Sunday Opinion: Plants In The Air

I have never been a fan of plants in the air.  By this I mean hanging baskets of plants.  God knows plenty of people like them- the glass airspace of all of my local nurseries are awash in them come spring.  Some baskets go home and get transplanted into a container, or in the ground.  Fine.  But not all get a thoughful or beautiful placement.  In my own neighborhood, I see the occasional 10″ diameter hanging basket plopped without further ado into 8″ diameter pots.  Picture this-a pot, with a glaringly white plastic hat and purple petunias on top.  Some of the baskets are not set level-picture a white plastic hat, askew, atop a container. Some white plastic baskets are hung from their hangers so close to a porch overhang I cannot imagine how they will get light, much less be watered.  In my opinion, none of these options are a good look.

I understand the economics of a 10″ white plastic basket.  They do not occupy precious greenhouse floor space.   Small trailing plants have the luxury to grow vigorously in a generous airborne soil space-a bigger plant fetches a better price.  People anxious to get a leg up on a short northern season will pay more for a plant with a growing history; pregrown, as it were. Greenhouse growers, they like the plastic, and the white color-as well they should.  Plastic is lightweight, and readily handled.  By this I mean filled with soil, planted, and hung up.  Any growing operation involves lots of steps, lots of care, lots of time and lots of hands.  As efficiently as a growing operation can be handled matters much to the bottom line.  My line of work has put me in contact with countless growers and nurseries.  It matters little whether you are growing 1 gallon perennials, 5 gallon shrubs, hanging baskets of annuals, vegetables or trees-growing professionally is a staggeringly labor intensive and risky vocation.  What if the weather does not cooperate?  What if the drought kills your rhododendron seedlings?  What if the buying public passes by every basket of million bells you have grown?  That white plastic hanging basket of annuals in the spring greenhouse airspace is engineered to provide a grower with optimum conditions to grow a large crop. White plastic reflects light.  This means any given basket will need water on a manageable schedule.  The basket can be easily gotten down for a customer.  The plants get the best light available.  Every greenhouse grower deals with all of the issues of any restaurant chef, times 10.  A chef gets to pitch what is out of date.  A grower furthermore spends lots of time dealing with aging material.  I only regret the baskets do not come with an explanatory note.  The container in which this plant has been grown was selected in the interest of efficient growing only.

  The hundred of white plastic planted bowls that we know as hanging baskets are held aloft via an adaptation of the coathanger; this utilitarian part pains me.  A coathanger belongs in a closet, does it not?  This is just the beginning of my discontent.  Plants root in the earth, and the earth is at grade-right?  Containers have a point of connection to the ground plane. Hanging baskets-what is the good idea behind plants in the air?  I have a tough time answering this question reasonably-but that is based on many years of instinctive prejudice against them.  Plants in airborn dirt-something seems wrong about this to me. 

Any instinctive prejudice-I have time in late February to reflect.  The snow is still piled miles high in Michigan; I have time to review my assumptions about gardening. Those weather people are predicting our two days of thaw will be followed by 2 inches of snow.  This prediction makes me want to weep.  It is almost the 1st of March-can the winter not make a move to let go?   In a calmer moment, I would suggest there are those activities that can make the winter prison time go faster.  In a perfect world, every gardener would examine their prejudices, and move off of them.  In the interest of bringing a little fresh thought to some of my own cold and stale toast, and in the interest of amusing myself, I am rethinking my ideas about hanging baskets.  Why so, this February 26th?

My grower has called my hand.  He is planting his hanging baskets for spring this week.  He has invited me to come over, and get my hands dirty.  He has made it clear.  “So Deborah, if the hanging baskets available in my greenhouse in the spring are not to your taste, what would you plant?  What is your idea?  If you had to have some hanging baskets in your garden this year, what would be planted in them?  Consider this a formal invitation.”  It would be very unsporting of me to refuse, would it not?   

This coming Friday I will be designing and planting hanging baskets.  I am rather looking forward to it.

At A Glance: Sweating It Out

Flambeau Finials

 In one of their garden ornament auction catalogues published nearly a decade ago, Sotheby’s offered a pair of early twentieth century stoneware lidded urns.  The cataolgue description was as follows: “each lobed body with boldly modelled ram’s heads beneath egg and dart moulded everted rim, and flaming lids on rising circular foot and square base, stamped A Brault File, Choisy-le-Boi.”  Flaming lids?  This alone was enough to make fall for them.  More formally speaking, a flambeau is a torch, or flame.  As a decoration, a flambeau is a flame shape; one sometimes sees these flames springing from an urn, or finial.

The flame was often used as a decorative element in antique urns and finials.  This Coadestone lidded urn has the date 1795 stamped into the base.  The word finial comes from the latin-finis, or finish.  A garden finial is a sculpted ornament that terminates or finishes some architectural element, such as gate piers, or fence piers.        

