Archives for June 2010

The Jackie Box

Who knows why I have never posted about my subsidiary company, the Branch Studio, but I will now. Five years ago or better I created a division of Deborah Silver and Company devoted to the creation and manufacture of fine objects for gardens.  A thirteen thousand square foot building houses a wood shop, a kiln, sophisticated welding equipment and all that goes with. a fabrication  studio. It has long been been a dream of mine-to design and manufacture great objects for gardens in a variety of materials.  Designing beautiful and functional objects is not easy.  Each object has a beginning, CAD drawings, a series of prototypes, a tuneup, and a number of revisions; there is an entire evolutionary process that goes on longer than I thought.  And longer still. Most everything can be improved upon, can it not?       

Not surprisingly, the first item on my design agenda-a box.  I have a long standing love affair with the garden box.  Some call them orangery boxes; the first image that comes to my mind are the boxes at Versailles, used to house an enormous collection of citrus trees.  I doubt most people feel their glass of lemonade is a luxury; sophisticated growing and shipping make it possible to buy a lemon for not so much money every day of the year.  But there was a time in northern climates when having oranges available to eat meant growing orange trees and wintering them under glass.  Giant boxes housing citrus trees were a feature at Versailles.  The Versailles box still made by Les Jardins du Roi Soleil-they made my heart pound 20 years ago and still do.  Manufactured of hinged wood panels, and cast iron frames, a fruit tree destined for a winter in the orangery could easily be slid out and moved indoors, while the boxes stayed put outdoors.  I imported and sold plenty of them over the past 15 years.  All my gardening life I have wanted to make beautiful boxes.  For boxwood topiaries, for trees, for citrus, for flowers, for tomatoes.  A well donebox can provide an elegant and generously sized home for a garden.

My first box design-the Jackie box.  This classic box with an X detail celebrated by a button of note-inspired by Jackie Kennedy. Her fabulous Oleg Cassini suits featured big buttons I will never forget. I am not the only one who admired her great style. Her suit buttons are so much a part of my history, and so much a part of what I admire about design. These buttons were jewelry integral to the overall design of the suit.  Though I have not one bit of interest in clothes myself, I admired Mr. Cassini’s design work, and the iconic Jackie Kennedy.   My first Jackie boxes had extira board panels-a favorite of sign companies; these panels do not absorb water.  They could be left to weather, be varnished like the panels of a Brownie camera, or painted. 

Though weatherproof, each Jackie box has its own galvanized metal liner, and a removeable steel frame sitting on top that provides the illusion of thickness, and finishes the top edge with a wide band of steel.  Welded to the bottom, bun feet know in the metal industry as squashed ball feet. A citrus tree could be lifted out of the box in its galvanized liner, and wintered in a conservatory.

The first variation on the Jackie box-a tall box with a rectangluar panel at the bottom. We also made a series with the panel at the top-but I like this version best. The tall box has a much different feeling than the square. It is no surprise that geometry has visual cache, but shapes have an emotional component as well.  Some squares are pleasingly solid and formal-others can be stodgy-funny that.  Part of the design process was selecting sizes and proportions that are heartstopping, not sleepy.   

I grew up designing objects at the same pace that the Jackie boxes evolved. The brown extira board was certainly durable, but this brown is better on a UPS truck than a planter box.  These painted extira board panels were a reference to the shutter color on the house.  This was the decision of the client, and her interior designer Lucy Earl-it would not have been my call. But I was surprised how much I liked the end result-the colors of the flowers I have chosen have everything to do with the blue of this box; it was much too strong to ignore.  

I did however take a cue from those blue extira board panels.  We now paint our boxes for the shop with Porter exterior acrylic paint.  It is amazingly durable.  This color, a darker blue grey than the steel.  The painted extira panel has finally come into its own.    

This small Jackie box was made with steel in smaller widths, and a smaller buttom. Scaling a design up or down requires looking at the dimension and thickness of every component.  Lots of things seem obvious now that were not so obvious at the beginning.    

A beautiful box-I have been after that design a good many years.  We are now making the Jackie box with solid steel panels.  I think it is a good looking box.  Given the currently astronomical price of lead, I think this steel and its finish provides a viable and handsome alternative to that classic material.  Judging from the orders we have filled this season for Jackie boxes in a number of sizes and panel options, other people are starting to think so too.  I have a pair of Jackie boxes very close to finish-38″ by 38″ by 30″ tall made with 1/4 inch thick steel-to be planted with flowers.  I cannot wait.

