Sailing Close To The Wind

I recently ran across some pictures of holiday containers from the year 2000. The year 2000? I was faint with surprise. It is impossible to believe that we have just finished our 21st season designing, fabricating and installing winter arrangements in pots and containers, but indeed we have. I would have guessed we had 10 years into it, at most. It seems those decades flew by. How is it possible to have sustained a keen interest in the work for that many years, much less kept it fresh and innovative?

Of course one’s approach to the work evolves with experience. In the early days we installed all of the materials in containers on site, in very cold and otherwise inhospitable conditions. All of the materials were inserted into the soil. It took a few years to rewrite that protocol, but now all of the work is done indoors, in custom made forms that are saved and reused from year to year.  If you read here regularly, you have heard all about this before. We have a broker of excellent repute and outstanding service supply us with evergreen boughs of incredible size and heft. The picture above and below tell the story of those greens. The dry, preserved and faux materials we are able to add to our arrangements have become more sophisticated and more wide ranging over the years. The materials themselves suggest and inform the design. Great materials enable great work –  so all my best to you, and thank you, Rob. But what the 21 years we have in to designing and fabricating the winter pots got me to thinking about has to do with aesthetics. The art and sculpture of it, if you will.

In the beginning we had our mandate – even though we may not have been so conscious of it. Being gardeners, the most beautiful arrangements of greens would of course be those arrangements that most closely replicated the natural arrangement of greens in living and growing evergreen trees and shrubs. Those arrangements engineered by nature have evolved to maximize the health and well being of the plant, and future generations of that plant.  Our goal was to arrange cut greens to look as though they were part of a live tree, and growing. We would try to copy nature in exacting detail. There are winter containers we have done that appear to have evergreen shrubs growing in them. We’ve been asked about how to water them more than just a few times. Clients would admire that we were able to make our winter containers look real. Though nature’s works are extraordinarily sculptural, they are after all, nature’s works, and not ours. How would we improve on what nature had already done?  We wouldn’t.  But we could interpret, celebrate and document our relationship with nature in any number of ways.

Considering the possibility of arranging greens in a not necessarily natural way was uncharted territory. We needed to go in that direction, but that process was like sailing a sailboat directly in to the wind. A sailboat is able to make forward progress into a headwind by a process called tacking. The boat is moved across the wind by turning the bow towards and through the wind in one direction, and then back across the wind in the other. This zig zag movement, if it is skillfully done, has a strong vertical component. It produces forward motion towards a desired destination. If the turning into the wind is of a slight and subtle angle, rather than a sharp 90 degree turn, it produces a phenomena known as sailing close to the wind. Meaning a very small change can make forward progress possible. To anyone reading who truly is a sailor, I apologize for this shallow discussion of tacking. But even a oversimplified version of it helps to explain how our work has evolved creatively.

What are our headwinds? Being reluctant to entertain change is the strongest. Sometimes a lack of imagination or a loss of interest can whip up a stiff headwind. The arrangement pictured above was notable for us, as we deliberately inserted the evergreen boughs adjacent to the centerpiece in a vertical position. It was the first time in at least 15 years –  taking that tack. The very first picture in this post illustrates that clearly. The moment we were able to set branches at a horizontal angle in a rigid foam armature, we abandoned ever setting branches vertically again. We were free from the demands imposed by constructing arrangements in the soil. But one set of freedom enabled another kind of prison-not  assessing each project on the merits. We made this small incrementally small change in our construction protocol for this pot ostensibly to conceal the faux stems of our faux picks. But the consequences of this small change-the impulse to go vertical in this pot – proved to be substantial.  The overall shape was very different-gorgeous to my eye. Natasha did an incredible job setting the greens in this pot. Stunning. Her attention to detail and understanding of mass, volume and shape is obvious.

The following photographs detail the construction of winter arrangements for a set of window boxes that we did last year. It is clear from the pictures that the greens have been set at angles that respond to the geometry of the light ring in the center. The light ring was lined with a heavy weight boxwood garland, that visually connects to the shaped boxwood that follows the radius of the bottom of the light ring. How the boxwood is installed makes the light ring look integral to the arrangement-in a sculptural way. Boxwood would not grow like this, but it might live like this were it trimmed. That would endow the boxwood with the evidence of the human hand. Noble fir branches would not grow like this either. It is clear that this arrangement is of a different sort. And it is definitely not a representation of a noble fir tree.

