Lots of the pots pictured above were done by Rob. I learned from him how to slow down, and work one stem at a time. He is confident enough to let a design evolve. Nothing hurries him. My advice? Don’t hurry. Take one step at a time. Have fun. Be challenged. Go ahead. Our 2014 winter and holiday container construction is underway-I hope yours is too.
Some winter containers ask for a centerpiece. Small containers may not have room for lots of materials in them, stuck one stem at a time. A centerpiece only occupies a few inches of space in a container – the bamboo pole and all that is attached to it, driven down into the soil, provides all of the structural support. Some containers ask for height in the center. A structured centerpiece is a more formal arrangement, as it is visually stable and symmetrical. The centerpieces pictured above were set in a pair of antique French champagne grape crates for safe keeping only, once they were finished. The pots they were destined for are square, and formal. The placement on a front porch asks for enough height to be seen from the drive. As for these rectangular crates, they ask for an entirely different construction approach. More on the crates later next week. I like to call this alternative construction the Rob technique. Every winter and holiday container that he does for a client is deconstructed. His design evolves, one stem at a time.
My client with the formal square pots also has a pair of rectangular pots. All four are Jackie boxes, made at our company Branch. A centerpiece in a long box can look awkward and lonely. This client had a particular requirement for white, and light in the containers. We did the greens on the edges of the foam forms, loosely. All of the other materials would have to be inserted into the foam, one stem at a time. If a container arrangement asks for a one at a time treatment, the foam in the center may be three pieces thick. Creativity – we prize that individual expression. But the most creative work on the planet comes to no good if it goes over. As Buck would say, the approach to the work is important.
The center section of this rectangular form was dressed with a strand of garland lights. Garland lights are spaced very close together on the wire. One string has 300 lights. The lights are pinned into place with fern pins. A large rectangular planter asks for light which is dispersed all along its length, and strong enough to light from below all of the materials that come next. Back and forth-the light string gets set. The tallest of the stems are stuck deep enough into the foam layers to be stable, and in a roughly formal pattern.
Once the lights are pinned to the foam, we turn them on for the entire duration of the construction. It is important to see how all of the other materials will relate to that light. For these containers, I stuck white eucalyptus and white leptospermum at different heights. One stem at a time. Any project that happens one gesture at a time takes the time it takes to think every gesture through. No matter how busy we are, Rob takes the time a project needs to be beautiful. He is an inspiration to me. Constructing a winter container in the privacy of our garage means we can rfethink, fuss, adjust, and rearrange to our heart’s content, before we go live.
Once we get to the installation phase, we are done with the creative decisions. We just mean to install with many months of faithful service in mind. This arrangement is secured into the soil with pairs of long steel rebar, set at an angle. The rebar functions as roots. These natural materials are cut. We need to provide for the rooting a live plant will do naturally.
The finished container is stuffed with materials that will see the winter through. Each stem, stuck one at a time. These clients have an extraordinary appreciation and interest in the landscape. How I appreciate that they called on me.
The smaller square boxes represent strongly – the centrally constructed centerpieces stand behind that formal statement. Good design takes so many factors into account. Successful design requires the meeting of so many minds. The client, first and foremost. The architecture. The space. The light.
I encourage all of my clients to identify materials that appeal to them. I can plan around an idea. If you are your own client, take the time to ask the big questions before you set to the task. What do you like? What you like will greatly inform how you represent the winter season. There is no need to quit the garden, given the first really hard frost. There is only a need to switch gears a bit. Michigan has 6 months of winter-we are just beginning to express our rebuttal.
These boxes are dressed for the winter. Just how I envisioned them. I have heard that my client likes them. I am sure the light in the boxes at night will welcome friends and family. Whatever manner you choose to envision and decorate your winter landscape-please persist. Great joy accompanies great ideas.