Beautiful Views

A place to be, a beautifully organized and finished space, a landscape composition-beautiful views go by many names.  I love plants as much as the next gardener, but I have a bigger interest in the plants being integrated into a whole that makes a strong statement and engages the eye.  Gardens are perpetually unfinished, but a good thought moving towards completion delights me the most.  Of course I think that-I am serious about designing landscapes. This landscape-I have worked here 25 years.  25 years means time to evolve, time to attend to the little details, time to be surprised by what unexpectedly happens, time to take an idea, and grow up with it.   

My client is an afficianado of the classic English landscape park.  She admires the work of Capability Brown, an 18th century English landscape architect who designed upwards of 170 park landscapes.  His landscapes were simple, and natural-as opposed to formal and structured. But as much as he sought to simply represent  nature, there is much evidence of his hand.  My client likes putting a subtle and natural hand to her landscape.  Most strikingly, the old trees grow out of the lawn-sans barked circles around their trunks.  Mulching trees with bark conserve moisture, and are something of a defense against damage from a string trimmer-but they are anything but natural looking. There is no bark anywhere on this property.  Many years ago we regraded the entire back yard, with the idea in mind of creating interest at the ground plane.  The ground rolls, dips and goes flat-most of this sculpture is covered with grass.   Her early 20th century tudor home, built on a substantial piece of property, makes that thought to establish a park entirely believable.   

Old stone walls, old trees, and but a few flowers-usually white- make for beautiful, and entirely serene views. I like landscapes that suggest reverie.  I am not so much a fan of landscapes that are noisy or demanding.  I see some landscapes I would describe as overwrought. The red leaved maples planted next to the chartreuse foliaged thuja-very lively.  I like to visit landscapes with great visual excitement, but at home, I want sanctuary.  It is very important to think about what you want and need from a garden before you plant.   

A property of this size is unusual in an urban community.  The public parks that exist in my community tend to be outfitted with benches, playgrounds, softball fields and the like.  A landscape park can make much about what is not there.  This landscape is quietly contemplative in feeling.  The presence of the client is felt only in how beautifully she maintains her property. 

There have been plenty of changes over the past 25 years, but they are hard to spot.  This lawn area was once home to a swimming pool of natural and irregular shape.  On occasion she will entertain outdoors; the light in early evening is beautiful in this spot.


The pool had become a considerable burden to maintain, as it was very old and always in need of some kind of repair.  The lawn area into which it was set was lumpy and difficult to navigate.  When the pool was removed, the lawn was regraded level enough to make entertaining comfortable.   

It takes many years to cover large spaces such as this one with plants.  There are thriving colonies of plants here-not 3 of this or five of that. Save the mature trees, no one plant stands out and demands recognition.    

There are those unexpected moments.  This wisteria has been in this spot as long as I have worked here. This spring’s show was particularly showy. The landscape near the house, glimpses of which can be seen in this photograph, are very formal and simple.  They contrast with the flowing lines of the greater landscape-but in a quiet way.   

Another client with whom I am working now is studying this view of her vintage Adirondacks furniture.  Should the old honeysuckle thicket behind be removed, in order to open a view to the bigger landscape beyond?  Do the chairs need the company, or would they be more beautiful set against the big expanse of lawn behind them? We are thinking about it.

The Garden Cruise


For the past three years I have sponsored a tour of landscapes and gardens of my design or influence-in the interest of contributing to the programs of the Greening of Detroit.  I am embarrassed to say that I only became acquainted with the Greening only three years ago.  This year is their year long 20th anniversary celebration-marking a 20 year committment to planting trees in the city of Detroit, sponsoring urban farms (over 600)-and the teaching.  Teaching people how to grow, how to protect and preserve the environment. What they do for our city-astonishing.  One of their board members, the architect Michael Willoughby, nominated me to their board.  I was pleased to accept. I am not the best board member-I am better at a local, and more hands on event in support of them .

I committed to sponsoring this garden tour, the proceeds of which would go to the Greening.  100 percent of the proceeds of all ticket sales-every dime goes to the Greening of Detroit. Deborah Silver and Co, and Detroit Garden Works maintain the cruise website, advertise the cruise, and put on the reception.  I am happy to do so in recognition of what they do for our city.

I am out of my element, if the topic is politics.  I am not good attending meetings, nor am I happy to be part of a committee.  I have no interest in discussing community service-I was just raised to believe I should do my share. I was raised to believe that if I am able to help, I should.  I told Monica from the Greening-I will make it my business to organize a tour, with the intent of raise money for the important work that you do, to the best of my ability.

