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.


  1. Marg Peterson says

    Thank you so very, very much. I feel like I’ve just been in a grad degree class my head is exploding with ideas.

  2. I love seeing your Christmas posts! Your winter pots are truly amazing!

  3. As always, there is much to learn and much to ponder in your post. It would be amusing to see the ‘Deborah Silver effect’ on outdoor arrangements throughout the world. I can vouch for the fact that, on a particular property in central NJ, there is just that. I’ve used all manner of dogwood, corkscrew willow, doublefile viburnum suckers – you name it – to make two imposing outdoor arrangements over the years, all of which have been indebted to your own arrangements. And now I am intrigued by a detail, just as I’m embarking on this year’s ensemble. I checked your online shop, but was unable to find the wonderful gold plastic grass picks in one of your photos. Are they in fact available for purchase from your store? Many thanks for inspiring us in the direction of some colorful creations as we all go into what looks to be a long and unusual winter.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Christina, we don’t always get every seasonal thing up on the website. John tells me we sold out of the last of it today.I will surely order it again for next year, if we can get it. I bought all they they had.Maybe someone else carries it?? Thanks for your letter. best, Deborah

  4. Thank you! Always so beautiful!

  5. I do enjoy the blue color in this years pots!

  6. I thoroughly enjoy reading your newsletter/blogs and feel very fortunate that u share your knowledge and beautiful design work with us!!! I live in California and one day hope to come for a visit to see your shop! Thanks, and wishing u a Happy Thanksgiving

  7. Catherine Wachs says

    Long time follower, first time commenting. You make a good point about the distance the container will be viewed from. A small container looks dinky from a distance. That’s what I love about your work. The scale matches the buildings and looks substantial from the street. Then, subtle touches like the blueberry are noticed up close as one approaches the entrance. Magnificent.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Thanks for your letter, Catherine. Imagining the eventual placement is so important to how a container gets designed. best, Deborah

  8. Very inspiring, and of course beautiful. I’m so happy that you share your abundant knowledge with us. I always learn so much.
    Happy thanksgiving

  9. Janet F Kelly says

    I am in awe of your creativity! Love the large scale work you do. Thank you for sharing.

  10. Nancy Layton says

    I have to say is especially like the arrangement you did with the blueberries . That’s not the normal color for Christmas . What are the tall white berries and branches . I was also wondering how you prevent your pots from freezing or maybe just cracking during the winter . I always empty my pots and put them away after having many deteriorate over the winter.


    • Deborah Silver says

      the tall branches are cut red bud pussy willow branches. The white berry stems are faux. I only put winter arrangements in weatherproof pots. best, Deborah

      • So I’m thinking you’re meaning fiberglass pots. Yes ?

        • Deborah Silver says

          Dear Nancy, I have done winter arrangements in wood, concrete, steel, aluminum, cast iron, stoneware, galvanized sheet metal, wirework, cast stone-and fiberglas pots! best, Deborah

  11. What stunning pots! Deborah, you always inspire me! I love the blueberry pics. I’m curious – what are they made of? Is there styrofoam inside the berries?

  12. ELVERA D HOWARD says

    Love this post especially because I bleed blue and have yet to see anything done so well like you have done in this posting featuring so much blue! I too like to use as much natural material as possible but you made the blue look real, thank you.
    You are such an amazing designer, an inspiration to us all! Please keep on tapping into your creative genius, there are so many of us out there loving and learning and from it.

  13. Thank you for sharing your honest and beautiful brand of outdoor design. I have been an admirer for years ,and when a client presented us with a DS design for her winter containers, I was so excited! Happy to report that your ‘sphere of beautiful influence’ extends to your grateful Canadian neighbours!
    Wishing you a blessed Thanksgiving and a peaceful, happy and healthy holiday season.

    Sun Harvest
    Kingston, ON. Canada

  14. nella davis-ray says

    I was just thinking about you today! Was wondering if materials were in for winter pots. Your store has been my go-to source for materials I can’t find anywhere else. Worth the drive. Your posts have been too few and far between during these stressful times. Hope you and your team are staying in good health.

  15. I want to say a heartfelt thank you to you for everything I have learned reading your posts over the last 13+++ years. I am always inspired to create a beautiful holiday planter with some ideas from you and your incredible team. If I lived in Detroit, I would be at your shop every day and ordering seasonal planters for my home. I have tried to use all that I learned from you ( still making mistakes but trying) to create new landscaping at our new home. I treasure your posts and your blog’s search function. You are in my heart forever. Thank you for your words and your time.

  16. Kim Gordhamer says

    I have just recently discovered your blog on Pinterest. I am so inspired by your designs and live them! I am going to attempt my first winter arrangement using your ideas. My husband and I are snowbirds and not usually home this time of year. Needless to say we are staying put this year. I live in the Pacific Northwest and am surrounded by beautiful natural materials that I will collect and use. I also have much of the hardware lying around in my garage. Excited to get started on my project. We travel extensively in our motorhome and will definately visit your shop next time we are in the Detroit area. Thanks again for your wonderful inspiration!

  17. Ah – your posts gladden my heart!

  18. Beautiful post as always. I love the noble fir in your designs. I took many pictures in Germany at Christmas of arrangements for sale at building stores and nurseries that used noble fir, as I never see it at home. It is gorgeous. And your blue-dominated work is stunning. I appreciate your notes on the use of blue as I used mostly blue this summer and found that it was invisible from even a short distance. I will do mostly blue again this coming summer all the same.

  19. Your posts are always an inspiration and beautiful. Thank you!

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