How Lovely Are Thy Branches

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
How lovely are thy branches.
Not only green when summer’s here
But in the coldest time of year.
O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
How lovely are thy branches.

                                                ~ Author Unknown ~
 
 

Nothing says Yuletide quite like evergreen boughs, whether still on the tree, or as part of some other seasonal ornamentation. Almost every home at this time of year has the requisite evergreen wreath, swag, garland, or container arrangement. I myself dabble only in the latter; the seasonal container.

I didn’t always participate in this Christmas container frenzy – mixed evergreen branches billowing over the tops of pretty pots, complete with festive balls and bows. It all seemed a bit artsy-crafty to me. But I had to admit, a tasteful arrangement could enhance the overall appeal of a winter landscape. In time I learned to embrace my ‘inner Martha’, though I soon discovered that arranging evergreen boughs in a winter container required a different skill-set than designing a landscape, a garden, or a summer container arrangement. No this required a florist’s flair, a talent this garden designer is decidedly lacking.

My early attempts weren’t particularly spectacular – spruce and juniper branches harvested from trees and shrubs in my garden, with a few dogwood stems sprinkled in. They were a bit drab actually – not surprising since many spruce and juniper species tend to lose colour saturation in our very cold winters, becoming dark and dull. In containers their presentation is therefore lacklustre. Pine however, stays delightfully green, cedar too – I tried those, but apparently any old pine or cedar won’t do. My garden gatherings of stiff upright mugo pine branches and sprigs of Emerald Green cedar just didn’t do the trick. Something with a more draping habit was needed.

Eventually, about the 23rd of December one year, knowing we’d be entertaining family the following night, I decided I should really purchase some suitable greenery. I live only a few minutes away from several greenhouses, so off I went in search of greener greens. Fortunately, since it was so close to Christmas, everything was discounted – which also meant of course, that selection was limited. There was still some fir to be had, and one scruffy bundle of pine. A gentlemanly sales attendant scrounged up a few cedar boughs for me. I needed something taller too, for height and structure. All that was left was some twiggy, tawny-hued huckleberry branches – this would have to do I guess. I plopped my greenhouse finds into my containers, fussed with them a bit, then fussed some more. The end result was…………..well, acceptable.

I continued with these last-minute arrangements for a number of years – they were attractive enough, but I certainly wouldn’t say I’d found my calling. And no festive balls or bows – this was definitely still too Martha Stewart for me.

I guess we must have had mild autumn temperatures that extended well into December, or maybe very timely Chinooks, because in all those years I whipped up my eleventh-hour Christmas containers, not once was the soil in my ceramic pots frozen………until last year. This was the year I decided to shop early for Christmas greens so I’d have lots to choose from. I was like a kid in a candy store. Beautiful bunches of fir and hemlock, soft pine, lacy cedar and elegant cypress, rich red dogwood stems, pretty berried branches and crisp white birch branches – I bought it all, hundreds of dollars worth.

The plants from my summer arrangements were still in the pots, covered in snow (winter had come early) and had to be removed before I could do my holiday arrangement. “No problem,” I thought, “I’ll get my trowel and quickly pop out the dead plants.”  Clunk.  Metal hit ice.  Hmmm.  “No problem,” I thought,  “I’ll get some warm water and melt the frozen soil and then with my trowel pop out the dead plants.” Scrape, scrape, scrape – the warm water thawed enough soil for me to remove about a teaspoonful. More warm water, more scraping, another teaspoonful of soil removed. This was not going to work. Hmmm. “No problem,” I thought. I went inside and got my blow-dryer. “I’ll blow hot air on the frozen soil to melt it and then with my trowel I’ll pop out the dead plants.” Whirrrrr. Whirrrrr. Whirrrrr. There I was sitting on my front steps, in sub-zero temperatures, bundled up like a snow-suited child, attempting to melt a huge block of ice-soil with a blow-dryer. The neighbours must have had a good chuckle at the sight.  Unfortunately, the hot air wasn’t making any difference. My hands were freezing. Feeling foolish and very frustrated, I gave up and went inside.

