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.

stoneware rocks

stoneware collection

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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

The Grapevine Deer

deer 2014 (2)It is a yearly thing at Detroit Garden Works – the arrival of the grapevine deer.  In celebration, we outfitted a window box with all the fruits of the harvest. Cabbage, romanesco broccoli, lime green cauliflower, white onions, pumpkins and gourds. Tieing all of the individual elements together – one roll of grapevine-a material so versatile and appropriate for display in a garden. The window box turned out to be a perfect spot to place a grapevine sculpture of a doe. The two elements compliment one another, and speak to the time of the harvest.  The rolls of grapevine that we stock year round look great in, under or around containers.  They soften and highlight any fall planting. A deft hand can make the wiry dried vines drape gracefully. A tree trunk gift wrapped in  grapevine for the winter is a lovely wrap indeed.  They can provide a support for a more lax growing vine, such as clematis.  The grapevines that hang over our fence are lush in the summer, and so sculptural in the winter.

grapevine deer (1)These grapevine deer are the most beautiful use of grapevine I know. They rank high on my list of beautiful garden sculptures.  This natural material and the natural form it represents fits into the garden effortlessly. Sections of the sinewy vine are woven over welded steel forms.  They are a powerfully sculptural interpretation of the beauty of nature.  Who makes them?  A group of people who most of the year tend a vineyard full of wine grapes. In the fall, when the vineyard work is done, they collect the prunings from the vines, and sculpt.

grapevine deer (3)
The vines of the grapes are quite stiff, and unyielding. Working with them to create a shape is sure to produce blisters-I have first hand experience. It could be that these vines are soaked and softened before they are fitted over the steel form. I do not know their method of construction, but I do know they are beautiful.  I marvel at these gracefully curving forms.  I further admire the perfectly parallel placement of the vines over the form. These vines woven over a form is a study in strength and endurance.  Just like a garden.

grapevine deer (8)It is striking that such a stiff material could be made to convey  such soft and natural natural emotion as a doe tending her fawn. Though  I have plenty of clients whose gardens are under siege from deer, it is hard not to appreciate this pair. These sculptures are not about the trouble that deer in the garden present.  They are about the the presence and beauty of nature.

grapevine-deer.jpgThe standing buck sculpture is tall. The antlers are woven around square pipe that insets into a larger pipe hidden below the surface.  I could see it placed in a field of hellebores, or in a grove of trees.

Dec 23 2010 047One year I took a buck home, and used it in lieu of a Christmas tree. It spent the rest of the winter outdoors in the garden. With a yearly rubdown of a penetrating oil sealer, they last for years outdoors. If you have ever tried to compost grapevine, you know how long it persists, even in contact with the soil. Should the vines ever need replacing, the forms can be sent back for fresh vines.

grapevine deer (5)The sculptures are remarkably stable.  If they do blow over, they are easy to right.  For a completely sturdy installation, it is easy to hook a heavy gauge steel hairpin through the steel loop at the foot.  All of the sculptures are life size.  The standing buck is about 5.5 feet tall, excluding the antlers.

grapevine deer (6)A family

grapevine deer (5)Garden sculpture, properly placed, is all about adding another layer to the experience. Looking for a garden sculpture that will look like it has always been there?  Consider the grapevine deer.  Interested further?  http://www.detroitgardenworks.com/garden-store/statuary/grapevine-deer-2/

Who’s Choosing Whom?

stone-urns.jpgShopping for anything is one part fun, two parts research, and 5 parts anxiety. The anxiety is the toughest part. Is this avocado ripe enough to serve tonight?  Will these tennis shoes be comfortable? Will this washing machine handle all of my needs? Is this tennis racquet appropriate for my level of play?  Will I like this sweater next year?  Is this the right choice?  You get the drift.  If you have a mind to plant containers for the summer season, the first order of business is choosing the containers.

concrete urns.jpgContainers first and foremost need to be of proper proportion to their placement.  Little pots belong on a garden dining table.  Mid sized containers are fine on a terrace.  Container that flank a front door need to have a size appropriate to the front porch.  Proper proportion is to my mind the single most important design element. Galvanized buckets on the stoop of a cottage or an apartment balcony are appropriately sized for the occasion.

galvanized-tub.jpgGiant galvanized containers next to the side door may overwhelm that secondary entrance. That same container in the center of an herb garden is a properly sized anchor for the garden.

concrete-pots.jpgOnce the issue of scale is determined, there is the issue of style. A cottage style house does well with informally designed pots.  A very formal house asks for formal containers. An Arts and Crafts style house has its own language and vernacular. Containers that fit answer the architecture.  A home is the largest sculptural element on a property. The pots need to follow suit.  Breaking the rules can be effective.  A large pot in a small space can be very effective.  A traditional home complimented by contemporary pots can present an unexpected visual  pleasure.

black-aluminum-urnsContainers are available in all sizes.  Tall and short.  Tall urns can sit on the ground.  Short urns can be elevated off the ground with pedestals. Narrow containers can dress up a tight space.  Wide containers can hold down a big space.  The tall and the short of it depends on what you want at eye level.  Tall containers, or urns on pedestals, can be seen from the sidewalk.  Low and wide planters can warm up a pool deck.  Small planters can dress up a garden table.  Medium height planters can put the flowers at eye level on a dining terrace.  A big tall planter, planted big and tall, becomes a screen warding off bad views.  A fabulous antique stone urn planted with a dome of moss focuses attention where it should be – on the urn.

stone-trough.jpgAntique stone troughs come with lots of history attached.  Planted with succulents, they are great for those moments when a gardeners looks downward. They can be filled with water and water plants. Any container properly sited will look good, even when it is empty.

