The Case For Planting Winter Pots

I wrote the following article for the December issue of the Michigan Gardener Magazine. For those of you who do not have access to this magazine, I thought I would reprint the article.

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Few moments are as daunting to a gardener as that moment when it is apparent that the gardening season is coming to a close. The stems of some perennials will dry, and persist in the landscape the entire winter. Those with juicy stems will drop to the ground, and begin decomposing as the temperatures dip below freezing. The trees regale the landscape their leaves in full and vibrant fall color. Hidden behind that beautiful display is the process by which the trees are going dormant in preparation for the winter season. Every Michigan gardener is well aware that we have 6 months of the year to enjoy and work in the garden, and that trying other 6 months in which the garden is dormant. Gardeners handle the off season in a variety of ways. They read. They make plans for a new garden. They order seeds, and plants. Some put together a collection of new perennial plants to try. Others grow tropical plants – indoors.
A good many gardeners make sure to include trees with great bark and berries in their landscape. Others leave their perennial gardens intact until the spring. Snow can highlight a dormant garden in a beautiful way. Some gardeners just fret their way through the winter as best they can, or go south when they are about to black out from the prospect of one more day of winter weather. I have another idea worth considering.

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Having been in the container garden business in the spring, summer, and fall for many years, it only took one simple stray thought to entertain the notion of planting pots for the winter. Many gardeners have containers gracing their landscape. Pots at the front door are welcoming. Pots on a terrace provide an environment to the time spent outdoors entertaining. Multiple pots can screen an untoward view. Containers filled with lights are an alternative form of landscape lighting, especially designed to avert the dark that comes early and stays long. Window boxes are a way of integrating nature and architecture. A great container can be the perfect focal point in a garden. A great container planting is a landscape in miniature-wherever you want it. Arranging a winter container has only one hard and fast rule-the container must be frost proof. Think wood, stone, stoneware, metal, stoneware, rattan,or concrete, as opposed to terra cotta.

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I have seen lovely containers planted with dwarf evergreens, but live plants in pots are problematic in Michigan winters. Even miniature evergreens have substantial root balls. If you pots are on the small side, you may not have room to put together an interesting collection of plants. A group of evergreen plants do not grow up and into each other over the winter that will culminate in a gorgeous arrangement. They will look their same separate selves in April as they did the previous November. Worst of all, it is very difficult to keep evergreens alive in pots over the winter. Mugho pines and boxwood can be hardy in pots, if the weather and water conditions are just right. Hardiness in plants refers to plants whose roots are in the ground. Live plants with their roots above ground in containers can be challenging to keep alive. This is all by way of saying that beautiful winter containers can be constructed from cut natural materials, exactly the size and shape you need them to be. There are no end of cut evergreen stems available in the latter half of November. Douglas, frasier, noble and silver fir boughs are readily available. Fir is a great choice of a cut green-they stay green a very long time. For unusual greens, cut boxwood, German boxwood, berried juniper, Port Orford cedar, and countless other specialty greens are available for purchase. Interested in a cut green that will last until April without any hint of dry or brittle needles, or color loss? Mountain hemlock. I shy away from anything beyond a few bits of cedar and white pine-they will dry out and fade long before the winter is over.

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We do not stick cut evergreen stems into the soil in a pot. We take the soil in a pot down four inches when the summer or fall pots are emptied, in preparation for the winter arrangement. We construct a 4-6” thick dry floral foam form which is wedged into the top of the pot. The top third of the form sticks up above the rim of the pot. Each cut evergreen branch is roughly sharpened with the blade of a pair of pruners, and cut to a length representing the finished width of the arrangement. Each branch is stuck into that foam form at whatever angle seems natural and right. I like to approximate the shape of a naturally growing and graceful evergreen shrub. The branches usually grow in a horizontal configuration. Sticking evergreen branches into soil means every branch is awkwardly vertical. Few evergreens hold their branches vertically. A foam form means the gardener has the means and discretion to create a winter container that speaks strongly to the natural order of things. I have seen gardeners top their pots with evergreen wreaths, but wreaths do not have the scale and heft demanded by most pots.That thick evergreen blanket can have no end of other materials tucked into it. Eucalyptus pods are a striking texture, and a lovely wintry blue color. Winter berry (provided it has been thoroughly sprayed with Vapor Gard) is a natural source of red. Pods, twigs and bits from the field or garden can loosen and endow the appearance of the greens.

