Friday, December 31, 2010

Sod Furniture, Grass Furniture or Organic Furniture

I see that it was way back in 2006 that I discovered some pictures of sod furniture and put them on my own blog. I am guessing that some of you might like to see what wonderful things some creative people are doing with a mound of dirt and some rolls of turf.

I believe that credit can be given to Greg Tate for coming up with the idea. He is responsible for these beauties:

Cornell University has done quite a bit of work in this area, including a video series. This is the first, which is a time-lapse video:

This page has many more videos in the series: Cornell University Living Sculpture, and these pages have more info and links.

For those of you considering making a piece of sod sculpture, I suggest that you visit Cornell's blog, as they have also followed it up with an article title Sod Furniture Revisited: Some Lessons Learned

Instructions for a sod chair can also be found at the bottom of this page at Rumble Pie.

What fun!!!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Willow Elephants in England

The Brits are miles ahead of us in North America, when it comes to the use of willows for sculpture (though Patrick Doherty and Alastair Heseltine are two notable exceptions).

Here is my latest discovery, from a post that is no long available on The Guardian's website:

"A herd of life-size wicker elephants arrives in Hyde Park today for a two-week stay. The 13 elephants are specially commissioned by charity elephant family, which is working with the Royal Parks Foundation and The World Land Trust to raise awareness about habitat protection projects in the UK and India. Here we chart the elephants' journey from the workshop to the banks of the Serpentine."

There are 9 more photos on The Guardian's website, including some of how the elephants were constructed. There are a few more interesting details on the BBC website.

On our website, I have more links to artists who are creating willow scuptures.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

How to Build a Living Willow Dome

When Harriet sent pictures of her living willow structure, I was so impressed that I asked if I could put them on our blog. She not only agreed but sent along a wonderful set of instructions! Thanks Harriet!

Building a Willow House

"Coming from England, I have seen and admired Willow structures for a number of years thinking one day I would build one myself. Having our children rekindled the idea and I searched for a place to find the Willow rods. I finally found Bluestem and ordered my rods for delivery in Spring this year! I ordered 50 rods in total. This is what we did...

What you need:
  • Willow rods
  • Garden twine
  • Weed membrane
  • 12" Planting Dibber or stick to make holes in the ground
  • Compost
  • Bag of Flour!
Step 1
Pick a spot about 40' away from your house or any other structure/building and lay down a membrane to make the floor of the house. Our floor was 8ft square and the rods I think were 8'-9' long.
Note: due to US Post Office shipping restrictions, we ship rods 84" long; in Canada 200cm.

Step 1

Step 2
Find the center of the floor and use a piece of twine and the dibber as a guide while you make a circle using the bag of flour :-)

Step 2

Step 3
Decide where the door will be and choose some sturdy rods to make a doorway (wider than your shoulders so big people can get in too!). Make two holes in the ground through your flour circle with the dibber (about 10"-12" deep) and place your rods in for the doorway. Bend the rods into a cross and twist/weave together.

Step 3

Step 4
Select 6 more strong rods and place them in the ground at equal distances around the circle pointing straight up.

Steps 4 and 5

Step 5
In between each upright rod two more rods need to be placed in the ground; one on a diagonal to the left and one on a diagonal to the right. So when you are done you should have an upright rod, a right and a left rod repeating all the way round.

Step 6
This is where you need 6 pairs of hands, the more people you have to help the better! (we did it with two adults, a three year old and a 7 month old, it was rather amusing, more adults and less kids would have been better) You need to gently bend in your rods so that they have a window about 2' round left open at the top for growth and weaving when the structure grows. While a few hands bend in the rods, another set of hands has to secure the rods in this position with twine whilst weaving the rods in between each other in a very loose basket weave type effort!!

Steps 6, 7 and 8

Step 7
Fill in any gaps you can see with left over rods. Apparently it is best to plant them on the diagonal for maximum coverage when they grow, rather than straight up.

Step 8
Once it was complete, I trimmed the flooring into a circle.

As it grows, I plan to weave in the growth at the top and eventually release the twine holding it together at the moment."

Growth during the first season, along with some happy little girls

Visit the Living Willow Structures page at Bluestem Nursery to purchase rods and for more info regarding all the neat things that you can do with willow rods.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Living Roof Bench in Alberta, Canada

Carolyn Rallison (who also makes willow baskets, which are shown on our website) sent us this picture of her latest creation - a bench with a living roof. What a talented lady she is!!

