The 2020 Winter Pots Part 1

I have been writing about the design, construction and installation of our winter pots in great detail for a good many years. I have done so for several reasons. First and foremost, I believe the transmission of knowledge and process is something every person should do, if they are able. I also think that our approach to the work is unique, in that we treat the arrangements as sculpture. To see the sculpture in them is to understand how we design and make them. I am all for beautiful winter pots in evidence everywhere. Beautiful container sculpture in the winter landscape enriches everyone who sees them. All of the elements have to be integrated at a finished size-as winter pots do not grow. They endure, over 4 or 5 months of the toughest weather we have – the winter.  Like a great landscape, a great winter arrangement depends on it’s interior structure. But designing the structure comes after all of the other design decisions are made. Consider every element your would ordinarily consider, designing a container-as in color, shape, texture, line, mass, volume, and proportion. But my first consideration is always the materials.

I am certainly a spoiled brat when it comes to materials. Rob shops all year round for what ends up being a whole store’s worth of beautiful materials. I can do all of my shopping in one convenient location. (yes, Deborah Silver and Company purchases its materials from Detroit Garden Works) I can find faux picks of every description and style, from astonishingly natural berry picks, to glamorous gold plastic grasses. The picks come in all lengths, most of which can be fluffed out, shortened, elongated via a bamboo stake, or cut up – depending on the intended design. What is available to me, and everyone else who shops the Works? There is a wide array of natural fresh cut willow and dogwood branches in a variety of colors, textures and heights. One of my favorites are the densely twiggy and dark alder branches. Magnolia branches in varying lengths and leaf sizes are a specialty of the house. Fresh cut greens include the giant leaved German boxwood, noble fir, pine, juniper, incense and Port Orford cedar, and variegated boxwood-by the bunch or by the case. Rob buys in a considerable collection of exterior lighting that can easily be integrated into a winter arrangement. There is nothing quite like a pair of winter pots lighting the landscape. So what materials will get chosen for a particular pot?

The materials I choose has everything to do with the taste of the client. Everyone likes something different. Sometimes I just stand in the shop and watch what people pick. Since one of my crews does the display at the shop for holiday and winter, I have plenty of time to become acquainted with what we have available. More often than not, what I do at home has to do with what materials are left the end of December. I really don’t mind this, as something beautiful can always be done with beautiful materials.

But where I do make decisions about materials has to do with how they relate to one another. Some colors are eye catching or rhythmic together. Very dark colors paired with white make for some drama. Similar colors make for subtle relationships. All the same color can shift the focus from the color to the overall form of the arrangement. Some color pairings cancel each other out, or vigorously clash. All colors are beautiful-they just need proper accompaniment. And who decides what’s proper? It’s a matter of taste. If I see a client going off the road and into the weeds, I will say something. That’s part of the job. But plenty of times I have been surprised to see what I never thought would work very well turn out lovely. That’s why more than one pair of eyes on a project can be a good thing.

This collection of red and white materials contrasts strongly, but I know that once it is outside, and nestled in a bed of noble fir, it will look festive. Once the greens have a dusting of snow, it will look like a holiday is going on. A consideration of materials is very much about how those materials will look outdoors in their intended home.

Even though I have lots of choices for materials, it does not mean I want to use all of them in the same pot. Once materials are chosen, it’s time to edit out those materials that don’t add something significant to the relationshIps established by color, shape, texture or mass. Editing is the most difficult part of designing. If there are 10 materials you can’t do without, do 2 or 3 containers instead of one.

There is certainly something to be said for a huge mass of one material. In the case of these blueberry colored picks, the subtle color will not read unless you use lots, and the pot is likely to be viewed up close. 20 of these picks out in the side yard will not read. Nor will a hundred. The small size and moody color will go gray with the distance. Up close to the front door, the subtle color can be appreciated.