There are those who might say that the evidence of the human hand is greatly inferior to the hand of nature.  I don’t subscribe to that notion, as I do not see the two forces as comparable. They are relatable, integral to one another, but different. Equally interesting. Equally essential.

This picture taken in the shop after the construction was finished illustrates to my mind how a winter arrangement can be sculptural. It took a while to convince Birdie that it would be good and beautiful to install the long greens with an upward trajectory. Like angel wings. What an incredibly beautiful job she did. Ten minutes in, she knew exactly where she was going. Right into the wind.

It was a perfect moment, looking at these sculptures at days end when everyone had gone home. We would install them the following day.

Install them we did.

The 2021 Winter Pots: Take Your Pick


Amassing a collection of beautiful materials for winter and holiday containers and home decor at our place usually begins at least a year in advance of the season in question. Behind the scenes, ideas are tested, and those great ideas become prototypes.  Orders are placed from the prototypes, and manufacturing is based on orders taken by the manufacturer’s reps from shop owners like us.  This is a highly simplified sentence describing a very complicated and labor intensive process known as commerce. The big idea is that any gardener wishing to persist gardening into our winter season will have the materials to do so. This means potted hellebores and cyclamen, and a substantial variety of amaryllis bulbs. It also means fresh cut branches, mostly dogwood and willow. But the floral picks, the likes of which are pictured above, make it possible to create winter arrangements for containers. Pots placed on a front porch or at a side door asked to be filled, no matter the season.

Rob handles all of the buying for Detroit Garden Works, and he buys beautifully. Everything he purchases for his seasonal collections bear witness to his astonishing eye for fine design, beauty, utility, and serendipity.  There may be those who would suggest that seasonal containers and decor have little to nothing to do with the garden or the landscape, but I disagree. The process of designing/creating and fabricating winter and holiday containers has everything to do with a need for an individual expression of appreciation of the beauty of nature. Creating winter container gardens have their roots in the living landscape, and those who garden with a passion – no matter what materials are chosen.  Rob makes sure every gardener so inclined to garden on through and past the holiday and winter season has plenty of materials available to express that inclination in beautiful detail. If you shop at Detroit Garden Works, you can take your pick.

Rob’s work as a buyer has been defined by his travel both in the US and abroad –  for decades. The event of the past two years made it all but impossible to travel to shop anywhere in person. But the steady and sincere relationships that he developed over the years with suppliers, product reps and manufacturers was the saving grace of this winter season. Rob was able to shop person to person, door to door, and from one continent to the next – over the phone, and via email. Amazing, this.  Most all of  our materials came late, and some materials never materialized. But what we have available now is terrific. As in lots and lots. By and large, this is the most product rich winter season we have ever had.

Ordering materials for containers on line or from a print catalogue is incredibly difficult. I have tried it, and I have had plenty of materials delivered that were not great. As in, did I buy this, no kidding??? I have tried to avoid shopping on line. I  shopped the holiday and winter materials in person with Rob for 5 or 6 years. I liked being able to hold a pick in my hand. I could see the color. I could assess what its durability would be in a container. I could see the finished height-and the width. I could see how it would read. I could see how the shape, mass, and color would work with other elements under consideration. I could see what picks would be investment caliber, and which would be a one season fling. My shopping days are over now. I am happy to turn over the shopping for the winter season materials to Rob and Sunne. I have confidence that their choices will work for a wide range of my projects. And I respect and am intrigued by what materials they chooses from their own individual aesthetic.  It is up to me to put what they buy together in such a way that my clients feel their taste is represented.  If you are thinking that my design for holiday and winter container arrangements is fueled by beautiful materials- you are right.

