Broom Corn Shocks

Given Michael’s comment about the centerpiece in the pots I wrote about yesterday, maybe I need to expand a little about broom corn.  I wrote about it in great detail a year ago-type “broom corn” into the search line of this blog, if you are interested.  The porch pillar in this picture has been completely engulfed with broom corn shocks.  The wiry stems of the seed heads of the sorghum plant I call broom corn is indeed used to make brooms.  The stems and long lasting seed heads on their long stalks are a favorite fall material of mine.  They stand up to the weather, they represent all of those great colors we associate with fall.   This client clearly has has kids-thus the Halloween slant on fall. We encased the stalks of the broomcorn in dried willow stems.  A double loop of bark covered wire keeps the shocks securely skyward.      

The shocks I buy at market are 6 to 8 feet tall.  I remove most of the lower leaves.  The upper leaves that I leave dry and twist in a way I cannot predict, but always like.  We wired the shocks to this porch pillar; a giant bow of orange raffia that covers that wire adds an unexpectedly dressy bow tie type note to those natural stems.  I try to edit as little as possible.  Preserving the feeling of a naturally grown plant is an essential element of using cut materials.   


The fall season is all about slowing down, going dormant, preparing for winter.  That said, there are certain plants that are never better than they are just before a hard frost.  That fall leaf ripe with fall color that moment before it falls-beautiful.  The broom corn seed heads hang on tenaciously throughout the fall-they insure that my fall season container plantings goes long.  Plan to be at your local farmer’s market early on Saturday.  You will not be disappointed.  Any plant in the garden speaks modestly.  Once you have a mind to feature a certain plant, modest moves up and out.  Any beautiful move in a garden, a landscape, or a container depends on you.

Constructing The Centerpiece

No matter what season is in question, a centerpiece in a container planting can organize the planting, and enrich the visual experience.  Fall in my zone means a limited selection of plants grow at a vastly reduced rate.  My summer pots have nicotiana mutabilis topping 6 feet now-none of my fall plants will grow like this.  I have no objection to creating a centerpiece in a fall pot from natural materials that have already grown up, and been harvested.  A case of really beautiful bittersweet arrived a few days ago-I could not wait to use it in some fall container plantings. 

Other natural materials are from places far from my home.  Bahia spears-I have not the faintest idea what plant produced these stems.  They are stiff and woody; these chocolate and gold stems look just like fall.  Dried natural materials are an element that can spice up a fall planting. I love each and every one of my living plants, but the ability to create a shape from natural materials, and integrate that into a planting is great fun-try it!      

The base of this centerpiece-a pair of broomcorn shocks.  Broomcorn-yes, this plant has been widely grown for for brooms.  This means the stalks are stiff and weather impervious.  The seed heads come in a range of colors from cream to red to black.  I zip tie several bunches around a stout bamboo stake.  That stake will keep my centerpiece straight up and down, no matter the weather.  Zip ties-love them.  They hold the heaviest centerpiece together.  I use lots of them, in the early stages of construction.This centerpiece is ready; there are three layers- all zip tied to a stake.  The lower tier-10 faux grass stems.  Fault me if you will for the fake statement, but anything that pleases my eye is ok.  The long portion of this stake will be set way down into to soil of a pot.  This stake is an anchor, and a rudder.  A centerpiece gone out of level is not a good look.  The centerpieces need to stand up straight.  The beauty of any design depends on what your eye can believe.  This centerpiece has a ways to go, before I would call it finished.    

This three tiered centerpiece gets some air from the bittersweet vine sections, and a welcome shot of fall color. I cut the stems on an extreme angle, and work them under the zip tie.  These wild and curving stems will start to loosen up that strictly zip tied affair.  I use lots of zip ties in the construction of a centerpiece, as it will need to travel to the job.  Should you be constructing a fall centerpiece for a treasured pair of pots-go large, go tall-be loose. The ties you do not really need once the entire container is finished can be cut off, for a looser yet effect. 

My centerpiece made the trip to the job without any damage.  It is very heavy, but easy to handle.  My crews handle anything I send their way with aplomb.  The fabric you see draped over the edge of a pot keeps the pot from getting dirty on the rim.  The tarp on the ground is there for the same reason.  A little care keeps the cleanup part fast and easy.  The Redbor kale are the center plants.  These we plant first, so its easy to tell exactly where the centerpiece goes.  Getting the centerpiece in the center is as important as making sure it is perfectly upright.         

