Thursday, September 6, 2012

Deluxe Sunflower: Confetti

Owing to my ongoing obsessiveness, when I find a tool that really works for me, I tend to investigate all of its available variations. I had been working with the Kemper Klay Kutters for a long time, primarily with the various sizes of the "Basic Set", which consists of a circle, teardrop, five-petaled floret and heart. These had been useful for me with some ladybugs I made, as well as both Original (floret-spotted) and Deluxe (round-spotted) Toadstools, and some of the sunflowers. I didn't even think they might have other shapes available until one day, while teaching a class at the Anton Art Center in Mt. Clemens, Michigan, I came across a triangle cutter and realized I needed to dig a little deeper.

Boy, did I strike gold! Triangle sets, square sets, Lilac (four-petaled florets)sets and oval sets. And, in researching for this post, I just now discovered they have a set of star-shaped cutters - I may have to get those, too!

The mechanism is simple - a shaped tube which is closed at the end with a plunger assembly to push (in my case) the clay out. What I've learned with using these is that a bit of clay gradually builds up on the cutter, making it difficult to release the clay; cleaning out with a cutting tool or fettling knife usually does the trick; also, the wetter and more plastic the clay, the more likely it is to adhere to the cutter. Also, it's important to keep them clean and dry - part of the assembly is steel which will rust. A shot of WD-40 has been helpful for me when things start to "lock up". Another key issue is that the plunger will make a circular mark in one side of the cut-out. This looks pretty cool on a floret but doesn't always work for some of the other things I use these for; I resolve this by making sure the side with the circular impression is the side I attach to whatever it is I'm making.

With this design, I wanted to evoke something of the cascade of confetti at a parade or other celebration. I assembled the sunflower as usual, draping the clay over the hump mold and applying the three layers of petals. I then rolled out a thinner slab of clay and, using the three largest cutters (as I was making a ginormous sunflower - I scale the elements to fit the size of the flower I'm making), cut out a bunch of squares. I slipped the surface of the center of the sunflower (don't score - because you're not covering the entire surface, those scoring marks that are not covered by the squares will even after glazing) and then scored and slipped the back side of each square and applied in what I hoped would look like a random pattern. When finished, I let it dry to leather hard, flip it off the mold (this gets easier and easier - I've gone from only doing these big pieces on spec to fabricating them quite routinely), put in the holes for the hanging wire and apply a clay receptacle to take a copper fitting and let it dry.

Once bisque fired to Cone 06, I glazed the center with my go-to glaze, Amaco's Potters Choice Temmoku. For the petals, I used a glaze I was given by my first pottery instructor, Gene Pluhar, called Albrecht Sand, a subtle matte glaze with a genuinely sandy appearance. This is a design that might still require some tweaking. I'm going to live with for a while and see how I feel about; then we'll see!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

From Exotic to Native in Just a Few Easy Steps....

After removal of the Astilbes and Hostas, from the North.
The part of my property I see least is the strip along the foundation which abuts my neighbor's driveway to the northwest. Just as with my neighbor on the other side, whose property abuts my driveway, the only folks who really see it are the folks who don't own it. That doesn't mean it isn't worthwhile to make it pretty - cultivating a beautiful garden for someone else's enjoyment is a great way to grow a good, neighborly relationship. I managed to secure permission from my former neighbors to plant on their property, using extra plants from my existing collection, creating a beautiful composition of Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta 'Goldsturm'), Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea 'Magnus' and Echinacea pallida), Spiderwort (Tradescantia cultivars) and Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium), now complemented by wandering Virgin's Bower (Clematis virginiana). It is still my favorite garden, having cost not a penny and despite the fact it is neither on my property nor was I paid for the work; the yearly pleasure I derive from it and the creatures who visit - especially Eastern Goldfinches (Spinus tristis), Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) and, in the winter, Dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis) - not to mention the varied pollinators - is more than adequate compensation.