In person buying was not possible in January of 2021, so Rob did the next best thing. He bought very long and very wide. He bought what seemed perfect and appropriate, and he also bought unusual materials. Everything he spoke for he hoped would be great. That is how he works. He crossed his heart and hoped to die. OK, just kidding – but how he buys is a serious business. Consider this. There are numbers of blueberry picks from his buying from which to choose-each one different. Some capture the texture and the color of blueberries honestly. Other picks describe the color of blueberries in more poetic ways. Deep purple muscadine grape berries,  or blue speckled bird egg berries.  Some picks are spare. A few berries sparsely populate long stems. Still other blueberry picks feature berries that are short and chubby and not at all like how blueberries grow. It is astonishing how realistic some faux materials can be now. But the idea is not to attempt to reproduce nature.  That is not possible. The purpose of the materials is to allow gardeners to create seasonal arrangements that represent their individual interpretation of nature and its forms. The intent is not to fool the eye, but rather to appeal to one’s love of the garden.

These chubby wine red berry stems do not replicate any plant that I know of.  But they are indeed reminiscent of the bounty and largess of nature.  They would be beautiful, paired with pale sage green picks. Or noble fir. They would be lovely, encircling a stand of pussy willow stems. They would provide a rich and warm addition, punctuating a fresh evergreen garland. They are the berries-ha. They represent the lush scenes in the garden of my imagination.  You get the idea.

Good looking and good quality materials can suggest a scheme for an arrangement. These picks have the lush green color and texture of broccoli. The stems look good enough to eat. Some winter arrangements do indeed have the aura of a feast, at a time when the landscape provides only the barest visual sustenance.

Snowball picks on chocolate seeded stems

frosted red berry picks


brown and white picks

gold berry picks and stainless steel spheres on rods

berry picks

These pale green/gray fuzz ball picks have a distinctive glow when back lit.

Paired with fresh cut branches and greens and lights,  a winter container will please the eye and the spirit all winter long.

See what I mean?

Rise And Shine

We designed and installed the landscape here in 2015, part of which included a large blue stone landing linking the driveway to the front door. I always appreciate the opportunity to design the hard surfaces at the front door. Too often the walk and porch are too narrow, and any steps too shallow. The front door certainly asks to be a focal point of a home.  That generously paved space made it possible to place a quartet of good sized steel planter boxes from Branch in concert with the door. The pots get planted in the spring, and are updated for all of the seasons to come. The winter is perhaps the most dramatic of all, as it should be.  The Michigan winter is very long. The days are short and gray, and the nights come early and are black dark. Rob’s lighted steel tree forms on rod steel legs were installed directly into the pots – a request from my intrepid clients. A pair of seven footers in the back pair, and a pair of five footers in the front do an astonishingly good job of introducing light into the winter airspace. The resulting glow is warm and atmospheric. The lighting in the containers accomplishes something that traditional landscape lighting rarely does. It creates an opportunity for theater in the landscape.

Is theater a good quality in a landscape? Of course. Divine theater is created in the landscape by nature in countless unanticipated ways. That theater is what gives rise to those perfect moments in the garden. An unforgettable moment that will probably never be repeated is what gardeners garden towards. That is landscape theater at its best. Every gardener has their own version of that experience. Pictured above is a property that had major regrading and a new driveway last year. The landscape would have to wait until spring, as would the landscape lighting. As a temporary measure, we wrapped galvanized pipe with LED string lights. The pipes were threaded over steel rebar that had been sunk deep in the ground. The lighted pipes were not fancy, but the repetition of them on a wide sweeping curve was ruggedly sculptural. And they lit the driveway enough for a walk to the mailbox for the morning paper. Contemporary lighted landscape bollards from Louis Poulsen are due to be installed this month. They will light the way in a much more formal way. They are a permanent lighting solution that will be more about function than theater.

There came a time when Howard was of an age that he could not navigate the steep steps going down into the garden from the deck. Lighting those steps with landscape lighting would certainly have helped me find my way up and down. But it would have been of no use to him, or our relationship. The lighting from the container pictured above made it possible for him to see me in the garden, and for me to see him. I had no worry that he would attempt the stairs, as he could see me. This moment was certainly theater. It told a story. I have this picture, and a very good memory.

No doubt these lighted containers at the end of the driveway are handy for illuminating the car door handle in the early morning, and a welcome home at night. There is a landscape down light in a nearby tree that no doubt makes the area easier to see at night, but the pots on the wall loaded with strings of lights at the base are more cheery and inviting than instructive. Landscape lighting that features specific objects or places in the landscape dictates the scope of the interaction. Designing and placing seasonal lighting in containers is a kind of gardening. They are as much celebration of the time as they are a reaction to it. It can organize a space or frame even a dimly lit view. They are a reason to view and visit the garden, despite the dark, cold and snow.