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As for a centerpiece, no material is as lustrous and colorful as fresh cut twigs. Red twig, yellow twig, and gray dogwood will look fresh in a container all winter long. Cut willow twigs have been known to root in a container over the winter. Curly and straight copper willow, black willow, and pussy willow are but a few of the available choices. We do zip tie our twigs to a stout bamboo pole, the end of which will go deep into the pots. Big centerpieces may need additional bamboo poles or steel rebar inserted all around the perimeter, through the dry floral foam and down into the soil of the pot for extra stability. These additional stakes may need to be wired together. Winter weather can be fierce; thoughtful and patient construction is a must. What you casually insert into a winter container on a calm November day may not hold up in the snow and wind of January. Constructing a winter pot is very different than creating an indoor arrangement.
A winter container takes on the personality and taste of the gardener in charge with those finishing touches that come next. Some will like sparkly picks added just for the holidays. Others will like pine cones, field weeds, magnolia pods or an abandoned bird’s nest. Natural dry seed pots are readily available in the fall. Preserved and dyed eucalyptus can add an unexpected punch of color to a winter arrangement. Good quality eucalyptus does not run, bleed, or fade. Still others favor fresh cut magnolia branches, or dashes of Port Orford cedar. Artificial picks are both convincing and weatherproof. Like the floral foam forms, they can be used and reused over a number of years. Dry stems of hardy hibiscus, butterfly weed, hydrangea, and Bear’s Breeches are beautiful in winter pots. Who knows what materials a fallow field or garden might provide. The materials available from the garden, farmer’s market, garden center or weedy field are just about limitless. Planting pots for winter is an entirely different way of gardening, but it is gardening nonetheless.

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A winter pot is the perfect vehicle by which to introduce light into the winter season. The garden is not only dormant, it is dark. Lights in winter pots on the porch, walk, or along the driveway welcome guests. A pot positioned by the stairs from the deck into the yard can light the way. Light strings are readily available in the fall. Placing them in the winter landscape is a form of gardening. 10 strings of mini lights will not consume much energy, but they will help to banish the dark. A new series of warm light LED strings from Holland are available this year. They are indestructible, very inexpensive to run, and last better than 50,000 hours. A fistful of lights at the bottom of a centerpiece will keep that centerpiece visible long after dark. We have a season ahead where daylight is scarce, gray skies are regular, and the dark comes early and stays late. Lit winter containers light up the winter landscape in a warm way.
A solidly and thoughtfully constructed winter container will delight, entertain, and console a gardener’s eye for as long as 6 months.

More specific commentary and pictures are to come in the next few weeks. All of the above pictures were taken at my house this past December.  I have no idea what will take shape for this year, but I am looking forward to the process.

Planting the Pines

November 6, 2015 162My last post about the 34 limber pines had to do with getting them off a truck, and transported some 450 feet up hill to the place where they would be planted. The first set of 14 Vanderwolfs would be planted around this generator. Building codes in this community specifies that a generator must be completely screened.  These old existing yews were several feet too short, and too thin. It is a very large and tall generator. I ordinarily would not think to screen with trees, but in this case, I felt that Vanderwolf’s pines would do more than provide a screen. They would be a feature of the landscape.

planting the Joe Burke's (4)It is essential to preserve access to the generator for service. A flexibly stemmed soft needled pine is perfect for this function.  A yearly pinching of the spring candles will keep these pines dense. Though shearing long needled pines is common in the landscape and Christmas tree industries, we will not shear these.  We will take a branch or the new growth (called a candle) back to the main stem. We were easily able to co-mingle the branches from one tree to the next, as those branches are indeed very flexible. We set these columnar pines 4 feet apart.  In the spring I will pinch out those wild hairs at the top, and lower the overall height about 18″.  We will keep those trees below the overhang.

planting the Joe Burke's (4)That giant generator is no longer part of the landscape. Landscape designers regularly have to take the placement of outdoor structures in to account. Telephone poles, electrical lines, drain and manhole covers, generators, fire hydrants and transformers are all part of the urban landscape.