I asked Carolyn if she had anything she would like to add:
"I built the bench of spruce limbs and poplar boards. The planting box is lined with pond liner, then a layer of coco mat for drainage. The soil is lean and sandy, as soil that is too rich makes lush and lanky growth. The whole structure is 7 feet tall, 6 feet wide, and 2 feet deep. Last summer was quite dry, so I had to keep it watered; but my intention is to have it "self-sufficient"."

"I first saw and read about green roofs on the internet, then bought a book to read about the subject. I know that there are sod roofs here in Alberta, but have never heard of one with perennials. So I really wanted to give one a try. I planted with assorted perennials and a few annuals for colour: Bearberry, blue flax, alpine poppies, Alpicola primulas, hens & chicks, alpine columbine, species tulips, squill, nemesia & dwarf phlox (annuals). "

"It is just coming through its first winter, so will soon see what has survived! If nothing else, I will just plant it to drought-tolerant annuals every year. I will report on survival rates of the different plants as soon as I know."

Carolyn Rallison
Last West Gardens
Bluffton, Alberta
Zone 3

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Growing Grasses in Cold Climates

If you live in Zone 4 or colder, you would be wise to consider not just the hardiness of the grass, but also whether it can be expected to bloom in your short growing season.

Warm Season Grasses

Warm season grasses tend to have more spectacular blooms, but they also bloom late in the season. If you have a short growing season they may only be just starting to bloom when a hard frost hits. Miscanthus is finished once that happens. The blooms that have opened will remain, but the leaves turn beige and no more blooms are produced.

Here is a list of warm season grasses:
In a climate where the soil does not warm up until mid May or later, there will not be any signs of life from warm season grasses before then. You will be emailing us and telling us your plant(s) have not survived the winter! But they are just waiting for the soil to warm up before they send any leaves up. They thrive in hot weather.

So the use of warm season grasses means that part of your garden will look very bare well into the spring. If you have a lot of garden space planted in warm season grasses, your garden will not show any greenery before late May or maybe even well into June. In a climate with a short growing season you may feel a little cheated. Pennisetum is especially suspenseful because it is the very last to grow, waiting until well into May or even June in a Zones 4 or 5.

Cool Season Grasses

The cool season grasses are much better suited to cold climate gardens. They are in a hurry to produce offspring, so they are up and growing and blooming as quickly as they can. They like the cool weather. So they bloom early, meaning that frost won't ruin the blossoms. Many have blossoms that hang around until winter.

Here is a list of cool season grasses:
Cool season grasses, for the most part, bloom in cool weather and shut down in the heat of summer. If they are not allowed to dry out too much they continue to look good, but they are usually done blooming. Seslerias heufleriana and caerulea bloom with the daffodils!

The four champion/pretty-well-fool-proof grasses in the cool season category are:
  • Calamagrostis, particularly Karl Foerster, our top-selling grass
  • Deschampsia - very hardy and Goldtau is absolutely lovely
  • Festuca - many to choose from
  • Helictotrichon - its evergreen in most climates, so that's a real bonus!
So in climates colder than Zone 3, we recommend only cool season grasses. In Zone 3 we suggest about 80% cool season and in Zone 4 about 60% cool season grasses.

On our website we state the blooming time for a grass. The earlier blooming warm season grasses are the ones to choose in a cool climate. For instance Panicum blooms early and is hardy, so it is a good choice.

Of course we understand a gardener's love of pushing the boundaries, so these are only suggestions. Even I do it. In my Zone 5 garden with early sunset of 5pm, I have a Pampas grass that I have nursed back from near death (because I transplanted it at the wrong time!). Last year it started to look happy, but didn't bloom. Maybe, just maybe it will this year....?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Definitions Regarding Exposure

A visitor to our website asked to have clarification of our terms regarding light shade, part shade and part sun. I can see how a person could be confused. So I thought I would put the info here. It is a complex subject, but I will give it a try. 

Light shade: dappled light, such as comes through tree leaves

Part shade: shade for a good part of the day, but not all day

Part sun: receives direct sun, about 4-6 hr a day

Full sun: 6 hr of sun a day

But there is one more important factor and that is WHEN the sun is shining. If a plant receives 6 hrs of sun from 3pm until 9pm, that does not count for much, as the sun at that time is considered to not be as strong as it is at midday, from 9am to 3pm or 10am to 4pm.

Also, sun from 6am to noon is kinder than sun from 3 to 9pm because the air is cooler. So some shade plants can often take full sun (6 hr) if it is in the very early morning (east side of the house) but not during mid day, or late afternoon.

Water also plays a role. There are lots of shade plants that can take more sun, as long as they get lots of water.

