Belgian Stoneware

stoneware 3Rob has been shopping in Belgium for at least 15 years. He has a considerable affection for the topography and natural landscape, as it reminds him of Michigan. The garden ornament has a solid and unaffected feeling about it. Many of the things he buys there have their roots in agriculture-cisterns, troughs, and the like. The pot pictured above comes from a pottery whose work he greatly admires. This will be the third year we have offered these Belgian stoneware garden pots. The come in three colors-taupe, gray, and black. The shapes are simple.  Though the shapes are smooth and graceful, the surface texture is gritty and rough, in a subtle sort of way.

pots 4That gritty texture and surface is typical of stoneware.  The name stoneware comes from the dense and hard quality of the clay body. This clay body, or type of clay from which a pot is made, has natural characteristics that result in pots more like stone than fired earth, or terracotta.  Stoneware pots are fired at a high temperature, and do not absorb water much after the firing. This inclination to repel water after firing makes this type of clay, and this type of pot, perfect for our climate.  Water that is absorbed by a pot which is them subjected to freezing can result in breakage.  Water expands as it freezes. This freezing action can shatter or break a clay pot. Anyone who has ever inadvertently left a machine made Italian terra cotta pot outdoors over the Michigan winter knows from whence I speak.  This stoneware is frost proof- this is great news for anyone who likes terracotta. Clay pots are made the world over. Clay dug from the ground in Philadelphia is very different than the native clay of southern France, or Italy. Not all clay is of a natural stoneware type. Pots made from stoneware clay bodies are of interest to us, and gardeners in our zone.

stoneware 2Some potters mix their own clay, or choose a clay body/mix that has been made available commercially, that suits their interest and intended use.  Porcelain is the material of choice for an artisan interested in a very fine and formal clay that can be thrown very precisely, and very thin. These large thick walled Belgian pots are made to hold many hundreds of pounds of wet soil without complaint. The natural clay is a friendly visual companion to plants that go in that soil. The texture is just enough, and no more. The gritty surface of this stoneware is a result of adding grog to the stoneware clay body. Grog refers to clay which has been fired, and then ground into hard particles of various sizes. Those particles are then mixed into the fresh wedged wet clay body before the pots are thrown.  As wet clay is incredibly heavy, there is a limit to how large and tall a pot can be thrown, before the clay starts to collapse from its own weight. In addition to providing great texture, both visual and tactile, grog helps provide the construction of a big pot with a little structure. The grog particles have been fired.  They will not absorb water, and melt.  Grog stiffens the wet clay, so larger forms can be thrown at one sitting.

Belgian stoneware 8Even so, very large stoneware pots may need to be thrown in stages. The lower portion may need to rest, and begin to harden, as in leather hard, before the pot can be made any taller. This accounts for one reason why large handmade pots are much more expensive than smaller pots that can be made in one sitting or throwing session. Another reason-the volume of clay consumed.  Very large French terra cotta pots are incredibly thick. Thin walled, large pots would not likely survive the heat of the firing. There may be many hundreds of pounds of wet clay in one pot. I would bet that clay bodies are sold by weight, and that weight can make it expensive to ship them. Of course as the water evaporates out of the pot, the weight is much less.  How a pot is dried, and how it reacts to the firing is a topic of much study.  Pots that have taken days to throw that break or explode in the kiln is a big loss in materials and time.  The cost of breakage becomes part of the cost of those pots that survive the firing.  stoneware rock collectionThese stoneware “rocks” are forms that can be used as a sculpture or seat in the garden.  The shapes are all beautiful, and different.  They have an aura about them, as they have gone beyond function to another level.  I am sure every gardener would perceive and use them differently. Nor would they appeal to every gardener.

stoneware 14These pots seemed quite contemporary in form and color when I first saw them, but I have since learned that what they do best is take on the quality and character of their environment.   I have seen them used successfully in modern, and even quite traditional architectural settings. One client with a classic 1920’s English tudor style house has a pair of these pots at the front door.  They look great.  They do not impose, or attract undue attention. They are simply and beautifully made. They look great, planted up. The statement they make when they are empty-sober and strong. I am not surprised that Rob would have them, a third time around. To follow are some of his pictures of the two containers that came in last week.  You can tell from his pictures, how much he likes them.

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Belgian stoneware 6My discussion of the clay is cursory. I am not a scientist, or a potter.  I just love these pots.  If you have a further interest, you can read more about clay at  Hammill & Gillespie

A Quick Look At Some Stick Work

Federal Reserve Building (8)A  client who calls for work after the holidays is unusual, but we were happy to oblige.  We had materials, and there are months of winter yet to come. They had purchased these large scale contemporary birch faux bois concrete planters from Branch over a year ago.  The landscape is dominated by a single river birch.  An arrangement that would feature birch seemed natural.  We had just enough 3″ caliper poles to fill the pair of planters.  Bunches of white lepto came in handy for filling the gaps between the poles. Our last three cases of mixed evergreen boughs were just enough to soften the top of the pot with a thick blanket of green.