Italian-style-urn.jpgNo container does face to face better than an urn on a pedestal.  Face to face is good at the front door.  Or in the center of a beautiful garden.  Or as a focal point in a landscape.  This English concrete urn in the classical Italian style has a considerable presence, and could organize a fairly large space.  This urn features detail such that the planting would need to acknowledge rather than cover it.

fiberglas-bowls.jpgFiberglass planters are light weight.  They are perfect for water gardens.  Spherical planters are especially effective in contemporary and geometrically organized landscapes.  They are great next to a lounge chair, or a bench.  A well planted bowl will keep you company.

oak-orangerie-boxesThe material of a planter says much about style, period, and architecture. Formally designed and fabricated wood orangery boxes recall an age centuries old. French formal, for sure.  Four wood orangery boxes could organize a formal landscape with ease.  One casually fabricated or vintage wood box stuffed with herbs at the center of a cottage style vegetable garden is all about home. Great meals. Fresh food. When the wood starts to deteriorate, no cause for alarm.

Belgian-stoneware-pots.jpgBelgian stoneware containers are subtly textured.  They are solid, simply modern in shape, and frost proof.  Any contemporary home and garden would be happy for them. That said, the simplicity of their shapes make them easy to fit into any scheme.  galvanized metal.jpgGalvanized metal buckets and tubs are an alternative idea.  Once you have sorted out the proportions, the style, and the size, and the aura,  you may have the idea to go way wide. Or way unexpected. Have at this.      Italian-terra-cotta.jpgI find that no matter what containers I would choose for my landscape, the container usually chooses me. The containers that would work well for you will choose you, if you listen.  This can make a decision much easier to come by.  What container would your home, terrace or garden choose?

square-steel-tapers.jpgEvery home and garden has an identity all its own.  What gets contributed by the gardener in charge makes that presentation all the more beautiful for being personal.

burlap-sack-pot.jpg Who’s choosing whom?  Good container choices depend on a lively interaction.

At A Glance: The Branch Fountain

April 19, 2014 (49)To each and every one of you who left a comment about this new fountain from Branch, my sincere thanks.  It was a sculpture that was months in the making. So much conversation.  So much thought.  So many members of the Branch group stepping up.  All of us fell for this fountain.  We are pleased that you like it too.  This morning my colleague, friend, and director of landscape services for English Gardens, John Collins, brought an operator in on a Saturday, who drove his Volvo 6000 pound capacity front end loader several miles down Orchard Lake Road to Detroit Garden Works.  Our front end loader could not unload and place this fountain. We needed help, and our good friends at English Gardens responded.

April 19, 2014 (55)Branch spends some of the winter building containers, pergolas and fountains outside of our usual product line. The best part of a fierce winter at Branch is the opportunity to go beyond what we have already done.  Imagination is like an ocean, water charged with energy washing up on the shores of what has been before.  Branch manufactures a stock group of garden boxes, fountains and pergolas.  But in the winter, we go off course, we dream, and we make what we have never made before. This winter work gets all of our blood moving, in spite of the cold.   But my lame attempt at a poetic description of the creation of this fountain lags far behind the story and reality of moving an object that weighs close to 2 tons.    April 19, 2014 (60)John, and his Volvo,  handled it with ease.  I truly value the relationships I have with other companies in my field.  English Gardens has many garden centers in our area.  They speak to a broad spectrum of clients via their retail locations.  They also offer and deliver thoughtful landscape design and installation.  They are friends and treasured colleagues.  I so appreciate that they would lend me a hand.  On a Saturday, of course.  All of us are busy working during the week this time of year.  And especially busy, given how shy spring has been to make an appearance.

April 19, 2014 (64)Once the fountain was in the general vicinity of its home, we set it down with the loader forks.  We picked it up again with straps slung over the forks, to place it true and square to the wall.

April 19, 2014 (72)Once in place, Buck and Sal saw to attaching the jet.  The jet pipe was threaded by hand, and screws into the base plate welded to the fountain floor.  The jet needed a secure installation, as it weighs close to fifty pounds.

April 19, 2014 (76)Any fountain demands a perfectly level placement.  Water levels itself with the horizon.  A fountain out of level -not good.  The water will talk about any mistake.  We spent a good bit of time with a pallet jack and a level.  Any fountain asks for as close to a perfectly level placement as possible.  Leveling is the most time consuming part of a permanent installation.  When filled over the top, the water should flow over every inch of the rim equally, and at the same time.

April 19, 2014 (78)The Branch fountain has a rectangular housing for the pump.  It has a jet in the same style, shape, and proportion as the fountain itself.

April 19, 2014 (79)The rectangular pump cover encloses all of the workings of the pump.  No one needs to see this.  The fountain could be hard wired with a remote location for the pump, if an installation warranted that. But for now, it can be fired up by plugging it in.

April 19, 2014 (80)This steel nest jet breaks the water falling from a very powerful pump.  The music that a fountain produces is important.  I could not be more pleased with the sound.  It is musical, not at all metallic.

April 19, 2014 (81)The fountain filling and the pump running – a moment I will not soon forget.  There is such pleasure in bringing the construction to a close, and attending opening day.  We have 3 other fountains just about finished at Branch.  More on that when they are actually here and running.  Buck says we will have them within two weeks.  It has only been within the last 10 years that I have seriously considered water as a feature in the landscape. Now I would not want to do without it. No matter the size or scale, water in the garden is a pleasure.  Bring on the ponds, birdbaths and fountains.

the Branch FountainThe Branch fountain is now on display at Detroit Garden Works.  Thanks again for all the comments and calls-we all appreciate every one of them.  Should you live nearby, we invite you to stop in and see for yourself.