“How’s it going out there?” asked my husband as I came in the front door. The look on my face answered his question. Not well. What was I going to do with all the beautiful greenery I’d purchased? There was no way those pots were coming inside to thaw – they were way too heavy. When I first bought them I was concerned that, being such pretty pots, someone might walk off with them – so I filled the bottom half with sand and gravel. Nope, nobody was going to move those babies – ever.

“I have an idea” Hubby said. I didn’t want to hear his idea. I wanted to pout and throw a hissy-fit. But I remembered what I’d always told my kids when they were young and something would go wrong: “You need to get out of flip-out mode and get into problem-solving mode,” I’d chirp. So I listened to my husband’s idea. We had some reasonably attractive plastic pots on the back patio – they were painted black but finished to look like burnished bronze. While the soil in these pots was also frozen solid, they weren’t so heavy and could easily be carried inside to thaw. It was a good idea; better than anything I had come up with.

It took at least 2 days for the soil in the plastic pots to thaw, but once it was workable I went to work poking the myriad of branches into the soil. First the birch branches for height and structure. Then the bendy cedar and cypress boughs which would drape over the edges. Then the more rigid fir and hemlock branches, and finally the dogwood stems and red-berried branches for colour. But still no festive balls or bows.

We carried the two pots outside and placed them in front of the unusable ceramic pots. They looked pretty impressive……………impressively large anyways – so large that the evergreen boughs impeded access somewhat to the front door. Perhaps I’d purchased more container ingredients than I needed.

This year I got smart – I made sure I removed the summer arrangements from my containers well before freeze-up. I also removed about a third of the soil so I could add fresh topsoil in which to arrange my evergreens and accoutrements.

A few weeks ago I espied some pretty potted arrangements when driving by a large department store (which I shall not name because I don’t want to give them free advertising). What caught my eye in these holiday arrangements was, I’m embarrassed to say, the beautiful copper-coloured festive balls and bows. I couldn’t stop thinking about these lovely rich-hued ornaments and visualizing how pretty they’d look in my earthy-coloured ceramic pots against the café-au-lait colour of my house and the chocolatey colour of my front door and wrought iron railings. So I went back and bought them.

Originally the idea was to take everything out of the store-bought plastic pots and rearrange in my own pots. However, the plastic pots fit nicely into the mouth of my tear-drop-shaped containers – so there they stayed. I know, I know, for a garden designer this was shamefully lazy, cheating even. It never pays to cheat though, because the next day all the evergreens in one of the store-bought arrangements had turned brown, despite watering as directed. I returned it to the store-which-won’t-be-named, and to their credit, they happily exchanged it for one that still looked alive.

The weather turned nasty a day or two later and my holiday arrangements were soon covered in snow – it was very pretty and Christmassy, but the evergreen boughs turned suspiciously crispy in the frigid cold. I had a feeling they wouldn’t look so good when the temperatures rose again with the next Chinook. Indeed when the Arctic front blew out and a Chinook blew in, my evergreens became everbrown. Sigh. It was now past the middle of December and I was running out of time……..and patience. I brought the pots inside and tried to pull out the dead stuff – they wouldn’t budge. I examined the centre of the arrangements to see what was holding everything so tight – it was florist’s foam ……..very frozen florist’s foam. Sigh.

After a day or two the foam thawed. I poked some fresh pine branches and cedar boughs into it and some reddish twiggy things from an indoor vase which I bundled together to add height. My backyard containers hadn’t been cleaned out yet and still housed clumps of coppery sedge (Carex comans ‘Bronco’) – it was dead but still had some colour and made a pretty addition to my Christmas arrangement. A few sprigs of blue spruce, the copper ornaments from the store-bought pots, and my holiday containers were done. It was night-time when I placed my newly created evergreen arrangements into the ceramic pots – from what I could see in the dark they looked okay; better than the prearranged ones I’d purchased and certainly better than any of my previous attempts.

