Flip The Switch

  Designing and installing containers for the winter season is very different than planting containers in any other season. Notably, nothing grows in a winter container. Though most of our materials are naturally growing materials, they are rootless. Cut branches, greens, berries and seed pods will be the same size, and occupy the same space in March as they did the day they were arranged the previous November or December. There needs to be enough materials to create an arrangement proportional to the container. A decent sized pot planted with a single coleus in May could be glorious by September, but winter pots need to be glorious the moment they are finished. Pots stuffed to overflowing with winter materials are also better able to handle our winter weather. Rob’s winter container pictured above maintains its shape and size despite the snow. A second crucial difference is the light.  Summer days are long and mostly sunny.  Winter days are gloomy, and dark after 4:30 pm. Designing a winter pot that addresses the darkness can be enjoyed 24 hours a day. Barely visible above is the firepower in the bottom of this container that will transform this winter arrangement once the day goes dark.

The look of a winter container during the day can be transformed by some light at night. Snow during the the day, and fire at night encourages a lot of talk. And a lot of delight.  I am not so interested in landscape lighting during the spring, summer, or fall. But having the lights on in the dark of winter is a plus.  And in my opinion, a must. I would encourage any gardener who takes the time to dress their pots for the winter season to consider lighting them. The lighting in this pot is simple. Lots of C-7 bulb size strands of LED lights set the entire arrangement on visual fire at night. The cost of running LED lights is so minimal, and the longevity of the strands is so good, how could anyone resist adding this element to a winter pot? The materials in this pot? Tree of heaven branches and weeds from the field next door to the shop.

Lighting winter containers calls for some thought to conceal the wiring. Arranging lights in the bottom of a container before adding the decorative materials means the only daytime sign that the pot has lights is the extension cord that hooks them all up.  An exterior rated cord with a three-way plug or light strip can accommodate a fair number of strings. For those without a source of electricity hear a container, a 50 foot extension cord carries power just as well as a 10 footer. That cord can be hidden in the landscape, or a green cord across the grass is unobtrusive, and likely to be covered by snow rather quickly.

The pot at night is warm and inviting. Winter pots placed at the front door, or next to the steps can be handy for lighting the way at night, or in the early morning.

Years ago the nursery manager who supplies us with woody plant material called to say he had 6 Lollipop crab apples that had not survived a summer drought at their farm-did we want to put them to use in some winter containers? We secured the trunks with steel rebar, and hung the branches with 9″ long glass drops. I did worry the glass might break on a windy day, but that fear was unfounded. The foam forms were covered with lights, and stuffed with fresh eucalyptus and noble fir. They did look beautiful during the day.

How they looked at night was another story altogether.  The bottom light illuminated the branches and the glass drops. This is the best example I have that illustrates how light can create a sense of volume in a winter pot.

Rob filled this pair of pots for me for winter a long time ago. Placed on the wall at the end of the driveway, they were a celebration of the winter season that greeted me at least twice a day. Even though the pots were fairly small, the display was generous in size. The pots are vintage American made stoneware from the Galway Company in the 1920’s, so they would not crack or break over the course of the winter. The floral foam into which Rob arranged all of the material does not absorb water. The foam effectively keeps water or snow out of the pots.

There comes a time when it is dark when I come home from work. The light at the end of the driveway helps light the way. And it is cheery.

The large concrete pot in my side yard always gets a cut Christmas tree that is loaded with lights.  I do not have any lighting on this side of the house, so I welcome that light as much as I like seeing the pot with something in it for the winter.  A cut tree is an easy way to create a winter arrangement.  It just takes some care to anchor the trunk so it stays upright all winter.

Do I run the lights all winter?  Yes. This is the view out of every window on the south side of my house.  I like looking at it all winter long. It provides some warmth and life to the dormant garden.

Rob has been working on this pot at the end of the driveway for a week or so-whenever he has a moment.

The lights he is adding are new to the shop this year. These mixed berry LED bulbs are large, and the light is soft, as the bulbs are translucent.

At 5:15 last night, the shop was ready for the evening hours.

This container features another new lighting device Rob ordered for the shop. An LED lightburst is 36″ tall, and has 28  waterproof”branches” wrapped with 140 lights.  What could be easier than adding one of these to the center of a bunch of natural branches? The lightburst comes with a pointed steel cap, which means it can also be pushed into the soil in a container. Lighting the twigs in a winter container has always been tough to do discreetly, and it takes a long time to suspend lights in the air. This makes quick work of it.

These pots also have the lightbursts in the twigs.During the day, there is no evidence of the mechanics, just a subtle glow at the top.

lighted pot of Rob’s during the day

a lighted pot of mine at dusk.  It’s enough to have made me want to flip the switch.


