Freezing Weather

holiday containers 2014 (5)Our recent weather has been much more like January than November.  Day time temperatures the the 20’s, and night temperatures in the low teens does not mean we postpone our winter container work. Even if we could, there isn’t any need. If the prospect of doing winter container arrangements is leaving you cold, perhaps some of our techniques might help make it more satisfying.  Trying to create is tough when one’s fingers and toes are numb. Most of our construction is done indoors-in our garage. Any enclosed space will be a more comfortable environment in which to to work, even if it isn’t heated much. When we do go outdoors, it is for active work-the installation part.

holiday containers 2014 (6)Some of our centerpieces are constructed ahead of the installation time.  A very stout bamboo stake is at the center of every centerpiece.  All of the other materials are arranged around that stake.  Sometimes a good quality rubber band helps to keep the materials in place until you get everything arranged exactly as you wish.  For large and heavy materials, a loose zip tie will do the trick.  For very heavy materials, another pair of hands is best.  Once all of the materials are arranged to suit, we tighten the zip ties with a pair of piers.  Very bulky and heavy materials are secured with concrete wire. A centerpiece may have multiple components or layers.

holiday containers 2014 (7)We construct forms for our greens from dry floral foam.  We glue two layers together for added strength. All of our premium greens are in the range of 18″ long, and are fairly weighty.  Large scale pots may ask for that entire width over the edge in order to look properly proportioned. We can get 2 lengths of greens from one long bough for smaller pots. For pots larger than 36″ in diameter, we usually glue the foam form to a piece of 1/2 inch thick exterior plywood for added support.  The winter pots need to look good over a long period of time in which the weather can bring high winds and heavy snow. Nothing is more miserable than trying to repair a winter container arrangement gone over in mid January or February.  The foam form is secured to the soil in the pot in two ways.  We remove the top 4 inches of soil, so the lower level of foam fits down into the container. The upper level holds all of the boughs.  We sharpen the stems of the greens, for a tight fit.  We then drive rebar through the foam and greens into the soil, and wire the steel posts together. The hole you see in the center of the foam-a place for the centerpiece.  Foam forms do not have to be exact.  They are an armature giving support and flexibility to the finished arrangement.

holiday containers 2014 (8)All that remains to add to the centerpieces on site are those finishing materials that gives each winter container a distinct and unique look. Very contemporary winter pots may be as simple as a mass of twigs set into cut greens. There are plenty of other materials available, should you want a softer look.  These winter pots have sinamay (also known as poly mesh), bleached pine cones, pale gold holiday picks, and mini vine rolls. Rob does a great job of sourcing a wide variety of materials that can find their way into winter pots. He likes giving every gardener lots of choices. We have a long winter ahead.holiday containers 2014 (3)All of these accessory materials are either wired to the greens, or wedged into the stick stack.  All of these materials will be fine outdoors over a winter. Does this process seem like much too much work?  It isn’t really-as the process from raw materials to finished container is not only fun, but doable.  Any gardener can do winter pots for themselves.

First National 2014 (1)
In composing a winter pot, keep in mind that you are without that miracle we know as growing. The winter pots are the same size and scale on the last day of winter as they are on the first. Eucalyptus is bulky-a single bunch will go a long way.  If your container is large, consider 2.  If you want to feature this material, go to three bunches, and use fewer fresh cut twigs.  Sinamay is a synthetic mesh that when rouched like smocking, will occupy lots of space.  No amount of snow will distort the shape you create from the beginning.  I brush the snow off my sinamay at home when the snow threatens to bury it. Curly Grapevine rolls create a lot of volume from not much material.  These mini vine rolls are perfect for adding an airy layer of interest to this pot.

First National 2014 (2)The materials in these pots are subtly colored, but are of a volume proportional to the size of the pot.  The centerpieces is red bud pussy willow, in a 5-6 foot height.  Some pots need a tall element. Branches are graded by height, so the height you need is the height you get.    The fresh cut natural branch sets the stage for the character of all of the other elements.

