At A Glance: One Stem At A Time

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All of these winter containers came to be, one stem at a time. I hope you enjoy the pictures as much as I enjoy the process.

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one at a time (2)one glass drop at a time.

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DSC_6573Lots of the pots pictured above were done by Rob. I learned from him how to slow down, and work one stem at a time.  He is confident enough to let a design evolve.  Nothing hurries him.  My advice?  Don’t hurry.  Take one step at a time.  Have fun.  Be challenged. Go ahead. Our 2014 winter and holiday container construction is underway-I hope yours is too.

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.

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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.

The Materials

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Let’s suppose you have a great collection of materials.  A truckload of one gallon pots of wildflowers.  50 perennials of 5 kinds in the trunk.  2 flats of groundcover.  10 flowering stems from the garden asking for a vase. A palette loaded with brick.  5 yards of compost. A box of tulip bulbs.  A small tree in the markdown lot at a local nursery. The remains of the branches from a dead tree. A truck load of fallen leaves. A cutting from a rose. A pack or a pound of seed.  The trimmings from a boxwood or yew hedge.  The log rounds from an old tree that had to come down. A collection of galvanized buckets. The cuttings from a rosemary plant. All of those materials may be asking for something to be made for the garden.

cedar-cone-and-grapevine.jpgGreat materials fuel any great garden project.

hardy-hibiscus-stems.jpgAn armload of stalky cuttings from  perennial garden in the process of being cut back for the winter might have a place in a winter display.  Coming up upon the winter season, what can be harvested from the landscape may make the long winter easier to bear. Great materials are also readily available from your local farmer’s market.  Our market features birch poles, red twig dogwood branches, dyed integrifolia, and pine cones. The natural materials available come the end of the gardening season will be the mainstay of my winter containers.

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The  genius of natural materials can drive great design, and great work.   Any natural or living material that happens to come into my arms is a call to make something of it..  Making something  of a collection of plants, a pile of dirt, or a group of materials, is one way to describe a gardener.  The byproduct of making a garden is an opportunity to repurpose materials that can carry on and delight into the next season.   In the late fall, gardener make plans to endure the long winter.  Making something beautiful of the garden harvest will make the winter easier to bear.

okra-pods.jpgThe gorgeous cut stems from the dogwood and willow, the garden and the forest floor or the field next door-what will you do with them?  These materials are asking for an expression from you. To follow-a few ideas. My ideas-take from them what you will.  Go on to take those materials, and interpret them how you will. To follow, some stick works that might inspire you to create something all your own.

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DSC06434stick stacksDec 17 2010 069yellow twig dogwood

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Michigan holly

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red-twig-dogwood.jpgred twig dogwood and Michigan holly

bleached-twigs.jpgpainted sticks

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December 17 2012 019grapevine

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Nov 28 2012 084farm grown red twig

winter-container-arrangements.jpgthe sticks-what will you do with them?

The Stick Crop

natural-twigs.jpgThe most glorious color award in the landscape must surely go to the fall season.  From the asparagus to the sweet gums, color is in the air.  The green of the evergreen shrubs and trees is all the more intense by contrast with the colors sported by the leaves of deciduous plants.  Once those leaves fall, the landscape takes on a much more subdued and subtle palette. The natural birch branches, honeysuckle vine rolls, grapevine deer, wood crates and pumpkins in the above picture are one shade of brown or another.  The bark of the linden is a gray variation of brown. So much brown!  The garden is going quiet. For every gardener unwilling to go quiet, the branches, twigs and poles available late in the fall can offer a new lease on a garden life.

red-curly-willow.jpgFor those gardeners who live in more northerly zones, the time between the last of the fall leaves and the spring crocus can be a very long time indeed. This means that the shrubs and trees that sport bark with great color are of great interest. Planning a landscape for winter interest is a good idea in my zone. My dilemma-space.  I have a very small urban property.  I run up against the limits of the space all the time.  Given a large property, I could have swaths of red and yellow twig dogwood, groves of bungeana pine, a group of London planes, and all manner of interesting willows.  Lacking that kind of space does not mean that I have to do without some winter color.        red-twig-dogwood-bundles.jpgI am fortunate that there are farmers in this country that grow certain species of shrubs and trees from which they harvest cut branches. Our shipment of cut branches arrived a few days ago.  The colors are astonishing.  The dogwood branches have glossy bark in a variety of shades of red and yellow.  The curly copper willow is a yellowy orange.  The flame willow is the color of cinnamon. The red bud pussy willow has a glossy dark red brown bark, and red orange buds. This color and bark texture destined to last throughout the winter- so welcome.

red-twig-dogwood.jpgThe species red twig dogwood is dull and dark red. Cut from the garden, this dogwood has small branchlets, and cream colored growth scars. New cultivars of dogwood sport clearer and more intense color than the species.  Spring Meadow Farms has been instrumental in offering great new cultivars of vibrantly barked shrubs to nurseries.  Dogwood which is grown for branches is at some point cut back near to the ground. This process is known as coppicing.  The English have been growing shrubs and cutting them back hard with the express purpose of harvesting the branches for fencing for centuries. A shrub that is cut back hard responds with vigorous new growth.  The straight and unbranched new growth provides the best color, and the glossiest bark.  The red twig dogwood “Cardinal” has the most brilliantly red bark of any cultivar I know.  The color of these branches is as luscious as a red tulip.

pussy-willow.jpgPussy willow is an enormous growing shrub whose main claim to fame is the fuzzy and silvery spring catkins that sally forth in the spring. But pussy willow branches are a gift to a winter landscape. We buy the cut branches at 6 feet tall or better.  The green and chocolate bark, and the orange red buds are sensational.  So how do I use these glossy barked and beautifully colored branches?  In containers at the front door.  On the mantle for the holidays. Over the door.  They can be woven into wreaths. In any application, they are a lively reminder that the harvest from the garden can endow your winter seaso..

red-bud-pussy-willow.jpg A casual bunch of branches has a more informal and traditional look. They pair well with other materials available for the season-grapevine, evergreen boughs, pine cones, dry hydrangea flowers and berries-even the sturdy remains of perennials from the garden.  Ornamental grasses, cut and fixed to a bamboo stake make a graceful foil to the more substantial branches.

yellow-twig-dogwood.jpgAn arrangement of fresh cut branches can have a very contemporary look, placed vertically in a container. The height is a welcome addition to a winter container.  Stems stuck into soil may very well root and sprout in the spring.  The willow leafing out means the branches can be part of a spring container planting.

cut-twigs-and-branches.jpgThe branches are beautiful this year.  They make an enormous visual impact in a winter landscape with minimal color.poplar-poles-and-grapevine-rolls.jpg These poplar poles are much bigger than a branch.  There are places where barked poles are the perfect thing.  A celebration of the season in whatever style and shape suits you.

twig-time.jpgDetroit Garden Works is a source for branches, twigs, poles, and other natural materials in November.  These materials help to make the celebration of the winter season all the better.  These branches can help make a winter landscape all the more beautiful.