Levelling the centerpiece takes some time-and at least four hands.  Once that centerpiece is set, level, and solid, we tweak.  The top most zip tie-we cut that off.  We move this element up, we move that element down.  We deconstruct what we constructed. This is the most important part.  A centerpiece has to be strong and securely made.  But how it gets loosened up is what creates a very natural look.   

All of the elements of the centerpiece gets adjusted after it is installed.  I try to integrate it with the living material in such a way that it all looks lively, and of a piece.

Fall  plantings are all about some cabbages, some mums, some late representing grasses, the pansies-those plants that tolerate cold temperatures.  But fall container plantings are greatly about that gardener that has a mind to represent fall in a way they think is beautiful.    

What is in your yard, drying, now?  Sounds like a centerpiece to be, to me.

If your yard is light on materials that might work in a container, your local nursery or famer’s market is bound to have something. There are lots of possibilities for fall pots- make the most of having a choice.  Your fall pots have lots of possibilities.  Make much of the fall plants that tolerate the cold.  Make more of putting it all together.

Buck’s Fruits And Vegetables

A Canadian city north of Toronto is in the process of updating its library and landscape.  They have devoted some of their property to the development of a space suitable for a farmer’s market.  I suspect they are interested in the library being a community center of sorts, which will attract lots of visitors-for lots of reasons.  I like this idea.  I do think libraries are very important.  Books tell stories, and teach.  Libraries give anyone, everyone, access to books.  What is written or pictured in books is priceless-they are in a way the sum total of our knowledge and our art.  Farmer’s markets are another community icon-over the growing of fruits, vegetables, and flowers.  Much of the fabric of a family is woven over shared meals.  This is the sum total of our community.  I place as much value on this as I do the works of Shakespeare.  The landscape architect commissioned four steel sculptures which will be placed in the new market area landscape.  He was intrigued by Buck’s strap steel spheres, and wanted sculptures in that manner to represent fruits and vegetables.        

I think Buck must have more clamps than any other artisan on the planet.  When he is welding steel straps to one another, every piece must be clamped into place before he fires up that torch.  Before the clamps came out, he did a series of drawing based on the architect’s specifications.  Once the drawings were approved, he printed the vertical steel ribs on a plotter exactly the size they would be in the finished sculpture.  These drawings were 20 times the size of what comes out of my printer.  The steel could be laid to the paper, and bent in the proper arc.        

The vertical ribs were bent in a 3-axis vertical roller.  The steel may appear slight in these pictures, but steel is very strong.  It cannot be bent evenly in a prescribed curve without a mechanical slip roller.  Each vertical rib was welded to a 24″ diameter steel base.  The sculptures will be installed over a light fixture which will illuminate the sculptures at night; this base will accomodate that light.    

The vertical ribs were bent to exactly match the curves indicated on the drawings.  The hroizontal ribs-now the fabrication gets very difficult.  The horizontal ribs needs to be rolled in circular shapes to start.  But in order for those ribs to lay flat on the vertical ribs, they needed a second rolling. A rolling that expresses the cant. You see how this lowest rib lays flat against the vertical rib-there were multiple steps getting the steel to perfectly mimic this shape.

This strap steel pumpkin is a low oval shape, without many clues as to its identity.  Strap steel does not lend itself to delicate gestures.  The curved stem is a signature. 

The raw steel shows all of the welds, and the streaks that come from high heat.  The stem is constructed from vineyard bar-steel embossed with the pattern of grape vines. All of the construction marks will disappear, once the piece gets its finish.  Sculpting in steel is exhausting work.  Buck came home plenty of nights to tell that this sculpture was just about to get the best of him.    Every moment is consumed with handled the weight and changing its shape with high heat and electricity.  This stem will make the identity of this sculpture easy.  

The apple is tall and gracefully curved.  I will confess it reminded me of a hot air balloon-until he attached the stem and leaf.  Poof-apple here. 

It interests me that these very abstract shapes got a representational identity boost with something so simple as a stem and a leaf.  This part of the sculptures was more about sculpting than recreating a paper based drawing in steel.   