This quartet of cast iron finials auctioned at about the same time are late nineteenth century.  Voluptuous in shape with fluid and gracefully rendered drapery, the flaming lids look more to my eye like some fabulous hairdo.  At 49 inches high, they are not for the faint of heart.  Even the color is spectacular-for all the world they look like they had been painted with aluminum or silver paint.  It would take a garden of considerable size and self assurance to take take them on.  Though I cannot imagine placing them, I would have them in a heartbeat.  They are rowdy, and outrageous.  Gorgeous and elegant.

Happily, a pair of antique English sandstone flambeau lidded urns arrived on this container.  They were of a size and age that made careful crating necessary.  A good bit of the cost of any garden ornament is the expense associated with the shipping.  In this case, a piece of furniture needed to be built to get the pieces here safely. 

My flaming lids are carved in a similar fashion to the aforementioned French finials, but in a less refined style.  This pair of antique English sandstone flambeau finial urns came originally from a Victorian manor house in Derbyshire, England, in Chatsworth House county.  Afficianados of anything English are familiar with Chatsworth; it is a  much celebrated and admired garden.   

The handles are very large, and simply carved from a single piece of sandstone.  Small chips on the sharp edges of the stone consistent with its age reveal the original ochre color of the stone.  The shape of this finial, the handles and long narrow neck bring to mind the shape of an amphora.  From the Greek, “amphi”, meaning on both sides, and “phoreus”, referring to the handles by which the vessel would be carried.  This is strictly my imagination at work here.   
The body of the finial is unexpectedly, and beautifully fluted.  All five foot 6 inches of the stone rests on a waisted socle and circular foot.  The stepped square base at the bottom is generously proportioned and thick.

Statuesque comes to mind.  I find the simple shapes and proportions very pleasing to the eye.  Though massive and heavy, I could see these finials fitting into a landscape quite gracefully.  I could not be more pleased to have them. 

 I did not post this picture of a capodimonte porcelain lidded urn solely from worry that this essay might be making you sleepy.  If you look at the picture, and squint your eyes enough so the cherubs and surface decoration fades, you will see the flame finial and this urn share certain common elements.  They could not be more different in material, surface, effect, size, color, texture and purpose-but they do share a certain something.      


I have given them a special place at the front door.  I think the 1920’s stained glass doors set off my flaming lids quite well, don’t you?

The Garnkirk Fireclay Company

It has been three years since I have shopped for garden ornament in England.  This past October, Rob travelled to England and shopped furiously over the course of 2 weeks; just 2 days ago, our first container was finally delivered.  The shipping has always been an arduous experience, but this shipment was a lesson in the new world order.  No dirt, unknown organisms or moss could be imported. My customs broker requested a crew to come to their warehouse-to dry brush any and all soil and moss from our antique and vintage garden items.  I was reluctant to remove all of the beautiful evidence of age, but I complied.  The rare Scottish Garnkirk fireclay urn circa 1860-1870 pictured above-I just wanted to have it in my possession, along with all of the other things aboard our container.


 Antique garden ornaments have that history that guarantees a story.  What are those stories? The Garnkirk company was founded opened for business in 1832, by Mark Sprot.  He had purchased Garnkirk House in 1811; the Garnkirk Colliery and Brickfield was created nearby.  The name was later changed to the Garnkirk Fireclay Company.  Their fireclay, used to manufacture firebricks and firebrick products, quickly gained a reputation for very high quality and an exceptional light color.  A business in brick, glazed water pipes and other architectural items expanded into beautiful objects for the garden.   By 1833, it became apparent that the ornamental products they made for gardens were a growing and important part of the company. Garnkirk garden ornament was said to “exhibit pleasing forms and a soft mellow shade of color, harmonizing admirably the hue of foliage and turf”.  This reference comes from the Horticulturist, in an article published in July of 1848.  My source for this?  A Sotheby’s auction catalogue from 1999. 

 The Garnkirk Fireclay Company was the largest of its kind in Britain.  The seam bed of fireclay varied in thickness from four to nineteen feet, located some 150 feet below the surface.  The clay was of a composition such that objects made from it had great strength and beauty.  The same could be said for the clay found in Impruneta, Italy;  entire local industries developed from the availability of beautiful and strong clay.  Garnkirk products were shipped all over the world, including the US.   

In 1869, their employees numbered close to three hundred.  Some 200 tons of clay were used daily.  By 1895, the fireclay pits were exhausted.  The company continued production until 1901, when it closed.  It is easy to see why this particular clay was so prized.  It has a dense and smooth surface which reflects light beautifully.  I am sure that density has much to do with the fact that these urns have relatively little damage, considering that they are 151 years old.   

The urns have been colonized by moss, and have patches of black typical on garden ornament from this period.  The engine powering the industrial revolution in the British Isles was coal.  I have seen limestone pieces completely blackened from coal smog.    

None of the research I have done on these urns has revealed who designed them.  The petalled rim is quite beautiful and sculptural, and clearly derived from natural forms.  The incised detail is crisp and dramatic.  The proportions are handsome.  Some very talented person designed these-would that I could know something about them. 


I only know where these urns were for the past year; this leaves 150 years unaccounted for. I do so wish that story could be told; I am sure it would be a tale worth listening to.