The following morning, seeing that it had snowed over night, I offered to relieve Hubbie of front-walk-shoveling duty.  My new Christmas containers were dusted in snow. The now white-capped copper ornaments sparkled in the sun.  As I moved down the walkway piling snow this way and that, I looked back towards the house and noticed that from this vantage point the black plastic pots were visible above the ceramic pots. “That looks tacky,” I said to myself. Thinking I hadn’t placed them properly, I attempted to adjust them, but to no avail. I guess the fit wasn’t as good as I thought when I first popped them in there. Sigh. My work was still not done.

I considered my options and determined they were limited. The foam was frozen again so I couldn’t just poke more drapey branches in. I thought about taking the foam out of the plastic pots and placing the whole arrangement right inside the ceramic pots, but one of the chunks of foam had split in half when I was manhandling it trying to remove dead evergreens. I was afraid without the pot to hold the foam together that everything might fall apart. So……….I decided my best option was to drill holes through the side of the pot into the frozen foam and stick more evergreen boughs in the holes. My husband brought me his battery operated drill and showed me how to use it. Bzzzz. Bzzzz. Bzzzz. There I was again, sitting on my front steps, in sub-zero temperatures, bundled up like a snow-suited child, this time drilling holes into my pots – more entertainment for my neighbours I’m sure. I didn’t last long in the cold though, so I brought the pots inside and finished my drilling and poking in the basement. I soon became very adept with the drill, exchanging drill bits from small (to puncture the pot) to large (to fit branches in) with a few quick flicks of the wrist. That’s right, this girly girl was using power tools. For some reason Hubbie found this very amusing, attractive even.

So in the end I did create some not-too-bad looking Christmas arrangements…………………..

Christmas container - RChristmas container - LMy latest container attempts  – I don’t have the flair of a florist, but aren’t the colours pretty?                 Photos: Sue Gaviller

So now that y’all know what not to do when creating your Christmas arrangements, it’s only fair I provide some examples of really well done containers. Deborah Silver, owner of Detroit Garden Works, creates stunning arrangements and shares some of her secrets on her blog Dirt Simple (check out her 3-part tutorial: Sticking It: A Foam Story, The Center Of Interest: A Short Story and The Details: A Story Board).

Just look at these – are they not perfect?

DS Containers 2Photo: Dirt Simple
DS Containers 3Photo: Dirt Simple
DS Containers 5Photo: Dirt Simple
DS Containers 6Photo: Dirt Simple

Well folks it’s December 22nd and despite my best attempts, it seems that my Christmas containers are once again last-minute – but this time they come with festive balls and bows.

 Merry Christmas to All and to All a Good Night,
Sue

Gardens are Like Kids

They Need a Little Structure 

  

Last month, a reader posted a comment recommending a couple of articles she thought might interest me – one written by author/garden designer Rory Stuart and another by garden photographer Charles Hawes. Both were discussing issues related to garden photography and both gentlemen brought up the point that gardeners seem to want their gardens viewed (and photographed) only when they look their finest.

Rory Stuart writes, “Gardens are always hymns to time, and gardeners the leading choristers – “if only you had been here last week”, or “come again next week and they’ll all be out.”

Charles Hawes concurs, “Garden owners want their gardens to be seen at their best and are hungry for praise…………….the garden can never be praised enough and yet such praise never satisfies the owner.”

It got me thinking – why this need to apologize for the state of our gardens, even when complimented?  If a garden is well designed, shouldn’t it look good all the time, and the gardener always feel good about his/her creation? In our harsh prairie/foothills climate, our gardens are perpetually one weather calamity away from near-destruction – late spring frosts, spring flooding, crazy hailstorms, early fall frosts, Chinooks, too-long winters, too-cold winters, too-warm winters with little or no snow. We must approach garden design in such a way that we can be pleased with our creations – no matter the season, or the weather.