First National 2014 (3)Though the pots are 36″ tall, and 36″ in diameter, the arrangement is graceful.  Each pot is different, as they are done by hand.  Done by hand can endow anything you with a certain feeling.  Containers imagined and arranged by gardeners have that hand made look. The evidence of the human hand is always attracts my attention and interest.

holiday containers 2014 (4)These pots could stand as is until the spring.  I don’t mind a little sparkle during the winter.  Alternately, they would work just as well, if the sinamay and pale gold sparkle picks came out after New Years.
holiday containers 2014 (2)These very large containers have enough variation in materials to provide some interest, even though the color palette is subdued.

holiday containers downtown 2014The steel gray color of the pots was an important consideration in the selection of the materials.

holiday containers 2014 (1)Few things pain me more than pots sitting empty over the winter. Pots full of this or that, enduring over the course of the winter, speak to the hope that grounds every gardener.  The garden goes on all year round, does it not?  Some seasons, the forms and available materials are different. No reason not to celebrate, whatever the weather.

Boxwood Obliteration Warning

heavy-snow.jpgMy friend Michael wrote me yesterday that the National Weather Service should have issued a “boxwood obliteration warning” along with all of their other communiques on our endless string of winter storms.  I perfectly understand his irritation. We have had storm after storm, layered between bouts of very cold temperatures.  This means the snow is piling up.  The piles along my sidewalks are easily 6′ tall.  Thick layers of snow are extremely heavy.  My boxwood hedges are very densely twiggy, and seemed to be handling the weight with relative ease.  But some select spots of those boxwood hedges are beginning to look alarmingly splayed open from the weight of the snow.  Am I worrying-oh yes.  Other shrubby plants are beginning to get that smothered and half strangled look.  This observation having been made, I have always been a member of the do not touch group.  Am I recommending that you do not touch a shrub going down from a load of snow?  No.  How you handle your garden is your business.  What is to follow is a discussion of my experience.  Do with that what you will.

snow.jpgMy PJM rhododendrons have broad leaves, arranged in tufts atop slender branches.  Heavy wet snow in 28 degree weather that sticks to those tufts usually slides off.  But if the temps take a sudden dive, those wet greasy snowballs can harden and stick.  A weighty iceball on the end of a long slender branch can prove very destructive.  Every gardener in a northerly climate has seen damage to trees and shrubs from ice.  I have a substantial dogwood branch that broke close to the main trunk last spring.  The weight of the ice on the branches was enough to snap the branch, almost through.  As for these PJMs, warmer weather will tell the tale.  I feel quite sure if I were to try to dislodge this caked icy snow, I would damage the plants.

azaleas-in-winter.jpgWhen snow buries both evergreen and deciduous shrubs, I have no worries.  Snow is an insulator, a winter packing material of sorts.  Most snow is light, and infills all of the spaces between the branches.   But when heavy snow collects, freezes hard, and glues itself to the ends of branches that are not so hefty, an alarm goes off.  Shall I brush the heavy snow off of the tips of my shrubs, or leave that snow be?  Plants are tough, but maybe not tough enough in their already stressed circumstances to withstand a broom.

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I do not plant even arborvitaes when the weather is right around freezing.  The needles will surely brown wherever I touch them.  I do not brush the snow off of any plant-especially when the temperature is really cold.  I have always thought that my efforts to clear snow from my plants may do more harm than good.  I am more inclined to back off, and wring my hands in private.  Plants have an incredible will to live.  I have a substantial broken dogwood branch that has been hanging on by a one inch wide piece of bark for better than a year.  It is loaded with buds for spring.  No matter how terrible the winter weather is, my inclination is to not intervene.

buried-yews.jpgSnow cover which is frozen through and through is a tough coating to remove.  Just tonight I was chopping ice on my deck with a shovel.  I do not want to slip and fall-nor do I want my corgis to slip and strain a muscle.  I am not a fan of ice anywhere in the travelled landscape, except as a last resort.  Chopping the ice on a deck is a vastly different issue that brooming wet frozen snow from my yews. The densiformis yews pictured above have arms bent to the ground.  I have no idea if those branches are bent to the breaking point.  Branches are subject to all manner of insults from weather.  Wind, sun scald-the scraping from my staking, the scale-branches endure assault year round. Should I broom the snow off of them?  Could I damage the branches even more, if I interfere?