After I sent this to Neils he replied "It reminds me of the understanding the all the terms the arctic aboriginals have about snow."  That sums it up rather well. They instictively understand snow, and an experienced gardener understands shade. But both are confusing to the beginner.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Starting Willow Cuttings in Paper Pots

Recently we received this wonderful information and photo from one of our customers. I asked her if I could share it on this blog.
"Last year I received willow starts from you on 4/5, kept them in the refrigerator until 4/16 when I set them up to root in vermiculite. "
"I made paper tubes of newspaper, filled with plain vermiculite, one willow stick in each tube, grouped the tubes into large plastic pots to hold them upright and keep them wet."
"It was June 7 when I was ready to plant the willows. So 7 weeks rooting in vermiculite, about 4 weeks in the house and 3 weeks outdoors in shade. This method is a good way to insure strong root development, especially if you expect a delay in planting and might miss the moist soil of early Spring."
"I usually leave the newspaper tube on when putting the plant into the soil. They're just a couple layers of paper and ready to decompose, falling apart by 7 weeks old as these plants were held a bit long."
This is a picture of a poplar, but the willow cuttings did just as well
"Look at the beautiful plant! Admittedly this was one of the fullest. They are planted to make a coppice for crafting materials. Planted in a spot selected for it's location rather than it's soil quality, we did amend the soil with mushroom compost - I am a mushroom farmer- and applied several inches of mulch in the Fall. All but one plant grew."
"I have planted hundreds of trees and it is my greatest pleasure to see the trees growing and the small creatures that make use of them."

Rebecca Miller

Thanks Rebecca!
Note: We definitely recommend keeping the newspaper on when planting, as the roots are brittle and could easily be broken off when inserting a bare root willow into the planting hole.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

More Gorgeous Willow Stems

The temperature or climate or ? was particularly suited to producing good colour in the willow stems last summer and fall. I have not previously taken much note of the stems of S. fragilis Belgium Red (Crack willow), but their shiny red branches stood out in the block:
If S. fragilis Belgium Red is allowed to grow to full height, it will become a huge tree, with invasive roots. However if coppiced every year, or every other year, it will simply be a shrub, like any other shrub.

The beautiful leaves of S. pentandra (common name - Bay willow) are a standout, but I had not noticed the stems. Their bright rich olive green colour was unique in the willow block:

Compared with the straight up and down rods of most of the other willows S. sepulcralis 'Erythroflexuosa' (whew, what a mouthful!) looks like it must be from a different genus. This willow is great for screens or hedges (eg. keeping the deer out), giving a dense coverage with interesting branches all year round:

We have another curly willow, but it is much more erect as a coppiced plant. It too is a mouthful: S. babylonica var. pekinensis. It is related to the giant weeping willow, which is called S. babylonica. S. babylonica var. pekinensis (also known as Curly or Corkscrew willow) is much shorter and therefore has much less invasive roots:

The big surprise for me was to find that S. alba Chermesina (Redstem willow) was looking as colourful as S. alba Britzensis. Jim told me they were virtually identical, but I had not seen proof. However now I am a believer! The plant in the picture below is a very small one, at the edge, where they weren't getting enough water:

I am going to have to get out into the field every year to see what other willows will surprise me.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Visit to the Willow Block

I managed to get out to the willow block before they were all cut down. Its such a place of beauty when there is no colour elsewhere in the landscape. The favourite willow for winter colour is usually S. Hutchinsons Yellow, but this year S. Flame - yellow and S. Vitellina were all gorgeous. As I looked at each one I thought it must be the best, but once I stood back they all looked equally sensational.

I thought you might be interested in a comparison of the three yellow stemmed willows:

S. Flame - yellow has many small branches, hence it will provide a denser screen, but the small branches make it not suitable for basketry. Golden-yellow base, changing to red at the tips.

S. rubens Hutchinsons Yellow is very reliable for sensational winter colour but usually has some branching, making it not as suitable for basketry. However this block had beautiful straight branchless rods. Most of the rod is a rich egg-yolk colour, but changes to reddish near the tips

S. alba Vitellina is also very reliable for winter colour, is quite tall, and has somewhat heavy rods for basketry. It also likes a lot of water, particularly if it is allowed to grow. If coppiced annually, its water demands are much less. The sun came out for a moment, so this photo really looks golden!

If S. alba Vitellina is allowed to grow to full height, it will become a huge tree, with invasive roots. However if coppiced every year, or every other year, it will simply be a shrub, like other shrub.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Cutting Back Grasses - Part 5

A list of the cool season grasses, the ones to cut back first:
  • Achnatherum - Spear grass
  • Arrhenatherum - Bulbous oat grass
  • Calamagrostis - Reed grass
  • Chasmanthium - Northern sea oats
  • Deschampsia - Tufted hair grass
  • Elymus
  • Festuca - Fescue
  • Koeleria
  • Molinia - Moor grass
  • Phalaris - Ribbon grass
  • Poa - Meadow grass
  • Scirpus - Bulrush
  • Sesleria - Moor grass
  • Stipa - Feather (reed) grass
See Cutting Back Grasses - Part One for more info.

