Some Thoughts About Design

Late in December of 2012, we were gearing up to install the winter pots and lighting at Detroit Garden Works. Central to that display were 6 tall narrow concrete pots that had been fabricated at Branch. They were the devil to address, no matter the season. How so? Despite their height and heft, the top opening was a paltry 11″ by 11″. Barely enough space there to say hello, much less make a statement. Making a statement in the landscape involves a grasp of scale and proportion. This is a way of saying that every gesture you make will read better if it is generous enough to hold its own in a natural environment. Tomato cages had prongs only 9″ apart-they would easily fit down into the pots. 100 stems of copper curly willow were zip tied in 2 places to each form. When you compare the volume and square footage of twigs at the tip top to the space occupied by the prongs at the bottom, it is easy to see how something of great scale can be fashioned from an opportunity created by a tool, device or armature. Absent a tomato cage, some bamboo stakes or stout branches held in position with wire could accomplish the same thing. Absent a stash of copper curly willow, pruning debris, or the skeletal remains of weeds in the field could create the same shape. The human species is one of very few that comes standard issue with the ability to make and use tools. And the gift for improvisation.      Nature is an awe inspiring and implacable force.  As is, on a smaller but surprisingly determined scale, the evidence of the human hand. That intense interaction between forces over the the landscape and garden has held my interest for a half century. That time seems short to me, for as much as the laws of nature continually and unpredictably assert themselves, a landscape and garden continually presents a fresh opportunity to respond and interact with the out of doors. Some interaction is characterized by defiance, as Henry Mitchell so famously once said. Other relationships forged over design are marked by surprise, discovery, or dismay. Add a dash of regret and a sprinkling of wrong thinking – you get the idea. Such is my anecdotal evidence that a landscape imagined and created by design can be a very long and satisfying affair.

I was hardly prepared for the outcome of the willow stacks, once they were placed. The thick glossy and architectural willow stems en masse were cloud like from even a short distance away. The repetition of the pots visually strengthened and clarified the the idea. The blue gray skies made that orange colored willow all the more vibrant. In no way did that color blend in with or repeat an existing color. It was a dramatically contrasting element. The verticality of the willow was in opposition to the long lengths of boxwood. The willow soared over a largely horizontal landscape. All this from some willow zip tied to a tomato cage. The success or sleepiness of any designed element in a landscape is revealed the moment it is put in place. It is simple to see what reads well once nature has had a chance to work on it. It is very hard to anticipate what will work in advance. Designers do drawings and make models, but the longer I design the more I am convinced that drawings are most useful for the parameters they set, and what they suggest. Drawings are certainly of use In this case, I made a decision about how to handle the pots, and was prepared to revise and adjust, once they were placed.

By landscape elements, I mean plants of every description size and habit, water, hard surfaces, structures, pots, ornament and sculpture. It is difficult to place some of these elements and then revise. How painful to move a walkway, or increase the size of a terrace. No one ever promised that a successfully designed landscape and garden would be easy or formulaic. But a willingness to revise the design of a landscape indicates great respect for the point of view exerted by natural world. Be advised that nature will have eventually have a say in it all. Design as you will, plant and place – the critique from nature will follow shortly. That critique will be dispassionate, and likely maddening. Relishing that interaction will make every gardener a better designer. And every designer a better gardener.

Light is essential to life. Landscape design mindful of lighting conditions for plants and for people is good landscape design. Every gardener in my zone is aware of how the short gray sunless days reiterates that the garden has gone dormant. I would rather design my way around that situation rather than go dormant.  Good design directly addresses as many scenarios as possible. Even the dark daunting days.  Nature always suggests how I could better accomplish that by looking over the work. A landscape lighting design for the winter landscape is design fueled by need. Nature obligingly provides the dark days. A good designer is willing to take that cue, and shine. Lighting by design makes every landscape engage the dark in a way that is friendly to people.

I have been designing and installing a winter garden for Detroit Garden Works for the past 15 years. Every year is different. But no matter the specifics, I know that garden has to withstand the worst of what nature has to dish out. The wind, cold and snow can blow away all and everything that is not secure. Any landscape element needs to be constructed with strength and longevity in mind. Make to last.

Once the wind quits blowing, the effect of the snow dust on the willow is enchanting. Since the weather makes itself known in a different way each and every day, landscape design which showcases that unique natural phenomenon produces a landscape that is revitalized daily. Well, sometimes vitality. Sometimes mortality. The same result can be had by placing plants in conditions in which they thrive. Nature will be in charge of how plants prosper, or fail. These cut natural materials cut nature out of a portion of the winter relationship. I will not need to worry about how the twigs and greens will prosper and grow. The winter seasonal display is  a rare opportunity for a designer to express themselves freely. Nature provides the frosting.

It is not as if anyone could fault the winter landscape at the shop without the pots and lights. It would be equally dour and dormant as all else within view. But the landscape, pots, lights, gray skies and snow from 2012 tells a story. A story I am happy to tell again.

Fire and ice

winter landscape lighting

winter’s night

Why am I blathering on about design at such length?  Because it is January. I have time to. You do too.



