Breaking Out The Redheads

redhead socks 003We are having a run of astonishingly cold weather, as in -12 degrees this morning. Cold weather is fine by me, as long as I can keep my feet warm.  In weather like this, I roll out the redheads.  Basspro makes these socks (in the USA I might add) for people who are outdoors in winter for work or for sport. Should you be a ballet dancer, a librarian, or a Mom who watches a kid play hockey, I would still recommend these socks. Warm feet are good, no matter your job. They are expensive, considering that they are socks. Balance that with a lifetime guarantee. And the fact that they will keep your feet warm-even in below zero temperatures. I would not do without them. They work.

redhead socks 004I only have a few pair-that is all I need. I am not working outside now, but I have a pair of Corgis who want me with them when they go out. Can you hear me sighing?  Howard makes his trips out short-he is not so keen about this weather. But he refuses to be left behind.  I am sure Milo was a sheep herding dog in Cumbria in his previous life. He is happiest outdoors, working.  He has a long fur coat that keeps both water and cold at bay. When the temperature is 12 below zero, he is happy out there longer than I can stand. My best defense against walks in the snow with him-these socks.

redhead socks 005It doesn’t really matter whether I am wearing boots, or tennis shoes.  The insulation provided by these socks is what keeps my feet warm, and dry. Their insulating quality is easy to figure-they are 88% Merino wool.  Some say Merino wool is the finest wool on the planet. Like the sheepskin rug that Milo is curled up on under my desk, certain natural fibers have great insulating qualities.

merino-sheep.jpgThe Merino sheep is raised, and prized for its wool. The annual shearing varies, depending on the country and climate, but suffice it to say a Merino sheep has a wool coat most of the year. Insulation, no matter the source, can protect against heat just as it protects against the cold. If you are like me, wool can be scratchy and irritating.  But Merino wool is very fine textured, and soft. Merino wool socks-perfect for the winter.

merino-is-the-best-wool-in-the-world1Given that this wool comes from an animal that must be cared for every day of its life, good wool is expensive. The lambs get born. They get raised. The sheep graze, but they get counted every day. They get health care. They get extra feed during lambing season. They get sheared once a year.  There is a sheep farmer with a farm and a family behind anything you buy that is made from Merino wool. Chances are, the entire family participates in sheep farming. Any honest work, I support. But I buy the socks because they are of great quality. Wool is a great insulator-against the discomfort of a really cold winter day.

February snow and cold 009But let’s get back to these socks. For this picture, I flipped the top of the sock inside out. I was curious-why do these socks keep my feet so warm? The knit is regular and smooth on the outside.  The inside of the sock tells a different story. It looks dense and wooly – lofty.  As in lots of loft.  redhead socks 011The 88 percent Merino wool has a looped structure on the inside.  These loops hold their springy shape, no matter how many hours I wear these socks.  Those loops create an insulating layer.  The thick wool layer, endowed with a commensurate layer of air the temperature of my body, insulates me from the cold. Am I making a pitch for basspro redhead socks?  No. My idea is to address the idea of insulation, for a gardener.

winter-2008.jpgThough this picture was taken at the shop in 2008, it accurately describes our current snow cover. That thick layer of snow then, as now, insulates the plants against the devastating effects of severe cold and wind.  Just like a rocking pair of Basspro looped Merino wool socks insulates a foot against the cold ground, and the cold air. Plants in my zone subjected to incredibly cold temperatures without the insulation provided by snow will surely show damage come spring. Extended cold and wind will adversely affect marginally hardy plants. Every gardener in my zone learned all about this the hard way, this past spring.  But plants buried under a thick layer of looped ice crystals suspended in air keeps the daily vagaries of the weather at bay. Winter protection has everything to do with steady conditions. If a plant is buried in snow, the daily swings in temperature and wind are not much to worry about. A wild swing in conditions can be deadly. A landscape with no snow cover subjected to vicious cold and wind can sustain considerable damage. My boxwood need their wool socks right now. Happily, they have the socks they need to survive.  I am hoping this cold snap will snap out of it fast. A few days is no cause for alarm. This is a very long way of saying that I am not worried about the effect of this current bitter cold snap on my landscape and garden.  It is buried deep below nature’s alternate version of the gift of Marino wool-the snow cover.

