The Fireplace Mantel

Have you ever?  This fireplace, with its painted surround and mantel is like nothing I have ever seen before.  The wood panel on top of the mantel, with its elaborately detailed carved vignette soars better than 14 feet above the mantel.  I would guess the entire fireplace tops out at more than 20 feet.  A new client wanted this mantel decorated for the holidays.  What direction would I take?  The room’s furnishings and rugs are in dark and rich tones-rust, red, and brown.  The Christmas tree was densely trimmed in copper, gold, and green ornaments-and lots of  very wide brocade ribbon.  This made for a good start.      

The client, charming and friendly-quite unlike this very imposing architectural feature.  She said she was sure she would like what I did.  I made sure to take note of what she liked.  People generally surround themselves at home with things they like-things that make them feel comfortable.  I knew the only holiday decoration which would harmonize comfortably with this fireplace would need to be very large, and tall.  A pair of cast iron urns would provide the weight I needed for a tall element.  The copper curly willow branches, bahia seed pods, and copper glass ornaments made for trees of a holiday sort, that would sit on the mantel.    

Felt furniture dots underneath the urns insured there would be no scratches to the wood.  The garland for the mantel would be anchored to these very heavy topiary trees.  Attaching a garland to a mantel is always a challenge, if there is no option to sink screws into a wall, or brads into the wood.  Any opportunity for a vertical decorative element with enough weight to hold the horizontal element in place is welcome.   

A 6 foot long garland of faux white pine was p[laced behind each of the urns, and wired together in the center of the mantel.  Fresh magnolia braches were added to that garland.  It did not seem to me that the garland needed much else, besides some very wide ribbon. 

Working with ribbon can be a challenge; wired ribbon is so much easier to work with.  I get the ribbon on, check the lengths, move it this way, and that, before I worry about the finished appearance. Once I have an idea of the shape and directions of the curves, I can fine tune.  This ribbon is copper sequins in the center, and woven gold on the border-sumptuous.    

It took another 40 minutes after this picture was taken to get the ribbon out of its awkward krinkly phase, and just right.  Flowing and graceful takes a little time to achieve.  

 I like decorating the mantel for the holidays. I like even better that every mantel is different, and that every client is different.  What characterizes all of them is an interest in making sure to represent the holiday.  This client just moved into a new house 4 days ago.  This massive fireplace that is open to two rooms has a very simple and shallow mantle.  We dressed it simply in silver fir lashed to a length of bamboo pole, fresh pomegranates, artichokes, oranges, and a few white coconuts. As her furniture has not yet arrived, and boxes are everywhere, she was thrilled to see this sign of normal holiday home life.    

This granite fireplace surround has no mantel.   It is the only solid surface in a wall of glass. A mixed garland of Douglas Fir and white pine is draped over the very top, and trails almost to the ground.  This is a very modern version of first fireplace pictured.  It has the same imposing scale and presence.  A very large mixed green wreath is of a scale proper to that massive granite surface. The tweo fireplaces could not be more different in appearance, but they are much alike in spirit.     

This client’s mantel is constructed from purple anodized wire, glittered netting, chartreuse reindeer moss, and three dimensional gold fabric stars.  Though the wood mantel is very traditional. the holiday materials are anything but.  A wired artificial garland provides a base to which all the other elements are attached.  Lead sinkers or pot feet, can provide additional ballast, should you need some. 

The garland on this mantel is low, so as not to obscure the print over the fireplace.  The elves at each end-yes, this is a family with kids. 



Several years ago, all my mantel got for Christmas were three pots of pink cyclamen.  Who knows what this year’s decoration will be. This much I know-it will be different.



What’s Good About This?



These pots are a bit of a bedraggled mess, but there are some good things about them.  It is proof positive that we have 4 seasons, each of which lasts about three months.  I planted them the end of September- that makes this planting just shy of three months old.  This client got a full season’s worth.  I did have a client who did not plant fall pots this year.  By October 15 she was wondering when the winter pots could be done.