This squash is almost 6 feet tall. Imposing, this.  No stem was called out.  I think it will hold its own just fine.   

The pear was the bear.  The shape is not in the least bit symmetrical.  At some point, I saw Buck and Dan throw their drawings away, and fabricate by instinct. Drawing this shape may be easy-making it takes a world of time and trouble. I am sympathetic.  There are times that I need to leave the landcape plan in the car, and just dance.   

Tomorrow these raw steel sculptures will enter the first phase of finishing.  I promise to post pictures of the final finish, before they are crated and shipped. This is a quick visual on the way to a finished sculpture.  Buck and his group turn out some very fine pieces-yes.

Sunday Opinion: Starting Over

Needing to start over is one of my least favorite states of being.  I would do just about anything to avoid it.  It is a tough go to face down a chunk of  time, a lot of effort and materials that got paid for- invested in a plan that comes to no good.  A discouraging turn of events doesn’t indicate a need to start over.  I have had plants take a turn for the worse, that I managed to turn around. Plenty of times I have been faced with a poorly placed tree that I managed to make work with a new bed that made the placement of that tree seem intentional.  Replacing plants that die is not starting over.  Plants die all the time, for any number of reasons, many of which are beyond my control.  Replacing plants dead plants is part of a good maintenance program.  Spots that need a new start usually have to do with a poor choice of plant material, or poor placement.  The 7 years I spent trying to get a large patch of Helleborus Argutifolius to thrive is a testament to my dread of starting over.  The blackened stems and leaves, the distorted flower buds that very first spring was all the proof I needed that my climate is just too cold for this plant.  It took another 6 springs just like the first one before I finally tore them all out, and started over.  What was I thinking, living with that bad choice so many years?  I did not want to start over. 

I am not the only gardener with this problem.  I have a neighbor with a hedge of burning bush planted between the garage wall, and the walk to the back door.  I would say the space might be 3 feet wide.  They were probably 18″ tall when they they were planted.  They want to be 8′ tall and 8′ wide now.  This is their natural mature size.   She spends hours in the spring hacking them back to bare branches, and more hours all summer long further heading them back.  She’s got to know she should tear them out, and start over.  They are so large, it would take four men and a front end loader to properly dig and move them.  I would chop them down, save the branches for my winter pots, and dig out the stumps-and start over.  How the euonymus are pruned to fit the space has produced a look less than pretty.  The interior of each plant is sticks; the layer of leaves on the top and sides is very thin.  There are no leaves at the bottom.  They look terrible, not through any fault of their own.  A hedge of burning bush with plenty of room to grow wide and tall is robustly branchy in the winter, and fiery red in the fall.  Big growing shrubs need a lot of space to grow into what they do best.  What’s wrong here is a gardener who does not want to start over.

 I had a meeting with a client yesterday.  She tells me it is very difficult for her to pitch any plant.  Gardeners are devoted to keeping plants alive, right?  If you grow daylilies or bearded iris, you divide when the clumps are no longer producing well.  Some gardeners leave the divisions they cannot replant at the curb, with a please help yourself sign.  This is a good way to distribute the plants you have no room for.  I have a friend whose driveway is packed every summer with perennials, shrubs and trees in pots.  She and her husband are devoted plant collectors.  She has a large property; when the summer weather cools off, she plants.  When the perennials outgrow their space, she divides, or transplants.  Half the fun of a garden is moving things around, doing better by the plants. This is not starting over-this is fine tuning. 

This scheme does not work so well with large growing suckering shrubs.  It can be a monumental task to dig one with a sufficient rootball that it could survive the transplant process.  Moving it to a new location is another issue all together.  Setting it at the proper height for planting is yet another job.  My crews move plants all the time.  Watching the incredible effort and care that this takes, I think three times before I plant one in the ground.  Moving an established shrub is a major undertaking-both for you, and the plant.  I would suggest that the planning part of planting is a step you don’t want to skip. Have I ever skipped the planning part?  Sure, plenty of times.  Have I made mistakes?   Many more than you have, I promise.  From all the experience I have had with failure, I can assure you that once you overcome the “gravity” of your situation, a better garden is within your grasp.