Federal Reserve Building (6)The ground plane of the landscape was done with groundcovers of various types in spaces dictated by a pattern of aluminum edger strip, and gravel.  The pattern established is graphically strong.  There were a few areas designated for a seasonal planting.  The concrete boxes had been planted with chrysanthemums for the fall.  What could be done in those areas that would have some height, volume and presence over the winter?  Our solution was to cut up some 1″ and 2″ diameter birch poles into random short lengths. Each piece had a hole drilled all the way through each end. Each of the poles were loosely attached to its neighbor with heavy gauge aluminum wire. The end result-a giant birch garland.

Federal Reserve Building (9)In order to get some height and mass, rolls of grapevine were stretched out and pinning into the soil.  The pinning was easy, as the ground was frozen.

Federal Reserve Building (5)We zip tied the birch garland to the grapevine where it seemed appropriate.

Federal Reserve Building (4)The large size bamboo poles was a vestige of a previous installation-not by us.  The client wanted to leave them in.  That was a good thing, as they were set into metal sleeves placed below ground.  Water had completely filled the sleeves.  The poles were solidly frozen into place by time we got there. I rather prefer the birch poles here.  They look like they belong in a winter garden in Michigan.  There is a certain authenticity to the materials used here.

Federal Reserve Building (3)In the background, the last of our big linden espaliers.  At 9′ wide and 12′ tall each, they mean something in front of this large commercial building.  Properly cared for, they will only get better looking as time goes on.  Funny how some very large commercial spaces devour almost every bit of the land they sit on. It takes the right material and a very strong design to work in a space like this.  I did not do the landscape design here, but I like it.

Federal Reserve Building (1)Hauling around four sets of fresh cut birch garland was the perfect installation for a 12 degree day.  We warmed up in a hurry. Once we were done, all we needed was some snow.  I wonder what it looks like now that we have a good snow cover.

 

Last But Not Least

winter-lighting.jpgWe did finish the majority of our winter and holiday work 2 days before Christmas. That meant we had a little time to lend a hand to Rob.  Like anyone in a holiday design related business, putting together a holiday home comes last. It was looking like he might run out of time. That would not do; he is someone who gives his utmost to gardening people getting ready for the holidays and winter season. My group was happy to take it on.  A multi colored light garland he had looped over the door was brought back to the shop to be attached to a grapevine garland.  Harvested and rolled grapevine is springy and airy, and holds its shape in the fiercest of winter weather. We added several more all white light garlands, and ran the entire affair up the shag bark hickory in the front yard.

winter-lighting.jpgIf you think it looks as if we ran it way up this tree, you are right. Above the second story. A huge capacity, state of the art extension ladder and four people made it happen.  One climber, 2 people at the base of the ladder, and one runner on the ground walking in circles.  The light garland does a good job keeping the house company.  There is also something about the sheer effort of it that was cheery and grand. With holiday decor, I care about the effort someone has made as much as the result.   I knew Rob would think it looked swell. It is asymmetrical, surprisingly light and airy, and unexpected-all good as far as he is concerned.

light-garlands.jpgAll the different colors, shapes, and sizes of bulbs made quite the light statement. The front of the house-glowing.

light-rings.jpgHis light rings are well known to anyone who frequents Detroit Garden Works.  We took a 3′ and a 5′ ring, and added a string of multicolored garland lights to the interior steel wall of the hoop.  This form may be very very familiar to him, but this treatment is a one of a kind.

light-rings.jpgWhat’s to like about them?  The lighted sculpture is striking.  They are simple to install. Pick a spot, push the prongs into the ground, and plug it in. We have plenty of clients who run them all winter.  Why not?  This picture was taken at 5:15 in the afternoon-which at this time of year is better described as 5:15 in the evening.

poplar-branches.jpg2 pots had the remains of a summer planting in them.  That couldn’t stand. Mixed greens and an a bunch of fresh cut poplar branches makes the pots look appropriately dressed for winter.

HW 2014Another client made a last minute decision to order up a few winter pots. Might he have a little color? A mass of yellow twig dogwood appears all the more substantial by varying the heights of the twigs. The color of the plum eucalyptus is brilliant and saturated against that yellow.

winter-container.jpgWe have had a very fortunate late fall and early winter, as in moderate temperatures, and no snow. Once the snow comes, it is difficult to work outdoors.  Even if your effort is late, it will last a winter’s worth.

At A Glance: Recent Winter Containers

SC winter 2014  2A lot of work has been done this past week.  Seeing this group of pictures, I am pleased that each one has a presence all its own. In showing the draft of this post to Rob, he asked me to click on the first picture, which opens that picture in a larger format, with the added option of viewing the pictures as a slide show. I had no idea-did you?

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