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

The Photographs

glazed French pots

You may have noticed that this website has a new format.   Indeed it does.  My big interest in updating the blog was that the photographs would be bigger-better.  Clearer.  I am no different than most; say what you will, but show me a picture.  A photograph communicates in a graceful yet direct way. The picture of this French pot does a vastly better job of explaining the look than a collection of words.

A photograph does not require good grammar, or proper punctuation.  A good photograph of a garden can capture the light, the weather-the moment.  The written word-a labor of love which invariably looks like labor.  My pictures-sometimes they capture in one fell swoop what would take me 800 words to describe.

Italian terra cotta pots

I have days when I am not interested in reading the words.  I only have eyes for a visual moment. It took me a few days to learn how to use this new format. The lag time made me furious!  What garden writer wants to be out of touch the latter half of May?  But  I am pleased with the results.

mossy clay pots

I like the bigger pictures.  And that you can see them even bigger yet, if you click on them.  As for my post yesterday about the process of choosing great pots, here is an addendum.  A visual addendum.

The gardener who would fall for this contemporary Belgian glazed pot is entirely different from the gardener who would choose wirework plant stands.  The gardener who would mix them in a grouping of pots-another sort. But enough of the talk-enjoy the pictures.

cast iron jardiniere

French cast iron jardiniere

American ridged concrete bowl pot

two-tiered plant stand
two tiered wirework plant stand

English concrete rectangle

glazed French terra cotta

glazed French terra cotta

limestone urn detail

concrete pots

brick and rock pot

terra cotta pots

Rob planted these Italian terra cotta pots.  The combination of great pots and great plants-truly lovely.


Hot As Bloody Blazes

My shockingly chilly and record setting rainy spring has given way to temperatures hot as bloody blazes.  Temperatures in the mid nineties sounds like July or August-not early June.  I hate planting an annual, a perennial or a tree when it is 95 degrees.  That level of heat is incredibly stressful to transplants-not to mention people. This pool and terrace under construction needs containers-now.  It would be a challenging environment for plants newly transplanted even if it were not 95 degrees.  This will be a blisteringly hot spot in the summer, even on a cloudy day.   

Annual plants have very small root balls-think of it as a life trying to survive in a coffee scoop. Growers use soiless mixes for a lot of reason.  A soilless mix is sterile-no weeds or disease can infect a crop.  Soiless mix is light and easy to handle.  It provides a grower with a lightweight medium that they can fertilize to their personal specification.  If all annual plants were grown in home grown garden soil, no one would have the strength or patience to haul all that weight home and out to the garden.  I transplant all of my container plants into real soil.  That soil will give up its moisture slowly.  This will help the small plants to get established, in spite of their peat based root balls.

A soilless peat based mix can dry out in a matter of hours on a blisteringly hot day. What this means to me is every flat or case of 4 inch flowers needs to be soaked before we load in the morning-never mind that it has been watered 3 times the previous day. Those growers who have plants under glass right now-their lives are a misery. Anyone who grows plants is infected with that miracle of life gene. They would water non stop until bedtime if they needed to. There is that instinct to preserve life.  Preserving life in these containers will require careful plant choices. This means plants that like very hot and exposed locations.

Newly planted plants may need daily water when the temperatures skyrocket. Serious water deprivation may not kill a plant, but it can stress a plant such that its growth is greatly compromised. Make the distinction. Do not water just because it is hot. Some plants wilt from heat-not a lack of water. Butterburrs and dahlias come to mind. They will perk up when the temperatures drop. Water those things whose roots are dry, and water until you are blue in the face. A water bandaid does little-soak thoroughly.  Thern let the soil dry out before watering again.  Overwatering plants in very hot weather is like issuing an engraved invitation to any fungus that happens to be nearby.

Clustering pots in a smaller area is a good look, but it also has  some practical value.  I have containers in 4 places in my garden-and I have a hose nearby for every one of those spots.  Grouping enables me to display a collection.  The collection of pots and the collection of plantings will have interest individually, and as a whole.  These containers are made from large slabs of volcanic stone-hence the perforated surface.  I am assuming the slabs are cut with a giant saw.  The simple round French terra cotta pot is a good foil both in shape and color to the severely geometric grey stone.

Steel box and rectangle keeps a single stone square company midway down the length of the pool.  Of course this arrangement could change, once the pool furniture is placed.  No matter how many times I study the plans and diagrams, there is no ubstitute for seeing all of the elements in place.

This pool terrace asked for a good many containers.  Both the pool and the terrace are very large.  My clients selected what forms and shapes appealed to them; I put together a collection.  I placed all of their containers on the terrace today-it was 105 degrees.  During the entire time I was arranging, I was oblivious to the heat.  Not so my crew.  They were doing the really heavy lifting.  A pair of antique English cast iron horse troughs from the 1850’s weighed over 1 ton each-these we placed with a front end loader.  Once we set them in place, each trough was lifted off the ground via 12 pairs of hands, so a hard rubber spacer could be placed underneath each leg. 

 My clients are wicked intelligent, and have a clearly sophisticated point of view. Though they have a decidedly modern perspective, these antique troughs appealed to them immediately.  They were certain that they wanted them.  They work beautifully here.  They have a very dramatic setting here, which they can handle with aplomb.     

A pool terrace this size asks for a very large statement from every container.  I have some thinking, and some shopping to do.