Cutting Back Ornamental Grasses - Part 4

Warm season grasses will not be growing for awhile yet, at least not in most of North America. They require warm soil before they will show signs of life. More on this subject later.

So there isn't the same rush to get the tops trimmed off of these warm season grasses:
  • Andropogon - Big bluestem
  • Bouteloua - Blue grama
  • Imperata - Japanese blood grass
  • Miscanthus - Maiden grass
  • Panicum - Switch grass
  • Pennisetum - Fountain grass
  • Saccharum - Hardy pampas grass
  • Schizachyrium - Little bluestem
  • Sorghastrum - Indian grass
  • Sporobolus
All those listed above, except for Miscanthus and Saccharum, are probably easiest dealt with by using a bread knife, as mentioned in Cutting Back Grasses - Part 1. Cut them down to 3-4" above the crown.

I suggest that if the stems of Miscanthus and Saccharum are dry, that it can be quite easy to break them off. One spring when my back was sore, I pushed over a couple of stalks at a time with my foot, planted my left foot on the stalk to hold it down, about a foot from the plant's crown. With my right foot (and a fairly hard-toed shoe or boot) I kicked at the base of the stalk until it separated. This was surprisingly easy to do.

As mentioned on our website, the heavier grasses can be cut back with a hedge trimmer or a weed eater-type machine, using a blade rather than the nylon line.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Cutting Back Grasses - Part 3

There are a few cool season grasses that are evergreen:
  • Helictotrichon - Blue oat grass - just comb through with your fingers to remove the dead leaves
  • Luzula - evergreen here, but if the tips look bad you can hold them straight up and give them a hair cut
  • Sesleria - evergreen for me, but does have some dead leaves in it, so I gave mine a haircut this year
  • Carex* - technically not a grass, but looks like one.
    • C. muskingumensis - don't be tempted to leave any green that might be showing. Cut down right back so that you have a sturdy plant when it starts to grow
    • C. flagellifera - I know it looks dead, but if the leaves don't pull out easily, just leave them be, because they are alive
    • C. caryophyllea - evergreen for me, or nearly so. I trim only if it looks bad. 
  • Juncus - evergreen for me, but depending on whether or not it looks ratty, I do or do not cut it back.
*Carex is a sedge. Jim wants everyone to know that he nearly killed some years ago, by cutting back too close to the crown. (Actually, its me who wants everyone to know that Jim is just as capable of killing plants as we are!). He did the same with Deschampsia.

So a crewcut is not necessary. Just give them a trim, as the new growth will soon hide any of the leftover dead foliage.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Cutting Back Grasses - Part 2

I just got my first grass cut of the season. I should know better. After using bare hands to comb through the Helictotrichon (Blue oat grass) with no problem, I was cutting down a Miscanthus and must have been over-confident. I had a sturdy glove in my left hand, and the pruner in my glove-less right. That was where I made my mistake. Sure enough, one dried blade jumped out and got me.

So please learn from my mistake(s). Wear long sleeves and gloves when working around Miscanthus.

A tip regarding cutting back Miscanthus is to tie a couple of bungee cords around it before you start to cut. You want to keep all the stalks and leaves in a tight bundle. This makes it much easier to get rid of the mess later.....and a mess there will certainly be if you don't!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

We Have Started Shipping Already

Any of you who followed the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, BC, no doubt were aware of the extremely mild temperatures the area has experienced for the past few months. While we are over 500km east of Vancouver (300+ miles) we too have been very mild. Not much snow either.

However I do think it is more than fair, as winter started with a bang in October, with temps of -12C (10F) before the middle of the month!! That was about a week after it was +30C (86F)!!

With little snow cover and very cold temps in early December, we are hoping the plants are okay in the field.

The willows are being cut as I write this. Many rods and cuttings have already been shipped to those who are in milder climates (Zone 7 and warmer). Also plugs of grasses and some field divisions of cool season grasses.

If you are in Zone 5 or colder we will not ship to you before the end of this month.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Cutting Back Ornamental Grasses - Part 1

We are about a month ahead this year. The cool season grasses are already growing. So that meant that as soon as the Olympics were over I had to get outside and start cutting off the dead grass before I would be cutting off the tips of new growth.