After removal of the Astilbes and Hostas, from the West.
Back in the "olden days", when I knew nothing about native plants, I had installed a collection of white-flowering Astilbe chinensis, including 'Bridal Veil' and 'Deutschland', and various Hostas, both solid green and variegated, that I had "adopted" from my Mother's garden, along with four Clematis varieties, along the strip on the other side of my house. (Contrary to popular belief, Astilbe doesn't really like shade; what it wants is moist sun conditions - which is why folks think it likes shade, because it burns up if it isn't watered enough.) With the northwest exposure, the plants did fairly well - enough light to keep the Astilbe relatively happy but little enough that the Hostas didn't burn up. Was it an "inspired" garden? Certainly not. And anyone who knows me at all knows that, along with Daylilies and Rose of Sharon (among other heavily-used exotics), Hostas are not one of my favorites. (Frankly, the very idea of a Hosta Garden leaves me... positively catatonic.) Furthermore, I had to face the fact that none of those plants was doing anything to make the environment friendlier to the native faunal population - they were not particularly attractive to pollinators, they were of no use to any other herbivorous native insects and there was nothing to attract the native birds (and they looked absolutely miserable all winter long). I knew someday I would do something different with the space; until I decided "what", this would do.

Finally, this year, I decided to renovate that area. With several years of native plant experience under my belt, I had determined to install a planting of native perennials to provide four-season interest. With that decision, I dug out all of the now-undesirable plants and hied myself off to American Roots Native Plants in Ortonville, MI, to consult with my friend Trish Hacker-Henig about species selection and to purchase plants.
The new planting, from the North.

I knew I wanted a warmish palette of yellows, oranges, pinks and purples - something that would pop against the red of my home's common brick. I also wanted there to be things to look at as much of the year as possible, especially through the lean winter months. I had posted about the upcoming project on my Facebook page and received good some good feedback from various folks which helped me narrow the field.

I finally ended up with a collection including Golden Ragwort (Senecio aureus, now Packera aurea thanks to renaming conventions, from my garden - golden yellow flowers) and Eastern Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis from my garden - red and pale yellow) which will bloom in Spring; Sand Tickseed (Coreopsis lanceolata - warm yellow), Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa - orange, winter interest with seed heads), Wild Petunia (Ruellia humilis - pale lavender) and Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum - lavender, non-native - but the pollinators love it) for early to mid-Summer; and Showy Tick Trefoil (Desmodium canadense from my garden - pink, winter interest with seed heads), Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea - pink, winter interest and forage for birds), Rough Blazingstar (Liatris aspera - pinkish purple) and Bluestem Goldenrod (Solidago caesia - yellow) for late Summer/Early Fall color. I also chose some late blooming Flowering Spurge (Euphorbia corollata - small, brilliant white flowers) to tuck in front of the larger plants.

Interestingly, as I finished selecting the plants I intended to buy and discussing the other plants I was going to dig from my own garden, Trish observed that I was using almost exactly the same grouping of plants as she had used for a demonstration garden on her property near the nursery!

The new planting, from the West.
In installing the plants, I paid attention to the rhythm I was creating in terms of color, bloom time and structure. The two Spring-blooming species are spaced fairly far apart, with later-season performers similarly spaced out to embace the entire composition; taller plants bracket the composition and are dotted throughout to complement shorter species. The bed isn't very deep, so issues of "taller in back" or "warmer in back" (warmer colors advance visually, while cooler colors recede) weren't really a consideration. The pre-existing Clematis selections (Clematis spooneri - Spring, white; Clematis alpina 'Willy' - Spring, pink; Clematis texensis 'Pagoda' - Summer, pink; Clematis tangutica 'Gravetye Variety' - late Summer, yellow) were worked into the composition (although I may switch two of them, as the two Spring-blooming varieties are adjacent to one another). Texture and form were also important in selection and composition, with textures ranging from relatively coarse (Echinacea) to quite fine (Euphorbia); none of the plants are very coarse in texture (think 'Blue Angel' Hosta coarse) because I felt the space too small to handle that gracefully.

Although the "peak" season has passed for many of the plants, the Liatris and Solidago are coming along and next year my neighbors and I - as well as all the pollinators and birds - will be able to enjoy the entire seasonal show.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Deluxe Sunflower: Ribbon

Anyone who knows me will tell you: I definitely have my obsessive side. (OK, don't get all snarky on me; at least I admit it - freely!) When an idea grabs hold, I tend to keep pushing on it until I either get sick of it or can't think of one more thing to do with it.

