods in a pot.

Though I spent much time melding a design to the available materials, I was not prepared for this outcome. The rice lights were anything but shy. The four strands on two pots illuminates my entire driveway. The okra pods set tall on wood skewers both absorbed and reflected the bright light.

These winter pots are by far and away the best I have every had. That best had everything to do with an unusual choice of materials. The design and fabrication of these pots is all about creating relationships with unfamiliar materials.

The pots are at their best at night. I had no idea that the okra pods would so dramatically provide the much needed weight to the bottom of these pots. These pots glow from top to bottom, and are fiery in the midsection. Having the fabrication of these winter pots scheduled next to dead last has its advantages. There was time to tinker. Time to dream up something different.

The light is delightful and startling.

From the deck above.

The later darkness strips away all of the detail, and celebrates the big gestures.

The full moon looking over my driveway pots? Terrific. So swell. I will admit I was over the moon about every bit of this.

 

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