  1. Richard Harper says

    Absolutely GREAT last time, Deborah
    My best for an incredible 2020 for us all
    Totally enjoy your posts. Thanx for always sharing

  2. Wow, such a show. I am in a forbidden Northern state too, Minnesota. I sang your praises to my siblings this Christmas & told them on your blog. The blog name is not so easy to forget. I love how explicit you are in your descriptions, it is truly a fabulous season not to be missed, winter gardening. Thanks for sharing your talents and especially your careful step by step instructions. I did my front winter pot of your design. However, working in the garage with fat floral green foam had me challenged, I did not see until later that I should not have soaked it first. Leave & learn, My pot managed well enough without the base. I do understand why you install the way you do & it is wise to go to these lengths to ensure the winter pots stay in the forms intended. We enjoy your January blathering, please keep it up. Would love to visit Detroit.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Madonna, be sure you are using the dry foam that is ordinarily used for dry and silk flowers. Florist’s wet foam falls apart too easily. John Henry makes a dry floral foam that a craft store would carry. Your materials do not need water. They need a secure anchor. all the best to you, Deborah

  3. Shawn Wallace says

    This was such a delight to read. As a gardener originally from Western NY, where the landscape is warmed by mild winter temperatures warmed by Lake Ontario, streets covered with generous arboreal canopy, it has been a challenge to design for the winter landscape of what I see as windswept prairie with temperatures that can often hover for great lengths of time in the low teens before windchill is factored in. That wind. It tests you. There is no relaxing in deciding how secure is your installation. How humbling it is to create, place, only to have it toppled by wind. Nature will judge you, the question will always remain if one will be humble enough to accept its judgement.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Shawn, nature does not play favorites. It is better to be ahead of that wind and cold. I know something of the conditions you have. A great idea can be blown over if the construction is not strong. We have help from nature once the soil freezes. best, Deborah

  4. Celeta Cavender says

    What a brilliant, informative, thoughtful, and intelligently written piece. Your work is amazing, but your gift of explanation matches it.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Thanks for your letter, Celeta. It took quite a while to write and then revise this-so I am pleased you liked it. all the best, Deborah

  5. What a Wow display! We have a similar climate, with bitter NW wind and temperatures to match. Might I have your permission to post your pictures, with permission on my botanical FB site? I am running a series on color in the winter garden, from built structures to natural color.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Martine, I am happy for you to post my pictures, as long as you attribute them to my blog. best regards, Deborah

  6. Pat Ferguson says

    Beautiful pictures! Beautiful writing!

  7. I simply love all you do….your style is very original…. true happiness….
    cheers and cheers

  8. Pam Cassidy says

    I just love your writing and pictures! They are so inspiring. I have tried for the past two to replicate a winter container such as yours. The 1st year was not bad but for this year I bought a light burst and was so excited at the idea of more light. It looked good but we tried to move the pot after Christmas to a better location and all my foam pulled away from the piece of board which fit inside my pot. I was so devastated. I had used a glue gone to attach the foam to the wood but I obviously needed something with a stronger bond. Next year, we’ll try again.
    We placed our Christmas tree with the lights still on it in our back yard and turn on the lights at night. My elderly neighbor loves seeing it from her window across the street and the birds love it in the daytime! At least I have some light!
    Thank you for your blog posts.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Pam, dry floral foam – the kind used for dry or silk flower arrangements – should stick well to wood with hot melt glue.I appreciate you reading the posts-thanks. best, Deborah

  9. Linda Gallinatti says

    Congratulations on the copper willow design on the tomato cages. It is spectacular and “Showy” with the lights tucked in the middle. Makes me rethink my winter pots. Now looking for copper willow.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Linda, we will not have the copper curly willow again until next fall. It is spectacular. best, Deborah

  10. Susie Dempster says

    “Since the weather makes itself known in a different way each and every day, landscape design which showcases that unique natural phenomenon produces a landscape that is revitalized daily”.

    Great quote, post and pictures!

  11. Lovely. Thank you.

  12. Well said…..Dinky Is Stinky !!

    Your zone, gives you something I could never get in zone 8. Horrid sustained cold weather. Grew up on Galveston Bay, Spanish moss, live oaks, hibiscus bloom all winter, along with roses. Moved north, middle Georgia. Still haven’t acclimated to its cold after 3+ decades.

    Was more than content with, The Queen’s Pot. Pots so wonderful they can remain empty. Until, YOU. Empty pots are fine focal points backed with a hedge of blooming camellias, & blooming hellebores at their base.

    Appreciate what you’ve gained from weather misery, and shared with all how to rise above it, with MAGIC.

    Thank you Deborah.

    Garden & Be Well, XO T

    A question to ask before purchasing any focal point, or bringing a rescued focal point home, “Is this so wonderful it will be fought over at my estate sale?”

  13. Gorgeous design and pics, as always. Thank you for another visual feast.

    So much of your musing here touched me as I had to make a decision to recommit to gardening after extensive damage by deer. Although my challenges are broiling sun, a steep slope, no down time due to our warmer location, and others quite different from those that rule the above situation, I found that my respect and love for the powerful force of nature, so eloquently outlined here, won out. You so effectively describe the experience of seeing what nature decides and how that deepens the commitment.

    Given our slope, I have found that 2-D designs are, as you’ve noted, merely a starting point. There are so many different views of any given plant or feature: from above and from below, both of these at various heights, and from every side.

    Your designs so effectively demonstrate how important scale is to success. And I love the fiery branches against the building’s backdrop. I loved this post. Thank you for giving so much of yourself here.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Melissa, thank you so much for this letter. I truly appreciate you taking the time to write it-and what you had to say. best regards, Deborah

  14. Kay Perret says

    Dear Deborah,

    I could read your blathering all day! Thanks for such a fun and informative post.


  15. Sheila Schultz says

    I adore the time lapse photos of the designs this year. You have taught me so much about the importance of mass in texture for winter design. I had the spring, summer and fall designs down, but winter was always less than stellar. Thank you.

  16. Barbara Sphar says

    Would really like to have botanical name for this copper colored curly willow. Thank you. Barbara Sphar

  17. If Jane Austen had a gardening blog, it would read like this. Such a treat. Thank you.

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