English Stoneware Garden Pots

English-stoneware-garden-pots.jpgAnywhere 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.

English-pottery.jpgThe 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.

English-coal-fired-kiln.jpgThe 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.

coal-for-the-kiln.jpgThe kiln is coal fired, with a type of coal that is very hard and clean burning. Anthracite is very difficult to ignite, but once it is burning, it burns with a smokeless blue flame.

English-stoneware.jpgThe 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.

garden-pot-production.jpgThe 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.

Europe 2014 1017It 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.

kiln-door.jpgkiln door

Europe 2014 1068stacks of salt glazed potssalt-glazed-pots.jpgEnglish salt glazed pots

salt-glazed-pots.jpgfired earth

salt-glazed-stoneware-pots.jpgsalt glazed stoneware pots

English-salt-glazed-garden-pots.jpgpot stacks

salt-glazed-strawberry-jar.jpgstrawberry jars

pot-stack.jpgEnglish stoneware garden pots

ssalt-glazed-garden-pots.jpgThese pots may be subtle, but their story is remarkable. I am so looking forward to having them again.

 

A Snowy Interlude

February snow (16)As near as I can tell, we had 16 inches of snow fall yesterday.  Actually, it didn’t really fall-the wind blew it every which way. It started out slow, but it was steady.  At 5 pm yesterday, I had decided the weather forecast people had been outwitted by Mother Nature once again. We had some snow-but we always have snow. A winter in Michigan without snow is rare. The piddling daytime accumulation surely was not the volume of snow we had had by this time last year. I was yawning.  By 6pm the speed of descent had really picked up, along with the wind. Hmm. By 10 pm, I knew the snowfall would be considerable.

February snow (17)This was our first snow storm of the winter.  As much as I detest being shut out of my garden, the winter landscape can be quite beautiful.  If a landscape has been designed with a winter season in mind, there should be plenty to look at. I suppose I should be censured for still having my garland and wreath up in February, but it has a wintry look to me. I like having it to look at.  I feel the same way about my winter lighting. How the lights melt the snow-bravo, those lights.

February snow (15)The evergreens in my landscape are beautiful, given either a dusting, or a drubbing of weather. We had lots of wind; would that I were able to photograph it. It was fierce. The big Norway maple in the back left of this photograph was swaying, and creaking. The sound was as spectacular as the motion.

February snow (5)In the morning, the landscape was all about the depth of the snow, and the height of the drifts. Beautiful. Some storms can be utterly destructive and horrifying. This snow, everywhere, whipped into the most astonishing shapes, was breathtaking.

February snow (20)It took an hour for one of my landscape crew people to shovel the drive. They look after me in the winter.  I will admit that I backed the suburban blind down the driveway to the street to clean it off. There really isn’t any other place to put snow here.  The Suburban snow went in the street.

February snow (11)Once I cleaned off the bus, I backed it back up the driveway.  I would need to gun it out of the drive into the street.  Only the momentum established by this heavy vehicle would propel me 1/2 block to the next street over-which had been plowed. My city only plows the main arteries in a neighborhood. I would be on my own, getting to that plowed street.

February snow (6)Before I left for work, I had to take more pictures. We had a landscape/weather event, and I am a fan of such. I am trying not to think about another snow storm, as the snow piles are 6 feet tall from this one storm. But all the snow was beautiful.  I shoveled the upper deck myself.  The snow was dry and powdery-I just pushed it off the deck into the yard.

February snow (2)My winter pots had a look this morning not of my own creation.  Given a rock solid construction, they were unfazed by all of the snow.  Just so much better looking. So striking, the forms generated by the snow.

February snow (8)These plastic picks with rhinestone dots were unbowed, and still glittering this morning.

February snow (1)The fountain yard was sculptural beyond anything I had been able to achieve with this space.  It was corgi-proof.  Even Milo would not venture off the bottom stair. I love the peace and quiet of it.  How the landscape is muffled.

February snow (3)This thick blanket of snow illustrates how the garden is sleeping in the very strongest of graphic terms.

February snow (4)garden bench in winter

February snow (13)fencing, stone wall, and yews-interpreted by the snow.

February snow (7)The snow has transformed my winter landscape-all for the better.

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

stoneware 11

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