A Construction Plan

A pair of simply wrought steel cone forms can provide a sturdy armature for no end of garden projects. That precise form is orderly and pleasing set in a garden where chaos usually reigns. Any lax growing perennial or annual vine would appreciate its stability and strong shoulders. Another summer version features planting at the base, and the form presiding over all as sculpture. Topiary forms in winter containers supply instant height and presence. One year, my 6′ tall steel cone form served as a Christmas tree. Would round with grapevine and lights, I added glass berry clusters and birds. How I loved bringing the garden indoors for the holidays. Last year, this pair of mine, wound with its grapevine intact, and lights, were the focal point of the winter pots on my driveway. They made a big statement from the deck above. What to do with them this year that is different and interesting? So much of the work we do begins with an idea. What comes next is a plan for construction.

It seemed like an idea worth pursuing to line the interior of those steel forms with flame willow. Those straight copper colored stems lining the form would greatly change the look of it. It is my pleasure to have the fabricators at the Branch Studio give me a hand for our holiday and winter installations. Sal has constructed with incredible precision no end of garden boxes, gates, pergolas and sculpture in steel as the senior fabricator at Branch. He was the perfect person with whom to discuss a construction plan. If you read my essays routinely, you know we begin the construction of a winter arrangement with a dry floral foam form constructed to fit the pot in question. After marking where the legs of the topiary form would go through the form, Sal inserted a tall bamboo stake in the center. The bamboo was a marker, indicating the location of the top of the steel form.

Our initial thought to insert each stem inside the form and attach it with zip ties seemed awkward and too time consuming. Creating an interior willow form that the steel form would slip over made more sense. Sal was able to determine the sticking angle by making sure the top of each branch would touch the center bamboo stake. As no two objects are ever exactly the same, we tagged which steel form would partner with this specific willow form. Why the gap in the above picture? Sal left an opening, so he could stuff the interior with boxwood. Once the boxwood layer was finished, he would add the last of the flame willow. Such is the order of events. One of the most important aspects of a construction plan for winter container arrangements is figuring out the most comfortable way to do the work. The most comfortable way is invariably the most efficient way to move a project along. We don’t build rocket ships, we built winter container arrangements. Sal determined the spacing and angle for each stem by eye, not by measurement. The work doesn’t need to be perfect, it needs to be believable and delightful.

The tall dark green cylinder capped in red on the layout table proved to be key to the next step. It is an oversized roll of thin self sticking plastic wrap. We use it to wrap fragile items in the shop for shipping. Sal tightly wrapped the top half of the willow tower before lowering the steel tower over the top of it. Typical of his construction, the willow tower was a tight fit inside the steel.

The plastic was easy to remove, and each of the freed willow stems was re positioned. The tops of the branches are very pliable, as they are fresh cut. The top of each stem was pulled out of the steel form. That branchy finial surrounds the topknot of lights.

Leave it to Marzela to figure out the last construction detail. How would we remove the bamboo stake from the center of the willow form? I did not think ahead to that moment. Push it through the bottom of the foam form, of course. As our foam is manufactured in 2″ thick sheets, 24″ by 36″, we have to piece a form for very large pots. This the seam in the above picture. We hot melt glue 2 layers of the foam together to make a 4″ thick form. The lower layer of foam will go into the pot, the top layer of soil having been removed. The top layer of foam permits greens to be inserted horizontally. For very large pots, we make the upper foam larger than the lower. The foam sitting on the rim of the pots provides extra strength and stability to the form.

Marzela is our chief greens person. She has a gift for stuffing the forms with greens in a volumetric and convincing way. These forms have been filled with mountain hemlock. It is the most durable of all of the cut greens. Though these cut branches will take the full brunt of the western winter sun and weather for months, they will be just as green in March as they are in the above picture.

At the last, Colin checks the LED lights on the form. They still work fine, going into their third year of service. The tiny bulbs emit an astonishing amount of light. They will do a great job of illuminating the form at night. He is also adding a string of mixed berry lights – new to us this year. Translucent globes of varying sizes emit a soft glow.

A generously long string of them will emit a glow strong enough to define the form at the bottom. I suspect that at night, neither the globes nor the wires will be visible. Just the light.

The daytime look is not that bad. The silver wires on the light strings are glaringly obvious, but the main view of the pots will be from afar.

A project like this is possible given the many pairs of skilled hands that contributed their part to the end result. And there is satisfaction in having made something that works as a group.  Marzela will get the rest of the greens done in short order this morning. I think we will be able to install them today.