As the winter season soldiers on, the benefit of lighted winter pots intensifies. The visual interest and comfort they afford is difficult to ignore on a late January afternoon.

Our first lighted containers were designed specifically to celebrate the holiday season in December. It is a short bridge to cross, taking the concept of holiday decorating outdoors. The above container arrangement certainly draws on that history. But as remarkably different this holiday container is from the surrounding landscape, it is the light that brings the arrangement to life. It was remarkably time consuming to attach strings of lights vertically to a collection of branches. But that light transformed the view. The formal foreground landscape in contrast to the naturally chaotic background is a visual discussion easy to pass by in the winter. The lighted pot gives pause as much as pleasure.

The lighting materials available now are light years ahead of what we worked with 15 years ago in presentation, durability and economy. Most notable is the recent advent of twig lighting of various types and sizes. In any given winter season, Rob will carry 10 or 15 different styles. The come with pointed ends that can be inserted in the soil or a form. The lights are securely affixed to the faux twigs, and the entire assembly is covered in a waxy waterproof material. Embedded in a natural twig centerpiece, the lighted effect is enchantingly simple to achieve, and satisfying to look at. The string lighting typically put in the greens are not especially effective in lighting the centerpiece materials, unless those lights are applied with a very heavy hand. On occasion we will wrap a centerpiece with string lights at the base multiple times. But there is a limit to how far that light will migrate from its source.

There is also a limit to the height of manufactured twig lighting. The lighting technology is certainly there. But shipping an object that is too large or tall to go UPS or FedEx means it has to go freight. Shipping via a freight carrier is very expensive. So certain garden staples-like topiary forms, plant climbers and twig lights are either limited to a shippable height, or come in pieces that have to be put together by the end user. We only ship our full height topiary forms once in a while, as the cost is so great. We really make them for our local clients. So in the container pictured above, Rob hand wound string lights up each branch to get the height he wanted. It was well worth the trouble. These lights can be seen from a long way away. The globe shape of cherry lights is a welcome change from the the typical pinpoint of light of most light strands.

This window box at the shop from 2019 stuffed to overflowing with the stems of the dogwood “Midwinter Fire” is handsome during the day, but true to its name at night. Most of the lighting action comes from a pair of 50 foot strands of Lumineo brand garland style string lights sprinkled on the surface. The low cut branches of magnolia obscures the wiring during the day. The lighted ring is a contrasting, precisely geometric shape whose outline is clearly visible at night. This lighted container says nothing about a holiday, but it says everything about the designed winter landscape.

That same box assembled this year features twig lighting placed in the thick of the sticks. Exterior lighting from years ago was so much about the profusion of cords and wires that the daytime look was terrible. One had to spend an inordinate amount of time concealing the works, or choose to celebrate either the day or the night.

Not much in the way of electrical trappings is apparent here. These twig lights are integral to small white stems, the color of which pairs well with fresh cut twigs of a lighter color. And in this case, faux white berry stems. The walk to my office door will be well lit and visually lively, morning and night, the entire winter.

This cut Fraser fir tree in my side yard container is secured with 4 pieces of steel rebar pounded down in to the soil, and galvanized steel guy wires. Given that LED string lighting draws so little in the way of electricity, they can be made in long lengths. Rob carries strands that are over 100 feet long each. This makes lighting a tree much more simple and efficient. This is all the light I will have in my side yard all winter, and it is all the light I need. The tree is visible from every window facing my south side landscape, and from the street as I drive up after work. I will not take it down until the soil in the pot thaws in March.

LED lighting produces just about nothing in the way of heat. This means the mountains of snow we are sure to get will glow from the inside, rather than melt. We do indeed take winter container lighting seriously. It is rise and shine worthy.

At A Glance: Recent Work

We are just about halfway with our holiday and winter container work. To follow are some pictures of what work we have done-and an associated before photo that gives a little insight into the studio process. 9 people are involved in every project from the start to the installation. Enjoy some of the highlights of their work.


I am very pleased with what has been done, and intrigued to see what is yet to come.