heavy-snow.jpgMost of my boxwoods are buried in snow.  Once a too heavy snow load falls to one side, and splits open a shrub, I am alarmed.  Snow can be heavy enough to crack branches open.  There can be fresh hell to pay in the spring.  Cracked branches are an invitation to disease. A beloved boxwood hedge with a big dead section is enough to make any gardener weep.  My advice?  Do not intervene in the natural order of events, unless the need for intervention wakes you up in the middle of the night.  If you must intervene, use a long bamboo pole-gently.  Wait until the weather is close to, or above freezing.  A branch frozen through and through is brittle.  If you must remove excessive snow, tickle it off.

buried-boxwood.jpgThere are those that favor removing snow from shrubs.  There are those that favor letting nature take its course.  For the moment, I am standing pat.  A good bit of my reason-I cannot really reach them anymore.

hydrangeas-in-winter.jpgNo matter the work that I do in my garden, I feel sure that each and every plant comes equipped with all the survival gear it needs.  Nature has never needed much from me.  I am believing these densiformis yews will spring back, once we have a decent melt.  But there are those moments in a garden that warrant intervention. The trick is to judge the right time and circumstance.

February-snow.jpgThough I am not entertaining, planting, weeding, or watering right now, my garden is on my mind.  Like the corgis, my garden cannot tell me where it hurts.  I observe, and make my best call.

hydrangeas-in-February.jpgMy winter weary shrubs – it is a worry.  And we have more snow on the way.

 

 

In The Pink

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The dark days are here.  The needled foliage of the yews are not spring or summer green.  They are black green.  The colder the weather, the darker the color.  By contrast with the snow, the boxwood foliage is dark too.  I don’t mind it, really.  Not now.  But as the winter drags on and on, that brown, black green, black, gray and white can get to be tiresome.  Not that I envy gardeners in California.  I wouldn’t trade how one season gives way to the next for a warm and sunny winter.  Having grown up in the midwest, a warm and sunny winter would just seem wrong.

pink-eucalyptus.jpgBut I won’t have to worry about coping with a limited and severe color palette.  My winter garden in front of my house will be in the pink-dreary winter month after dreary winter month.  Does the pink in this pot seem implausible?  Not to my eye.  The curly copper willow looks great with the brick.  The gold sinamay has enough orange and enough mass to look like a party. The pink eucalyptus has a lavender cast, set against the cinnamon brown willow.  Pink is by no means a traditional holiday color, but why not?   How a color reads has everything to do with its relationship to neighboring colors.  Color also reads so differently in daylight, or night light. Suffice it to say, we will have an abundance of gray days the next few months.  I like the idea of unexpected winter color.

holiday-garland.jpgThe holiday garland features pink bits.  Funny how what seemed in the studio to be overwhelmingly pink looks so much more reserved outdoors.

evergreen-garland.jpgIt is hard to make out the individual elements from the street.  There is the dark green of the evergreen boughs, punctuated by a color and forms that attract the eye.  Pink may be out of season in the garden, but it is in season in my holiday garden.  Of course anyone who comes to the door gets a clearer view.  That is the point, of course.  My landscape has a street presentation-neat, simple and well kept-and not especially given to the personal details. Those details are reserved for people I know and expect.  For a guest that arrives at the front door, there is an element of surprise.

pink-eucalyptus.jpgI would call this a juicy look.  In contrast to the austere look of the overall winter landscape. I favor juicy, no matter the season.  As in hellebores in really early spring, tulips in the late spring, and roses in June, and the hibiscus in late summer. I like flowers in the landscape.  Clematis in bloom is quite unlike the color of any other green plant.  As much as I like boxwood, yews, hosta, lady’s mantle and Princeton Gold maples, I like colors other than green-no matter the season.

winter-pot.jpgWhite in the winter is a regular feature.  Snow is snow.  In this picture, the orange and pink looks companionable to the remains of my hydrangeas.  The color scheme fits right in.  The snow makes its own demands visually.  Everything snow touches turns their color close to black.  Snow that falls on temperature darkened ever greens is all about the contrast between black and white.