The Deluxe Sunflower series has been no exception. When I first returned to these designs a couple years ago, I went from three initial concepts to a total of ten. (Now twelve.) I had a lot of fun with the pastry-bag/slip combo, visiting Michael's to find new pastry tips that might make for another interesting design. I had already used a star or scalloped tip, as well as small and large round tips. I found a ribbon tip that reminded me of the tips I had used while decorating cakes at Baskin Robbins and decided to see what I could do with it.

I fabricated the sunflower in the same manner as I had the Bubbles and Cake sunflowers, draping the slab over the hump mold and applying the three layers of petals. My plan was to use the ribbon tip with slip for a new effect for the center.

The ribbon tip I used was scalloped on one side and plain on the other, like those illustrated here. (I honestly don't know why I didn't get the one that was scalloped on both sides, except that maybe, subconsciously, I was thinking I could do more things with the two different sides. Haven't. Yet.) I used a technique I learned for decorating the edges of the ice cream cakes I used to work with - but only doing one arabesque instead of a continuous line of them. I worked, as previously, from the outside toward the center, making a row of arabesques, then making another and another, working concentrically inward. for the center, I just made a little "pillow" with the tip - but I think it might look better (but be a bit more work) to use a star tip for that final "touch".

The sunflower is finished as are the others, with holes in the back for hanging wire and a receptacle for a copper fitting for a stem, once it is leather hard. Once bone dry, the greenware is fired to cone 06.

I glazed this piece with Amaco's Potters Choice Temmoku for the center and Iron Lustre for the petals. I really like the subtle satiny quality of the latter glaze, plus the fact that it is the same color as my cat Doni's coat - the best recommendation I can think of for just about anything!

Front Yard Renovation

You know how you can be living with something in your garden for years and years until, one day, you suddenly realize that that thing is downright enormous, completely out of control and no longer fits the space you've allotted to it?
The birds-nest spruce - before.
When I bought my house in 1995, it had the requisite yews in the front foundation - six of the darned things. Using a shovel and an axe my brother-in-law had gotten at a Handy Andy closeout, I dug them out but wasn't sure what I wanted to do. Then, in 1996 while I was between jobs, I did some foundation plantings - a 'Snow Fountains' white weeping cherry, some holly, azaleas, potentilla, a rhododendron, a Koren-spice viburnum and two birds-nest spruces. The potentilla, for whatever reason, were the first to bite the dust. I actually replaced the rhodie once after the first one died. The cherry bit the dust a couple years ago for a native Sambucus. Then, one day last month, shortly before my Annual Summer Garden Tour, I glanced at one of the birds-nest spruces and realized, "That thing is huge! It's gotta go - now!"

Luckily, I had already decided to do some changes nearby in the front - I had purchased a Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica) while in Paw Paw from my friend Mary Ann Menck. I decided I would cut down the spruce, put in three Fragrant Sumac and some kind of grass, which, I wasn't sure. The Fragrant Sumac would provide excellent Fall color and I hoped to find a grass (or grassy thing) that would further enhance the Sumac's seasonal interest. I was going up to see my native plant grower friend Trish Hacker-Henig mid-week to pick up wetland pants, so I decided to get as much of the rest of the plants for this new project as I could from her.

Trish only had one Fragrant Sumac, which I snapped up right away. We spent a lot of time debating the grass species, considering a number of candidates, including Penn Sedge (Carex pensylvanica) - which I've decided to use in another part of the front yard for a later project. We finally agreed on Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), for its clumping habit, overall size (which would not overwhelm the other plants in the area) and its fantastic Fall display; I got five pots.

The final design, pending the third Sumac and the Hosta's deletion.
First thing when I got home, I cut down the spruce. This was a lot of work but, on the up side, spruces are pretty easy to kill - unlike yews, for example, if you cut them back to unproductive wood, they will not send out new growth (which is what makes them a challenge to renovate). I cut the shrub down as far as I could and left a bit of the stump, which I covered with mulch. Then I took a break.

I then placed the two Sumacs and five pots of Little Bluestem and planted them in. The design calls for a third Fragrant Sumac, which I purchased just over a week ago from yet another native plant grower and will put in... soon. There's still a lot of work to do - not only putting in the remaining shrub and keeping it all watered, but pruning all three Sumacs to be about the same size so they'll grow nicely together, as well as digging out a few more things, including a 'Blue Angel' hosta and some (get this) aggressive Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana). There's still a gap to fill - but I'll figure that out - eventually!