Natural materials have a vibrancy and glow that cannot be replicated with a faux pick – no matter the skill of the manufacturer. I like to design around natural materials in one form or another. Most of the winter containers we do are predominantly natural materials. They are after all, an expression of the winter garden. But that is not to say that a little outright fakery might not be just the thing to bring an idea to life. Or that the investment in a collection of faux berry stems could not grace winter pots for a number of years to come.

These gold plastic grass picks do beautifully mimic the form and airy texture of real ornamental grasses, with the added attraction of a little winter show and shine. The technology and manufacturing behind the production of these picks is sure evidence of the human hand. And they can be used year after year. The durability outdoors is truly remarkable.

green and white fuzz picks

These.platinum picks would be beautiful with fresh cut poplar or beech branches.

concord grape picks

snowball picks on very long stems

short stemmed blueberry picks

Not the least of my embarrassment of riches is a giant heated garage, with room to fabricate even the most complicated arrangements. Having a warm space to construct is the ultimate luxury. A bitterly cold environment is not an ideal place to work. Even an unheated garage provides shelter, so concentrating on the making is possible. I can always tell when my fabrication crew is focused on their work. The talk drops off, and I doubt they hear what is going on around them. Providing an environment that is friendly to the work is essential to what we do. I say that, as we do hundreds of winter container arrangements every season-in a fairly short period of time. We need a place to be to do all that.

For those who do their own winter pots, it is possible to set up a temporary work station in a garage, or on an enclosed porch. Maybe there is a spot outdoors that is out of the wind. A decent place to work invariably results in more thoughtful work. It is likewise important to properly position the work. I would take the time to elevate the piece I am working on, rather than bend over it or sit on the floor. The set up time is time well spent. A favorite client has us lay down a tarp near her front door, and bring her pots inside.  Once she has filled them, we take them back outside and place them. That service from us helps to enable her to enjoy making her winter pots. For pots that are impossibly heavy to move, consider constructing in a liner that can slip down into the pot, out of view. Anything done in too big a hurry tends to look hurried. Making the effort it takes to provide for a place to work indicates that the work has importance. This is why people have sewing rooms, music rooms, garden sheds and potting benches. They provide a place to work.

We did pop these centerpieces in their intended containers in short order. We do drive slender bamboo stakes down through the arrangement in 3 or 4 places, so a gust of wind does not carry them off. Larger and heavier centerpieces have a different construction protocol, which I will address in part 2.

Our first container arrangement of the season, ready for winter.

A Reindeer On The Roof

Deer in the garden is a sore subject for those gardeners who are plagued by the destruction they wreak on every plant shrub and tree in the landscape. What they don’t eat, they trample. They even rub the bark off of trees when they are rutting, for Pete’s sake. Preventing deer from demolishing the garden is the subject of page after page of essays on Google, and countless books and videos. But the grapevine deer sculptures that Detroit Garden Works has stocked for a number of years have their fans. The life size bucks and does come in standing, grazing, and seated poses, just like the fawns. They look terrific in any spot in the garden asking for a representational sculpture fashioned from a natural material. The grapevine is wound around a substantial steel armature, and should survive outdoors for many years, providing they get a yearly application of a penetrating oil based sealer.

Who knows what possessed me to put a deer on the roof, but there is a certain Buck that has been near and dear to me for many years. That personal association aside, Christmas folklore is full of references to a certain St Nicholas circumnavigating the globe in a reindeer drawn sleigh, bringing gifts to children world wide on Christmas Eve. It is a story that delighted me as a child. Apparently I can still be enchanted by it. Winter and holiday containers and displays bring an element of delight to the landscape that has gone dormant, and quiet. It was not so far fetched to cast the grapevine deer as a grapevine reindeer.  A holiday diorama in the making, if you will.