tree-in-the-side-yard.jpgMy pot in the side garden has a cut Christmas tree in it, strung with 7 strands of mini lights. At night, the glow is visible from the street, and from the south side of my house.  I find that warm light comforting.  Appropriate to the season.  The lights add another color to the winter landscape-a warm color.

parrotia-in-winter.jpgLest you think there is no pink in the Michigan landscape in the third week of December, I invite you to give a look at my Parrotia.  It is the very last tree in my yard to change color.  The leaves are a brilliant yellow in late fall.  This tree has yet to give up its leaves.  They might stay stuck the entire winter.  The dry leaves are pink – granted a muddy subtle brownish pink.  But pink,  nonetheless.

 

The Garden In December

December-garden.jpgEvery gardener’s circumstances are different, but our December is notable for the coming of the cold.  No matter what year it is, my plan for the holiday and winter garden at the shop has to include an element that is warm.  The lighting is warm.  Sparkly or reflective materials can be warm.  The sentiment of the season can be warm.  Rob says the shop garden this year is cozy.  As in yard after yard of thick fir garland.  Concolor fir, noble, silver, Douglas, balsam-fir is a very sturdy and long lasting green outdoors.  The garland was loosely wrapped with grapevine garland.  The contrast of the bare vines and the lush garland   The window boxes have fir blankets.  The windows have fir hats.  It was 14 degrees this morning when I took this picture, but the garden looks warm.

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The window boxes are stuffed with mixed greens.  As the mixed greens are long and lax, we do a few rows of noble fir at the bottom of the greens to support the entire arrangement. Noble fir is very stiff and strong.  Winter weather can be fierce.  Snow, wind, ice and various mayhem from the sky can take a toll on a container garden one would want to last until March.  Making an arrangement sturdy and strong is more than half of the work of it.

warm-winter.jpgThe centerpieces are composed of red bud pussy willow, ochre eucalyptus, a few springs of metallic gold eucalyptus, and a ruff of gold sinamay. For good measure, a dollop of sugar pine cones completes the look.  Given that the building is large, and the garden is mostly viewed from the street, or from a car, the materials are over scaled. A smaller pine cone would not have much impact given the scale of the building.

holiday-container-arrangement.jpgOver the summer, these Belgian blue stone plinths supported Italian terra cotta pots with boxwood spheres.  Winter arrangements in my zone ask for pots that are frost proof. Though boxwood is generally hardy in pots, I would be uneasy about an extended period of low temperatures.  We have had an uncharacteristically cold late fall-12 degrees overnight is much more like late January than early December.  This garden would have a very bleak look, but for its winter dress.

holiday-container.jpgWinter gardens are for viewing from a distance.  It is unlikely anyone will be lingering here for long.  Big, warm, and simple gestures go a long way towards banishing the winter blues.  A design which gives the illusion of warmth is appreciated when the weather is so dreary.  Decorating the garden has its benefits.  It feels good to have something to do that at least approximates gardening. And it is nice to have something good to look at while the garden is dormant.  This garden is just about ready for the snow.

warm-winter-decor.jpgThe fir hats over the windows are composed of garlands that are attached to bamboo poles.  Garden has a natural tendency to fall, swoop and swag.  If you want a straight and orderly appearance, a bamboo pole will keep all of the clippings in line.  The poles are then wired to the pediment.  I like this construction technique for mantels too.

wrapped-tree-trunks.jpgMy favorite part of this winter garden are the garlands and grapevines on the tree trunks.  Deciduous trees have a very spare and sculptural look during the winter.  These over sized scarves that puddle on the ground make the trees look protected and warm.

Detroit-Garden-Works.jpgThere are those places yet to finish.  These urns need something.  The pots need some lighting.  A favorite part of this winter project is the ability to work on it as time and inspiration permits.  Last January I had the basic idea for the garden.  I ordered boxes of grapevine garland, for the building, and the trees, and for Rob’s steel hanging spheres.  Taking the time to let a garden space speak back is my idea of luxury, and part of the great pleasure of the doing.  I may still be tinkering with this 2 weeks from now.  There’s no rush.  Winter will be with us for a long time.

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Warm and cozy sounds good.