KP 015The landscape on this side of the circular driveway was a random mix of spruce, viburnum, and yews, backed up by the neighbor’s old junipers and spruce. It would not be long before the spruce would engulf the yews, and hang over the driveway. In the center island we had planted four circles of spreading cap yews.  The outside ring is 36″ tall.  The inside ring is 24″ tall.  The mass will be kept loose, but in heights descending to the center.  Perhaps some day they will add a sculpture there. Between the yews and the existing landscape is a group of Green Gem boxwood sitting on the driveway, which will be planted in front of the Joe Burke limber pines. And yes, there is a transformer there.

planting the Joe Burke's (8)Once the spruce and most of the viburnum were moved, it is easier to see the issues that would need addressing.  The tall trunks are on the neighbor’s property.  My clients driveway comes within 6 feet of the property line.  I did consult with the neighbor and her landscape designer, and got permission to plant several of the dwarf pines a little over the property lines.  I did explain that these trees would not impact her old trees like the spruce would have. Once we had her permission, there was still the issue of the transformer and cable box. The pines would be added on either side of the box.  We would pick specific trees that seemed like they would handle that placement.

planting the Joe Burke's (19)We were able to determine that a tree could be planted behind the box. We dug this hole very cautiously, and a number of lines, sprinkler and otherwise, traverse this area. Since we could not plant a tree in front of the transformer, behind would be the next best way  to add that foliage and texture to that spot.

planting the Joe Burke's (18)Dan did the initial dig, and transplanted the viburnum.  His was a fishing expedition. He did find sprinkler lines, which were rerouted out of the way of the root ball.

planting the Joe Burke's (6)The curb of the new drive was protected by 4″ by 4″ timbers set on each side, and plywood over all.  We needed our front end loader to set the trees, as the trees were much too heavy to lift. Once each tree was set in the trench that had been dug, they could be rotated in the hole for the best fit with the tree before. This area, where some of the juniper branches were low, each tree had to be carefully fit in to what was existing.

planting the Joe Burke's (21)Planting the tree behind the box came last.

planting the Joe Burke's (22)This tree had a slight crook in the trunk.  When the ball was pitched forward, the branches came very close to the box. There is that perfect tree for every spot. That proximity was not a problem. The service would always be done on the front side.

planting the Joe Burke's (1)These irregular growing pinus flexilis “Joe Burke” fit right in with the background landscape. As they grow, albeit slowly, they will meld in a friendly way to what is there.

planting the Joe Burke's (11)Once the trees were in, the wood, plywood, tarps and soil could be removed.

planting the Joe Burke's (10)The last task was to back fill the trench with soil, and make sure the trees are straight.  They will be getting a thorough soaking, which will help with the insult of being dug, moved, and replanted.

the transformer garden 2The trees will be faced down with Green Gem boxwood that is 15″ tall. Green Gem is very slow growing, and can be kept short.  As the ground is rising here, the boxwood will have a slight bank.

screening the transformerTaller Green Mountain boxwood were used to screen the front of the generator. Once the flexible pines grow, there will be some melding going on here as well. Those big boxwood are not an especially graceful gesture , but they are a better look than that green box.

 

The 2015 Winter/Holiday Preview Party, Part 2

IMG_6420When I wrote yesterday about how Detroit Garden Works only hosts one evening event a year, I had no idea of what was to come.  I had gone home after a long day of tuning up the shop to collect myself, and get dressed for our holiday open house.  It was no problem that I would be a little late.  I have a group I trust and respect who would make sure those opening moments would be perfect. The high winds and rain that were forecast appeared to be skirting us.  But at 5pm I got a call from David that the power had gone out. I was calm.  Maybe I was tired from the weeks long job of transforming the look of our shop. But  mostly I knew my group would figure out how to sort out trouble. We were the only building affected by the outage, so we hoped if we could alert DTE, they would give us a hand. By 5:20,  3 DTE trucks were on the scene.

holiday open house 2015 a (6)The shop is across the street from a DTE (as in Detroit Edison power company) substation.  As Rob was flagging down trucks coming in for the night on our street, and Monica was placing phone calls, our internet and phone sales manager Heather walked across the road, stood at the substation gate, and  pitched our problem to the first person who came to the gate..  We are a business with an evening event scheduled-could they get our power back on?

holiday open house 2015 a (8)Scott and David took to lighting candles. Sonny took the big lead in the dark that descended.  She was teaching guests that did not already know how to use their phones as a flashlight.  By time I got to the shop, there were phone flashlights flickering everywhere. There was shopping going on in the dark. I cannot explain or illustrate how that moment felt. Everyone making their way around in the dark by flashlight was hilarious. No one went home. No one complained. That opening half hour in the dark was a lot more nerve wracking for us than for any of our guests.