I find myself apologizing on behalf of my front gardens much more than those in the back. The gardens in my front yard were created before ‘Sue-the-gardener’ became ‘Sue-the-designer’, and though I’ve spent the better part of the last decade editing and correcting design faults, these gardens still lack overall structure. My back yard on the other hand, always looks appealing, always photographable – I don’t mean to suggest that it can compete with the great gardens of the world (the kind Mr. Hawes and Mr. Stuart would be referring to)…………of course it can’t. It’s a simple low-maintenance residential landscape, designed to withstand the rambunctious play of boys and dogs. Though it looks different at various times of the year it never looks better. The design consistently fulfills its purpose with grace and elegance – even after a hailstorm. And I never feel the need to say, “Oh you should have seen it last week when such-and-such was blooming.”

Okay, maybe not never.

Photos: Sue Gaviller

Two large adjoining arcs produce an uncomplicated but voluptuous curvilinear design. Low-maintenance shrub plantings highlight the design lines creating this attractive four-season view out my back window. Photos: Sue Gaviller

So what is good design? If you’ve been reading and following this blog you’ve learned the basic design process and the principles that guide it. Putting it all into practice – first on paper and then in your own garden – should yield some positive results. However, although a design is rendered on paper in two-dimensional plan view, a good designer must envision the end result in 3D. The garden in ‘real space’ is a three-dimensional entity. It has a floor and walls and often a ceiling – paying attention to both the floor plan (Concept/Layout Plan), and the wall and window treatments (tree, shrubs and spaces between them), will help you focus on creating a solid skeletal structure that can stand up to scrutiny………and the weather.

Ground Plane – The Garden Floor

Good garden structure starts on the ground with your design lines, i.e. the shape of all your garden elements, including hard surfaces like patios and walkways and soft surfaces like planting beds and turf. Design lines must be strong in order to contribute to the strength of the overall picture – this means longer lines, fewer lines, and fewer directional changes, i.e zigs and zags, wiggles and waves. For some reason, gardeners assume simple means boring when really the simpler the line the stronger the design. (Check out Good Lines Mean Good Designs Part 1 and Part 2 for more info on design lines).

Mike's back yard winter - resample

Mike's back yard - summer

This backyard belonging to garden designer Mike Palmer, demonstrates lovely lines – indeed the strength of the design is in its simplicity, and affords the yard year-long beauty. Photos: Mike Palmer.

Hardscapes in particular are bold design delineators and will emphasize good (and bad) design lines. I find it very frustrating when clients contract my services after a poorly designed patio or walkway is already in place – there is only so much I can do with plants to mitigate poor hardscape design. These hard surfaces should therefore be carefully planned and constructed.

Kiftsgate Water Garden. Photo: Marny Estep

A concrete border and step-stone slabs emphasize the clean contemporary lines of a water feature at Kiftsgate Court gardens. Photo: Marny Estep

The garden floor also consists of living material; groundcovers and other low-growing perennials/shrubs – think of this as the ‘carpet’. Some landscapes have few, if any design lines – for example, a small front yard which is entirely planted and has no lawn or hardscaping, save a straight walkway.  In the absence of design lines, plants alone must define the space, with flattish areas of groundcover and low growing plants serving as the ‘floor’.

In any case, keep in mind that whatever role plants play in your floor plan, herbaceous perennials die down at the end of the season so can no longer play their role. Make sure you include woody plant material, some of it evergreen, to provide year-long carpeting.

Low growing evergreens like dwarf mugo pine, kinnickinnick and Rhododendron make good 4-season floor coverings. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Low growing evergreens like dwarf mugo pine, kinnickinnick and Rhododendron make good 4-season floor coverings. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Vertical Plane – The Garden Wall

The vertical plane refers to upright elements in the garden, both walls and furnishings. Garden walls can be hardscapes, softscapes, or a combination thereof. Furnishings may be single accents (plants or focal points) or larger groupings of plants.