The roof at Detroit Garden Works is home to eight planter boxes, each of which are five feet long. They were fabricated from heavy duty sheet metal – there is not one thing fancy about them. These painted metal hold soil, plants, and an irrigation system. The magic is what gets grown in them over the summer. We intended to bring a little magic to the winter season that is at hand.  Our reindeer was secured in the center via steel rebar pounded in at an angle. On an angle? A gusty wind could pull steel rods set vertically out of the soil in a matter of moments.  The steel set on a steep angle is weighted down with a thick layer of saturated and frozen soil. A wind strong enough to uproot that buck would be a rare wind indeed, and most likely would take the box as well. We took every precaution to keep that reindeer in place. Of course we needed lots of lights. And a thicket of twigs. As the soil was frozen solid, we made foam forms, buttered them with lights, and stuck them with medium height pussy willow. Each one of these forms was additionally secured with angled steel rebar and concrete wire. Suffice it to say there is a lot of rebar on the roof right now.

All of the irrigation tubes and emitters were pitched over the sides of the boxes. There was plenty of additional work involved in making it possible to flip the switch on the lights.

A simple evergreen garland, wound round with garland light studded grapevine was attached to the leading edge of the boxes, and down the sides of the building.

My crew was keen for a group portrait. Why not? These pictures do not really reveal all of the work that went in to moving this project along to this point. They were caught up in the fun of it, and committed to seeing it through.

The view at dusk made it clear we needed to do more. The thicket of twigs needed to describe the entire width of the building. We had run out of pussy willow, so what now?

The light burst collar on the deer did not illuminate the sculpture. It spot-lit the neck. The twigs were in silhouette at dusk, and invisible come dark. We regrouped.

Phase two of the fabrication and installation asked for a burlap ribbon collar. The light collar did not read during the day, and was a too strong blob of light at night. Karen obliged with the fabrication, and Joe got the collar attached in just the right spot, and at the right angle. We had to rethink the lighting.

Attaching multiple light bursts to the front edge of the twigs might do a better job of illuminating the thicket at night. It was certainly worth a try.

Lengthening the twig thicket proved to be easy. The last few bunches of black dogwood, mixed with lots of alder branches made a believable transition from the more formal and vertical pussy willow stems to a more wild and natural look. A thicket spanning the entire width of the roof seemed more deliberate and finished.

The multiple light bursts did a great job of illuminated the face of the branches at dusk.

The burlap ribbon collar on our reindeer read plainly and properly, both day and night.

much better, this.I know if Rob is photographing something, he likes it.

Who knows if St Nicholas will require the last minute services of our reindeer buck tonight, but I am sure he will have no problem spotting him from space. The Works is ready.

At A Glance: Recent Work

To follow are some visual highlights of our winter work. I will not fault anyone who cannot wade through them all! My group produced a prodigious amount of work the past five weeks, and I am pleased that every winter project we had is finished. We are better than halfway through the Detroit Garden Works winter garden. Then it will be time to do my pots at home.


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Very pleased with this year’s winter pots and such.

Winter Pots For Ms. H

Every project we do for the winter season begins with a good deal of discussion. The winter containers for Ms. H is the subject of a particular discussion. That astonishing level of discussion on her behalf is simple to understand. We have a big love for her. This year, we had two issues to address. The forms were very long and narrow. This meant there was always the danger, and sometimes the reality that the foam would break in the middle. The fact that all four pots had steel light rings 3 feet in diameter inserted into the forms piled on additional stress. This made for a rather nerve wracking installation. It was a simple matter to split the long forms into two shorter ones. The forms could be stuffed with greens side by side, and labelled as to their position in each pot. In the picture above, Karen is detailing a plan drawing of the most significant innovation-a separate form for the light ring and all of its fixings would be set squarely on top of the spot where the pair of greens forms would meet. The half oval shape drawn on the form above would dictate the position of the light ring form. The widest point of that half oval would just about cover the spot where the two shorter forms come together. The swoop de do would be stuck with German boxwood. The rest of the lower forms would be stuck with Noble fir.  What??

