One Stem At A Time

LH winter 2014 (1)Some winter containers ask for a centerpiece. Small containers may not have room for lots of materials in them, stuck one stem at a time. A centerpiece only occupies a few inches of space in a container – the bamboo pole and all that is attached to it, driven down into the soil, provides all of the structural support.  Some containers ask for height in the center.  A structured centerpiece is a more formal arrangement, as it is visually stable and symmetrical. The centerpieces pictured above were set in a pair of antique French champagne grape crates for safe keeping only, once they were finished. The pots they were destined for are square, and formal.  The placement on a front porch asks for enough height to be seen from the drive.  As for these rectangular crates, they ask for an entirely different construction approach. More on the crates later next week. I like to call this alternative construction the Rob technique.  Every winter and holiday container that he does for a client is deconstructed.  His design evolves, one stem at a time.

LH winter 2014 (2)My client with the formal square pots also has a pair of rectangular pots.  All four are Jackie boxes, made at our company Branch.  A centerpiece in a long box can look awkward and lonely. This client had a particular requirement for white, and light in the containers. We did the greens on the edges of the foam forms, loosely.  All of the other materials would have to be inserted into the foam, one stem at a time.  If a container arrangement asks for a one at a time treatment, the foam in the center may be three pieces thick.  Creativity – we prize that individual expression.  But the most creative work on the planet comes to no good if it goes over.  As Buck would say, the approach to the work is important.

LH winter 2014 (3)
The center section of this rectangular form was dressed with a strand of garland lights.  Garland lights are spaced very close together on the wire.  One string has 300 lights.  The lights are pinned into place with fern pins.  A large rectangular planter asks for light which is dispersed all along its length, and strong enough to light from below all of the materials that come next. Back and forth-the light string gets set.  The tallest of the stems are stuck deep enough into the foam layers to be stable, and in a roughly formal pattern.

LH winter 2014 (6)Once the lights are pinned to the foam, we turn them on for the entire duration of the construction.  It is important to see how all of the other materials will relate to that light.  For these containers, I stuck white eucalyptus and white leptospermum at different heights.  One stem at a time.  Any project that happens one gesture at a time takes the time it takes to think every gesture through.  No matter how busy we are, Rob takes the time a project needs to be beautiful.  He is an inspiration to me.     LH winter 2014 (8)Constructing a winter container in the privacy of our garage means we can rfethink, fuss, adjust, and rearrange to our heart’s content, before we go live.

LH winter 2014 (15)Once we get to the installation phase, we are done with the creative decisions.  We just mean to install with many months of faithful service in mind.  This arrangement is secured into the soil with pairs of long steel rebar, set at an angle.  The rebar functions as roots. These natural materials are cut. We need to provide for the rooting a live plant will do naturally.

LH winter 2014 (12)The finished container is stuffed with materials that will see the winter through.  Each stem, stuck one at a time.  These clients have an extraordinary appreciation and interest in the landscape.  How I appreciate that they called on me.

LH winter 2014 (13)The smaller square boxes represent strongly – the centrally constructed centerpieces stand behind that formal statement.  Good design takes so many factors into account. Successful design requires the meeting of so many minds.  The client, first and foremost.  The architecture. The space.  The light.

LH winter 2014 (23)I encourage all of my clients to identify materials that appeal to them.  I can plan around an idea.  If you are your own client, take the time to ask the big questions before you set to the task. What do you like?  What you like will greatly inform how you represent the winter season.  There is no need to quit the garden, given the first really hard frost. There is only a need to switch gears a bit.  Michigan has 6 months of winter-we are just beginning to express our rebuttal.

LH winter 2014 (24)These boxes are dressed for the winter. Just how I envisioned them.  I have heard that my client likes them.  I am sure the light in the boxes at night will welcome friends and family.  Whatever manner you choose to envision and decorate your winter landscape-please persist. Great joy accompanies great ideas.



  1. Oh my!
    Vertical silver swathed in an apron of evergreen.
    Simplicity in its most elegant form.
    I can happily imagine how beautiful this will look in the moonlight of a Winter night.
    Many sighs. : )

  2. Very nice design and very interesting description.
    One question: the greenery seems to be cut and it looks as though no water is used to keep it fresh. Does this last through out the winter without water?

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Jay, it lasts quite well-fir branches and mountain hemlock hold quite well without any water. best, Deborah

  3. JoyceB in Atlanta says

    I just love the way you teach, step by step. I didn’t know about those lights that are closely spaced – will look for them. Also, unlike most plant designers, you aren’t afraid to mix real and fanciful. Very refreshing arrangements, and love those poles that take up little pot space. I have some plastic branches that are coated in small square ‘crystals’. Bet they’d look sparkly in a container with lights under them. We get rain here in winter, not snow. Wonder how well things would hold up in rain. I suppose your eucalyptus is good quality plastic and not preserved? When you speak about the rebar, does that dirt you refer to mean the dirt in the pot still there from being planted with live plants? I looked at the picture several times because the pots are sitting on pavement. Do you take measurements and make the arrangements to fit the pots and then install the tops on the dirt, or do you actually have the pots to fill? From the description of the rebar, it seems you place everything on a foam form, install it on the dirt, and then use the rebar to hold the foam in place. Is that right? I ask questions because I’m intrigued by the idea and hope to try making a pot like yours. Thanks for the gorgeous pictures!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Joyce, we use real preserved eucalyptus. It holds up perfectly in rain and snow. We put the rebar into the soil that is in the pot from the summer planting. Thanks, Deborah

      • JoyceB in Atlanta says

        Thanks for answering. I just bought huge bunches of preserved eucalyptus and never knew it could survive outside! In our climate, we use a lot of magnolia preserved in a glycerine solution. We just got nearly 2 inches of rain yesterday, and my newly planted Spartan Junipers will be sprayed soon with Wilt Pruf to help hold in all the wonderful moisture. Happy Turkey Day!

  4. They must be magnificent when lit at night.

  5. we begin decorating our clients urns tomorrow. thank you deborah, and rob for such inspiration and know how.

  6. John Mazzone in Boston says

    Does the foam that you use in theses containers have an absorbent nature (i.e. oasis) or is it simply styrofoam? I question how the cut materials will get enough moisture to endure the winter.

    And btw, your designs and mechanics are very inspiring. Thank you!

    • Deborah Silver says

      John, we use dry floral foam, the same kind used to make silk flower arrangements. Live evergreens cannot take up water once the ground freezes. Their needles present very little surface area to the sun and wind-this means they do not transpire that much over the long dry spell in the winter. I do not use cedar or white pine, as they do not hold very well. And we sometimes spray the cut greens with wilt pruf. best, Deborah

  7. John Mazzone in Boston says

    Can we see the finished product lit up at night?

  8. hazel hannaway says

    Lovely! And something to emulate

  9. Susan Roubal says

    Deborah, Beautifully done! Your stepwise construction is so logical! Like Joyce B., I love the look you acheive with the densely space lights at the base of the arrangement. I look forward to the remainder of your posts through the holidays- I love to see what you come up with next!
    I think a large crock I have on our covered porch may be subjected to a U.P. version of a winter arrangement, thanks to you. I have redtwig dogwood nearby and plenty of spruce and pine and some lovely red pine boughs I saved that came down when a poplar caved in a late Fall storm. Your column is always inspiring!

  10. Leah Henderson says

    Your clients aren’t just happy, we are thrilled with them!!!;)

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