The Shop Winter Garden


The shop landscape is very simple.  A rectangle of boxwood set in a generous plane of decomposed granite, a pair of Techny arborvitae bookends, and a pair of lindens is about all there is.  These plants, almost 20 years old, occupy a modest percentage of the overall space.  This means there is room for a temporary, ephemeral, and seasonal garden expression.  Gardening in a zone which features four distinct seasons is a challenge and an opportunity I would never want to do without.  The chance to start fresh given the change of the season-love that.  The holiday/winter garden is no different.

The inspiration is almost always driven by a natural material that catches my eye.  This year, the curly copper willow branches are incredibly beautiful.  The color is rich and saturated.  The stems are fat and juicy-there is no hint of stress from the drought they endured all summer.  They have a distinctly fresh fragrance.  Each stout stem was topped with a cloud of delicate branches-breathtaking.  I ordered extra, so I would have enough to do the garden in front of the shop.

What would I do with them?  Fresh willow is incredibly flexible.  One could make baskets, fencing, wreaths-just about anything the eye could imagine, and the hand construct.  But I wanted a structure that would permit those thousands of tiny branches to make their own statement.  I use these steel forms at home to give my asparagus some support-I knew they would be perfect.  Attaching the thick stems, one stem at a time to this form, would provide stability without interfering with the natural form and inclination of the branchlets.   

Zip tying each branch was time consuming, and not so easy.  Each stem needed a friendly neighbor.  My landscape crew does a superb job of all of my landscape installations-their seasonal winter work is no exception. They are not only incredibly talented and willing, they have an understanding of natural forms that comes only with many years of exposure to plants.  They never force anything to be.  They let the material dictate the construction, and the overall shape.  They use whatever they need to make the overall shape complete-even if that means I need to order more.  

The douglas fir boughs have been stuffed into dry floral foam, some 6 inches thick.  The bottom 3 inches are wedged into the rim of the pot.  The six inches above the rim are a home to all of the boughs that are set horizontally.  A form this high off the rim of the pot needs reinforcing.  4 pieces of steel rebar are driven through the corners of the foam, and into the soil in the pots.  Once the soil freezes around that steel, it will take gale force winds to dislodge the curly willow. 

A cloud of copper willow and a low wide base of douglas fir- this year’s holiday/winter expression.  The time it takes to construct what will go on in these pots all winter is time I don’t spend moping about the closing of the garden.  Should everything come together, these pots will make a statement about what is good about the winter season.  A customer in the shop yesterday lives in San Francisco.  He tells me the climate and weather is the most consistent and unchanging of any city in the US.  Though he misses the change of the seasons, he does not miss the gray skies.  He is right.  Michigan is one of the grayest and gloomiest  of all of the states in the winter.

So a good part of our winter garden is about turning the lights on.  The light garland draped over the empty window boxes is comprised of three different strands of three different types of lights.  The weight of multiple light strings twisted around each other makes them drape gracefully-they are heavy.  Inside each willow cloud is a spot light, wedged into the floral foam.  A collar of dry limelight hydrangeas flowers conceals it from view.  The spot light illuminates the willow from within.  How I like this idea, and and how it looks.  A light garland would around the base of the willow illuminates them from the outside.  A pair of ball and cone topiary froms are wound solid with ordinary garden variety mini lights.  Ordinary materials do not have to be used in an ordinary way.  

Having turned the lights on, I have no idea what I will do with this next.  Part of the joy of a winter garden is having the time to tinker with it.  The spring and summer garden-I am always running to try to keep up.  This and that always needs something.  Though I have a lot of work yet to come helping clients with holiday and winter containers and decorating, there will be time to figure out what else this garden might need.       

Early this morning, a first dusting of snow.  As my winter is most assuredly on the way, I would rather like it than not.



  1. Ooh, I would love to play with those beautiful branches, and you are so right about light– although it is hard to believe any other state could be grey-er than mine. What you have done is very very good–very very satisfying to this eye and I wanted to let you know that I appreciate it so much.

  2. Mary Starnes says

    Hi Deborah,

    Do you spray your greens with Wilt Pruf? It seems to decrease the variation of the color of the greens. I am also not sure if it actually helps. Any thoughts?

  3. Hi Deborah,
    Are there any particular evergreens you would NOT recommend for use in containers? I used blue spruce and cedar last year, and was very pleased with how well they lasted (well into March, and I did not use any type of preservative). I also used white pine this year; it will be interesting to see how it holds up.
    In the broadleaf evergreen family, I tried bayberry last year, and it only looked good for a few weeks. I see you use boxwood, so I assume you like it. I’m just curious as to your experience with different evergreens, and how you would “rate” them.

    • Deborah Silver says

      White pine does not do well for me. Any of the firs are good in containers. The winter weather makers all the difference in the world on the performance-as with most things in the garden!

  4. The copper curly willow is just plain spectacular. I love it! Can you share the secret of how to get the bottom of the branches even on the form?

    • Deborah Silver says

      it took 2 people a day and a half to make the 6. I am not sure I understand your question about even on the bottom. We buy the willow in bunches, and the lengths are quite uniform to start with.

  5. On the lower ring of the asparagus holder, the branches are flush. Are the held in position while attached, or, are they trimmed afterwards? Thanks Deborah!

  6. Thank you! Merry Christmas!

  7. Hi Deborah,

    I absolutely love these curly willow branches, do you have a good source for DIY garden projects?


    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Amanda, I am not sure what you are looking for. I am sure if you look up diy garden projects on line, you will have a lot of choices. best, Deborah

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