The past two years, the tour has raised 25,000.00 for the Greening.  Were you to ask me for a list of projects I am most proud of-this tour would be right up there.  Should you live in my area-try the tour.  This year, we had people calling in March for tickets.  The tickets are available at Detroit Garden Works.  If you cannot tour July 18, consider a contribution to the Greening of Detroit. 

 I am not the go to person for social, political or economic innovation.  But I am quite sure that the work of the Greening over the past twenty years has benefitted our city.  I would do what I could to support it.  If you are able to support it via the tour-I am asking that you do so.  Hard times have hit all of us-should you not be able to tour, spread the word however you can. The tour is exceptionally interesting to committed gardeners. Check out the tour website:

These photographs do not begin to do justice to the gardens on this year’s tour.  It is a friendly and fun event for gardeners.  I’d be pleased should you decide to join us.

A Dwarf Conifer Garden

I made my first visit to this garden in 2006.  My clients-serious gardeners.  Ray is first and foremost a rock lover.  He collects little rocks, big rocks, boulders-like I said, he loves rocks.  He built a waterfall and pools in their backyard-I was impressed by his efforts.  Janice-she is a committed science teacher, and horticulturally adept.  She is a player.  The two of them asked me to intervene in their efforts.   In 2007, I planted a group of dwarf conifers for them.   

The pond bridge, the waterfall, the pools,the deck, and the perimeter plantings were largely in place when I got there.  I assembled a group of dwarf evergreens I thought would soften Ray’s rocks, and provide year round interest.  They live in a neighborhood; the views to the neighbors-not so good.  They needed a landscape that addressed their sophisticated tastes in plants, that also screened out untoward views. A private garden oriented around interesting and unusual plants.

Proper planting means big spaces in between.  Dwarf conifers grow slowly, but they grow. Some so called dwarf confiers actually attain considerable size when they age. I am by no means an expert on the topic, so I studied up on those evergreens that interested me in terms of shape or needle texture or color.  A few key or central plants, and a supporting cast for each.  The first year-there is lots of bark in evidence. 

My visit today, some three years later-a different story.  They are great gardeners-every conifer has grown, and looks healthy.  I could barely believe I was visiting the same garden.  Dwarf evergreens of contrasting forms, colors and textures had covered the ground.  It may be tough to spot, but my arrangement of dwarf conifers took into account a view of a blue spruce on a community berm at a distance. Blue evergreens-they look their best far away. Study this picture.  That blue spruce far away adds visual depth to what is a small garden. Placing blue needled evergreens far and away adds great depth to a landscape.  Though this spruce does not belong to them, it is part of their garden view.   

The varying textures and colors of greens are very pleasing to the eye.  I would imagine this garden is lovely with a dusting of snow, or on a rainy day.  The best part of evergreen plants is how weather changes their appearance.  No doubt there will be some sort of weather, every day.  Planning a landscape to take advantage of  all of the seasons is worth the challenge.  A good landscape design takes the predictable growing, the weather, and the unexpected issues into account, and still reads strongly.  How this garden looks today pleases me.     

Ray’s bridge has settled down-it reads as part of a whole now, given its green company.  Goldfish swarm the pool.  There is a water lily blooming.  Most everything I planted is growing vigorously.-no garden is without loss and disappointment.   These clients have an oasis of their own making.  They have done all the work of the watering, the pruning, the feeding, the nurturing-the fussing about.  I spent two days there.  They have done four years worth of work.   

I do not mind visiting some projects, years later, with enchantment on my mind.  My favorite clients-those gardeners that scoop up the idea and the installation-and go on from there.  How I admire those clients who understand what it means to take up the reins, and go on. A Princeton Gold maple planted outside the fence, and as far away as possible, lights up the foreground planting.  It was mrecilessly hot and sunny yesterday, but the look here is lush and refreshing.     

This conifer garden-I would have it.  They have looked after it in such a way that they deserve a prize.    I do my share of the work-but a committed steward is everything to a garden.  Some days I would just as soon give away my garden as have it.  Then I have lucky days.  Yesterday Buck accidentally locked himself out of the house an hour before I got home.  All the watering chores got done.  I was only adrift for one second- I got in the fountain, and had a glass of wine.    

Their garden-beautiful.  I love going back, and seeing a project that has no further need of me.