Twigs and greens become available in the early part of the winter season.  The twigs arrive after all of the leaves have dropped; in a good year, this is November 15.  The winter cut greens are not far behind. She emailed me threee times-that fall season with empty pots proved to be a long one for her.  This fall pot is finally beginning to succumb to the effects of relentless fall rains, and cold.  The kale are still amazingly fresh looking and colorful.

 The mess of a deteriorating situation reminds me of the look of my perennial garden in early winter.  The grasses bend, go over, break off, and blow down the street.  The kales are still their inflexible and massive selves.  Brown is beginning to seem like the dominant color. Clearly my client has not touched these pots up in any way.  All of the dead leaves are still there.  Not one thing has been snipped off, propped up, or fluffed out.  What I am looking at is the end of the fall season, plain and simple. 

I don’t mind the look of plants going dormant, or succumbing to the cold.  There is a certain stark beauty in that.  I had to chop back all of the perennials in my rose garden early this fall, as I repainted all of the trim and windows on the house. I am already missing seeing that garden in its early winter incarnation. 

This spike will eventually dry to a pale cream color.  The wiry stems firmly resist decomposition.  Would that my hosta leaves would dry, rather than collapsing into mountains of yellow mush.  Hosta leaves are mostly water; a good frost finishes them off for good.  Have you ever tried to rip a spike leaf in half?  The entire plant would come out of the ground first.  If you have a plan to leave your dead plants in your pots over the winter, spikes and grasses will brave the winter weather better than most.

Certain plants represent robustly-all fall long.  The cabbages and kales far outlast the pansies, and the creeping jenny.  The seed heads of grasses far outlast their foliage.  Vinca maculatum is the most amazingly cold resistant plant.  It is as green as green can be, in December. 

There are those bridge plants-plants that can thrive for more than one season.  The succulent trailer known as angelina is green all year round for me.  Persian Queen geraniums are great in the summer, and good very late into the fall.  The fairly new perennial geranium Rozanne is still throwing flowers in December.   Some pansy cultivars planted in the fall are right back the following spring. I probably will redo this container for winter, but I do not really need to do so anytime soon.

Happy Anniversary, Delphine

I read Paradis Express regularly.  Delphine Gitterman writes this blog-she truly loves anything and everything relating to the garden.  She doesn’t write so much.  She publishes lots of pictures.  We have become fast friends, via an internet that permitted us to talk, and get to know one another.  She lives some 40 miles north of Paris; I live in Michigan.  She is an art director; her partner Lucien is a garden designer.  

This past fall Rob shopped for Detroit Garden Works in France.  One night of that trip involved a dinner-Rob visited Delphine and Lucien.  Via skype, Delphine called me.  I got to be part of that dinner.  Via skype, she was exactly whom I thought she would be.  Energetic.  Committed.  Thoughtful, and passionate.  Compassionate.  She wore me out.  Thank God she has made time for me.  The images she assembles for her blog are always striking and provocative.

She has a passion and enthusiam for the garden few others could match.  Her interests are wide ranging.  How she circles the globe, and reports on gardens and artists amazes me.  Her blog is five years old. Her pictures sass me.  They energize my thinking.  They enchant me.  Do you read Paradis Express?  If not, you might take a look.

This photograph published on her anniversary post says everything about Delphine.  A tiny truck, hauling an enormous Christmas tree accurately describes her.  She would willingly move a mountain of ideas with a spoon. She is one single person beaming to all of us about the miracle that is nature.  Her take-decidedly unconventional. 

She has a voice that I greatly admire.  Happy anniversary, Delphine.