holiday open house 2015 a (2)A great friend who had come to our open house from Ann Arbor had much to say about that 30 minutes in the dark. He was convinced that we have gardening friends that value us as much as we value them. I barely had time to think about that before the lights came on. Once we had power, I could see we had a whole house full of people.

holiday open house 2015 a (5)I so enjoy the sight of the shop full of people. All of us work all year round to make the shop a destination. A place like no other. A place for anyone keen for the garden to meet, and experience what we try to represent as a gardener’s life. Nothing feels better than to see people responding to that.     holiday open house 2015 a (7)A gardener life s a big one.  Gardeners plant trees.  They shrub up an awkward spot. They plant containers. They rake the leaves. They plant bulbs.  They compost the leavings. They put flowers on the table. They make room for the dogs and the kids. They travel to other gardens.  They are a great group.

holiday open house 2015 a (10)Our thanks to everyone who made last Thursday evening such a pleasure for all of us.

holiday open house 2015 a (4)Our holiday/winter event runs through Sunday. Stop by if you have a chance.

The 2015 Holiday/Winter Preview Party

holiday open houseI have long been of the mind that the gardening season can thrive during the late fall and can not only endure, but robustly represent a gardener’s point of view throughout the winter months. The stakes are high.  The winters in my zone can be fierce. The skies are an unvarying shade of gray for months on end. We pile on the winter gear, and slog through the snow to work. Our winters are cold and dark. Winter gardening asks for a different idea, different tools, and an active imagination.  I may light a dormant shade garden with twinkle lights strewn on the ground, given that the chartreuse hostas have gone dormant.  The mixed fir evergreen garland wired up with pine cones and other natural materials that will go over my front door for the holiday season will please the gardener in me.  I most assuredly will stuff my containers with cut greens, fresh cut twigs, and anything else I might fancy, with the idea that they will recall the warmth and comfort of the garden over the winter.

holiday preview (18)Gardeners are working people.  Once the last of the spring flowering bulbs are planted, those hands are hard to keep still. I am not ready to cozy up to a stack of books. It was many years ago that Rob and I decided to make something more of the coming of the cold than resignation. We transform the shop into a destination for materials to enrich the holiday and winter season.  Most of the shopping was done this past January.  When our purchases begin to arrive in July, it is easy to spot why we liked them.  Invariably, there is a reference to nature and natural materials.

holiday preview (12)There are lots of bird ornaments. They may be feathered or felted, but no matter the material, they appeal to gardeners.

holiday preview (17)Every year we feature one sort of holiday tree or another.  This year, Rob has sourced tall and thin trees in a variety of species that share a certain look in common.  These trees have been deliberately pruned and grown to produce an old fashioned shape.  These sparse, short needled trees are grown Victorian style, meaning those big open spaces are friendly to hanging ornaments, birds on clips, and garland.

holiday preview (20)We will have plants. We have a great selection of amaryllis, available as bulbs, potted up, or growing in water in glass cylinders. There will be pots of berried wintergreen, and white variegated club moss.  And of course, some hellebores. But the majority of what we have available are garden ornaments that evoke the materials and spirit of the garden.

holiday preview (5)The grapevine deer sculptures are life size, and beautifully made. The frames are steel. The vines will last for many years, given a yearly application of sealer. These are the kind of deer one could welcome to a garden-especially a winter garden.

holiday preview (10)We will open our winter/ holiday season tonight from 5 to 9.  This party is in large part a thank you to the community of gardeners that frequent our doors. We always have new people, for whom this night is an introduction to our place. We will have something good to eat and drink, live music, and lively conversation. We invite everyone to preview our winter collection.

holiday preview (1)Dutch jingle bells in varying shades of blue and gray

holiday preview (11)reproductions of vintage holiday figures

holiday preview (2)fresh cut twigs are a winter staple for containers.  Also slated to arrive today, a truckload of cut greens from a wide range of evergreen species.

holiday preview (13)felted animal ornaments

holiday preview (4)weatherproof contemporary stars

holiday preview (8)wood deer with burlap coats

holiday preview (3)And finally, Rob’s lighting collection. We have some very exciting new options available this year. For those of you who are too far away to attend, I will post pictures of how the shop looks at night. Great lighting can transform a winter landscape.  You’ll see.