Our recent weather has been much more like January than November. Day time temperatures the the 20’s, and night temperatures in the low teens does not mean we postpone our winter container work. Even if we could, there isn’t any need. If the prospect of doing winter container arrangements is leaving you cold, perhaps some of our techniques might help make it more satisfying. Trying to create is tough when one’s fingers and toes are numb. Most of our construction is done indoors-in our garage. Any enclosed space will be a more comfortable environment in which to to work, even if it isn’t heated much. When we do go outdoors, it is for active work-the installation part.
Some of our centerpieces are constructed ahead of the installation time. A very stout bamboo stake is at the center of every centerpiece. All of the other materials are arranged around that stake. Sometimes a good quality rubber band helps to keep the materials in place until you get everything arranged exactly as you wish. For large and heavy materials, a loose zip tie will do the trick. For very heavy materials, another pair of hands is best. Once all of the materials are arranged to suit, we tighten the zip ties with a pair of piers. Very bulky and heavy materials are secured with concrete wire. A centerpiece may have multiple components or layers.
We construct forms for our greens from dry floral foam. We glue two layers together for added strength. All of our premium greens are in the range of 18″ long, and are fairly weighty. Large scale pots may ask for that entire width over the edge in order to look properly proportioned. We can get 2 lengths of greens from one long bough for smaller pots. For pots larger than 36″ in diameter, we usually glue the foam form to a piece of 1/2 inch thick exterior plywood for added support. The winter pots need to look good over a long period of time in which the weather can bring high winds and heavy snow. Nothing is more miserable than trying to repair a winter container arrangement gone over in mid January or February. The foam form is secured to the soil in the pot in two ways. We remove the top 4 inches of soil, so the lower level of foam fits down into the container. The upper level holds all of the boughs. We sharpen the stems of the greens, for a tight fit. We then drive rebar through the foam and greens into the soil, and wire the steel posts together. The hole you see in the center of the foam-a place for the centerpiece. Foam forms do not have to be exact. They are an armature giving support and flexibility to the finished arrangement.
All that remains to add to the centerpieces on site are those finishing materials that gives each winter container a distinct and unique look. Very contemporary winter pots may be as simple as a mass of twigs set into cut greens. There are plenty of other materials available, should you want a softer look. These winter pots have sinamay (also known as poly mesh), bleached pine cones, pale gold holiday picks, and mini vine rolls. Rob does a great job of sourcing a wide variety of materials that can find their way into winter pots. He likes giving every gardener lots of choices. We have a long winter ahead.All of these accessory materials are either wired to the greens, or wedged into the stick stack. All of these materials will be fine outdoors over a winter. Does this process seem like much too much work? It isn’t really-as the process from raw materials to finished container is not only fun, but doable. Any gardener can do winter pots for themselves.
In composing a winter pot, keep in mind that you are without that miracle we know as growing. The winter pots are the same size and scale on the last day of winter as they are on the first. Eucalyptus is bulky-a single bunch will go a long way. If your container is large, consider 2. If you want to feature this material, go to three bunches, and use fewer fresh cut twigs. Sinamay is a synthetic mesh that when rouched like smocking, will occupy lots of space. No amount of snow will distort the shape you create from the beginning. I brush the snow off my sinamay at home when the snow threatens to bury it. Curly Grapevine rolls create a lot of volume from not much material. These mini vine rolls are perfect for adding an airy layer of interest to this pot.
The materials in these pots are subtly colored, but are of a volume proportional to the size of the pot. The centerpieces is red bud pussy willow, in a 5-6 foot height. Some pots need a tall element. Branches are graded by height, so the height you need is the height you get. The fresh cut natural branch sets the stage for the character of all of the other elements.
Though the pots are 36″ tall, and 36″ in diameter, the arrangement is graceful. Each pot is different, as they are done by hand. Done by hand can endow anything you with a certain feeling. Containers imagined and arranged by gardeners have that hand made look. The evidence of the human hand is always attracts my attention and interest.