  1. Laurie Dean says

    Beautiful and genius!

  2. Michaele Anderson says

    As always, a fascinating and informative post. One of the greatest lessons I have learned from your sharings the past couple years of being an avid reader is to use quality materials in generous quantity. If a couple stems might attract some attention, 20, 40, 60 stems will blow your socks off. HA, even though it’s cold outside…go for the socks being blown off!

  3. Love it!

  4. Kathy Kling says

    V Beautiful – but do you ever consider the negative environmental impact of florist foam (AKA Oasis) – it is carcinogenic and does not break up in landfills. It came on the market in the 50’s. It would be truly creative if you could revert to the ways florists used to make arrangements without it – and promote that. I am sure that you could come up with something!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Kathy, this is not oasis, or wet foam. It is a dry foam which we reuse many times. Once a form can no longer hold together well enough to be used in pots, we use the pieces to create displays in the shop. best, Deborah

      • What is dry foam? Styrofoam?

        Your work is inspirational. The scale is amazing and your team looks really happy and focused!

  5. Jane Cruickshank says

    Marzela is very special..so nice and extremely talented…extremely nice, I love each and every one of your creations and strive to copy. Thank you so much for sharing and instructing.

  6. Teresa Matamoros says

    Hi Deborah,
    Really enjoy reading your posts. I appreciate how much you share especially about winter pots. I have a landscape business and we do some winter pots too, so have been inspired by yours! Just wondering from where you get your lights?

  7. I too love reading every post you write! You and your staff are very talented and clever. It also takes a lot of patience to create these beauties as seen with Sal calculating each branch into position. Marzela places the greens perfectly and Colin illuminating these masterpieces. I love Christmas and especially decorating for the season. You all do a brilliant job!

  8. A masterpiece – I am in awe of its beauty!

  9. Enjoy your posts on design and construction for arrangements.

    Scale is sometimes a little larger than am used to, but provides some brain stretch!

  10. Joni W. Holinger says

    Heartening to read that the slight conundrum was how to remove the stick..refreshing to know even the pros don’t always plan ahead all the way..there is hope for moi.

  11. Love your work!! Always beautiful and inspiring!


    What keeps the whole arrangement from tipping as it is just sitting on top of the pots according to your design instructions? It looks like it would be top heavy for the pot.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Eileen, this post explains in detail how a heavy centerpiece is held aloft buy a bamboo stake in the middle that gets pounded down into the soil in the pot.
      http://deborahsilver.com/constructing-the-winter-centerpieces/ Some arrangements are anchored with steel rebar that is pounded into the soil. Once the soil freezes, nothing moves. This year, we have been installing pots where the soil is already frozen. best, Deborah

  13. Pam Cassidy says

    I so enjoy reading all your posts! So inspirational! This year I decided to try my hand at a lighted container pot – although on a much smaller scale than your pots. I finished mine yesterday and I’m so happy with results!! Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us, the readers!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Pam, certain ideas about lighting in pots apply no matter whether the pots are big or small. Every gardener makes their own decision about scale, and how much to put to a project. I think a lot of the ideas I discuss adapt very well to a variety of situations. At least, I hope so. all the best, Deborah

  14. lisa hansen says

    Do you or your team ever use birch poles or branches cut from birch trees? They are very popular in Ontario Canada and I was wondering your thoughts on incorporating them into winter containers.
    Lisa Hansen

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Lisa, Rob did buy birch poles for the store, and I have two projects coming up where I have been asked to use them. I find them very difficult to work with. Badly arranged, they look like a log pile set on end. It takes work to integrate them gracefully into a winter container. Stay tuned, and you will see my effort to make them look graceful! all the best, Deborah

  15. Very magical results! Perfect job done by everyone!

  16. Jennifer Taylor says

    Absolutely beautiful! And what a gift to those passing by your lovely driveway. Merry Christmas Deborah!

  17. Wendy Stahl says

    Hello Deborah,
    Figuring out the best way to construct a design always makes the project easier, stronger, and ultimately more beautiful, as your post clearly shows! Thank you again for including us in your fabulous garden designs.

  18. Lisa Lemonds says

    Beautiful work! I live in the south and have no access to hemlock or any other sturdy and hardy greenery. Any suggestions? I am a great admirer of all you do! Lisa

  19. Patti barksdale says

    Where do you get such large pieces of foam. My pot is 24×24 inches?

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