Rob likes to get away for a few weeks in the winter, before our garden season starts to stir. His choices are always interesting. They never involve a warm or tropical place. A decision to visit England’s lake district in Cumbria, Wales, and the Isle of Skye in Scotland sounded lovely-but in February? There were a few days while he was gone when Michigan was warmer than Scotland, but his photographs are proof positive that the natural landscape – even those in cold climates in February – have a presence that transcends the seasons. These snowdrops in bloom-in the woods in England’s Lake District. Rob’s visual chronicle of these natural landscapes, barely edited by the demands of agriculture and travel, have a haunting beauty I won’t soon forget. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.
Anywhere in the world where garden pots are made, there are stoneware pots being made. As noted in the post on Belgian stoneware, the stone like quality of the pots has to do with the mineral content of the clay, which when fired at very high temperatures, becomes very hard, and impervious to frost. The English made stoneware pots pictured above have a particularly beautiful color and surface, which comes from a process known as salt glazing. From Wikipedia: “Salt glaze pottery is stoneware with a glaze of glossy, translucent and slightly orange-peel-like texture which was formed by throwing common salt into the kiln during the higher temperature part of the firing process. Sodium from the salt reacts with silica in the clay body to form a glassy coating of sodium silicate.” The glazed surfaces of these pots is definitely glassy. The color reminds me of freshly baked bread. Delicious. That glossy brown color is beautiful, in contrast to a treasured group of plants.
The pottery has been in production since 1878. It has remained a family owned business throughout the past 237 years. Each pot is either hand thrown, molded, or cast. The people who make these pots are working people. Just like the gardeners I know. Rob toured the pottery last September, and placed a large order. Pictured above is his rental car in the pottery lot. That order was delivered to our shipper several weeks ago, and will hopefully be on its way to us shortly.
The beehive kiln is very old, but works well enough to thoroughly cook these iconic British pots. The heat from the kiln is recycled into the building where the pots are made, via that large pipe at the top. This ancient kiln is as beautiful as the pots.
The temperature inside the kiln at the height of the firing cycle is incredibly hot. Handfuls of salt are thrown inside, at the hottest moment. This results in a lot of variation in color – but every color variation is beautiful. That heat keeps the adjacent studio warm. Though this kiln is ancient, the pots have a timeless quality to them. They are quiet and sturdy. We so value stoneware garden pots, as when they are properly cared for, they can survive our winters. At one time or another I have left all manner of handmade garden pots outside over the winter. The handmade pots have thick walls, and are fired at very high temperatures. This makes them a more durable pot all around. Stoneware pots are exceptionally durable. If you love terra cotta pots in your garden, consider a stoneware pot. They will grace your garden year after year, without complaint. The design of these pots is all about their functionality. The rims are thick, and resist chipping. The drain holes are generous. Even the small sizes have generous planting area.
The real beauty of these pots is the beauty that comes from within. They are made one at a time, all by hand. They have a history that dates back centuries. They are not fancy. They are handsome, and serviceable. The surface glows, and the colors are scrumptious. These pots do the work, of providing a quietly beautiful home for a collection of flowering plants, or a grouping of rosemaries. The first container load we purchased from them 2 years ago is gone now. It was time to restock. They are very different than the Belgian stoneware pots-but I would not hesitate to put them together. I would be confident to place them in a more contemporary setting as much as a more traditional garden. Their clean lines and simple shapes would work just about anywhere.
It took four months for our order to be made. One pot at a time. They are worth waiting for – of that I am sure. I have held them in my hands, and felt glad to be a gardener. Rob’s pictures of his visit to the pottery tells that story. Early in March, we will be awash in these pots. I can’t wait.
Rob 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.
That 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.
Some 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.
Even 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. These 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.
These 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.
My 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
The day we finally get to doing the roof and window boxes at the shop for winter is usually the day after we get the winter and holiday work done for our clients. Though we have a few bits and pieces that need attention tomorrow, our work is finished. The winter wrap for the shop takes a lot of planning. There are 8 boxes on the roof that are five feet long each.On the ground floor-5 boxes. Many years ago we added plain 2′ by 12″ board shutters, and galvanized and painted sheet metal hats-over each window. Over the space of three warm days this past October, my crew repainted the entire building-2 coats, top to bottom. They did a great job. The shutters got painted the same color as the walls, in the hopes that whatever would be featured in those boxes would get all of the visual attention. The dark greenish brown is a friendly backdrop to whatever gets placed in front of it-whether that be plants or ornament.
A good supplier called-he had purchased a big load of beautiful birch poles, ranging in size from 1″ to 4″ in diameter. Were we interested? The prospect of a great material becoming available sparks all kinds of ideas. Of course we were interested. I had some time to design-there was a lot of work to be done before we would be ready to get our home done for the holidays. Birch poles are extraordinarily beautiful, and notoriously difficult to work with. They are big, clunky, and heavy. They don’t give an inch. Anything you do with them involves plenty of engineering. My favorite part of this holiday scheme-the poles arranged in a long vintage English wood trough. The overall curve has everything to do with the pattern of the stacking stacking-the poles themselves are straight as straight can be. Birch poles in containers can be overwhelming. I have seen plenty of birch poles that look like birch stumps. No grace. The challenge of the poles was going to be great fun.
If you live in Michigan, you know about the beautiful stands of white birch in our upper peninsula. Birch in my area of lower Michigan-really troublesome to grow. Birch borer is a deadly pest. Japanese beetles can chew every leaf off a tree in no time. White paper birch is always a gamble in the landscape. The Himalayan white barked birch, Betulus Jacquemontii, is equally as susceptible. I do plant it, as the trunks are bright white an an early age. Every planting of them comes with a maintenance plan attached. The size and age stands of old birch in the northern parts of Michigan are testament to the power of nature. Extremely cold winter weather kills the borers. The trees grow to maturity. An old and mature birch tree is incredibly beautiful.
This green and white winter scheme is punctuated by members of our grapevine deer collection. Their curving and quite sculptural forms stand in stark contrast to those implacably white and implacably straight poles.
The shop windows got the full treatment. A pair of 6 foot long birch poles frame the shutters. Thick fir garlands were draped over the window hats- to which we wired whitewashed snowflakes. A short, narrow, and angularly placed birch branch in the center of the garland overhead was kept company by a few snowball picks. The boxes are stuffed to overflowing with mixed greens. Fir, incense cedar, berried juniper, white pine, shore pine, noble fir, silver fir, mountain hemlock and German boxwood all mixed together-friendly, and warm. Like a thick blanket. The very cold is soon to come for us. We mean to be ready.
Winter and holiday picks have their place. The gracefully curving white washed snow ball picks are a contrast to the clipped hedges, and those poles. I would use any material available to me for a winter container arrangement-both natural and not. The idea here is to celebrate and take pleasure from a season in which the garden is dormant. Anything goes. Anything could be great. Anything might bring a holiday smile to your face. I love this holiday season, and plan to celebrate the garden gone quiet in any way available to me.
The dark of the evergreen boughs and the white of the birch are in stark contrast to one another-too stark, in my opinion. But we are waiting for the last element to complete our display-the snow. Once we have snow, I think we will have our own version of a Michigan winter wonderland. This is a good thing-to be ready for the snow.