These pots could stand as is until the spring. I don’t mind a little sparkle during the winter. Alternately, they would work just as well, if the sinamay and pale gold sparkle picks came out after New Years.
These very large containers have enough variation in materials to provide some interest, even though the color palette is subdued.
Few things pain me more than pots sitting empty over the winter. Pots full of this or that, enduring over the course of the winter, speak to the hope that grounds every gardener. The garden goes on all year round, does it not? Some seasons, the forms and available materials are different. No reason not to celebrate, whatever the weather.
For 39 years, the Cranbrook Auxiliary has raised money for the restoration of both Cranbrook house and the gardens via the Holiday Tables event in late November. This year, 18 designers spent the day yesterday decorating their tables for the holidays. I did a table for them at least 10 years ago. A good friend, client, and long time benefactor of Cranbrook asked if I would return, and decorate a room, this being the last year for this particular event. I am sure this group has an event plan for the future, with an entirely new format. As for this finale event-we were all in. The theme of this year’s tables-Illuminate the Season.
If you are local to our area, you are well aware of the Cranbrook property, house and schools. It houses one of the most respected graduate art programs in the nation. If you are not local, suffice it to say Cranbrook is a vibrant institution with substantial gardens of which we are very proud. Interested in the entire story? http://housegardens.cranbrook.edu/about
The house is of a particular period and time. The wood furnishings and tile are dark. The rugs are old and quietly gorgeous. The lighting is subdued. The period and style of this room drove the design for our table. For starters, Rob hand fashioned three strands of holiday lights – a reproduction of lighting from a much earlier era comprised of taupe colored cloth clad twisted wire, bakelite sockets, and large scale reproduction bulbs. Each bulb got its own vintage tin reflector before it was inserted into its bakelite socket. These light strands are outfitted with a dimmer switch, so the light can be adjusted to fit the mood of the occasion. A small flock of our grapevine deer sculptures with sparkly gold and cream lit collars help populate the space. The quality of the light is key to our design.
The china is my own, collected a few pieces at a time since my twenties. The Compleat Angler, manufactured in the early 1980’s by Portmerion China in England, was inspired by the watercolors of English game fish done by AF Lydon in 1879. I have never used this china-I display it, and enjoy looking at it. The flatware is Ambience Olivewood, made by Alaine St. Joannis. This we have used every day for many years. So why am I talking china and flatware? It is a tradition with this event. The sunset room is a fairly large room. We were going to need more than a table, set for a holiday gathering.
We placed three Christmas trees in the room-two of which are flocked. Detroit Garden Works is featuring flocked frasier fir trees for the holiday season this year. They are available in a variety of sizes and colors, by special order only. These are the first flocked trees I have seen since my childhood, but apparently they are popular from the mid west to Paris. The French blue is my favorite color. As the light string wires looked beautiful with that color, we had a color scheme for the decor. The wires themselves are handsome enough to feature them as holiday garland.
We did bring an artificial Christmas tree. This is my favorite style of artificial tree. It is clearly artificial-not a representation of a real tree. The branches are brown, and lightly dusted with snow. We decorated it with pale French blue glass balls, and long crystal drops.
The 10 foot long shallowly oval table with square ends is meant to be placed against a wall. This was a perfect size to set the table on one side, and decorate the far side. The flocked fir branches hold a variety of other materials. A light strand, the dried curling fronds of garden ferns, glass balls in cream and blue, and fresh magnolia leaves are interspersed throughout.
What I like best about this display is that it seems visually believable in this space. The antique Victorian wicker chairs are ours, but they look appropriate to the room.Every item has a vintage, or a garden feel. The color is subdued, but festive. If you are interested in seeing all 18 of the holiday tables, a formal buffet tea is scheduled for 11 to 3 today, a cocktail party for Friday evening by reservation, and general admission Friday and Saturday from 10-4. We think the Cranbrook House and Garden auxiliary is well worth your support.