The Holiday Tree

The history of the Christmas tree is long, and well documented.  How amazing-people from very different backgrounds and points of view bring a tree indoors, for the holidays.  As a landscape designer, this process not only interest me-it enthralls me.   A decorated Christmas tree is one of the most iconic holiday expressions imaginable.  My late season landscaping makes the transition to the expressions of the holiday season without much fuss-I am still installing trees in December.  Farmers who grow Christmas trees, I admire them in the same way that I admire farmers who grow brussel sprouts, or tomatoes.  Do I see holiday decorating as a form of gardening-oh yes.    

These holiday trees dressed in glass ornaments and wired gold bows are simple clusters of branches fixed to a second floor railing.  They are a personal and individual interpretation of a Christmas tree.  This expression suits the taste of my client, and looks great in her house.  I have other clients with fairly modern tastes that still want a very traditional holiday tree.  Sometimes there are children and family involved in that decision.  But this is a matter of choice, not necessity.  All that alternative tree takes is an alternative point of view.   

Rob’s constructions of branches and lights recasts the tree as a burning bush.  It would look great inside or out.  With ornaments, or without.  Once a decision is made to take another direction, an idea can evolve.   

This past winter, I sunk a cut Christmas tree into the pot in my side garden.  8 strands of gold lights got wound around that tree.   This was my garden Christmas tree.  I so delighted in the light that drenched the south side of the house.  I will confess I lit this tree until the end of February.  If it haqdn’t been visible from the sidewalk, I probably would have kept it lit through March.     


I put up and decorate this tree for a client with small children every year.   This tree revolves around ornaments created and chosen by their children.  Other ornaments symbolize their family history.  Every year, the Christmas tree is laden with the evidence of their family history.  You would be surprised at how many adult children do not want there parents to change anything about the family tree.  Those kids are clearly kids who have good memories of their childhood holiday.  

Rob’s latest idea of a holiday tree-astonishing.   He arranged a number of poplar branches in a glass vase.  He went on to hang wood bird ornaments, and cream colored pompom garlands  on those branches.  Spare, architectural, and dramatic, it features the gnarled branches and elongated buds of the poplar.   

A Christmas tree taken to the minimum- this diminuitive steel wire interpretation of an evergreen holiday tree looks great, hung with pewter colored glass ornaments.       

I myself change up, and reinterpret the Christmas tree, every year.  I like to try new things at the holidays, as much as I like to plant my containers differently every year.  I stuffed tall cut magnolia branches into a foam form set in a concrete footed urn.  The classic Italian style of the pot looks good in my 1930′s vintage house.  Boxwood and lights at the bottom completed the look.        

This artificial tree is incredibly good looking to my eye.  It makes no pretense of copying the look of a live tree-this I like.  It is a sculptural interpretation of a tree.  The brown/olive color of the branches reminds me of a dead hemlock.  The branches are sparse, making it easy to hang lots of ornaments, or none at all.  It reminds me of the Victorian feather trees so popular in the late 19th century. 

These metal Christmas trees are tall, and have but a few branches.  They look great with just a few ornaments.  The size makes it possible to have a tree in a small space.  The shelf where these trees sit is but 12 inches wide.  The flexible metal branches make it possible to have all of the bulk of the tree in the front, and none in the back.      



kThis client likes having a Christmas tree in his study.  The glass ornaments are simple, and jewel colored.  The dark olive green, burgundy, brown gold is an alternative color scheme. 

This little tree is comprised of small scale branches set in a vintage bucket.  Small berries were glued to the stems.  Short stems of eucalyptus were stuffed into the base.  A collection of red felt bells topped in holly is the only other decoration.  It doesn’t seem to need anything else.  Just to its left, a cardboard cone covered in dried lichens.  I like this tree too.

What will I do at home this year?  Last years holiday tree was in fact a holiday buck.  I put a sheet of plastic on the floor, and puddled 50 feet of evergreen roping around the Buck.  Several sizes of lights are kept company by a few lichen balls.  A collar of oversized sphere lights completed the look.  Deciding what to do this year-that is much more than half the fun of it.