The hand pruners were closest so I grabbed them. As I was working away I kept asking myself "Last year, didn't I discover something that was better than these things?" Once I developed a blister I knew I had to change tools.

So I grabbed a sickle. It was better, but I am quite sure it wasn't my "discovery" from last year. Then the light bulb went on. I am quite sure I used a saw! A pruning saw (has a curved blade). It was still too rough so it occurred to me that a knife with a finer serration would work even better.

So I grabbed our lowest-quality bread knife, and it was GREAT. It had a coarse serration. It helps if the weather is warm enough to work with bare hands, as its really hard to hold a bread knife handle if wearing large gloves!

My lengthy hedges of C. Karl Foerster and Overdam were done in no time! It also works very well for Deschampsia, Pennisetum, and all grasses with soft leaves. It does not work well for the heavy stalks of Miscanthus or Saccharum.

Check thrift stores for old bread knives. By the way, it also works particularly well for cutting off the soft wet leaves of Siberian iris, which doesn't respond well to any other method of removal that I have discovered.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Inula racemosa 'Sonnenspeer'

I perennial that is surprisingly underused (in my opinion) is Inula racemosa 'Sonnenspeer. It looks spectacular as it starts to grow in the spring. When I took this picture I didn't think to put anything alongside it for scale. Those leaves are huge and will reach up to a meter (3') in length and 8-10" wide!!

Then the 2" wide flowers are loaded on a sturdy stem, reaching up to 2 meters (6.5') in height:


At the end of the growing season it becomes a great dried flower. It will last for years if you want. I see that the picture below only shows the dried leaves. I will have to look around for a dried stem to photograph, as there are no dried flowers showing on the stems below.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Pushing the Boundaries With Willow Weaving

I don't know if my enthusiasm for willow sculpture comes through in our webpage by the same name, but I have a feeling it does. So I was thrilled to find this video showing work by Lise Bech in Scotland. I particularly like the screen!

Read more about Lisa Bech on her website.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Dare I Say It?

The month of January has been abnormally mild for us. Some of you may have heard about the lack of snow for one of the winter Olympic venues in Vancouver. The same mild weather (though somewhat cooler) has been melting the snow here, 500 km (300 miles) to the east. This detail may be of interest to those of you in warmer climes who order willow cuttings and hope receive them  before the weather gets too warm in your area. If I don't jinx things by making this statement, we expect to be able to start taking cuttings in a couple of weeks.

For those of you who don't know what I mean by willow cuttings, they are 11" sticks from our collection of over 50 varieties of willows. We bundle them up into groups of 10 cuttings and sell them that way. You can simply stick a cutting into the soil and they will sprout roots and grow an incredible amount the first year, as long as the soil is kept moist until they become established. Here is a picture of that amazing growth in one year, from just a stick:

These are growing in Jim's brother's yard in Ohio. Frank has contributed a number of pictures to our Grass Scapes Gallery and is also selling pictures of grasses on the BluestemArt website.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Willow Basketry - Joe Hogan, Ireland

I have always loved to do research for our willow pages. I usually either discover some new use(s) for willows or a new website showing baskets or sculpture. Most of the time the websites are in the UK or Ireland and Joe Hogan's is no exception. He makes willow baskets, using the natural colours of willow stems to add wonderful interest to a tradional basket: 
He also gets real creative with his contemporary baskets, even using the catkins. I can only guess that he wove the basket just before the catkins came out. One thing people may not realize is that the catkins, if not rubbed off, should remain on the branches for years.

Visit his website to see many more examples of his beautiful work:  

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Alopecurus pratensis 'Aureovariegatus' - Golden Foxtail Grass

Yesterday I was scouring my discs and hard-drive for pics that Marjorie Harris wants to accompany an article for the May issue of Chatelaine Magazine. I used to have them, but not anymore. At least something good resulted in that I found many pictures that I think people would like to see. But the website is sort of out of room or some pics need explanation, so this is where a blog works better than a website.

This is a picture I found. These gorgeous Alopecurus pratensis 'Aureovariegatus' are in a bed next to the City Hall in Grand Forks, BC. They are in full sun so they are a bright gold. If they were in partial shade they would be more lime-green in colour.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


It occurred to me today that a blog would be a good way to post some more pictures. The website gets so much traffic that we are often over our bandwidth and some pictures are pretty good, but not quite good enough to use on the website so I figured I could post them here. This also allows for a bit of commentary in regards to a picture, which is not as well-suited to a website.

If you are thinking that the picture in the header is of Calamagrostis Karl Foerster, I am afraid that you guessed wrong. It is a Deschampsia. I am not sure which one, but they are all pretty similar except for D. Bronzeschleier, which is not as bright.