A hardscape wall is an actual wall – perhaps a courtyard wall, retaining wall, raised planter or fence. As with ground-plane hard surfaces, vertical hardscapes can be strong spatial definers, accentuating both good design and not-so-good – so remember simplicity is key.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

A low concrete wall outlines a simple rectangle, creating a very strong design. Linear plantings further strengthen the lines. Photo: Pat Gaviller

The role of garden wall can also be filled by plant material. These living walls can be quite variable in their effect – tall grasses suggest a softer kind of partition compared to the more sturdy presentation of woody shrubs, and a random shrub planting is less structured than the unyielding solidity of a clipped hedge. There are low walls, counter-height walls and full floor-to-ceiling walls, the function of which will determine how full, or how formal you want your wall to be, and what it will consist of.

Photo: Pat Gaviller

Grasses and daylilies softly delineate a property line with low iron railings and stone pillars providing more rigid structure. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Evergreens, grasses and barberries contribute good structure to this landscape and provide a casual but effective wall between properties. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

A clipped Cotoneaster hedge forms a casual, but very solid partition along a client’s property line. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Perfectly trimmed hedges, upright evergreens, lattuce fence panels and brick walls provide formal sturcutre in the vertical plance while th wlow parterres [rovide the flooring in this old world courtyard. Photo: Evelyn Steinberg.

Perfectly trimmed hedges, upright evergreens, lattice fence panels and a brick wall provide formal walls in this old world courtyard. Note that here the low hedges or parterres provide flooring rather than walls. Photo: Evelyn Steinberg.

Plant material used for walls and accents should consist largely of trees and shrubs – while perennials can provide some structure during the growing season, trees and shrubs afford much heartier structure and offer their woody presence year round. As well, plants that are grouped or massed will be more visually substantive. A mix then, of herbaceous perennials and woody ornamentals, grouped plantings and single accents, will ensure year-long interest and good garden structure.

winter garden structure resamplegarden structure - summer resample

Photos: Sue Gaviller

This client’s garden presents good structure year round – trees, shrubs, a Cotoneaster hedge atop a concrete wall, and tall grasses occupy the vertical plane and spreading junipers carpet the ground. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Overhead Plane – The Garden Ceiling

The garden ceiling is provided by overhead features like pergolas and arbours and by the branches of canopy trees. While a ceiling isn’t necessary for good garden structure it does complete a space and create more human scale – by capping the spatial height, vertical scale is reduced to more human proportions. This results in an intimate space that is cool and quiet by day and warm and cozy by night.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

A cool, quiet path beneath the trees at Reader Rock Gardens. Photo: Sue Gaviller

An overhead presence also allows us to walk through to another space as though crossing a threshold – makes for some extra drama in the garden.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

An arbour and canopied walkway provide a graceful entrance to Countryside Garden Centre . Photo: Sue Gaviller

In addition, the garden ceiling can provide protection from the elements; shade for our delicate skin and a ‘hail helmet’ for our delicate perennials – Hosta after a hailstorm looks like coleslaw.

Coarse textures perennilas like HPsta and Bergenia are prone tp haol dmamge. Situating them beneathe a canopy tree proveds some proteciont. Photo: Sue GAviller

Coarse-textured perennials like Hosta and Bergenia are prone to hail damage. Situating them beneath a canopy tree offers some protection. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Earlier this week, as I was returning from a walk with Princess Pepper, I noted that my front gardens aren’t looking too bad, even in these barren winter months – deciduous shrubs, evergreens and ornamental grasses bring form, texture and subtle colour to the composition. More importantly they bring the garden some much-needed structure.

So the next time you find yourself impatient for the next wave of colour in your garden, or woefully observing how much better it looked last week, ask yourself, “What’s missing here?” Maybe it just needs a little structure.

Y’all stay warm,
Sue
 
 
© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.