  1. I love your designs, but I have a question — when I have put a string of lights at the base of my container design, I find that at material I use on top greatly diminishes the light output. How do you keep yours so bright? Thanks for all the inspiration!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Kim, I would guess I am using more lights, or lights with bigger bulbs. But not being able to see what you are doing, I am just guessing. best, Deborah

  2. Dear Deborah,
    I have tried lighting my winter pots, as you suggest, by placing two strands (2X50) of lights around the centerpiece of red twig dogwood and surrounding that by a balsam ‘skirt,’ but the effect is a long way from what you are showing above. How many lights do you recommend using to get that wonderful glow from a distance? Should the pile of lights be elevated in the pot? My pots look rather dim!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Jody, what type of lights are you using? We use a strand of LED cluster lights in the greens that has 1500 lights spaced close together.

      • I am using regular (incandescent) Christmas tree lights and there are clearly not enough of them. I will buy a strand of 1500 LED cluster lights. Thank you for the tip! I love reading your blog and hope to come to Detroit (I live near Boston) someday to see Detroit Garden Works.

  3. Anita Berlanga says

    Our IL weather is much like yours and I got hit with the SAD bat early this year (2 blizzards and grey skies – and it’s just at December!) I’ve been dithering about lighting some of my trees (peach and some huge smoke bushes, etc) but just couldn’t find the energy. This post has galvanized me – I’m going to get out there TODAY! Thanks for the gorgeousness!

  4. Gorgeous work, as always, Deb! Every post has one or two elements that I want to try in my two pots! Haha…

    Can you tell me if those are “spruce tops” in the next to last picture that are so popular at many Minnesota nurseries now? If so, do sell them at your shop?

    Thanks for your generous spirit. May you and your staff have a wonderful holiday season.


    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Anne, we had the spruce tops last year-but not this year. You have a great holiday too. best, Deborah

  5. Shelley Corbett says

    I purchased your LED cluster lights this year. Do you put all of the lights on the form and then insert the greens or do you also work the lights amongst the greens as you go?

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Shelley, we do the greens entirely. Then we add the lights. We start at the tip of the branch, and go back to the center, then out the tip, and so on. The wires should be parallel to and follow the wood of the branch-if this makes sense. We do not go around in a circle. best, Deborah

  6. Just absolutely beautiful!

  7. Frieda Hickman says

    beautiful as always

  8. Jane Cruickshank says

    Everything is gorgeous but it is Howard I am so in love with.❤️

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Jane, Ha! I know what you mean. best, Deborah

      • Jane Cruickshank says

        Do love all the decorations. You do inspire me. Time for another trip to my favorite shop. I have lots of love and Howard and Milo are at the top of the select list.

  9. Lisa at Greenbow says

    I would be flipping that switch too. It looks so cold with all that snow. The lights really make these snowy scenes lively, like the garden fairies are partying on…

  10. tara dillard says

    Again, the work….Out of the Ballpark !!!!!!

    You, Rob, and whoever else is on the team in any way too.

    Fun seeing ‘different’ tweeks from year/year.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  11. Linda Hagler says

    As my gardening designer friend Tara Dillard said before me:” Out of the Ballpark”
    Love your work!!

  12. I love your idea of keeping a cut Christmas tree outside the entire winter season. Do you have any tips on how to anchor it in the pot? I look forward to getting your newsletters, thank you for the inspiration!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Judy, we bury a long section of trunk, and then we secure it with steel rebar and concrete wire. best, Deborah

  13. Staghorn sumac grows wild in my area – along highways and such. I have often thought cutting some down and using them in a similar manner to your crab apples. The sumac branches have an interesting structure this time of year and are topped with flame shaped berry clusters.

  14. Jennifer Taylor says

    Absolutely beautiful ❤️

  15. Helen MacLean says

    Hi Deborah
    I am a retired horticulturist and I have loved decorating with natural materials since I was in Brownies (same as Campfire Girls but Canadian). It was called nature craft and deserving of a badge.
    Living in Nova Scotia I have access to some of the best fir, pine and spruce available. Just to let you know of one of these awesome producers who produces lovely thick rope garland made of fir that smells devine and ships world wide….Delong Farms https://delongfarms.com
    I double it up, twist it and wire it together for really lush garland for large houses.

    I really appreciate your sharing and the whole quality of the work of Garden Works. Much thanks for that!

  16. Your world is so magical, it is absolutely entrancing!
    I love the lightburst lights, the mixed berry lights, the long glass drops on the dead apple trees– lighted and unlighted!
    Without question, the super-deluxe-lighted outdoor Christmas tree is right out of my dreams!!
    It’s all I want for Christmas.
    Gorgeous work!!

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