It is much easier to explain this new construction protocol in pictures. I am happy to say it was entirely of David’s invention. He not only constructs winter arrangements, he is an expert at installing them. It took longer than I really want to admit for me to understand what he was proposing, but once I understand, I could appreciate the pure genius of it. The plan called for filling the interior of the ring with various picks. Why not have a separate form for the ring and its fixings? This would provide a stable base for the ring to travel in the truck. None of the picks would be disturbed trying to remove the ring for transport, and putting it back in exactly the right location during installation. The shape of the ring form was determined by the design and arrangement of the picks. The rear prongs of the ring would go through both layers of the mini form. The front prongs would rest on the lower form. If you are still unclear about the plan, don’t feel bad. David had to show me before I fully understood what he wanted to do. See the following picture.

The ring 2 layered form would sit on top of the 2 layered greens forms. That long curved upper form would cover the split forms which would be the bottom layer. Once set on top, the rear legs of the ring would be pushed all the way through both layers of foam and a little bit into the bottom forms. The picks are stable in the top two layers of foam, but they do not provide any structural connection between the two layers of foam, and the bottom two layers. Small diameter green bamboo stakes would be driven through all four layers of foam and into the soil in the pots. That would provide structural stability to the entire affair.

The top of the ring form would be stuck with German boxwood. That same boxwood would be used to cover the face of the upper form.

This rear view tells the story. The lower two layers of foam tell last years story. The very bottom piece of foam is wedged into the pot. The layer immediately above that has holes in it. Those holes are from the greens we stuck in last year. One of the advantages of using large scale evergreen boughs is that it does not take that many stems to create a lush appearance. This is why we are able to reuse the forms for a good many years. The forms are quite strong, as long as no undue stress is put to them.

The other critical design issue is all about the placement of the bottom of the ring. I like it to be set such that the bottom of the ring is visible, both during the day and at night. This placement and finish creates the illusion that the ring is floating. This means that the legs of the rings will need bamboo stakes or rebar zip tied to it, to both prop and keep it up at the desired level. I am not crazy about burying the bottom of the ring in twigs, picks or greens for another reason. Though the light sets are factory sealed, I don’t like them in a situation where water can collect and persist. If there is an electrical problem, I want easy access to the cord and transformer.

Karen does a terrific job of greening the lower forms. How she sticks them creates the illusion of a shrub growing. She does a terrific job of so many facets of the holiday installation.  How I value her work. Thanks, Karen.

The greens are heavy. They are composed of fresh wet wood, and water saturated needles. This explains the need for rocks and bricks to keep the forms from tipping over.

This table top was made from a full 4′ by 8′ sheet of plywood. This table holds 4 forms-enough for two of the four boxes. These lower forms, greened up, and punctuated with pine cones, are all ready to go to the installation phase.

This shop shot taken in process details how much work we do prior to an installation.

Once our fabrication group gets a project to this moment, we know we are ready for an installation.

The installed winter containers boxes to the right of the front door. Perfectly beautiful, to my eye.

The installed containers to the left of the front door. Be advised that we work very hard to keep the construction issues behind the scenes. The finished pots show no signs of what it took to get them to this point. Except the fact that they look deliberately composed, and finished.

Dressing the French pots in the back for the winter season was a new addition to this project. David did a great job of taking on a pair of winter container arrangements that asked for considerable size and scale.

Karen lending a hand securing the picks

A discussion of the transport scheme was lively, but the tops of these fresh cut pussy willow twigs had no problem bending over for the trip across town.

See what I mean?

Set in place, the scale of this winter arrangement works well with in this space. The materials reflect the landscape that can be viewed from this vantage point. The color is very friendly to the color in the glaze of this French bugadier. The pot is filled with gravel, so there is proper ballast to handle the height of the arrangement. The foam form provides another service. As it does not absorb water, it prevents water from getting in to the pot. This form is 6″ thick overall, so the lower 3″ is wedged tightly into the pot.

winter arrangements in the back yard

framed view

There is no doubt a viable, approachable, and beautiful winter season ahead in the garden. Every gardener needs to determine how they will handle that. I garden in every season. The winter pots help speak to that.